Iran: How a unique system runs the country

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Iran’s complex and unusual political system combines elements of a modern Islamic theocracy with democracy. A network of unelected institutions controlled by the Supreme Leader functions alongside a president and parliament elected by the people.

Here’s how Iran’s political system works and who wields the power.

Supreme Leader

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech in Tehran, Iran (8 January 2021)

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The most powerful figure in Iran, and of which there have only been two since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the founder of the republic) and his successor, the incumbent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khomeini positioned the role at the top of Iran’s political structure after the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown.

The Supreme Leader is the commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces and controls the security services. He also appoints the head of the judiciary, half of the influential Guardian Council’s members, Friday prayer leaders, and the heads of state television and radio networks. The Supreme Leader’s multi-billion-dollar charitable foundations also control large swaths of the Iranian economy.

Ayatollah Khamenei became Supreme Leader upon Khomeini’s death in 1989. He has maintained a firm grip on power and suppressed challenges to the ruling system.

President

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a cabinet meeting in Tehran (26 May 2021)

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The president is elected for four years and can serve no more than two consecutive terms.

The constitution describes him as the second-highest ranking official in the country. He is head of the executive branch of power and is responsible for ensuring the constitution is implemented.

The president has significant influence over domestic policy and foreign affairs. But it is the Supreme Leader who has the final say on all state matters.

This month, Iranians will choose a successor to Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric who won landslide victories in the last two presidential elections against hardline opponents. On both occasions he won more than 50% of the vote in the first round, avoiding run-offs.

All presidential candidates have to first be approved by the Guardian Council, a body of 12 theologians and legal experts.

They approved only seven out of the 590 people who registered their candidacy for this month’s election. No women were allowed to stand.

Parliament

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a session of parliament in Tehran, Iran (3 September 2019)

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The 290 members of the parliament, the Majlis, are elected by popular vote every four years.

The parliament has the power to introduce laws and to reject the annual budget, as well as to summon and impeach government ministers and the president. However, all laws passed by parliament have to be approved by the Guardian Council.

Hardliners made big gains in the 2020 parliamentary elections, after the Guardian Council disqualified more than 7,000 potential candidates, most of whom were reformists and moderates.

Guardian Council

Ahmad Jannati speaks in Tehran, Iran (12 March 2019)

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The most influential body in Iran, the Guardian Council is tasked with approving all bills passed by parliament and has the power to veto them. It can also bar candidates from standing in elections to parliament, the presidency and the Assembly of Experts.

The council consists of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. Members are elected for six years on a phased basis, so that half the membership changes every three years.

The council is dominated by hardliners, including the chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.

Assembly of Experts

Meeting of the Assembly of Experts in Tehran, Iran (4 March 2014)

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An 88-strong body of Islamic scholars or clerics, the assembly is responsible for appointing the Supreme Leader and monitoring his performance – and, if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties, it has the power to remove him.

Although it has never been known to challenge the Supreme Leader’s decisions, the assembly is seen as increasingly important due to persistent concerns about the health of 82-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei.

Should the Supreme Leader die or become incapacitated, it would hold a secret vote in which his successor would be chosen by simple majority.

Direct elections for the assembly’s members are held every eight years. They last took place in 2016, when moderates and reformists won almost 60% of the seats after holding less than 25% in the previous assembly.

The current chairman is Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a hardliner who also heads the Guardian Council.

Expediency Council

The council advises the Supreme Leader and has ultimate adjudicating power in disputes over legislation between the parliament and the Guardian Council.

The Supreme Leader appoints its 45 members, who are prominent religious, social and political figures. The chairman is currently Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, a hardline former judiciary chief.

Judiciary chief

Iran's judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi speaks to reporters after registering as a candidate for the 2021 presidential election (15 May 2021)

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Appointed by, and reporting to, the Supreme Leader, Iran’s chief justice heads the country’s judiciary, whose courts and judges ensure the enforcement of Islamic laws (and define legal policy). The chief justice – currently a hardline cleric, Ebrahim Raisi – also nominates the six lay members of the Guardian Council.

The judiciary, in partnership with security and intelligence services, has cracked down harshly on dissent and is frequently accused by human rights activists of overseeing unfair trials of people facing vaguely defined national security charges.

Electorate

Women cast their votes at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, during parliamentary elections (20 February 2020)

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Of Iran’s population of 83 million, some 58 million people – all those over 18 – are eligible to vote. Young people constitute a large part of the electorate, with almost half of the population under 30 years old.

Voter turnout has consistently been above 50% since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 except for the 2020 parliamentary elections, when people stayed away amid growing dissatisfaction with the clerical establishment and the state of the economy.

Armed forces

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends military parade on National Army Day in Tehran, Iran (18 April 2019)

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The armed forces comprise the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) and the regular military.

The IRGC was set up after the revolution to defend the Islamic system and to provide a counterweight to the military. It has since become a major armed, political and economic force in Iran, with close ties to the Supreme Leader.

The IRGC has its own ground forces, navy and air force, and oversees Iran’s strategic weapons. It also controls the paramilitary Basij Resistance Force, which has helped suppress domestic dissent.

All senior IRGC and military commanders are appointed by the Supreme Leader, who is the commander-in-chief, and are answerable only to him.

Cabinet

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani chairs a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran (8 January 2020)

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Members of the cabinet, or Council of Ministers, are chosen by the president. They must be approved by parliament, which can also impeach ministers.

The cabinet is chaired by the president or first vice-president, who is responsible for cabinet affairs.

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