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Why Iranian Politics Is So Hard To Understand

Analyzing Iranian politics is a hard thing to do. The analysts have tried again and again to predict things the right way, but they have failed. The Iranian people and the regime have manged to take everyone by surprise time and time again. Also, on the part of most western media and readers a complete lack of understanding and simplistic generalizations is seen – many times those simplistic generalizations are perpetrated by Iranians themselves who should know better. In this post I aim to clarify the situation a little bit, and to show you what really makes Iranian politics difficult to understand, and how this knowledge should stop you from hasty generalizations.

This is important to you – the western reader – because Iran, like it or not, is a force to be reckoned with, a major player in the region, and the policies that your governments adopt regarding it will greatly influence your life as well.

Iranian politics is hard to understand on two levels – the complex structure and the complex reality on the ground.

Let’s take a look at the structure, as it is written in the constitution. Take a look at this chart that has appeared on some corners of the internet:

2- how-iran-political-system-works-infographic - NDI

As you can see, the Supreme Leader, who has to be a clergy, is above everyone else. He directly controls the armed forces, the mosques network, and the public television and radio. He also directly appoints the head of the judiciary, one of the three branches of the government. Of course, this chart doesn’t show that the armed forces are actually three major parts. The regular army which is tasked to defend the sovereignty of the nation, the Revolutionary Guard which is a parallel army with its own land, air, and navy forces which is tasked to defend the regime itself, and the basij, a militia which attacks the regime opponents and stops people and harasses those who don’t comply with the Islamic code.

The Supreme Leader also appoints the Guardian Council. There are six clerics and six lawyers, who filter those who can run for elected office and also monitors the laws passed by the parliament. They officially do not let anyone opposed to the regime or the Supreme Leader run for office, but they sometimes also bar reformists and even moderate conservatives. They filter the candidates for the president, the parliament, and the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly of the Experts is a body of clerics who appoint the Supreme Leader and also monitor him. Now, since these clerics are filtered by the Guardian Council, appointed by the Supreme Leader, there’s a vicious cycle in which the Supreme Leader decides who should monitor him.

Now, so far you are introduced to the structure of the regime.But the truth is, actually the reality is much different and complex than this system in itself.

On paper, the elected president should have the power to control the economy. But in reality, the Supreme Leader has established an economic empire for himself, which is even greater than the national budget, and his economic empire was actually enriched by the sanctions, while ordinary people suffered and the government ran out of money and a stagflation crippled it. The Revolutionary Guard also controls much of the economy. The Iran’s privatization program has been a fake one, most of these have been conquered by companies under the control of the Revolutionary Guard, and they control many civil infrastructure projects and much of the telecommunication industry. The Revolutionary Guard also have their own intelligence and they freely arrest and torture people, and they also negatively influence the foreign policy. The Quds Army is a subdivision of the Revolutionary Guard, led by Ghasem Soleimani. The foreign policy of the regime is much influenced by this military force, as it controls the Syrian situation,  in aiding Assad’s regime, also controls the Hezbollah in the Lebanon, and plays a major role in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan. With absolute immunity and no oversight from the elected government they are the ones responsible in the role of the Islamic Republic in terrorism outside its borders.

But none of this means the president, the parliament, and the Assembly of Experts have absolutely zero power. It is wrong to say that the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard have absolute power, but it’s fair to say that they are much more powerful than the elected officials. It’s fair to say that the president and the parliament cannot make radical and fundamental changes, but it’s inaccurate to say that they are empty figureheads. The history of Iran shows that whenever a reformist president and a reformist parliament have been in place, the situation for people has improved, although the human rights situation has never gotten much better.

But why is that? It’s simply because that the system is so complex and so confusing that it cannot be fully controlled. It’s because none of the parts of the system are monolithic, and there are moderates every where, it’s because that the regime has a base of financial and political supporters and cannot afford to lose them. It’s because there are enough holes and loopholes that give people breathing room and democratic spaces they can maneuver in.

Here, a little history lesson is very interesting. There have been 7 presidents in the history of the Islamic Republic. Out of this 8, one became the Supreme Leader. One was impeached by the parliament and escaped the country and became one of the opposition who ask for the overthrow of the regime. One was assassinated a month after his presidency. One was Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has now changed from a conservative to a reformist, was barred by the Guardian Council to run for president in 2013, and there was a real attempt to eliminate him as he lost many of his position and power, but ultimately was not completely eliminated because of Rouhani’s election. The next president is Khatami, the reformist one, who was completely driven outside the regime because of the Green Movement, but has found his way back a little since 2013 election. Next one, Ahmadinejad, was supposed to be Supreme Leader’s darling, but he also got into a political power struggle and he is now completely eliminated.

The Green Movements has two leaders, both under house arrest. One is a former Prime Ministers and the other a former chairman of the Parliament.

How powerful is the president anyway? Well, Hashemi Rafsanjani was very powerful, some say even more powerful than the Supreme Leader, but then his power declined as Khamenei’s power rose. Khatami wasn’t much powerful, but he managed to improve the economy and to enact some real reforms, until his power began to wain. Ahmadinejad was also very powerful, as he was given free reign, but then he was completely powerless by the end of his presidency. Rouhani right now is not that powerful, but his power might increase if he can solve the nuclear crisis, get a reformist parliament, or manage to free Mousavi and Rahnavard, but his power might drop even more.

