Media Guide: Iran's Government Structure

By Research Fellow Gabriela Billini

Iran’s government structure can be difficult for foreigners to understand. In part, this is due to the intrinsic complexity of Iran’s system, which some argue is due to the combination of modern institutions (like the Majles and Assembly of Experts) with pre-modern ones (like the Supreme Leader).[1] [2].

While this dual nature of Iranian government has contributed to the confusion, a lack of media coverage in the West is also part of the problem. Western media has a mixed record with coverage of the Iranian government – at times covering the democratic process in Iran (as it did recently in the 2017 Presidential elections), but at others, portraying Iran as a dictatorship run by the Supreme Leader. This is unfortunate since understanding Iran’s government structure and process for decision making is crucial in order to interpret the government’s actions and policy positions. With this guide, we hope to provide some foundational information about each government body, its powers, the democratic forces that underlie its authority, and the extent of religious influence in each branch.


The Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini after months of collective uprisings by the Iranian people against Muhammed Reza Shah, then the ruling Shah of Iran. Shortly after the establishment of the Republic, a draft Constitution passed in a public referendum on December 3rd, 1979 by 65% of the voters. Despite this broad support, the final Constitution that was ratified by the elected Assembly of Experts differed from the first and included Ayatollah Khomeini’s political doctrine of velayat-e faqih.[3] Velayat- faqih is critical to understanding the structure of the Iranian government because it is the model Khomeini used to explain and justify religious figures entering the sphere of politics, which is atypical in Shi'a Islam. It also provides purpose and meaning of the seat of the Supreme Leader. Prior to the Islamic Revolution, ayatollahs were quietists in political life. [4] To change the role of the ayatollahs, velayat-e faqih becomes the legitimizing factor for such a break in Shi’a clerical tradition.

The doctrine states that in the absence of the hidden twelfth Imam, a cleric trained in Islamic law has the divine authority to guide the Iranian people in the different realms of life – religious, social, and political leadership. The cleric’s authority is not the equivalent of the imam; rather, it is just enough to operate the government, administrate the country, and implement the sacred laws of the Sharia. When the hidden Twelfth Imam returns, he will guide the Shi’as in all the aforementioned matters and the cleric will be relieved of his duties. Velayat-e faqih grants the Supreme Leader the right to lead both the state and its people under the state-controlled interpretation of Shiism.[5]

■         Supreme Leader

As a result of the velayat-e faqih model, the Supreme Leader is the religious guide over the Islamic Republic of Iran in all forms. This is the highest position in the government, although the holder of the office is not democratically elected. The Supreme Leader is appointed and supervised by the Assembly of Experts described below.

In addition to the authority provided to the Supreme Leader under velayat-e faqih, the Constitution further requires the Supreme Leader to have broad oversight over political policies. Specifically, it tasks the Supreme Leader with issuing decrees for referenda, for acting as commander in chief of the armed forces, having the capability of declaring war, peace and when to mobilize the troops, and appointing and dismissing a select number of members in government. The Supreme Leader also evaluates candidates in the presidential race and may dismiss the president of the Islamic Republic given certain criteria (such as not abiding by Islamic law while holding office).

Under the original Constitution of 1979, the Supreme Leader was required to hold marja status – a grand ayatollah who is seen as the highest authority in Shi’a Islam and is deemed by the Shi’a community across the world as a source of emulation of the hidden Twelfth Imam that should be followed by all. However, in July 1989 the constitution was amended, removing the requirement of marja status of the Supreme Leader, and therefore paving the way for Ali Khamenei – a close ally of Ayatollah Khomeini - to succeed Khomeini.

Ali Khamenei had been closely involved in the Revolution.  At the time, he had been a cleric working against the Shah and had helped bring Khomeini’s doctrine into Iran while he was in exile in Iraq and later France.[6] After the Revolution, Khamenei was appointed as deputy defense minister under Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. Later, he would be elected president of the Republic in 1981, and then as the second Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1989. Khomeini vouched for Khamenei as his successor, despite debates over Khamenei’s authority since he did not yet hold marja status. In a meeting of the Assembly of Experts the day after Khomeini’s death in 1989, the now late Ayatollah Rafsanjani announced that Khomeini viewed Khamenei as qualified for the job. Following this recommendation, the Assembly elected Khamenei by a 60 to 14 vote.

