Iranian Government Structure
At the top of Iran's power structure is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's Supreme Leader and highest authority, with the power to set the tone and direction of Iran's domestic and foreign policies. The Supreme Leader is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and controls Iran's intelligence and security operations; he alone can declare war or peace. Khamenei's predecessor was Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, father of the Iranian Revolution, and the two men are the only to hold the office of Supreme Leader since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
The second-highest rank in the Iranian political structure is the president, a post held as of early 2012 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected into office in June 2005 and reelected in 2009. The president has a high public profile, but his influence is tempered by the constitution, which subordinates the entire executive branch to the Supreme Leader. The president is responsible for setting the Islamic Republic's economic policies and has nominal rule over the Supreme National Security Council and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, but in practice all matters of foreign and domestic security are dictated by the Supreme Leader. Under the president serves a cabinet of 22 ministers, which must be approved by the Iranian parliament.
Iran's Parliament, or Majles, is a unicameral legislative body whose 290 members are publicly elected every four years. It drafts legislation, ratifies international treaties, and approves the country's budget. The parliament is held in check by the Council of Guardians, a body of 12 jurists, six of which are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Council of Guardians is vested with the authority to interpret the constitution and determines if laws passed by the parliament are in line with Islamic law, giving the council effective veto power over the parliament.
Power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei
Since Ahmadinejad rose to the office of president in 2005, an increasingly contentious power struggle has exposed a rift within Iran's political elite, especially between the ambitious Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Some observers point to the 2009 presidential elections — which were widely accused of being rigged, prompted months of street protests, and damaged Khamenei's support among the public and the political elite — as a reason for the increasing bitterness between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. According to the New York Times conservatives in Iran also feel threatened by Ahmadinejad's vision of an Iran less dominated by clerics and his efforts to build an independent power base.
Several episodes in 2011 served to strengthen the impression of a rift growing between Iran's president and Supreme Leader. In April of that year, Ahmadinejad crossed a line by openly feuding with Khamenei over cabinet appointments. Tensions were again raised in October 2011, when Iran's domestic politics were struck by a massive banking scandal. An estimated $2.6 billion were found to be missing from several of Iran's largest banks, and implicated in the scandal were some of Ahmadinejad's closest advisors. According to the website Tehran Bureau, the hardliners around Khamenei made persistent attempts to link the scandal to Ahmadinejad's group. Also in October, Khamenei made waves when he suggested that the position of president be eliminated. Though some observers interpreted this as more of a rhetorical slap on Ahmadinejad's wrist than a serious proposal, it served to further polarise the political elite. For example Ali Larijani, the speaker of Parliament and a rival to Ahmadinejad, endorsed Khamenei's comments, while former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who when in office had had a contentious relationship with Khamenei, warned that eliminating the presidency would contradict Iran's constitution.
Clashes between, and limited powers of, president and parliament
The relationship between the Iranian president and parliament is also unusual among modern states, according to the American Enterprise Institute. The president lacks the power a president is traditionally vested with: in addition to his subordination to the Supreme Leader, the president and his ministers are accountable to the parliament. Parliament can require the president or his ministers to attend its sessions and answer questions, and can remove ministers if it chooses. The parliament has repeatedly clashed with Ahmadinejad over key policy issues, notably in June 2011, when Ahmadinejad illegally declared himself caretaker oil minister after dismissing Massoud Mirkazemi from the post. The president's taking personal control of the oil ministry was seen by some in Iran's conservative parliament as a power grab that could "undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran's interests on the international level", according to a legislative report. The parliament voted to take Ahmadinejad to court for taking over the ministry, reflecting the escalating power struggle between the president and the hard-line conservative establishment dominating the parliament. Ahmadinejad faced further trouble from the parliament when 50 lawmakers signed a petition to summon the president to parliament to answer questions. Though the number fell short of the one-quarter of Parliament required for such an action, the petition highlighted a long list of accusations against the president, including his refusal to carry out laws passed by parliament, withdrawing money from state funds without authorisation and his alleged lack of spending transparency.
Despite its leverage over the president, the parliament does not have the powers that characterise most modern legislatures. The most basic function of a legislature is to control the government's finances. While the Majles has similar powers outlined in the constitution, a large proportion of Iran’s wealth — possibly as much as 35% of its gross domestic product — is tied up in several large religious-charitable foundations called bonyads, according to the American Enterprise Institute. The Supreme Leader appoints the heads of these foundations, which are accountable to neither the parliament, the ministries, nor the president. The largest of these is the Foundation of the Oppressed and War Veterans (Bonyad e-Mostazafan va Janbazan, or MJF), whose affiliates are involved in domestic economic areas such as agriculture, construction, industries, mining, transportation, commerce, and tourism. Since 1991, the MJF has invested in energy, business, engineering, and agricultural activities in Europe, Russia, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
A brittle stability
The effect of this organisation of the Iranian government is to limit the ability of any individual or branch of government to pose a serious threat to the authority of the Supreme Leader. As the American Enterprise Institute points out, though, the Supreme Leader's preeminence does not mean that the president or the council can be ignored. The system is designed to promote stability first and foremost, intended to keep the Supreme Leader above the political fray. However, the increasingly bitter struggle between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad causes friction within the Iranian political establishment and, according to Ray Takeyh at the Council on Foreign Relations in late 2011, the machinery of government in Iran is in increasing danger of breaking down.
- "The Structure of Power in Iran" Iran Chamber Society, Retrieved 18 January 2012.
- "Ahmadinejad wins Iran presidential election" BBC News, Retrieved 13 June 2009.
- "Iran’s Power Struggle Goes Beyond Personalities to Future of Presidency Itself" New York Times, 26 October 2011.
- "Iran's Largest Banks Swindled Out Of $2.6 Billion" National Public Radio, 27 October 2011.
- "Political Structures of Iran" AEI Iran Tracker, Retrieved 18 January 2012.
- "Iran parliament: Ahmadinejad violated law by declaring himself oil minister" Haaretz.com, 1 June 2011.
- "Under pressure, Iran president names new oil chief" Fuel Fix, 3 June 2011.
- "Iran’s Economic Conditions: U.S. Policy Issue" Congressional Research Service, 15 January 2012.