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Presidential Power in Iran

Authors: Greg Bruno, and Jamal Afridi
Updated: June 17, 2009
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

No incumbent has lost a presidential election in post-Revolution Iran, and despite allegations of vote rigging and fraud in the wake of the June 2009 race, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has so far avoided the historical distinction as the first. But some observers had speculated the sitting president would face a tough reelection bid, and news of Ahmadinejad's land-slide victory (AP) brought hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters into the streets of Tehran demanding a new vote. As a result, many experts believe that public support for Iran's unique form of government-a mix of clerical rule and elected leadership-has been eroded (NewsHour).

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Yet amid the unrest are more fundamental questions about the broader significance of the Iranian office of president. While Iran's president has considerable latitude in domestic matters, and is the most visible member of Iran's inner circle on the world stage, his power remains secondary to the Supreme Leader. A number of analysts and Iranians, particularly those from urban areas who support opposition candidates seen as reformers, believe this arrangement undermines the electoral process, and in recent years U.S. officials have regularly dismissed Iran's elections as unfair. But despite the president's lack of absolute authority in Iran, some experts suggest the political leaning of the office holder can shape, albeit subtly, the direction of regime policies. This arrangement partly explains the outpouring of emotions follow the vote of June 12.

A Presidential Paradox

Officially the highest elected office in the Islamic Republic of Iran's bureaucracy, the president remains subordinate to the Supreme Leader, who serves as the final arbiter on foreign policy, media, nuclear-related decisions, and military and national security. The president, meanwhile, carries out the "functions of the executive" as outlined in Iran's constitution, duties that range from appointing ambassadors and cabinet ministers to planning and executing the national budget. Article 113 of the constitution stipulates that executive power is subservient to "the office of Leadership." Ali Alfoneh, a visiting research fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, argues (PDF) this arrangement fosters the myth that Iran's electorate has a role in the preserving Iranian sovereignty. "This is false," he says. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in a June 2009 election scene setter that the country's current leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, has consolidated power over the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Guardian Council (which vets presidential candidates; see below), and the parliament. And while Ahmadinejad has repeatedly defended Iran's right to pursue peaceful nuclear technologies, final decisions on uranium enrichment and the overall direction of the program lie with Khamenei.

Historical Shifts

The office of the president is generally seen as more powerful today than when it was established three decades ago. In the early years of the Islamic Republic, presidential powers were limited, with the regime's constitutional framers taking care not to give the office excessive strength for fear of a possible coup. The country's first president, Abol Hassan Bani Sadr, ran into immediate disagreement on policy between his office and Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Rajai. Mohsen Milani, an expert on Iran's presidency at the University of South Florida, writes in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies that Bani Sadr "tried to create an imperial presidency, to make his office independent and powerful." He failed, was marginalized by supporters of the regime, and in 1981 fled to France amid calls for his execution (NYT). Rajai succeeded Bani Sadr, but served just two weeks in office before being assassinated (no one claimed responsibility). The election of Ali Khamenei as Iran's third president in 1981 restored order to the executive, but Khamenei (now Iran's Supreme Leader) operated in the shadow of Ayatollah Khomeini and "remained a weak and uncontroversial president," Milani notes. During Khamenei's presidency, Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a top challenger for the June 2009 presidency whose supporters believe was the victim of vote rigging, was credited with displaying strong leadership, especially on economic matters.

The president remains subordinate to the Supreme Leader, who serves as the final arbiter on foreign policy, media, nuclear-related decisions, and military and national security.

After the elimination of the post of prime minister in 1989, executive duties were consolidated in the office of the presidency. Presidential powers have ebbed and flowed since, depending on the office holder. In an interview with CFR.org, Milani said Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was an effective president due to his personal relationships and political charisma, a dynamic that was lost in 1997 with the election of Mohammad Khatami. "Khatami didn't have that kind of relationship with the Supreme Leader" that Rafsanjani did, says Milani, and "during that period the presidency wasn't that powerful." Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, restored the type of political influence commanded by Rafsanjani, Milani says, "and the Supreme Leader has started to give [Ahmadinejad] some room to maneuver, especially on domestic issues."  Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow and Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, says Ahmadinejad's "notorious personality" also contributed to the wide interest in the 2009 Iranian presidential race. "By inserting himself in all of Iran's most contentious debates and by asserting himself both on the domestic and international stage, Ahmadinejad has emerged as the focal point of Iran's contemporary political landscape," she writes.

A Seat at the Table

Even without the Supreme Leader's explicit consent, Iran's constitution does provide the president considerable autonomy; he unquestionably holds the second-most powerful office in Iran. Among the office's duties is the ability to appoint provincial governors, ambassadors, and cabinet members-key posts in Iran's government that hold significant sway in shaping the Supreme Leader's thinking. Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, writes (PDF) in a May 2009 report that "the presidency is a coveted and intensely fought over position which provides vast opportunities for the president to empower and enrich his political base." Beyond political appointments the constitution also grants the president responsibility for "national planning, and budget and state employment affairs." Amir Taheri, author of The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution, writes in the National Review that "by controlling the resources of the state, including the all-important oil revenues, and appointing thousands of high-ranking functionaries in a highly centralized system of government," the president is uniquely positioned to influence the direction of the regime.

