The Iranian political system can be confusing to those observing it from the outside. For this reason, I’ve put together a quick outline of its formal structure.
A very brief history
A legislative branch was first established during the Constitutional Revolution that began in 1905, at the time eroding the absolute power of the monarch. The legislative, and of course the entire state structure, has undergone significant change in the 20th century, especially following the 1979 revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran’s current constitution was introduced in 1979. You can read it here (in English).
Iran's total population is estimated to be about 70 million, with a very high proportion of youth. Official figures from 2009 indicate that 46.2 million of the citizens are eligible voters. Of these voters, some 8 million of them are said to be born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Any Iranian citizen is eligible to vote during elections as long as they're over 18 years-old.
Iran is formally an Islamic state, with religious tenets formally incorporated into the political system, such as in the leadership structure, eligibility criteria for political candidacy, and in the judicial system.
The parliament (majlis), consists of 290 members who are elected every four years. Under the constitution, the parliament cannot be dissolved. Recognized religious minorities - Zoroastrians, and Jews, as well as the Armenian, Chaldean, and Assyrian Christians - have a total of five seats reserved for them in the majlis. Both men and women can be elected into office though women have little direct representation.
Key powers of the majlis:
- Approve all international agreements and treaties;
- Must approve cabinet ministers nominated by the president;
- Can impeach the president or cabinet ministers;
- Must approve government loans; and
- Approve foreign nationals employed in the government.
In order for a vote in the majlis to be valid, two-thirds of the members of parliament must be in the session. The sessions are run by an official speaker, and the majlis also has two deputy speakers. Bills that are drafted by the sitting government can only enter a review process if 15 members of the majlis consider it.
The president is elected every four years, and can remain in power for a maximum of two consecutive terms. The president must be elected by a majority of voters. If over half of votes are not picked up by any one individual, then the election enters a second round in which only the top two candidates are included. In a second round, the candidate with the most votes is elected as president.
Key powers of the president:
- Selects the vice presidents;
- Nominates cabinet ministers to execute government policy;
- Constitutes the government by nominating a cabinet;
- Can dismiss members of the government/cabinet;
- Appoints ambassadors into their office;
- Appoints provincial governors;
- Chairs the Supreme National Security Council, through which foreign policy is determined; and
- Signs international agreements that are ratified by the majlis.
Cabinet ministers are nominated by the president and must be approved by the majlis. Ministers can be impeached by the majlis. The supreme leader has significant influence over ministries of foreign policy, defence and security. In practice, these ministers often answer to him. Cabinet meetings are chaired by the president or vice president. Apart from ministers, the cabinet includes a government spokesperson as well as head of the central bank.
The Guardian Council
The Guardian Council is composed of twelve members: six jurists that are nominated by the judiciary and approved by the majlis, as well as six theologians selected by the supreme leader. Members are selected to their posts for a six year period, though the process is phased such that half of the posts come up for review every three years. The Guardian Council is very significant in determining the course of politics within the country.
Key powers of the council:
- Can bar potential candidates from running for the presidency, majlis, the Assembly of Experts or in local councils; and
- Approves all bills that are passed by the majlis. This power is meant to ensure that legislation adheres to Islamic law and to the constitution. The council has ten days to deliberate but may request additional time if deemed necessary.
The Assembly of Experts
The Assembly of Experts is composed of 86 Islamic scholars (mujtahid) who gain office through a popular election held every eight years.
Key powers of the assembly:
- Meets twice a year to review the performance of the supreme leader;
- Can impeach the supreme leader though this has never been done;
- Elects the supreme leader into a lifetime position; and
- Can serve to advise the supreme leader.
The Council has sometimes been criticized for being subservient to the supreme leader.
The supreme leader
The supreme leader is the most senior member of the political system's hierarchy, and the post was first established and held by Ayatollah Khomeini. As stated in the constitution's Articles 5 and 109, he should be "a religious scholar, having a proper political and social perspective, resourceful, just, pious and courageous and having adequate capability for leadership."
Key powers of the supreme leader:
- Appoints the head of the judiciary;
- Appoints six out of twelve members of the Guardian Council;
- Appoints the commanders of the armed forces and is the commander-in-chief;
- Has sole prerogative to declare war or peace;
- Appoints the head of the public television and radio network;
- Appoints Friday prayer leaders;
- Can dismiss the president if the supreme court rules that the president is in breach of the constitution;
- Generally supervises the execution of policy;
- Can call a national referendum; and
- Formally confirms the elected president.
There is, in practice, a tension of power between the president and supreme leader, highlighting the differences between democratic principles and religious rule.
The Expediency Discernment Council
This body's purpose is to resolve disputes between the Guardian Council and the majlis, should the Guardian Council veto a parliamentary bill and the majlis cannot come to a resolution after the veto. The Expediency Council also advises the supreme leader regarding possible amendments to the constitution.
The Supreme National Security Council
This body is charged with responsibility over sovereignty and territorial integrity, coordinating policy on foreign affairs, defence, and security. The president chairs this council's meetings. Its members are the president, the head of the legislative, head of the judiciary, the top military commander, the officer for planning and budget affairs, two people nominated by the supreme leader, ministers of intelligence, interior, and foreign affairs, and any minister whose cabinet role relates to the issue being discussed.
The armed forces
An overall command regulates both branches of the armed forces: the regular forces and the Revolutionary Guard. All commanders are selected by the supreme leader and are directly and formally under his leadership.
The Revolutionary Guard has grown in power since the war with Iraq, and now includes its own infantry, navy, and air force. It also has control of a large number of reservists and volunteer militias, and has significant influence over the police and intelligence.
Head of the judiciary
The head of the judiciary is appointed by the supreme leader and holds the position for a five year period. The judiciary, meanwhile, appoints six members to the Guardian Council.
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