What does all this mean? It means that the power structure of the Islamic Republic is always fluid and changing. People constantly change, reformists become democrats, moderate conservatives become reformists, radicals become moderates (the change to the other direction has been rare). People gain an lose power, the ranks of the regime are constantly eliminated but some regain their positions, and structure always changes.

Knowing this, you should from now on refrain simplistic claims. You shouldn’t support policies enacted by those simplistic claims. Complexity of the situation necessitates a complex policy on the part of the western governments as well.

That is all for this post. I will discuss Iranian politics in later posts as well.


  1. says

    Thank you for posting this. I knew the general outlines of the system, but not this much detail.

    I had the impression that Rouhani was quite powerful, at least for a while, because he has a popular mandate (the public elected him on a platform of improving relations with the West because that will reduce the economic harm of the sanctions), and so Khamenei cannot move too strongly against him for fear of provoking another mass movement like 2009′s. Do you think this is mistaken?

    • Kaveh Mousavi says

      You impression is correct, but only in the area that you yourself mention (nuclear talks and improving relations with the west) and also in . He doesn’t have much maneuver in other areas such as human rights. But there are many signs that Mousavi and Karroubi might get free soon, then everything has changed for better, and it shows he has gained power there as well.

  2. abear says

    Kaveh: Thanks for a clear explanation of what is a complex situation and one that is difficult for us westerners to understand.
    Sometimes evolution is less painful than revolution. Best of luck for your lot to improve, we on the same voyage, if in a different boat here.

  3. rapiddominance says

    Knowing this, you should from now on refrain simplistic claims. You shouldn’t support policies enacted by those simplistic claims. Complexity of the situation necessitates a complex policy on the part of the western governments as well.

    So what ideas do you have as for how western governments can act more productively towards Iran for the benefit of your people?

    That is all for this post. I will discuss Iranian politics in later posts as well.

    It sounds like you might address this issue in posts to come. I would think that the answers are too complex for a commentary reply. Plus, I’m thinking you’ll need to provide further background information on Iran for such answers to be understood by a reader like myself.

    Thank you for the detail. Unlike commenter #1, I was completely “uninitiated”.


  4. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Thanks for this post. Its badly needed and I hope more people will read and learn from it.

    I suppose know a very little bit in that I’ve had Iranian expatriates as friends and next door neighbours years ago and also read the odd book about Iran’s history and politics notably ‘ Empire of the Mind’ by Michael Axworthy :


    (A good readable source which I’d recommend if that’s okay here.Hope it is – feel free to edit accordingly and please let me know* if not.)

    But its certainly an area that is puzzling and hard to grasp still. Its an area of knowledge that I still find confusing and complicated and obscure and hard to comprehend.

    I’ll admit in the past I’ve certainly been guilty of making or accepting “hasty generalisations” (mea culpa) and I’ll try not to do so in the future. I don’t know enough about this area to know what the right policies towards Iran would be. I don’t want to see it attacked or attacking others globally and regionally, don’t want it to end up at war but I fear that’s where we may be heading although I really don’t know.

    I agree that it’s important that we do know and appreciate the realities of Iranian politics whilst at the same time, really desperately wishing those realities and Iran’s system of governance would change and westernise and become much more transparent and democratic and generally better.

    I really appreciate having you blog and explain this from the ground and from the culture so again, thankyou, Kaveh Mousavi and please keep up your good work here.

    * Also if you’ve read that one, I’d be interested in knowing your opinion of its accuracy and any thoughts you’ve got on that book and whether you’d recommend it or other ones for us westerners to learn more please?

    • Kaveh Mousavi says

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll write one about war and will demonstrate why it’d be disastrous.

  5. atheist says

    Thank you so much for this excellent post, Mr. Mousavi! I am with a US political group that opposes war with Iran. I would like to help get out the word about your blog series if that’s OK.

    Also, a question about the diagram you’ve presented. My understanding was that there is a group called the “Majlis” who selected the Supreme Ruler. In the diagram this is shown to be the “Experts”. May I ask, are the Majlis also the Experts? And what is the Majlis relationship to the “Guardian Council”? Finally, are the Experts elected?

    • Kaveh Mousavi says

      Thank you very much for your efforts. It’s very appreciated, as I think a war is the worst thing that happen to us and very bad for the USA as well.

      “Majlis” is a word that means “parliament”. The body which is responsible for electing the Supreme Leader is called “majlis-e khobregan”, and the legislative body is called “majlis-e shora’ye eslami”, the first translates to “The Parliament of Experts” and the second to “The Islamic Consultative Parliament”, of course “majlis” is also translated to “assembly”. So I call them “The Assembly of Experts” and the parliament. However, if someone uses the word “majlis” it refers to the parliament and not the Assembly of Experts.

      And yes, after the filtering of the candidates by the Guardian Council, the people elect the Assembly of the Experts.

      • atheist says

        So there are really multiple “Majlis” groups. Very interesting. I suppose it is not unlike how in the US, “Congress” can refer to a federal-level or state-level body, each with two houses.

        So, if we were to link to your blog, that would be OK right?

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