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Regime Structure, Stability, and Opposition
Iran's Islamic regime, established in a constitution adopted in a popular referendum, is widely considered authoritarian but not "one-man rule." The system provides for a degree of popular input and checks and balances provided by elected institutions. The Supreme Leaders is not directly elected by the population; the president and the Majles (parliament) are. There are also elections for municipal councils, which in turn select mayors. Even within the unelected institutions, factional disputes between those who insist on ideological purity and those considered more pragmatic have been frequent and highly consequential.
Unelected Governing Institutions: The Supreme Leader, His Powers, and Other Ruling Councils
At the apex of the Islamic Republic's power structure is a "Supreme Leader" who has vast formal powers and no term limits. He is chosen by an elected body--the Assembly of Experts--which also has the constitutional power to remove him. Upon Ayatollah Khomeini's death, the Assembly selected one of his disciples, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, as Supreme Leader. (1) Although he has never had Khomeini's undisputed authority, the powers of the office have enabled Khamene'i to preserve his status as the most powerful Iranian leader. Formally, the Supreme Leader is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, giving him the power to appoint commanders and to be represented on the highest national security body, the Supreme National Security Council (formerly called the Supreme Defense Council), composed of top military and civilian security officials. The Supreme Leader also has the power, under the constitution, to remove the elected president if either the judiciary or the elected Majles (parliament) say the president should be removed, with cause.
Still, the growing dependence of the regime on internal security forces caused Secretary of State Clinton to assert in February 2010 that the Supreme Leader's authority is being progressively usurped by regime security forces, most notably the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This view is disputed by some outside experts who continue to see the clerics in firm control of regime decisionmaking.
Council of Guardians and Expediency Council
The Supreme Leader appoints half of the 12-member Council of Guardians? and the head of Iran's judiciary (currently Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani). Headed by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the conservative-controlled Council of Guardians reviews legislation to ensure it conforms to Islamic law, and it screens election candidates and certifies election results. The Supreme Leader appoints members of the 42-member "Expediency Council," set up in 1988 to resolve legislative disagreements between the Majles and the Council of Guardians. The Expediency Council's powers were expanded in 2006 to include oversight of the executive branch (cabinet) performance. Its members serve five-year terms; its chairman, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, was reappointed in February 2007 and again in March 2012 . The March 2012 reappointment defied predictions of many experts that he would be removed because of perceived disloyalty to harder line figures including the Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani was removed in March 2011 as head of the Assembly of Experts (see below). The Expediency Council's executive officer is former Revolutionary Guard commander-in-chief Mohsen Reza'i.
Elected Institutions: The Presidency, the Majles (Parliament), the Assembly of Experts, and Recent Elections
Elections in Iran have become progressively less credible to international observers in recent cycles as hardliners, who control key election administration bodies such as the Interior Ministry and the Council of Guardians, have sought to limit the candidate choices. Even before the 2009 presidential election, votes in the Islamic republic had already been criticized as unfair because of the "screening" function of the Council of Guardians; the Council can approve or deny candidates based on its application of constitutional requirements about a candidate's knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic system of government.
Another criticism of the political process in Iran is the relative absence of political parties--establishing a party requires the permission of the Interior Ministry under Article 10 of Iran's constitution. The standards to obtain approval are high: to date, numerous parties have filed for permission since the regime was founded, but only those considered loyal to the regime have been granted (or allowed to retain) license to operate. Some of those authorized include Ahmadinejad's "Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran" party and the "Executives of Construction" party. Some have been licensed and then banned, such as the two reformist parties, Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Organization of Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, which were formally outlawed in September 2010.
The main elected institution is the presidency. The presidency is clearly subordinate to the Supreme Leader, although most presidents during the Islamic republic have sought, generally unsuccessfully, more authority relative to that of the Supreme Leader. Still, the presidency is a coveted position which provides vast opportunities for the holder of the post to empower his political base and to affect day-to-day policy, particularly on economic issues. The president appoints and supervises the work of the cabinet, but the Supreme Leader is believed to have significant input into security-related cabinet appointments, including ministers of defense, interior, and intelligence (Ministry of Information and Security, MOIS). Prior to 1989, Iran had both an elected president as well as a prime minister selected by the elected Majles (parliament). However, the officials who held these posts during 1981-89 (Ali Khamene'i, who is now Supreme Leader, and Mir Hossein Musavi, who is now the main opposition leader, respectively) were in constant institutional conflict and the constitution was revised in 1989 to eliminate the post of prime minister.
In a speech on October 16, 2011, Supreme Leader Khamene'i raised the possibility of his directing another alteration to eliminate the post of president and restore the post of prime minister. The comments were viewed in the context of a rift between him and President Ahmadinejad, discussed below. Khamene'i indicated the change would not be difficult to orchestrate, suggesting this change could conceivably be accomplished before the next scheduled presidential election in 2013.
Iran's Majles, or parliament, consists of 290 seats, all elected. However, there are reserved seats (one each) for members of Iran's religious minorities, including Jews and Christians. There is no "quota" for the number of women to be elected, but women regularly run and win election, although not in proportion to their percentage of the population. Majles elections occur one year prior to the presidential elections; the elections for the ninth Majles were held on March 2, 2012, and the dynamics and outcome of the upcoming contest are discussed below.
Cabinet appointments are subject to confirmation by the Majles (parliament), …