Campaigning for Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 2005 Iranian Presidential elections (Photo by Shahram Sharif, available at Wikimedia Commons)

March 01, 2009

Political Structures of Iran

The day-to-day conduct of affairs in Iran is the province of its governance structures: the president, Council of Ministers, and parliament. The relationships among these bodies are very unusual among modern states. The president is elected directly by the Iranian people and has many (but by no means all) of the trappings of a head of state: he accredits foreign ambassadors, selects Iranian ambassadors, signs legislation and treaties, and so on. He is also the head of government, selecting and presiding over the Council of Ministers and overseeing the executive powers of the government (again with notable exceptions discussed below). Ministers are responsible both to the president, who can dismiss them at his pleasure, and to the parliament, which must approve them and which can fire them through a no-confidence vote. There is no prime minister in the current Iranian system, that is, no leader with executive powers who is chosen by the legislature itself (the position of prime minister was eliminated in the 1989 revision of the Iranian constitution).  

The Iranian government is thus a hybrid system. It is not a presidential system in the American sense because the Iranian president is responsible to parliament as are his ministers. Parliament can require the president or his ministers to attend its sessions and answer questions, and can remove ministers if it chooses. In this respect, the Iranian president functions more like a prime minister than an executive president. But the direct election of the Iranian president means that, unlike most prime ministers who are chosen by majority vote in legislatures, he is not necessarily the leader of the largest bloc in parliament. Iran’s presidency thus combines most of the weaknesses of both a presidential and a prime ministerial form of government with few of the strengths.

The nature of the Iranian state constrains the president’s powers even further. He is explicitly not the commander in chief of any of the armed forces. That role belongs exclusively to the Supreme Leader. Neither the president nor the defense minister are in the military chain of command in Iran, in fact—the command flows from the Supreme Leader directly to the heads of the regular armed forces and (separately) to the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In recent years it has also been established that the head of the Qods Force, the clandestine arm of the IRGC responsible for most of Iran’s military-related activities abroad, also reports directly to the Supreme Leader, bypassing even the IRGC chief. The president also lacks the right to veto legislation (a weakness that makes him more like a prime minister), as well as the right to prorogue the parliament and call for new elections (a weakness that makes him more like a president).

The parliament and the ministers appear to have roles that are similar to the functions of an ordinary parliamentary government, but critical differences remain even here. The basic purpose of modern legislatures is to control the government’s finances. The struggles between monarch and parliament in Great Britain that produced modern representative government revolved primarily around the question of who could raise taxes and spend the income. Parliament’s victory in that struggle constrained the monarch’s power and is today embodied in the prime minister’s formal title, “First Lord of the Treasury.” The Iranian parliament has similar powers in theory, as the constitution grants it the right and responsibility of approving the state’s budget every year. Its real fiscal power is much more limited.

A large proportion of Iran’s wealth—possibly as much as 35% of its gross domestic product—is tied up in a number of large religious-charitable foundations called bonyads. The Supreme Leader chooses the heads of these foundations, and they are not responsible to the parliament, the ministries, or the president. The foundations play an important role in the Iranian economy, running large-scale business enterprises of various sorts and employing perhaps 5 million Iranians.[1] Some of these foundations are suspected of involvement in Iran’s banned weapons programs, and the U.S. Treasury Department lists the Martyrs Foundation as a sanctioned organization. Iran’s political leadership, therefore, controls around 60% of the country’s revenues and expenditures (as overseen by the Supreme Leader and his numerous control organizations). The rest is controlled directly by the Supreme Leader through his chosen agents.

The effect of this organization of the Iranian government is to ensure that there is no single leader powerful enough on his own to pose a serious threat to the Supreme Leader’s control of the regime, and that the only groups of leaders who could do so serve exclusively at the Supreme Leader’s pleasure or are controlled by other groups the Supreme Leader selects. Yet the formal governing structures of Iran are not a sham—60% of Iran’s national wealth is a very significant amount, and the decisions of the parliament and president can have dramatic impacts on the lives of 70 million Iranians. Nor does the Supreme Leader continuously wield his potentially autocratic power either directly or through his agents. Debates within all of Iran’s assemblies have been vigorous. Many of Iran’s recent elections have been strongly contested by rival candidates. Successive Iranian presidents have made more or less dramatic changes in the country’s internal economic structures and functioning and even in its tone toward the outside world. The Supreme Leader’s preeminence does not mean that the president and parliament can be ignored. The entire system is designed to ensure its own stability first and foremost, to allow the Supreme Leader to remain above the political fray at least in appearances and to deflect popular dissatisfaction from himself to the formal political structure, and, perhaps, to confuse outsiders about the nature of Iranian decision-making. It has certainly achieved the last objective.


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[1] Data from Statement of Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, Congressional Research Service before the Joint Economic Committee Hearing on Iran, July 25, 2006.