A New President of Iran (Part 1)

On Sunday, August 4, Hojatoleslam Sheikh Hassan Rohani was inaugurated as the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Previously, on June 14, the Iranians had voted overwhelmingly to elect him as president, already from the first round. The result was greeted with great elation on the streets of Iran, and with surprise in the West. But what does this election mean, and how did it come about?


For the past eight years, the Western media was dominated, in all things Iran, by the figure – at times grotesque, at times comical – of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the eyes of the media he stood for all things threatening or questionable about Iran’s Islamic government – and also, quite problematically, he stood for “Iran” itself. Yet this image neglected an important fact – that Ahmadinejad was only the President of Iran, namely the holder of an elected position limited to two mandates, of an office that is in no way the most important or influential one, in the Iranian political system.  “President” might sound like a grand title, but it is not. It is a position of power, indeed, but one of the many, in the intricate web of formal and informal institutions that constitute the Iranian political system.

At the heart and foundation of Iran’s political system are an originating event, a founding figure, and a grounding theory; respectively, the Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the ideology of velayat e-faqih. The Islamic Republic was founded as a result of a popular uprising against the brutal regime of the Shah, regime that had been established and maintained with the visible support of the governments of US and of Great Britain. Turning against this regime in 1979 was a broad coalition of varied forces, from Marxists to Islamists – and, of course, the population. Yet, no matter how wide the ideological range of those who rose against the Shah, the best organized and most prominent were the determined followers of the charismatic (previously exiled) leader, Khomeini. And after the removal of the Shah, they proceeded to swiftly purge the institutions of the state, and the country itself, from the competing revolutionary groups, and to establish a political system and a society that would be based on Khomeini’s own theory of government, the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (velayat e-faqih).

Most Iranians belong to Shia Islam, and more particularly to Twelver Shia Islam, whose peculiarity is that the believers live in expectation of the return of the twelfth Imam, a descendant from Muhammad’s line who was supposed to become the next leader of the Muslims, before he disappeared in the year 874 CE. This is very important because, following Muhammad’s model, the leader of the Muslims is supposed to be the leader in all aspects of life – including what concerns us, the political. This is in keeping with the fact that, within Islam, ideally there is no justifiable separation between the religious and the social, between what is known to be right and just, and what is practiced, in all aspects of life (even if historically these spheres became separated not very long after the Prophet’s death). Therefore, since the (religiously) legitimate ruler of the Shia Muslims, the Imam, is not present, the question emerges as to who can rule them, and under what circumstances, so that they can live in faithfulness to the Quran and to the Islamic traditions. While in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini sat down to formulate an answer to this question, and the resulting theory, velayat e-faqih, became thus the fundamental principle of the new socio-political arrangement. In its essence, it states that, until the return of the Twelfth Imam,  the community of the (Shia) Muslims is put under the “guardianship” of the “jurists”, namely under the temporary guidance and rule of the trained scholars and clerics who know best, through their vocation and education, how to interpret Islam and apply it to the challenges of the day. A fairly commonsensical solution, given the premises; yet a solution that is by no means accepted by all Shia clerics and scholars, a number of whom consider it an abuse or deformation of Islam; and rightly so, since who gave Khomeini the authority to establish such “rules of the game”?

And here comes the second of the aforementioned foundational elements of the Republic of Iran: the figure of Ruhollah Khomeini. His intellectual and concrete leadership in overturning the Shah’s regime and establishing a new one, and his day-to-day rule over the newly formed republic, with him as ultimate decision-maker in all matters social, political and religious, make Khomeini the founding father of the Iranian polity as we know it. He is the source of the original ideology of the state, and he is also the revolutionary leader who established the new Islamic state. One could compare his figure to those of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Catro or, more recently, Cesar Chavez; but also to the more appealing  figures of the Framers of the American republic, Konrad Adenauer, or Charles De Gaulle: people who have shaped the founding principles of a state both through their ideas and through their actions, their actual leadership.

Thirdly, the other original source of legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is the 1979 Revolution itself, namely the social and cultural re-action to the authoritarian regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Given that that regime had been established and propped up through the very active involvement of Western interests, namely of Great Britain and the United States, against the will and desires of a good part of the people (see the 1953 intervention), the Revolution itself, at least in some circles, had a pronounced anti-Western, anti-American and anti-British coloring, as they were turning against the Shah and his backers.

