At the start of 2018, Iran experienced the largest nationwide protests since the 2009 Green Revolution, provoked initially by anger over economic stagnation and the government’s failure to act. Their calls for improved welfare are a test for the Islamic Republic, which was founded in 1979 on the principle of delivering social justice but has been dogged by charges of abusing civil and human rights and abetting corruption.
President Hassan Rouhani twice campaigned on boosting the economy and raising standards of living, and a core reason for championing a 2015 nuclear agreement was opening Iran up to international investment. But businesses have been skittish about returning to Iran, owing to extant U.S. banking sanctions and the fear that U.S. President Donald J. Trump could spike the agreement, as well as domestic factors that discourage investment. Protesters have objected to proposed cuts to fuel and cash subsidies in his 2018 budget as religious institutions and the Revolutionary Guard Corps continue to enjoy government largesse.
The extent to which Rouhani’s position is at odds with other individuals and institutions that wield power in Iran—most notably, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards—is unclear. The complicated institutional design of the Islamic Republic raises questions about whether the transparency and accountability protesters seek is possible.
Iran’s system is not quite a democracy, nor a theocracy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini developed its animating doctrine, known as guardianship of the jurist, in the years before the 1979 revolution, positing that a just government was possible if religious scholars sat atop it to ensure consistency with Islamic law. This was put into place with a post-revolution constitutional referendum. 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.)
Atop this structure is 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 Revolutionary Guards and police. 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.
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 his successor, 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.
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 revenue, which is expected to total $33 billion this year, accounts for a third 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—the previous majlis had twenty seven—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 2016 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.
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.