Islamic Republic of Iran


By Frederick W. Kagan

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a revolutionary theocratic state formed in 1979 following the overthrow of the last Shah (monarch), Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the leader of the revolution and then of the Islamic Republic until his death in 1989. Khomeini had long opposed the increasingly secular rule of the Shah, for which the Shah exiled him in 1964 first to Turkey and then to Najaf in Iraq. In Najaf, Khomeini perfected the religious philosophy that is the basis of the current Iranian regime. In particular, he established the principle that the only legitimate ruler over a Muslim state is the jurisprudent best qualified to interpret the Qu’ran, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) and of the First Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the traditional behavior of the early Muslim communities (see Islam). This principle, known in Iran as the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (velayat-e faqih), is an extension of some elements of the Shi’i sect of Islam, but it is not generally accepted outside of Iran. Even within Iran, the only other Grand Ayatollah to accept the principle before the revolution was Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who was to become Khomeini’s designated successor until 1988. The Shi’i clerical establishment in Najaf in particular never accepted this principle, which remains largely unpopular in Iraq. Very few Sunni Muslims have ever accepted it.

Flag of Iran (Photo by “Pumbaa80”, available at Wikimedia Commons)

The idea that the ruler of the state must be the person best qualified to interpret Islam and enforce Muslim law upon the people is enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic, which vests full power in the jurisprudent (faqih) at its head in the position commonly known as “Supreme Leader” (currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor). The Supreme Leader is selected (and could theoretically be removed for misbehavior) by a group of jurisprudents known as the Assembly of Experts. Citing Qu’ranic verses enjoining the consultation of the entire Muslim community (the ‘Umma) in governance, the constitution also establishes a parliament known formally as the Islamic Consultative Assembly. The parliament has the authority to pass “ordinary” laws, i.e. those relating to the normal conduct of state business, but all laws and decisions of the parliament must be approved by the Guardian Council (a separate group of twelve jurisprudents) to ensure that they adhere not only to the constitution but also to Islamic law and tradition as interpreted by the Supreme Leader. In 1989, a new body was formed to mediate disagreements between the parliament and the Guardian Council, known as the Expediency Council.

The constitution also provides for a directly-elected president (currently Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), but the statutory powers of this position are relatively weak. The president does not have the right to veto legislation approved by the parliament. He nominates ministers and can dismiss them, but the parliament must approve all nominations and can remove ministers by a vote of no-confidence as well. The president is not by law the commander-in-chief of the military forces of the Islamic Republic. That role is reserved for the Supreme Leader, although it has been delegated on occasion to the president at the Supreme Leader’s discretion. The Supreme Leader commands not only the regular armed forces of the state but also the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a body established by the constitution for the purpose of “guarding the [1979] Revolution and its achievements.”

The Islamic Republic of Iran is, thus, a theocracy with consultative bodies. Absolute power in all matters rests formally with the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council (half of whose members the Supreme Leader selects; the others are selected by the parliament from a list of qualified candidates prepared by the head of the judiciary, himself appointed by the Supreme Leader). The influence of the president and parliament on affairs depends by law largely on the willingness of the Supreme Leader to permit it. In practice other considerations affect the relative power and importance of various individuals within the Iranian government. Individuals with strong power bases of their own, like former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former IRGC commander Major General Mohsen Reza’i, and the current speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, can distort the formal structures, drawing greater influence into the offices they hold. In general terms, the Supreme Leader and his subordinates in the military establishment have kept control of Iranian foreign policy largely in their own hands, while the influence of the president, ministers, and parliament has been much more significant in internal, especially economic, affairs. 

Inside the Mosque of Sharif University, Tehran (Phtoto by “Hessam”, available at Wikimedia Commons)

Both Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have normally worked to maintain balance among the various power groups within Iran and avoided siding with one against the others, although there have been exceptions. The Supreme Leader almost never uses his statutory powers to impose policies or decisions upon the system, relying instead on more discrete statements and actions to guide the decision-making process to the desired endstate. The system is designed to give the Supreme Leader a sort of plausible deniability with regard to any particular policy and its outcome, shielding him and his position from the repercussions of policy failures. Both Khomeini and Khamenei have shown a great degree of willingness to accept the loss of arbitrary power and control required by such a system in return for the protection it has afforded them.

The official religion of the Islamic Republic of Iran is “Twelver” Shi’ism. The religious principles supporting the organization and structure of the theocracy are very much Shi’i in origin. They are not only alien, but even heretical to most mainstream Sunni Muslims. The Islamic Republic of Iran, nevertheless, explicitly aims to support and lead the entire Muslim world including both Sunnis and Shi’is. Thus Article 11 of the Constitution, citing Qu’ranic verse, declares: “all Muslims form a single nation, and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has the duty of formulating its general policies with a view to cultivating the friendship and unity of all Muslim peoples, and it must constantly strive to bring about the political, economic, and cultural unity of the Islamic world.” Article 12 enjoins the respecting of different schools of Muslim religious thought (including the major Sunni schools) within Iran (in the manner of the Ottoman Empire, which tolerated diversity within its Muslim community in a similar fashion). The constitution also grants religious freedom to Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians—but only to those groups, thus excluding other religious minorities such as the Baha’i—again in the manner of the Ottoman Empire. The implementation of this legal toleration is more than occasionally problematic in actual practice. In both theory and law, however, the Shi’a Iranian theocracy not only faces no obstacles to cooperating with Sunni states or groups, but is enjoined to do so in its founding principles.