The relevance of the three foundational elements of the Islamic Republic presented above is neatly evidenced in the preamble to the Constitution of Iran (which embodies the “guardianship of the jurists” theory, although it does not mention it); and this Constitution, together with velayat e-faqih, constitute the basic principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.


To understand the role and relative importance of the presidential position, one needs to understand the system of institutions and functions that try to implement in reality the principles laid down in the Constitution and prescribed by the “guardianship of the jurists”. In keeping with the Islamic view of society, a polity will be moral and just only if it lives  in accordance with what is know to be true and right, namely the word and example of the Prophet, and the Islamic tradition. At the same time, within Islam, all believers are equal; even in religious matters, the “voice  of the people” can play a very important role. The Islamic Republic, therefore, is constituted so as to embody both these sources of legitimacy, and thus has two sets of institutions, one corresponding to each.

This situation is similar to that of other ideologically-grounded regimes, such as the People’s Republic of China. As the name states it, China is “the people’s republic”; accordingly, it has a set of institutions that is meant to make the people’s voice heard (the principle of representation), and also a parallel structure (the institutions of the Communist Party), which constitutes the ideological check on the system and on the representative institutions. Both in Iran and in China, the set of institutions that is more powerful is the one that provides the ideological leadership to the political system; accordingly, the representative institutions are weaker, and are kept in check (through the selection of candidates, or perhaps through sheer manipulation), so that they do not deviate from the ideological direction of the country.

It is worth noting here, perhaps, that such mechanisms or such an internal logic of the system are also found in what we consider to be liberal democracies. For example, in many countries the constitutional court is an unelected body that has the last say (or check) on the functioning and power of the representative institutions, based on a set of principles (or ideology) embodied in the founding principles (constitution, revolution) of that country. This is by no means a remark intended to create a false equivalency between the political systems of an Iran, a China, and a Germany, for example. It is however useful to understand the inner logic of a system, and to see that all these systems have a set of ideas at their basis, ideas which their supporters claim to embody the “truth” (i.e. the best form of government possible). The consensus today is that a form corresponding to the principles of representative democracy, freedom  (of speech, action, opinion), and what is broadly called “human rights”, is the optimal form of government, or what we usually call, in shorthand. “democracy”.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting President Putin

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting with President Putin

Returning to our discussion, it is relevant to note that, notwithstanding the similarities with China, the Iranian political system has a much stronger and more vocal “representative” component. Also, the ideological power is more diffused in Iran, within a range of formal and informal arrangements; unlike in China, where the Party’s institutions are more streamlined. But let us look at Iran.

At the top of the  political, social and religious structures of power in Iran is the Supreme Leader – currently, the Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei. Khamenei is only the second Leader after the founder, Khomeini. He was elected (since the Leader is elected by another institution) after the Khomeini’s death, in 1989, as a compromise candidate between various factions. Co-worker of Khomeini, he was President of Iran under him during the 1980s.

Immediately below the Leader, on the next rung of power, is the Council of Guardians. As the name suggests, this organ is at the heart of the system, expressing the idea of the guidance of the Islamic jurists over the direction of the society and of its institutions. Accordingly, the CoG has many powers, and a central role in making sure that both the institutions and the individual actors in the state follow the Quran and the Constitution. Of its twelve members, six are elected by the Parliament, and the other six are appointed by the Leader.

This being the heart of the ideological system, there are two other institutions that, although with more ideological rather than representative functions, are situated somewhere between the “democratic” (demos + cratos) and the “theocratic” dimensions of the system.

The Assembly of Experts is the institution that elects the Leader; again as illustrated by its name, this institution gathers people with theological studies (86 of them), who need to pass examinations in order to qualify; however, they are voted in by the population, through universal elections happening every ten years. As it is with most other elected positions in the system, however, the candidates are vetted and pre-selected by the Council of Guardians. It is interesting to note that theoretically the Assembly of Experts also possesses the power to dismiss the Leader, if found unfit.

The Expediency Council is a more recent institution, established not long before Khomeini’s death, and its role is to mediate the legislative and decision-making conflicts between the elected Parliament and the Council of Guardians. These being its formal roles, informally it is also an institution that gathers many of the most powerful individual actors in the Iranian polity: military leaders, top clerics, government ministers etc. Given that it is the Leader who appoints them to the EC, it can also be seen as a way for him to gather and maintain the informal support of the power players of the country.

