The Islamic Republic’s Power Centers

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is the second-longest-serving head of state in the Middle East.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is the second-longest-serving head of state in the Middle East. Caren Firouz/Reuters

Who calls the shots in Iran on economic policy, security, and domestic calls for reform? A look at the government’s organization chart indicates how complicated the answer is.

Last updated February 25, 2020

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is the second-longest-serving head of state in the Middle East.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is the second-longest-serving head of state in the Middle East. Caren Firouz/Reuters
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Iran’s system of government is not quite a democracy, nor a theocracy. Former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini developed its animating doctrine, known as guardianship of the jurist, in the years before the Islamic Republic’s founding. Khomeini posited that a just government was possible if religious scholars sat atop it to ensure consistency with Islamic law. This system was put into place with a constitutional referendum after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The organs of a modern republic—a unicameral legislature (the majlis), executive led by the president, and judiciary—were enveloped by a clerical system. (Most of Iran’s clerical hierarchy, however, remains outside this official structure, based in Qom rather than the capital, Tehran.)

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In recent years, these state organs have vied for influence over some domestic and international policies. At the beginning of 2020, regime hard-liners appeared to further consolidate power across these institutions when they won a wide majority in elections for parliament, one of Iran’s few directly elected bodies. However, the victory followed the disqualification of thousands of more moderate candidates by the mostly conservative Guardian Council, prompting the lowest voter turnout since the revolution.

Organizational chart of Iran's government

One factor that has remained constant in the past four decades is the ultimate authority of the supreme leader, the guardian jurist. Iran’s constitution designates the office as head of state and affords it vast authorities under the theory that political authority springs from religious authority. Article 110 of Iran’s constitution [PDF] outlines the position’s major authorities. They include setting national policies and supervising their implementation, as well as commanding the armed forces and appointing military chiefs and the heads of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and police. Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khamenei, has reportedly influenced the selection of ministers of defense, intelligence, and foreign affairs, as well as science, a sensitive post charged with appointing the heads of universities.

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The supreme leader’s authority is not absolute, however. He is elected by the Assembly of Experts, a body of eighty-eight directly elected jurists constitutionally mandated with overseeing the supreme leader. In practice, however, they carry out oversight in secret committee, and it is unclear whether they have ever sought to meaningfully check either Khomeini or Khamenei.

There are informal constraints on the supreme leader, as well. The position is considered both an arbiter of Iranian politics and a source of emulation, so his direction is meant to both set the course for the republic but also reflect broader consensus among elites. Meanwhile, the supreme leader relies as much on typical instruments of political power [PDF]—control of media outlets, patronage, and so on—as the religious trappings of his office to influence government and society.

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Answering to the supreme leader is the president, who serves as head of government. Elected to a maximum of two four-year terms, he is charged with executing the country’s laws and setting policy within parameters set by the supreme leader. He nominates members of the cabinet, who must be confirmed by the parliament. He also proposes the budget, which must then be passed under the normal legislative process. (Oil and gas revenue, which is expected to total $18 billion this year, accounts for 23 percent of expected government revenue, and Khamenei has argued for lessening Iran’s oil dependence.)

The parliament, or majlis, has 290 seats. Its members are directly elected to four-year terms by geographic district, with five seats set aside for religious minorities. The number of clerics holding seats in it has declined—sixteen were elected in 2016, down from twenty-seven in 2012—while the number associated with the Revolutionary Guards has increased. As the unicameral legislature, it has broad lawmaking authority, but another body, the Guardian Council, is charged with determining whether laws it passes are permissible under the constitution and Islamic precepts. Half of the council’s twelve members are theologians appointed by the supreme leader; the other half are legal scholars selected by the parliament.

The Guardian Council also qualifies candidates for the Assembly of Experts, presidency, and parliament, giving it great influence in setting the parameters of Iranian electoral democracy. In the 2016 general elections, the body approved just half of the declared candidates for parliament and one-fifth of those for the Assembly of Experts. It has often weeded out reformist candidates for office. In the 2017 presidential election, it disqualified Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the firebrand ex-president who had, while in office, clashed with Khamenei.

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Another body, the Expediency Council, was established in the 1988 revision of the constitution to mediate between the parliament and Guardian Council. The supreme leader, who appoints its members to five-year terms, has since delegated authority to it for supervising the government. It is another avenue through which the supreme leader can choose to exercise closer authority over the government.

The Supreme National Security Council is led by the president and includes the parliamentary speaker and chief justice—that is, the heads of all three branches of government. Also on the council are military chiefs and the ministers of state, foreign affairs, and intelligence, as well as two personal representatives of the supreme leader; thus, it includes appointees of both the president and supreme leader. Its constitutional writ is broad; it is charged with setting a wide range of policies that touch on defense and security, responding to threats both foreign and domestic.

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