The President, second in authority to the Supreme Leader, is elected for a four-year term. The Guardian Council must approve all presidential candidates. If elected, the President must be approved by the Supreme Leader. The President exercises executive powers, including appointing and supervising the Council of Ministers and budgetary issues.
The Parliament (Majles or Islamic Consultative Assembly) comprises 290 members who are elected for four-year terms after the Guardian Council approves their candidacy. The Parliament’s power includes drafting legislation with Guardian Council approval, ratifying international treaties, and approving the national budget. It is considered less powerful than the Supreme Leader, President, and Guardian Council. In recent years, Parliament has been dominated by conservatives due to the Guardian Council’s disqualification of reformist candidates.
The Assembly of Experts is comprised of 86 Islamic scholars (Mujtahids) who are elected by the public to eight-year terms after the Guardian Council approves their candidacy. The Assembly elects the Supreme Leader and, in theory, supervises his activities and can remove him from power. The assembly has never dismissed a sitting Supreme Leader and has never been known to challenge or otherwise publicly criticize the Supreme Leader’s decisions.
Local Councils (or City and Village Councils) hold elections every four years for 110,000 council seats across the country. The councils are responsible for administering local affairs including appointing and dismissing mayors, and determining municipal budgets and contracts.
The Supreme Leader is the most powerful position in Iran and has no term limits. He is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and makes appointments to the Supreme National Security Council, Expediency Council, Guardian Council, Judiciary (chief judge, chief prosecutor, and special tribunals), military, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), state-run media, charitable foundations (bonyads), provincial representatives, city mosque prayer leaders, and representatives. He approves presidential candidates, can veto laws passed by the Parliament, and maintains control over elected organs through the Guardian Council, including the Assembly of Experts.
The Guardian Council comprises six experts in Islamic law (faqihs), who are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six experts in other areas of law, who are appointed by the Parliament after the Judiciary Chief’s nomination, which is effectively vetted indirectly by the Supreme Leader. The term of appointments are for six years and are staggered. The Council can veto any law passed by the Parliament. It also interprets the constitution, supervises elections (including approving candidates) for the Assembly of Experts, the President, and the Parliament. It regularly disqualifies reform-minded candidates for office and vetoes laws passed by the Parliament.
The Judiciary is controlled by the Supreme Leader, who appoints the judiciary head to a five-year term. The Judiciary Chief appoints the Supreme Court head and the Prosecutor General. The Judiciary Chief also appoints all judges for the public courts (civil and criminal) and the Islamic Revolutionary Courts (which oversees cases involving “un-Islamic acts”, such as those against national security and drug smuggling). The Special Clerical Courts are under the control of the Supreme Leader. The Judiciary Chief, the Prosecutor General, and Supreme Court judges must be high-ranking clerics (mojtahids). The judicial system is based on Islamic Sharia law.
The Expediency Council is appointed by the Supreme Leader to whom it offers advice. It was created to resolve legislative conflicts between the Parliament and the Guardian Council.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) is the state-run organization that controls television, and radio. The Supreme Leader appoints and dismisses its head. A council of two representatives, each from the president, judiciary, and parliament, is supposed to supervise its functioning, though in reality it’s the Supreme Leader who does this. The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance and the judiciary regulate newspapers and other print publications.
The Armed Forces comprise the Islamic Republic of Iran Army, Navy, and Air Force, the Iranian Air Defense Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Police Force. They are under the command of the General Headquarters of the Armed Forces whose head is appointed by the Supreme Leader.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has its own naval, air, and ground forces, as well as special forces (Quds Force), who are responsible for exporting the revolution and extraterritorial operations and report directly to the Supreme Leader. The IRGC is also a major economic force “with ties to more than 100 companies, which by some estimates control more than $12 billion in business and construction” (LA Times). The Basij, a paramilitary volunteer force controlled by the IRGC and used for domestic suppression, has played a key role in cracking down on riots and street protests.
The Cabinet comprises 10 vice presidents and 21 ministers, all of whom must be approved by the Parliament. The Supreme Leader must approve the Ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Interior.
The National Security Council is headed by the President, who also selects its Secretary, and includes the Speaker of Parliament, the Judiciary Head, the Chief of the Combined General Staff of the Armed Forces, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, the Interior, and Intelligence, and the Commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the regular military, among others. It determines defense and national security policies with approval of the Supreme Leader, and coordinates activities in political, intelligence, social, cultural, and economic fields as they relate to national security.