On the “purely” representative side of the political system, Iran looks like a combination of a presidential and a parliamentary system. Its legislature is constituted by the unicameral parliament, the Majles, which is directly elected by the population, through universal suffrage, every four years.  Although both men and women can be members of Parliament (unlike in the institutions mentioned above), in order to run for election one needs to be a Muslim; there are however spots in the Majles that are reserved for the members of the religious minorities – Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians. In order to run for elections, the candidates need to be vetted by the CoG; and not all qualify. Nonetheless, the Parliament is a relatively powerful and active institution; it is after all the characteristic of any institution that, once formed, it tries to cut itself as large a slice of power as it possibly can.  Just like other parliaments, the Majles debates and passes laws, and is able to check on the government (executive); at times, it has not shied from passing decisions (which never became laws) trying to check on the power of the Council of Guardians.

The executive branch is constituted by the President (who is its head) and the Cabinet (ministers). The President is directly elected by the population, every four years, and is limited to two terms. Of course, the list of candidates for the presidency is first vetted by the Council of Guardians; some of the basic requirements are that the candidate be male, a Shia Muslim, and an ethnic Iranian (i.e. not an ethnic Kurd or Armenian, for example). The President shapes a good part of the policy (which makes him a relatively forceful head of government), but he does not have the last say over the overall direction of the country. For example, while he signs international agreements and appoints ambassadors, the general thrust of the external policy is in the hands of the Leader and of his circles of power. Most pointedly, given much of the West’s concerns, the President is only an executor, and not a shaper of policy,  in what regards Iran’s nuclear plans, The Cabinet functions as a “council of ministers”; its members are appointed by the President and are approved by Parliament.

The President (with his Cabinet) is essentially in charge with running the day-to-day business of government, but his appointments and initiatives need to be approved or passed by the Parliament, which can also remove Cabinet members. In this sense, given also the reality of a very activist Majles, one could say that governing power (on the “representative” side) is somewhat equally divided between legislature and executive. Their activity (meant to express the intentions of the people, and to benefit them) is ideologically checked for corresponding with the grounding philosophy of the regime: Islam and the legacy of the Revolution.

There are additional institutions, such as those necessary for maintaining order and control over the society and its institutions: the Army, the Police, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the judiciary, the judiciary’s secret police etc. As is to be expected, these are very large, numerous, and relatively secretive; and maintaining control over them is crucial. On the other hand, there are also quasi-nongovernmental (quango?) or para-statal organizations, with roots in the Iran’s social culture and its recent past. Such are the Foundation of the Disinherited, the Martyrs’ Foundation, the Foundation of the Oppressed; these are large, sprawling even “foundations” that fulfill social and economic functions. For example, they might distribute benefits to the veterans of the war between Iraq and Iran, which has left the deepest marks on Iranian society; on the other hand, they also have economic interests and activities so large that they are some of the main employers in the country.  These parastatal structures constitute therefore very important sources of patronage; and the last say over their activity and leadership belongs to the Leader. Another very influential social organization is that of the Friday Prayer Leaders. Having control over what and how is communicated to the population at the Friday prayer, given that within Islam there is no ecclesiastical hierarchy, and thus no institutional check over the clerics’ or scholars’ activity, is of course very important. Consequently, the ultimate influence over this body rests with the Leader.

Iran pol sys 10

It is important to have a picture of this network of formal or less formal institutions and relationships, in order to understand that to have and wield power in Iran is a not a simple, unidimensional challenge. After founding father and revolutionary leader Khomeini’s death, in the absence of his towering figure, the system had to negotiate a modus operandi, which in actuality looks like a sum of compromises and relationships between various centers of power. Even the fact that the current Leader, Khamenei, was initially a “compromise” and relatively non-threatening candidate illustrates that having and maintaining power in this system is not as simple or straightforward endeavor as it could seem. Here one can notice again some similarities with China, with the plays on and for power within the structures of the Communist Party. One needs to create a rely on a network of institutional, ideological and individual supporters, or interested actors – and the population itself is one of these actors. After all, no regime can survive a complete loss of legitimacy.


This is why it is very relevant and important that Hassan Rohani was elected so overwhelmingly, obtaining over 50% of the vote from the first round, and that his election was received with such a huge cheer by the population and the “reformist” forces . But it is perhaps even more significant that, of a field of candidates that initially included almost 700 names (anyone could register), the Council of Guardians, surely with the acknowledgment of the Leader, vetted and selected eight persons, one of whom was Rohani.  Thus let us take a look at the circumstances of his election, the interplay of the various influences, and the interesting profile of the newly-inaugurated Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, in the second part of our analysis.

[VIDEO: Raucous Rohani Campaign Meeting]


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