Politically speaking, the Supreme Leader has considerable influence over local elections. Given his role in screening candidates for elected positions, he effectively has control over which policy positions may be voiced and debated leading up to elections.   It is worth noting, however, that there are limitations to the Supreme Leader’s power over the elections, as evidenced in the recent 2017 presidential election. Khamenei’s preferred candidate was Ebrahim Raisi, a populist hardliner eager to promote Khamenei’s message. Raisi’s loss to incumbent Rouhani provides evidence that although there is strong vetting of the candidates approved to run for the presidency, the Supreme Leader does not control the ultimate results.

■         Guardian Council

The Guardian Council is made up of 12 experts of Islamic law, each holding six-year terms. According to article 91 of the Constitution, six of the members in the Guardian Council are nominated by the head of the Judiciary {himself appointed by the Supreme Leader} and elected by the Majlis, the other six are appointed by the Supreme Leader, theoretically providing him significant influence in the Council’s work. Those appointed to this office typically come from the more conservative side of the political spectrum given their religious background; as a result, they are inclined to support a more conservative agenda. The Constitution tasks the Council with screening all candidates seeking election to the Majles, Presidency, or Assembly of Experts, prior to review by the Supreme Leader. The Council is also able to interpret the Constitution and must approve all legislation passed by the Majles in order to ensure its compatibility with Islamic law. In addition, the Council is responsible for supervising all elections.

Since the Supreme Leader appoints half of the Council, and since the Council is responsible for screening Presidential and Majles candidates and ensuring legislation is compatible with Islamic law, the Supreme Leader therefore has an indirect, but heavy hand over the legislative agenda and on who will be elected to the executive office. For example, during the 2017 presidential election, the Guardian Council rejected former President Ahmadinejad’s application to run for president after Ayatollah Khamenei explicitly warned him not to. The rejection demonstrates the Supreme Leader’s influence in the screening process.

■         Majles (Islamic Consultative Assembly)

The Majles is the legislative body of the Islamic Republic; it has 290 representatives, each with a 4-year term. The members are directly elected by the people after they are vetted by the Guardian Council. To pass the vetting process to run for a Majles seat, a potential candidate must fulfill certain requirements, such as holding a master’s degree and demonstrating certain good character and religious commitments. While screening candidates for the Majles in May of this year, the Council implemented a new restriction, announcing that non-Muslim candidates are not eligible to run and later represent Shi’a-majority areas. Religious minorities elect their own Majlis members to represent their “community” (two Armenian Christians, one Jewish, and one Zoroastrian member of the Majlis).

The members of the Majles are responsible for enacting legislation that is both democratic and guided by Islamic jurisprudence. The candidates to the Majles swear under oath, “to protect the sanctity of Islam and guard the accomplishments of the Islamic Revolution of the Iranian people and the foundations of the Islamic Republic”. Each member must respect the laws of the nation, influenced by Islam, but are not required to pass laws that are religious in nature. Whether they support legislation with religious elements depends on their own political agenda and those tied to their political parties. In sum, the Majles body is not a religious one. It is equivalent to parliament (House of Representatives) in other countries.

Outside of passing legislation, some of the responsibilities of the Majles include inquiring about the state of the nation, ratifying international treaties and agreements, and debating important governmental issues at the request of the Executive cabinet. The Majles also has the power to approve (or deny) cabinet appointments and begin the procedures for impeachment for the president, without any other body becoming involved. It shows particular strength through its oversight of the Executive branch. Its weakness comes from (a) its inability to pass legislation without review by the Guardian Council, and (b) its inability to investigate government bodies that are under the domain of the Supreme Leader (e.g., the Guardian Council, Expediency Council, and Assembly of Experts). Also, there are several quasi-governmental institutions, such as foundations and other economic and cultural bodies, controlled by the Supreme Leader and agencies under his supervision that neither Majlis (legislative branch) nor president (executive branch) have any control over.

The Majles is an important body because it is the primary open space in which the country’s most critical debates take place. In a government that is otherwise dominated by the authority of the Supreme Leader, the Majles is free to discuss topics as broad-ranging and vital to society as the extent and importance of religion in Iranian politics.

As described above, any legislation approved by the Majles is subject to Guardian Council approval.  To date, the Council has not been shy about using its veto power. For example, under Khatami, in 2002, the Majles attempted to reduce the Guardian Council’s powers. This measure was naturally vetoed by the Council. Throughout the years of Khatami’s presidency (1999-2005), the Council rejected many of the measures reformists passed towards expanding women’s rights.

