Since the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, there has been much analysis by political scientists and political leaders as to what makes up the Iranian political system. The current Iranian constitution was adopted on December 3, 1979, after a referendum in which 99.5% of the population voted in favor, and was ratified on July 28, 1982. Even though the Iranian political system operates under the framework of a theocracy, there is a relatively high level of political freedom and democracy in Iran when compared to many other nations in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Syria. Additionally, the current political system of Iran has survived over the past 37 years despite the odds stacked against it and has remained popular with the vast majority of Iranian citizens. Here is an overview of the main components of the Iranian political system.
The Supreme Leader
The most important politician in Iran is the Supreme Leader. According to Iran’s Constitution, the Supreme Leader is responsible for setting the tone and direction of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. The Supreme Leader also is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, controls Iran’s intelligence and security operations, and has the authority to declare war. The Supreme Leader has the power to appoint and dismiss the leaders of the judiciary, the state radio and television networks, and the supreme commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Another role of the Supreme Leader is that he has the power to appoint the twelve members of the Council of Guardians, the powerful body that oversees the activities of Parliament and determines which candidates are qualified to run for public office.
The current Supreme Leader is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, upon Khomeini’s death in 1989. Khomeini and Khamenei are the only two men to have held the office since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Prior to serving as Supreme Leader, Khamenei was elected President of Iran in October of 1981 and led the country through the Iran-Iraq War.
The president is the second highest ranking official in Iran. The President of Iran is elected for a 4-year term and is limited to serving no more than two consecutive terms. though the president has a high public profile, his power is in many ways trimmed back by the constitution, which subordinates the entire executive branch to the Supreme Leader. The president is responsible primarily for setting the country’s economic and social policies and plays the role of representing Iran internationally.
The current President of Iran is Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani was first elected in 2013 with 51% of the vote and is up for re-election in 2017. As of right now, he is expected to be re-elected relatively easily considering that his two strongest potential opponents (former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani) have ruled out running for the Presidency.
The Guardian Council
The Guardian Council is a body that oversees the activities of Parliament and determines which candidates are qualified to run for public office. It consists of 12 experts in Islamic law, six of them appointed by the supreme leader and six nominated by the judiciary and approved by Iran’s Parliament. The Guardian Council has the power to overturn parliamentary bills considered to be in violation of Iran’s constitution.
Additionally, the system that the Guardian Council uses to vet candidates for political office is similar to the pre-1972 Presidential process in the United States, which consisted of either members of Congress or political party elites selecting the Presidential nominees of both the major political parties. A potential benefit of the Guardian Council vetting political candidates is that it allows stability in the Iranian government by limiting governmental positions to those with a high level of political experience. On the other hand, critics of the Iranian political system argue that it reduces the chances for gradual political reform to occur in Iran and limits political office to a select few.
The Assembly of Experts
The responsibilities of the Assembly of Experts are to appoint the Supreme Leader, monitor his performance and remove him if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties.Members are elected for an eight-year term. Only clerics can join the assembly and candidates for the Assembly of Experts are vetted by the Guardian Council.
The Iranian Parliament (Majlis) is a unicameral legislature comprised of 290 members who are elected to four-year terms. The members of parliament draft legislation and approve the country’s budget. Additionally, the Iranian Parliament is held in check by the Guardian Council, whose members examine all laws passed by Parliament to determine their compatibility with Islamic law. The current Speaker of the Iranian Parliament is Ali Larijani, who has served since 2008.
Expediency Discernment Council
The role of the Expediency Discernment Council is to solve disputes and conflicts between the Iranian Parliament and the Guardian Council. Additionally, it serves as an advisory panel to the Supreme Leader. Its current chair is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who previously served as Iran’s President from 1989-1997 and as the chairman of the Iranian Parliament from 1980-1989.