Crisis Guide: IranCarnegie's Sadjadpour describes the balance of power this way: "When visualizing how decisions are made in Tehran, I picture fifteen bearded men sitting around a long table, with [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei seated at the head," he writes. "While Ahmadinejad is president, all of these men will share a similar anti-imperialist, revolutionary Islamist disposition. But the election of a more moderate president could change the makeup of who sits at that table.... Their impact won't be enormous, but it would not be negligible."

Yet in the wake of the contested June 2009 vote, some analysts say the delicate balance between Iran's clergy and its elected officials may be in jeopardy of crumbling, especially if voters believe their ballots no longer count. Gary Sick, speaking on the PBS' NewsHour, called the post-voting tumult a possible turning point in the country's political framework. "The whole idea of the Islamic Republic was to have a mixture of Islam and Islamic rule, but with the voice of the people, a form of democracy, republicanism," Sick said. "That has broken down. Today, the people simply don't trust the government, and the government-I think it's clear-does not trust the people."

By the Numbers

Presidents serve a four-year term with the option of running for a second term. The option also exists to run for a third term; however it must be nonconsecutive. To run for president, a candidate must satisfy six key qualifications outlined in the constitution, some objective (like being an "Iranian national" and of "Iranian origin") and others subjective (such as possessing a "good past record," "trustworthiness and piety," and a "conviction in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran"). All candidates are then reviewed by the Guardian Council, a twelve-member panel of six theologians and six legal experts. Out of the nearly 500 people who registered as prospective candidates for the June 2009 race, the Guardian Council approved just four for inclusion on the ballot (see below). In 2005, out of 1,014 potential challengers, the council chose eight. And like in 2005, all female candidates in 2009 were blocked from running.

"The presidency is a coveted and intensely fought over position which provides vast opportunities for the president to empower and enrich his political base." – Kenneth Katzman, U.S. Congressional Research Service

Elections are won with an absolute majority of the vote. In cases when no candidate reaches this threshold, a run-off is held a week later between the two candidates that received the most votes in the first round. Only registered voters are permitted on Election Day (Iran's top election official says 46.2 million are eligible to vote in the June 2009 election, about 70 percent of the population). Ahmadinejad draws his support from poor, rural Iranians, who are often drawn to his populist policies and promises of wealth redistribution. The June 2009 vote will be the first presidential election since a controversial law was put into effect (Press TV) in late 2006 increasing the voting age to 18, from 15. Analysts believe urban Iranians, especially young city dwellers, could tip the scales in the favor of a challenger; over a third of Iran's 70 million people are between 18 and 34, according to Iran's National Portal of Statistics.

The 2009 Presidential Race

If official tallies of the 2009 vote are confirmed, an estimated 46.2 million people voted-roughly 85 percent of the country's electorate-a huge turnout for a presidential race. In the disputed vote's aftermath, about the only certainty is the resumes of those who ran. They were:

  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 53-year-old incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 with 62 percent of the vote (BBC) in a second round run-off against former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97). Campaigning on a populist platform of economic reform--largely based on pledges to combat corruption and distribute the nation's oil revenue--the former mayor of Tehran was the Islamic Republic's first non-cleric to be elected in twenty-four years. While his economic policies made headlines at home, he is best known abroad for his statements on Israel, denial of the Holocaust, and insistence on Iran's right to develop nuclear technology. Official vote tallies reported by the Interiror Ministry had Ahmadinejad winning 62.6 percent of the vote (BBC), though opposition supporters dispute this figure.
  • Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi, 67, was Ahmadinejad's strongest competitor. His backers included former President Khatami, who dropped out of the race in March 2009. Many Iranians look fondly upon Mousavi's tenure as prime minister (1981-89) during the Iran-Iraq war and his adroit management of the country's economy during the conflict. Mousavi's economic agenda included a vow to reduce inflation to single digits, and boost private sector investment. And he says he would be more "practical" with foreign investment by focusing on Iran's immediate neighbors rather than "flooding money into Latin America." Mousavi reportedly won 33.8 percent of the vote, according to Interior Ministry figures.
  • Mehdi Karroubi. Perhaps the most vocal opponent of Ahmadinejad, the senior reformist cleric is a veteran of presidential elections. In 2005 Karroubi, 72, received 17.4 percent of the vote in the first round, placing third behind Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad. Campaigning on the slogan of "change" in 2009, Karroubi criticized Ahmadinejad for his global posturing, seeing his comments on the Holocaust and Israel as unnecessarily provocative. He has served twice as speaker of the Iranian parliament, called the Majlis, from 1989 to 1992, and 2000 to 2004. The Interior Ministry put his 2009 tally at 0.9 percent of the total vote.
  • Mohsen Rezaei. A former commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Rezaei, 55, was the only conservative challenger. Currently secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, Rezaei holds a PhD in economics from Tehran University and, like his reformist opposition, endorsed the idea of improved relations with the United States (AP). But Rezaei also accused Iran's "enemies" of trying to create rifts between Tehran and Arab states in the Gulf. In an interview with the state-run news outlet Press TV on May 23, Rezaei vowed to make "stability in the Persian Gulf" a top priority if elected. He received 1.7 percent of the vote in 2009 balloting, the Interior Ministry reported.

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