The Political Structure of Iran

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  • 0:01 Islam at the Core
  • 0:43 Supreme Leader and…
  • 1:47 Executive Branch
  • 3:30 Legislative Branch
  • 4:29 Judicial Branch
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Iran's government is usually just described as unfriendly in the West, but did you know that the country has one of the most intricate government systems imaginable? This lesson helps to shed some light on a government that heavily features Shia Islam.

Islam at the Core

Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has styled itself as the Islamic Republic of Iran. In those two things, it is correct - it is definitely Islamic, and yet it has all the characteristics of a republic. In fact, some observers have pointed out that within the confines of their chosen interpretation of Islam, Iran may be one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East. However, the presence of Islam, specifically the Shia belief that is common in Iran, is never far off. In fact, the country's technical name for its type of government is not a republic, but instead a velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurists.

Supreme Leader and Assembly of Experts

Whether you call it an Islamic Republic or a velayat-e faqih, at the top of the system sits the Supreme Leader, the head of all religious and political activities in Iran. Always a well-known religious leader, he normally has the title of Ayatollah, a title given only to the highest-ranking Shia jurists. He has the power to make decisions regarding the military, religious services, and media, and is the only person allowed to fire the president. In short, he is one very powerful individual. In fact, there is very little the Supreme Leader cannot do within the Iranian system.

One thing he can't do, however, is hide from the Council of Experts. This group of Islamic legal scholars is tasked with making sure that the absolute most talented jurist amongst themselves serves as Supreme Leader. After all, the whole country is based on the idea that it is being preserved by the skillful work of Islamic jurists. That said, it tends to be a fairly conservative crowd, having never once publicly rocked the boat against the Supreme Leader. In this regard, both the Supreme Leader and the Assembly of Experts act as a conservative force on the whole government of Iran.

Executive Branch

A figure who is much more open to public controversy in Iran is the president. Popularly elected from a pre-approved list of candidates screened by religious authorities, recent presidents have included both reformers and reactionaries. In many ways, much of the president's authority is dependent on the Supreme Leader, since he is expected to gain the approval of the head jurist before acting. However, in some respects, the president is quite a powerful politician. For example, the Iranian President selects what legislation will appear in front of the legislative branch. Additionally, given the close relationship he must have with the Supreme Leader, he is a good barometer of how the Iranian people are feeling and what they want expressed to the Supreme Leader.

Assisting the president are a number of vice presidents. These act much like cabinet secretaries in other countries, heading up different agencies. The vice presidencies range from military and environmental posts to one for women's affairs, which is currently held by a woman. As you can imagine, this is quite the rare occurrence for the Middle East.

Unique to Iran, there is one other section of the government with ties to the executive branch. The Guardian Council is made up of six appointees from the Supreme Leader and six elected by the legislative branch. In reality, they tend to be older and more conservative. However, they have the job of striking down any legislation that is seen as too un-Islamic. Needless to say, that does not endear them to Iran's large youth population. However, as we shall see, the Iranian state does have a mechanism in place to alleviate some of that tension.

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