In sum, the Majles is an independent and elected body, able to act without direction from the Supreme Leader. However, its candidates are vetted with direction from the Supreme Leader, it is ultimately barred from overseeing the bodies he oversees, and all of their legislations must be approved by the religious Guardian Council.

■         Executive Office

The president is the second highest official in the country after the Supreme Leader, and the highest-ranking official in any of the three elected offices (the Executive Office, Majles, and Assembly of Experts). The president is elected by a popular vote, though all candidates are vetted by the Guardian Council before elections are held.

Some of the responsibilities of the president are to appoint his own cabinet positions (pending Majles approval) such as the Ministries of Finance, Defense, Culture and the Foreign Ministry, and to sign into legislation any laws passed by the Majles. He also has the power to enter the nation into international treaties and agreements, independent of the legislative body or the Supreme Leader, albeit subject to overall approval by the Supreme Leader, as well as domestic planning and budgeting. Despite the president’s considerable power, any of his decisions and actions can be rejected by the Supreme Leader at any time if he believes a policy or action does not align with the model of the Islamic Republic.

There are other unofficial criteria that define who is eligible for presidency, including gender (no woman has been approved as a candidate), lack of celebrity status, and having prior political or military experience. Furthermore, presidential candidates must be deemed to be personally devout to Shia Islam, (though they need not ultimately base their policy decisions on religious grounds).

Presidential elections are held every four years, and voter turnout is consistently high.  85% of eligible voters cast their ballots in 2009 and 70% of eligible voters voted in the most recent election in 2017. The reelection of former President Ahmadinejad in 2009 elicited controversy and gave rise to the Green Movement protests because of claims that the election had been rigged by the Supreme Leader. The challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, garnered just 33.8% of the vote, which struck him (and many in the public) as surprisingly low; he therefore claimed fraud in a letter to the Guardian Council, asking for the results to be cancelled. While Khomeini allowed an investigation, the election results remained and the public expressed its frustration with widespread protests.

■         The Iranian Army and Revolutionary Guard

The branch of government tasked with ensuring the security of the nation is comprised of the Army, the Revolutionary Guard and law enforcement.  The difference between the Army and the Revolutionary Guard is that the former protects the territorial integrity of the nation, while the latter is the protector of the Islamic Revolution. The Revolutionary Guards were formed at the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, while the army was reorganized and purged of its high ranking officers. They both report directly to the Supreme Leader.

Directed by the Supreme Leader, the Armed Forces in Iran have little to no direct communication with the Foreign Ministry, which implements policy for the executive branch.  This presents an unusual situation where the country can at times appear to have two different foreign policies:  the policy of the Supreme Leader/Armed Forces and the policy of the Executive branch and Foreign Ministry.    This is one of the reasons why the elected branches of government sometimes see rifts form between their stated policy agenda and actions carried out by the military. For example, the decisions of the Supreme Leader to become involved in the proxy wars across the Middle East are not necessarily the policies of the Executive branch, leaving them to accept those foreign involvements and incorporate them into their own policies.

Today, the Revolutionary Guard has sizeable investments in the economy, particularly regarding the regulation of smuggled goods. The IRGC is also heavily involved in the socio-political sphere, with former members running and being elected to seats in the Majles, allowing them to gain political power and help define and strengthen the IRGC’s involvement in government and society. The IRGC is also seen as a tool to oppress threats and challenges directed at the regime. They do this by silencing journalists, writers, dissenters, and opposition at large, including the 2009 Green Movement.[7]

■         Judiciary

The Judiciary is a separate branch of government in Iran, tasked with ensuring that all laws are compliant with and properly executed in accordance with Islamic law.  The Judiciary is also responsible for nominating six of the 12 members of the Guardian Council (the other six are nominated by the Supreme Leader). The head of the Judiciary is appointed by the Supreme Leader for a five-year term, and oversees all the lower courts in Iran. Despite overseeing this independent branch of government, his appointment by the Supreme Leader leads some to believe that the Judiciary and also the makeup of the Guardian Council (half of which is nominated by the Judiciary) is affected by this close relationship.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, this body is one of the most important in ensuring Islam remains the guiding principle of the state and its operations. For example, after the Islamic Republic was established, the Judiciary reversed the civil and criminal codes in order to model Sharia law. It is this same body that at times gets an increased amount of media coverage in the West when it rules something is un-Islamic such as models or athletes, with women being the typical targets. The major concern of many human rights organizations regarding the Judiciary is that it follows a set of laws that are purposefully vague, giving it the freedom to categorize virtually any act as un-Islamic. As the highest court of the land, it is autonomous in its rulings, but is subject to examination by the media.

