The Supreme Leader et al

There have only been two Supreme Leaders, and their names are infuriatingly similar. The first is most revered, which probably explains why the current one shows the original over his shoulder in official portraits.
There have only been two Supreme Leaders, and their names are infuriatingly similar. The first is most revered, which probably explains why the current one shows the original over his shoulder in official portraits.

Islamic Republic is a pretty honest description of Iran’s government. Its institutions represent a genuine mix of democracy and theocracy with just a hint of constitutionalised autocracy thrown in. It is the theocratic and autocratic institutions which given Iran’s clerics and its conservative establishment so much power. The key institutions are:

The Supreme Leader

  • Is hired (and theoretically fired) by the Assembly of Experts, a religious group popularly elected every eight years
  • Is a high holder of religious office
  • Has one of the coolest titles available, but is generally just called ‘the leader’ by Iranians
  • Has his portrait everywhere
  • Has official control of the military and of the massive religious foundations that account for 20% of Iran’s GDP
  • Makes important important appointments to judicial and religious positions
  • Tends not to speak openly on day-to-day political issues but has enormous behind the scenes power

The President

  • Is directly elected (in French style) every four years
  • Is constitutionally the second most office, but in practice has their power significantly constrained
  • Does most of the things we would understand a President to do unless the religious institutions don’t want them to

The Majilis

  • Is what we’d call a Parliament
  • Is directly elected every four years by anyone who cares to vote
  • Has 290 members and has, since its inception, always included women and members of religious minorities
  • Has to approve the President’s budget and Cabinet appointments
  • Passes legislation
  • Has powers to investigate the executive, except the religious bits

The Guardian Council

  • Is like a cross between an upper house and a supreme court
  • Is a strong conservative institution which is key in maintaining the status quo
  • Has twelve members – six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six jurists appointed by parliament (on the recommendation of the judicial chief who is appointed by the Supreme Leader)
  • Must approve all legislation passed by the Majilis as consistent with Iran’s constitution and, more vaguely, with its status as an Islamic State
  • Rejected 35% of legislation proposed by one especially reformist Majilis
  • Also gets to vet all candidates for elected office and frequently disqualifies those who stand for change
  • Generously decided that women and non-clerics could stand for the last elections of the Assembly of Experts then
  • Disqualified all women and non-cleric candidates because they didn’t have the requisite Islamic qualifications

If my bullets don’t do it for you the BBC has got a reasonable diagram of it all. And if you ever want to sound like you know something without knowing the details (generally my approach) you might be interested in my thoughts that follows.

The institutions are designed to allocate power in a particular way, and that feels oddly familiar. But whereas western traditions seek to balance and check powers, the Iranian system seems to unequivocally vest it with the religious establishment. That’s why you see it contorting in unexpected ways. For example, the Supreme Leader appoints half the Guardian Council, and and the person who nominates the other half. The Guardian Council vets potential appointments to the Assembly of Experts. And the Assembly of Experts appoints the Supreme Leader. It is pretty easy to perpetuate power in circles like this because it is in the interests of none to challenge the status quo.

Despite this, there is still a dose of democracy in there, and more than you’ll find in neighbouring Kuwait, or the Gulf States. Assuming folk feel elections are free and fair (which isn’t always the case) there is a chance to have a meaningful influence on government. But if Iran is going to have wholesale political change, the current institutions are unlikely to support that. If a party thinks women’s testimony should be as valuable as a man’s in a court of law their candidates are unlikely to be able to stand for the Majilis, and if they can, they’re unlikely to be able to get legislation to that effect approved by the Guardian Council.

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