Politics in Iran

What type of government does Iran have?

Iran is a theocracy. According to its constitution, its laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. The supreme leader (now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) exerts ideological and political control over a system dominated by clerics who shadow every major function of the state.

What does Iran’s power structure look like?

  • The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say on major policy decisions, either directly or through a network of groups appointed by him. He also serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He picks six of the twelve members of the influential Guardian Council and appoints the head of the judiciary.
  • Iran’s president is the country’s second-most important leader. Unlike the supreme leader, he is elected for four years and is limited to serving no more than two consecutive terms. While the president is often the public face of the Iranian government, his actual power is circumscribed by the constitution, which subordinates the executive branch to the supreme leader. Nonetheless, the president helps direct economic policies and social programs and represents Iran in many international forums. As Khamenei’s recent affirmations of Rouhani’s negotiating team exemplify, the supreme leader is not always opposed to delegating authority on national security matters.
  • The Guardian Council is a powerful body that oversees the activities of Parliament and determines which candidates are qualified to run for public office. It consists of 12 experts in Islamic law, six of them appointed by the supreme leader and six nominated by the judiciary and approved by Iran’s Parliament. These 12 theologians can veto parliamentary bills considered to be in violation of Iran’s constitution.
  • Iran’s Parliament, sometimes called the Majlis, is a unicameral legislature comprised of 290 members who are elected to four-year terms. Parliamentarians draft legislation and approve the country’s budget. However, Parliament is held in check by the Guardian Council, whose members examine all laws passed by Parliament to determine their compatibility with Islamic law.
  • The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), formed after the 1979 revolution to protect the regime against external and internal threats, is the country’s premier security institution, distinct from Iran’s military. It is subject to the direct purview of the supreme leader, though Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari oversees the organization’s day-to-day matters. The IRGC reaches every town through its oversight of the Basij, local volunteer paramilitary units comprising mostly young Iranian men. The Guards preside over a vast power structure and are generally loyal to hard-line elements in the regime, though it is not a monolithic organization.
  • The President presides over the Supreme National Security Council—roughly equivalent to the National Security Council in the United States—though in practice the supreme leader dictates all security. In September 2013, President Rouhani shifted responsibility for Iran’s nuclear negotiations from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry, making Foreign Minister Javad Zarif the chief nuclear negotiator. Rear Admiral Ali Shamkani serves as the council’s current secretary.
  • The Expediency Council, created in 1988 to resolve stalemates between Parliament and the Guardian Council, is a powerful advisory body to the supreme leader.
  • The Assembly of Experts, composed of 86 clerics elected for an eight-year term, appoints the supreme leader and has the power to remove him if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties.

For a closer look at how this setup plays out in Iran, see the Washington Post’s instructive diagram here. The US Institute of Peace’s “Iran Primer” has a similar graphic, which can be found here.

Who’s who in Iran’s political system?

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Supreme Leader)

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Supreme Leader)
As Iran’s head of state and commander-in-chief, Ayatollah Khamenei has not only constitutional authority but also significant tangible influence over all branches of the Iranian government. He is committed to securing the survival of Iran’s theocracy. Khamenei, who became supreme leader after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, frequently condemns American sanctions for "crippling" Iran, which he believes are aimed at removing him from power. Despite his suspicions of the West, Ayatollah Khamenei has seemingly given President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif permission to negotiate a nuclear deal in an effort to remove all sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani Hassan Rouhani (President)
To the surprise of many, moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani cruised to victory in the first round of Iran’s presidential elections by garnering nearly 51% of the vote in June 2013. While long a part of the establishment—including as an influential figure in the Iran-Iraq war and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council—he campaigned under the slogan “moderation and wisdom,” advocating policies to reverse the economic decline and international isolation overseen by his predecessor. As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, Rouhani agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and permit more intrusive IAEA inspections—an accord that was swiftly discarded after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gained power and replaced Rouhani in 2005. After his election, in an allusion to Iran’s contentious relations with the West, Rouhani spoke of “a chronic wound” and said, “There should be a change of direction in order to turn a new page in this unstable relationship.” In the highest-level contact between American and Iranian leaders since 1979, Rouhani held a historic phone call with President Obama at the tail end of the UN General Assembly meeting in September. President Rouhani has personally expressed commitment to the current P5+1 negotiations, yet he has pledged that Iran will never relinquish its right to enrich uranium.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari (IRGC Commander) Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari (IRGC Commander)
As commander of the Revolutionary Guards since 2007, Jafari oversees over 300,000 personnel, including the Basij militia responsible for maintaining domestic order. On September 30, a few days after Rouhani’s breakthrough telephone conversation with President Obama, Jafari decried the move as a “tactical error” and said his forces would be monitoring the issue in order to be able to issue “necessary warnings.” On October 13, Jafari declared that “the people have figured out what [the reformists] are up to and will not be duped by their provocations in the interests of the enemy.”
Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani (Quds Force Commander)

Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani (Quds Force Commander)
Qassem Suleimani is a shadowy figure who has for 15 years commanded the Iranian Quds Force – a specialized, elite branch of the IRGC that is, as Dexter Filkins writes, “roughly analogous to a combined CIA and Special Forces.” Though subject to sanctions from the US Treasury Department for abetting terrorism and aiding the Assad regime, Suleimani continues to direct Quds Force operations throughout the Middle East, including Iraq and Syria, and beyond.

