There is a great deal of talk in the Western media about the anti-democratic or non-democratic nature of the Iranian government. It is surely not the kind of liberal democracy that many in the West think they would like to see in Iran, but it is neither a closed society or a dictatorship. It is important to understand the system before we attempt to support its opponents or to open a dialogue with the country’s leaders. Let us take a brief look. Later blogs will apply this look to what has been happening recently.
Iran’s Constitution provides for one of the most complex systems of government that I am acquainted with. It is a mixture of elected and unelected officials with some interesting twists. It has both formal and informal aspects.
At the top is the Head of State (currently Khamenei: this position is also referred to as Guardian Jurisprudent, or Supreme Leader). Elected by the Assembly of Experts, he may be dismissed at any time by that body. Aside from this, he has broad and nearly unlimited powers. He is Supreme Commander of the military, appoints the head of the judicial branch, declares war and peace, and can call for a mobilization. He also appoints the Guardian Council, a branch in some ways equivalent to a Senate.
The Assembly of Experts consists of 86 Mojtahids or religious scholars popularly elected for eight-year terms. They “oversee” the Head of State and may dismiss him at any time. Since they are popularly elected, the head of state is himself indirectly elected and overseen by elected persons.
The Guardian Council oversees and vets all candidates to national office, or to the Assembly of Experts. Six members are clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six are lawyers proposed by the head of the judiciary and approved by parliament. The Assembly of Experts, the Guardian Council, and the Head of State must all be generally accepted religious leaders (or “experts in religious law”, in a law-centered religious system). It must approve all laws passed by parliament before they become law.
Parliament is elected on the national level from single and multi-member districts. It makes the laws or at least passes on them.
The Expediency Discernment Council is meant to mediate disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council when they cannot agree on legislation. Its 34 members are directly appointed by the Head of State.
The National Security Council was established after the basic structure. Its functions are rather similar to those of the NSC in the American system, but it appears to have higher status. It is concerned with national security policies understood very broadly. Its members include the heads of executive, legislative and judicial branches, the head of the armed forces, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Intelligence, as well as appointees of the Head of State (who apparently also selects the head of the NSC).
The President (currently Ahmadinejad) is directly elected, although again candidates must be vetted. His powers are quite limited. In theory, he is head of government, appoints ambassadors and proposes cabinet officers to the parliament. He appoints governors, but he no longer appoints mayors. He must approve all legislation and is automatically head of the National Security Council.
Below the national level, local and village councils are also elective.
While formally, it would seem the system is completely under the thumb of the Shiite hierarchy, for several reasons this is not as decisive as might be thought. First, there is no Shiite hierarchy comparable to that of a tight organizations such as the Mormon or Catholic churches. There are a large number of religious figures with sufficient standing in the religious world to be considered for government positions. Each with his own lay and clerical following. Some of these mujtahids are highly regarded throughout the Shi’a world, such as Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf. (Incidentally, Sistani who has long disapproved of the Iranian system has his own following in Iran, people who regularly teach and propagandize in his favor among clerical students) These men range from highly conservative to relatively liberal. Sometimes they reach consensus, but not always. Secondly, although many people, clerics or not, are not allowed to run for office because of the vetting process, in recent elections, the candidates standing for parliament, local positions, or the Assembly of Experts have represented many different constituencies, with positions from right to left. There is also a quite active public opinion with many outlets within Iran, especially now with the internet. What the general public believes evidently affects the thinking of the Head of State, a man who by inclination or the nature of the system is a far cry from being a dictator.