On February 26, Iran held two elections, one for parliament and the other for the Council of Experts. The former is Iran’s legislative body, and the latter is the part of government that monitors the Supreme Leader and selects his replacement if he dies, becomes incapacitated or is removed. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has not held these two elections simultaneously. The results favored moderate candidates and rejected the most hardline factions.
In this report, we will discuss the structure of the Iranian government, examine the results of the elections and analyze their impact. As always, we will conclude with market ramifications.
Iranian Elections – The Iranian Government
The Iranian government is structured around a rather confusing mix of democratic and theocratic elements, created by the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini. He created two distinct lines of authority, one that is elected by popular vote while the other is made up of clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader.
The latter consists of several groups; the most important of which (besides the Supreme Leader’s role) is the Guardian Council, which decides who is eligible to run for office. Conversely, the parliament is popularly elected. The Council of Experts is also popularly elected but its primary job is to supervise and appoint the Supreme Leader. In a sense, the Council of Experts straddles both branches of government; although its role is primarily in the clerical realm, it is an elected body.
The government’s highest power is an appointed Supreme Leader who is expected to be a high-ranking cleric. This leader manages foreign policy, acts as commander in chief, has the power to remove an elected president and sets the overall direction of domestic policy. The Supreme Leader is the ultimate voice of government under the basis of what Khomeini called the vel?yat-e faq?h, or the rule of the jurist. Khomeini’s view was that the government should be run according to Islamic law (sharia) as interpreted by the Supreme Leader. Khomeini created a separate clerical structure including the aforementioned Council of Experts, whose 88 members appoint the Supreme Leader and have the power to remove him if he the council deems he has strayed from sharia. As previously mentioned, this council is popularly elected.
At the same time, Khomeini wanted to create a public mandate for the government. Thus, he created an office of the president, a parliament and a Council of Ministers. These branches of government are designed to conduct the daily business of the government. Although the focus is domestic, the foreign minister, like all the ministers in the Council of Ministers, 1 is appointed by the president and serves at his pleasure. The president and parliament are elected by popular vote and thus fulfill a mandate from the people.
1 Similar to the U.S. cabinet.
Khomeini’s government structure fosters tension. The Supreme Leader has tremendous power to guide policy in Iran. At the same time, he lacks a popular mandate; the Supreme Leader’s mandate, in theory, comes from God. However, Khomeini wanted to give the Iranian people some voice in their governance. The Supreme Leader needs the president and the parliament to give him public support; the president and parliament need the Supreme Leader to give the government religious legitimacy. That doesn’t mean the president and the Supreme Leader always get along; in fact, there aren’t always clear lines of authority on various issues. For example, in the nuclear negotiations, the foreign minister, appointed by the president, ran the negotiations but he could not stray too far from the wishes of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who sets foreign policy. So far, the Iranian government has mostly functioned even with these clear conflicts of authority. However, there have only been seven presidents2 and two Supreme Leaders.
The tensions within government may lead to a revolution at some point, but since 1979, the Iranian government’s structure has held together under very stressful conditions, including the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, longstanding economic sanctions, election protests, the Arab Spring and wars in neighboring countries, including Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan. The system Khomeini created may appear disjointed to a Western observer, but it will probably remain stable for the foreseeable future.
The Iranian Elections
Western media tends to use terms familiar to its readers, such as “conservative” and “liberal.” For the Iranian elections, these descriptions are probably too broad to be of much help. Instead, the following four categories offer a better depiction of the political factions in Iran.3
Hardline Conservatives: Members of this group are both socially and religiously conservative. They are uncomfortable with markets, desire strict control of the media and want restraint of social interaction between men and women. But perhaps the most important political characteristic is that they are not comfortable with democracy and view the elected parts of government as merely consultative. In other words, they would argue that Khomeini gave too much power to elected officials and want more autocratic rule for the Supreme Leader. They oppose almost all interaction with the West, not only fearing its economic and military power but they are also concerned about Western mores undermining desired social conventions.
Traditional Conservatives: These members are similar to Hardline Conservatives except that they are more open to the West, have ties to the merchant classes in Iran and are more faithful to Khomeini’s position on the role of the Supreme Leader. Khamenei resides in this category.