Who rules Iran?

Iran’s bitterly disputed presidential election has revealed a Byzantine system of governance. Do elections there even matter?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Isn’t the president the top dog?

He is the one who gets popularly elected, appoints Cabinets, and is answerable to Iran’s elected parliament, or Majlis. Yet the Islamic Republic of Iran is not a constitutional democracy, as Westerners understand the term. The president remains subservient to a set of institutions dominated by the clerical elite that surrounds Iran’s enigmatic supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran’s politics may be democratic in appearance, but its key institutions are dedicated to safeguarding the Islamic revolution.

What is the supreme leader’s role?

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The 1979 revolutionary constitution gives him sweeping powers. As commander in chief of the armed forces, he can appoint and dismiss the heads of the army, navy, air force, and Revolutionary Guard. He appoints the heads of Iran’s judiciary, the president of state radio and TV, the executives who supervise the nominally independent newspapers, and the leaders of Friday prayers who act as his mouthpieces at a local level. Khamenei, appointed supreme leader after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, now controls some 2,000 clerical commissars who permeate the bureaucracy. For these reasons, the supreme leader’s role in Iran has been described as “part pope, part commander in chief, and one-man Supreme Court.”

How ‘supreme’ is he?

In theory, he’s constrained by the Assembly of Experts, an 86-

member conclave of Islamic clerics comparable to the Vatican’s college of cardinals: These clerics meet twice a year, monitor the supreme leader’s performance, and can remove him from office. In practice, they’re less of an independent check on his power than they might seem. True, they’re elected (for an eight-year term) by direct public vote, and the assembly’s deputy chairman is ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Khamenei’s chief antagonists in the current crisis. But the assembly is dominated by conservative clerics. That’s hardly surprising, since eligibility for the assembly is regulated by the 12 theologians on the Guardian Council, the most influential body in Iran, half of whose members are picked by the supreme leader and half by the head of the judiciary (also an appointee of the supreme leader).

What does the council do?

The Guardian Council has the power to reject candidates for the presidency, parliament, and assembly. Its approval must also be sought for all laws introduced in parliament, and it can veto any laws passed if they are deemed “incompatible” with Islamic law. But the council’s power is somewhat limited by yet another body, the 34-member Expediency Council, which is made up of the heads of the three branches of government, clerical members of the Guardian Council, and members chosen by the supreme leader. The Expediency Council mediates disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council and serves as an advisory body to the supreme leader. Critics see it as a tool of the supreme leader, but that ignores the fact that its chairman is perhaps the one person who could force a rerun of the disputed presidential poll.

Who is the chairman?

None other than Rafsanjani, the man defeated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race. Rafsanjani’s frustration with Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader’s protégé, came to a head in the recent campaign when Ahmadinejad was allowed to publicly accuse Rafsanjani of corruption. In response, Rafsanjani wrote a letter berating Khamenei for failing to uphold Iran’s dignity, implying that the supreme leader, normally above criticism, was involved in plans to steal the election. But Rafsanjani’s efforts to win support for the “reformist” agenda in the Assembly of Experts has met with a lukewarm response, and he and his ally, defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, seem to be on the losing side of the ongoing power struggle and military crackdown.

What’s on their ‘reformist’ agenda?

It has little to do with support for Western-style liberalism; it simply reflects the belief of a minority in the ruling clerical elite that to get Iran out of its current economic mess and international isolation, greater political and economic openness is required. In 1997, the reformists scored a surprise victory when Mohammad Khatami, a little-known cleric, won the presidential election with almost 70 percent of the vote, after a campaign focusing on the rule of law and inclusion of all Iranians in the political process.

How did the reformists fare?

Khatami’s eight years in office exposed the fragility of Iran’s democratic institutions. Dozens of newspapers opened, but most were shut down by the judiciary, and much of Khatami’s reformist legislation was vetoed by the Guardian Council. Ahmadinejad’s subsequent victory in the 2005 presidential election was partly due to the disillusionment felt by voters: Turnout fell from 80 percent in 1997 to below 51 percent in 2005. Given the current upheaval, some now hope the supreme leader will make a behind-the-scenes deal with the reformists. But some Iran experts say Khamenei may no longer have the will—or the authority—to do so. Instead, the power may have passed to the military and security institutions on which Khamenei depends for social control. “There’s a question in my mind,” says Columbia University’s Gary Sick, “whether Khamenei is calling the shots, or whether the Revolutionary Guards are calling the shots.”

The muscle behind the clerics

The Basij (short for “Mobilization of the Oppressed” in Farsi) is a fanatical militia whose members, armed with axes, daggers, and sticks, have been in the forefront of suppressing street protests. A volunteer auxiliary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard that was set up in 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, it was initially made up of men too old or young to serve in the guard. But it became one of the most zealous forces in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, often leading “human wave” charges through minefields to clear the way for the military. After the war, the Basiji became overseers of civilian behavior, breaking up parties, harassing women for not wearing sufficiently modest clothing, and suppressing dissident gatherings. It grew hugely powerful under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (said to have been a Basij instructor in the 1980s). Recruits are attracted by its hard-line ideology, and by the perks; in addition to their salaries, Basiji get easy entrance to universities and loans for businesses. Many Iranians suspect that it was a member of the Basij who fatally shot Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose video-recorded death has become the symbol of Iranian resistance.

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