Extra-Constitutional Powers and Non-Democratic Electoral Trends
The Guardian Council exercises approbative supervision over the elections of the President, the Parliament, the Assembly of Experts, and local councils meaning that in officially sanctioning or authorizing the election process, the Guardian Council has the power to approve or disqualify candidates and election results. Article 99 of the constitution authorizes the Guardian Council’s passive supervisory powers to guarantee the people’s rights to vote for candidates in fraud-free elections, but the qualifier approbative is not mentioned. Article 98 of the constitution authorizes the Guardian Council’s interpretation of the constitution with the consent of 75 percent of its members. The Guardian Council has assumed this authority to mean that it has the right to approve changes in the constitution.
In 1995, Parliament amended the election law to give the Guardian Council approbative supervision over the Assembly of Experts, thus giving the Guardian Council the power to approve or disqualify candidates. As the Supreme Leader essentially appoints the Guardian Council, this amendment has increased the Supreme Leaders powers even though the Assembly is responsible in theory for selecting, dismissing, and supervising the Supreme Leader.
The Guardian Council has vetoed legislation that would change its role in elections from approbative supervision to passive supervision. It has also disqualified reformist candidates. Some reformist politicians have called for abolishing approbative supervision and for the Guardian Council to provide disqualified candidates with legal reasons for their disqualification.
Conservatives and radical clerics hold that the Supreme Leader is superior to the constitution and that his orders should be regarded as a supreme order from God, even though there is no such concept in the constitution. Supreme Leader Khamenei maintains the right to directly and unconstitutionally interfere in Cabinet and Parliamentary decisions – referred to as a supreme order. Without constitutional authority, four of the country’s most important ministers (Defense, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Interior) are usually vetted by the Supreme Leader before appointment by the President. The Supreme Leader’s influence extends to appointments of national security council members and representatives in the IRI’s organs. To enforce extra-constitutional decisions, the Supreme Leader has used his direct control over the judiciary, armed forces, and domestic pressure groups, such as the Basij, to apply pressure on officials and ensure obedience.
The number of political parties and factions banned from the Islamic Republic’s political process has steadily grown over the past three decades. These include leftist, religious nationalist, secular, and republican parties. The most recent of the expulsions included those of reformist parties, which were in power during the period of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005). Changes to the constitution have made the Supreme Leader’s power and authority the absolute rule of the supreme jurist (velayat-e motlagh-e faghigh). The Assembly of Experts now functions in service to the Supreme Leader and does not question his unconstitutional behavior. During the 2009 presidential elections, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei aligned with President Ahmadinejad to violently crush reformist opponents. Khamenei and his allies have now set their eyes on their next goal – abolishing the office of the President. Analysts consider this to be an effort to fully consolidate power in the hands of the regime’s clerical establishment at a time when popular support for the regime has all but disappeared. If successful, Iran will enter an even more repressive theocratic dictatorship.
Electoral Procedures and Committees
For each election, two types of local committees are formed across the country: 1) executive committees, which are responsible for administrative and logistical affairs and run by the Interior Ministry, and 2) supervisory committees, which are formed and run by the Guardian Council.
The Minister of Interior appoints local governors to form local executive committees, in which local officials from the judiciary and government as well as ordinary citizens (usually regime devotees) are members. The local supervisory committees have prior approval power over the local governor’s selections to the local executive committees.
The Guardian Council appoints a central supervisory committee, which forms local supervisory committees in each province. These committees supervise elections and have the authority to qualify or disqualify candidates and approve or dismiss the election outcome.
After registering with the Interior Ministry, potential candidates are vetted by intelligence organs (e.g., the Information Ministry), then by the executive committees, and again by the supervisory committees. According to election laws, executive committees must provide disqualified candidates with documented reasons for their rejection; however, supervisory committees do not consider themselves accountable to these laws. The Guardian Council has been accused of abusing its power in order to deprive reform-minded candidates and other opponents from office.
Both local committees (executive and supervisory) monitor elections, sending representatives to supervise ballot boxes. Their reports and assessments decide whether fraud has occurred, with supervisory committees having final authority. The executive committees are responsible for vote counting, and after approval by supervisory committees, the election outcome is finalized.
Kenneth Katzman, “Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses,” Congressional Research Service, December 15, 2001, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL32048.pdf
Kristin Kooiman, “Background Brief: Governance of Civil Society,” Iran Bulletin, Volume 1, Issue 12, August 4, 2009, http://www.ndi.org/node/15666
Reza Marashi and Sahar Namazikhah, “Khamenei’s power consolidation gambit,” Al Jazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/20111110103232754325.html
Kim Murphy, “Iran’s $12-billion enforcers,” Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2007, http://articles.latimes.com/2007/aug/26/world/fg-guards26
Omar Sial and Ershadul Karim, “A Guide to the Legal System of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Update),” GlobaLex – Hauser Global Law School Program at NYU School of Law, February 2011, http://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/iran1.htm
United States Institute of Peace, “The Iran Primer,” http://iranprimer.usip.org/