Who’s who on Iran’s nuclear negotiating team?

Mohammad Javad Zarif (Foreign Minister)
A fluent English speaker who spent nearly half his life in the United States, Mohammad Javad Zarif was appointed by Rouhani to serve as Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator. He is a long-time diplomat and professor. While Iran’s ambassador to the UN between 2002 and 2007, Zarif was a primary player in the development of the 2003 “Grand Bargain” proposal, which attempted to resolve with the United States issues spanning terrorism to regional security to Iran’s nuclear program. The Bush administration swiftly rejected this proposal, but Zarif is widely respected by officials in the US government and analytical community. Because Zarif is considered a pragmatist and technocrat, President Rouhani’s decision to appoint him as foreign minister has been characterized as an “olive branch” to the West.

Abbas Araghchi (Deputy Foreign Minister)
After a brief stint as Foreign Ministry spokesman, Araghchi (or Araqchi) was named Iran’s deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs after Rouhani’s election. He doubles as deputy nuclear negotiator.

Majid Takht Ravanchi (Deputy Foreign Minister)
Ravanchi is Iran’s deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs and another deputy nuclear negotiator. In a recent interview, he argued that US and international sanctions against Iran are “illegal.”

Other members of Iran’s negotiating team:

  • Hamid Baeidinejad: Director general of political and legal affairs at the Foreign Ministry and head of the technical “expert” delegation.
  • Davoud Mohammadnia: Legal adviser to Foreign Minister Zarif.
  • Mohammad Amiri: Director general for defensive affairs at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

Other key players

Ali Akbar Salehi Ali Akbar Salehi (Head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran)
Having worked for several Iranian administrations, Salehi is considered an experienced pragmatist and technocrat supported by reformists and hard-liners alike. Ahmadinejad’s former foreign minister, Salehi is now head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). Fluent in English, Salehi received a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT in 1977. On November 11, 2013, Salehi inked a deal with IAEA that would allow the nuclear watchdog agency “managed access” to the Arak heavy-water production plant and Gachin uranium mine.
Reza Najafi Reza Najafi
A nonproliferation an disarmament expert, Reza Najafi was named representative of Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in August 2013.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh
Often described as Iran’s Robert Oppenheimer, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s numerous research and laboratories are believed to be at the heart of Iran’s nuclear activities. On paper, Fakhrizadeh has been called a senior officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, professor of Physics at the Imam Hussein University in Tehran, and a senior scientist at Iran’s Ministry of Defense. According to Western intelligence, Fakhrizadeh directed Iran’s research on the construction of a nuclear warhead. As of 2010, he was reportedly running a physics laboratory in northeastern Iran, presently called FEDAT, with 600 people working for him. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Fakhrizadeh has opened a research facility in Tehran “involved in studies relevant to developing nuclear weapons.”
Bijan Zanganeh
A veteran cabinet minister, first appointed to government service by current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his term as president, Zanganeh serves as oil minister in President Rouhani's cabinet. It is his second stint in the post, having served from 1997 to 2005 in the Khatami administration. Zanganeh described his role as being Iran's "second foreign minister," campaigning to increase sales of Iran's most important exports through energy diplomacy. Zanganeh has also butted heads with members of the previous administration, accusing Ahmadinejad allies and IRGC members of enriching themselves through their control of the oil industry. That said, Zanganeh is no stranger to allegations of corruption.

What impact has Rouhani's election had?

Hassan Rouhani’s surprise victory in the June 2013 presidential elections has brought hope for moderation of Iran’s nuclear policy. Rouhani, who campaigned on promises of reform and shedding Iran’s international isolation, is seeking to ease the nuclear standoff in an effort to relieve sanctions, improve the economy, and strengthen his hand against other factions in Iran. (However, it is important to note that the supreme leader is still the ultimate decision maker in foreign policy and nuclear negotiations.) Rouhani’s election also provided a safety valve for a public distressed by years of economic malaise and isolation.

According to Belfer Center Fellow Payam Mohseni, the moderate cleric owes his victory in large part to a “divide within the conservative forces of the Iranian establishment” induced by a failing economy under President Ahmadinejad, as well as a last-minute boost in support from Iran’s center-right and reformist factions. By placing sanctions relief and challenging negotiations with the West at the top of his agenda, Rouhani risks failing to maintain the fragile alliance of constituents who delivered his election.

Who predicted Rouhani’s election?

Even with the field narrowed to just six candidates on the eve of the June 14 elections, the vast majority of analysts failed to predict Rouhani’s election. Even the supreme leader himself may have been “as surprised as anyone about the result. The surge for Rohani began just 72 hours before the vote – fueled by endorsements from former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – and has now shocked Khamenei and the rest of the conservative establishment.”