Iran Unelected Institutions and Domestic Policy

Iran Unelected Institutions and Domestic Policy

Institutions not elected

However, the unelected institutions are far more important than the elected institutions.

Revolutionary leader

The revolutionary leader is elected (again theoretically) by the expert council for life. However, such an election has never taken place so far. Khomeini himself came to power through the revolution and as a revolutionary leader – again viewed in retrospect – there was no alternative. The current incumbent Khamenei was appointed by him as his successor. In what form the next revolutionary leader will take office cannot ultimately be foreseen.

The revolutionary leader has always been and continues to be the central figure of the Islamic Republic. He has the political authority and thus the last word on all political questions. In addition, the revolutionary leader appoints the head of the judiciary and is commander in chief of the armed forces.

Guardian Council

The central means for the revolutionary leader to exercise power is the council of guards. This consists of twelve members, six clergy and six secular lawyers. The clergy is chosen by the revolutionary leader himself, the lawyers are elected by parliament on the proposal of the head of the judiciary (who in turn was appointed by the revolutionary leader). Their term of office is six years each, and half of the posts are filled every three years. However, this only causes political fluctuation to a limited extent; the current chairman of the Guardian Council, for example, Ahmad Dschannati, has been a member of it since 1980.

The main task of the Guardian Council is to examine candidates for political offices and laws for their conformity with Islam and the Iranian constitution. The Guardian Council has a veto right, with which it can both exclude candidates from elections and prevent the passage of laws if these do not comply with Islamic principles. Particularly through the preselection of candidates for parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council has far greater influence on the composition of parliament than the actual elections. For some time, attempts have also been made to make it possible for MPs who have already been elected to take an aptitude test throughout the entire legislative period (a task that was previously the responsibility of a parliamentary control body). However, Parliament is resisting this.

Iran Ahmad Dschannati, the chairman of the Guardian Council

Arbitration Council

The Arbitration Council consists of 35 members appointed by the revolutionary leader from among members of the government, the Guardian Council, the military and his personal confidants. On the one hand, it has the task of mediating between various government institutions in the event of a dispute. On the other hand, he has to determine what the long-term “interests of the system” are (hence his official name is also “Assembly to determine the interests of the system”). These are to be preserved under all circumstances, the system stability is (also) in the Islamic If necessary, laws can be passed in the Islamic Republic that contradict Sharia law as long as they serve the interests of the system.


According to franciscogardening, there are various branches of justice in the Islamic Republic; the Revolutionary Courts, for example, are responsible for political offenses. They all report to the head of the judiciary. In addition to the courts for ordinary citizens, there is a special court that only hears the offenses of clergymen. It stands outside normal jurisdiction and reports directly to the revolutionary leader. All Iranian courts speak law based on Sharia law, which forms the basis of the Islamic Republic’s criminal law.

Domestic Policy – the Power of Religious and Legal Scholars

Ultimately, all power in the Islamic Republic of Iran rests with the revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since 1989. However, since he lacks both the charisma and the high spiritual rank of his predecessor Khomeini, his power was laid down in the amended constitution of 1989 much more precisely than was the case in the original 1979 version. For example, as a political instrument of power, Khamenei can, with the help of a court especially for clergy, take action in religious issues against persons whose spiritual rank is far higher than his own. According to “classic” Shiite ideas, this would be much more difficult.

The central power group since the revolution of 1978/79 have been the Shiite religious and legal scholars. Its members sit in every political body and control the judiciary. They also have enormous financial resources at their disposal through religious foundations, which today have stakes in almost every branch of the economy in Iran. Accordingly, with a few exceptions, their supremacy in politics is largely unchallenged.


One group that rose rapidly in power, particularly under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), are the Pasdaran, the revolutionary guards. Founded shortly after the revolution, it was their task to secure the revolution internally and to spread it externally. Especially in the war against Iraq, the Pasdaran distinguished themselves as the elite of the army. Today many of its members hold high posts in the military, business and politics, not least Ahmadinejad himself came from among their ranks. With their increasing influence, they sometimes seemed unwilling to accept the primacy of the clergy in politics without protest

Under Ahmadinejad in particular, it also seemed that time was playing for the Pasdaran. Under his government they occupy all important ministries; the crackdown on protests against his re-election in 2009 made their power clear to the public; and through the Khatam al-Anbiya group of companies they control, they also have a great deal of influence over the Iranian economy. Although the Pasdaran always officially supported the state doctrine of “velayat-e faqih” unconditionally, power in the state had shifted significantly in their favor during these years. The successor to the revolutionary leader – whose state of health is still a state secret – did not seem to be able to be decided in these years without her.

However, after Ahmadinejad lost a public trial of strength with Khamenei in 2011, also because the leadership of the Pasdaran refused to support him, the revolutionary guards have become much quieter in recent years – albeit without their ability to influence much.