The simplest way to describe Iran’s system is one of divided legitimacy – the Iranian government bases its authority both on religion and popular support. The Iranian leadership would say there is no contradiction between these two ideas – that the system works because the clergy represents the popular interest. And it operates through a combination of formal institutions and informal networks.
Iranians vote for three different political institutions – president, parliament, and the “Assembly of Experts.” The Assembly of Experts has just one job – to choose a Supreme Leader – so we will leave it aside for now.
On paper, Iran’s president and parliament work like similar institutions under dictatorship or democracy. Iran’s president – who is currently Hassan Rouhani – is the head of government. He chooses the cabinet, represents Iran at the UN General Assembly, and sets many policies for the government, most notably on economic policy. He is elected to a four-year term, with a two term limit.
The parliament has a single chamber with 290 representatives, including five set aside for ethnic and religious minorities. MPs are elected every four years from multi-member geographic districts. Iran doesn’t have political parties, but many candidates are affiliated with a faction and factions will publish lists of candidates they support before each election. The parliament is responsible for introducing and passing legislation, subject to approval by Guardian Council. It supervises the government, conducting audits and investigations and occasionally impeaching cabinet ministers. It also ratifies treaties, including the Iranian nuclear deal. The speaker of parliament is Ali Larijani, a prominent conservative politician from a politically influential family.
These elected institutions do not have the sole authority to govern Iran, however. Clerical institutions provide a variety of checks on that authority. The most important of these is the Council of Guardians. This Council is made up of religious and civil legal experts – half appointed by the Supreme Leader and half appointed by the Parliament. The Guardian Council has two main responsibilities – approving legislation passed by parliament (making sure it meets religious and legal criteria) and approving which candidates can run for office – a process called vetting that I will discuss in the next video.
The Guardian Council typically rejects 20-25% of laws passed by parliament, more when parliament is controlled by reformists and moderate factions. For example, in 2018, the Guardian Council rejected a law passed by parliament that would ban financing terrorism and in 2019 it rejected a law that would have extended Iranian citizenship to children with Iranian mothers and foreign fathers.
Rejection by the Guardian Council is not the final say for a law, though – parliament can take the Council’s suggestions into consideration and pass revised legislation and a body called the Expediency Council is ultimately responsible for adjudicating differences between parliament and the Council of Guardians.
That brings us to the Supreme Leader, the head of state and “decider” in Iranian politics. The Supreme Leader’s formal powers are important – he appoints key figures in the judiciary and military and is the commander in chief, but his informal powers are much more extensive. Through his management of the clerical bureaucracy and his appointment of “Special Representatives” to provinces, government ministries, and branches of the military, the Supreme Leader’s office (or Beit-e Rahbari) is able to gather information on and influence decisions made through the whole government. Through this process, he generally avoids making direct commands, preferring to weigh in informally at first and through formal statements – often delivered as a major speech – only when necessary.
The current Supreme Leader – Ali Khamenei – was the compromise candidate for the job when he was selected upon Khomeini’s death in 1989. His religious credentials were weak at the time, but Khamenei had extensive experience throughout Iran’s political and military institutions and used that to gradually strengthen and consolidate his authority over time. While he is generally considered to be close to Iran’s security services, he does still prefer to be seen as balancing factions and remaining above the fray. His speeches reflect his world view that Iran is under threat from Western, and particularly American imperialism, which must be resisted. His economic views focus on Iranian self-sufficiency and state-driven economic growth as a means to support its resistance (for example, to economic sanctions).