There are many human rights abuse claims against Iran by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in part due to some of the Judiciary’s decisions, as well as government’s tolerance of public hangings and lashings as a means for punishment under Sharia law.

■         Assembly of Experts

Directly elected by the people every eight years, the Assembly of Experts – comprised of 88 Islamic jurists based in Qom - is a key branch of government, with its most important responsibility being to appoint the Supreme Leader. Though it has only exercised this power once before, the makeup of the Assembly is particularly important given the oversized role that the Supreme Leader has in the Islamic Republic.  While elected by the people, the Assembly is – as with other elected positions –vetted before the elections and only comprised of Islamic jurists. In addition to its role in appointing the next Supreme Leader, the Assembly is also responsible for monitoring the Supreme Leader, ensuring his consistent capacity for the position and is also capable of removing him, should he not present himself as the proper leader for the Islamic Republic.

The Assembly meets just twice a year, and their involvement in Iranian politics is marginal. However, given the current Supreme Leader Khamenei’s age and health, the role of the Assembly and its members is becoming increasingly relevant. It will be an important and historic moment for Iran when a new Supreme Leader will be chosen, with the Assembly at the center of this important decision

■         Expediency Council

The Expediency Council consists of 39 members some appointed by the Supreme Leader and others ex-officio (president, head of judiciary, speaker of Majlis, clergy members of Guardian Council). Its primary role is to act as the mediator between the Majles and the Guardian Council in disputes over legislation. In its mediation, the Council often sides with the Guardian Council, given their clerical and conservative background. However, the Council also acts as an advisory board to the Supreme Leader. Since 2005, the Supreme Leader has expanded the role of the Expediency Council, granting it the right to supervise all branches of government. This expansion of power is seen by many as a way to extend the Supreme Leader’s own power and has been controversial. For example, former President Khatami insisted during his presidency that the Expediency Council should try to reflect the view of the electorate and less so the views of the Supreme Leader.

The late former President Rafsanjani was the chair of the Expediency Council; a position which is temporarily occupied by M.A. Movahedi Kermani, another hardline clergy.                


As this paper demonstrates, the Iranian government system is complex. There are some bodies that are modern and fit the Western image of a democratic model, but other aspects of the government are based on the Islamic-influenced government structure that existed before the Pahlavi Dynasty. All governments, Iran included, face the pressures of a modern world and the necessity to adapt.[8]  

While the Iranian system of government is complex and comprised up of an unusual combination of modern and pre-modern bodies, we hope this guide has helped clarify each body’s role. As the recent presidential elections reminded the world, some aspects of the government in Iran are modern and democratic directly elected by the people, while others are appointed by elected officials and the Supreme Leader. In fact, three of the government bodies are directly elected by the Iranian people – the Assembly of Experts, the President and the Majles; together, these make up the democratic model in the theocratic democracy of Iran. Although the Supreme Leader exercises significant influence over most branches of government and essentially has the last word on all policy matters, the Iranian public does have a real voice in the process by voting for candidates to represent them.

Additionally - while the Islamic Republic is a theocracy and the highest branches of government enact policy based on religious guidance, the bodies that affect the public on a day-to-day basis – the Majles and the President – are, in fact, secular.


[1] Ghorashi, Reza. Manuscript pending publication entitled, "Significance of Iran’s 2017 Presidential Elections."

[2] Civil society, as a combination of secular non-governmental institutions and norms that protect individual against state power, is basically a modern phenomenon. In pre-modern societies, it is religious institutions who carry this function. In Iran, it was the Shia clergy and its institutions who played this role and managed daily affairs of the public prior to the Constitutional Revolution of 1907. Afterwards, particularly under Pahlavi dynasty, they were replaced by modern institutions.

[3] Laura Secor, Children of Paradise. Page 38.

[4] The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics. Page 181.

[5] Parvin Paidar. Page 227.

[6] Laura Secor. Children of Paradise. Page 16.

[7] Alfoneh. Page 73.

[8] Ghorashi, Reza. Manuscript pending publication entitled, "Significance of Iran’s 2017 Presidential Elections."