Iran’s Governmental System and its Inherent Problems

9 m.   |  2020-02-20

According to the Constitution of Iran, being the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the Supreme Leader establishes and controls the general state policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran after consulting with the Expediency Discernment Council of the System. The President, as the head of the executive branch and as the second highest-ranking official after the Supreme Leader, implements the foreign policy outlined by the Supreme Leader through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It seems, as if the Constitution has clearly separated the functions of the institutions so no obstacles would arise when implementing foreign policy, however, the last three presidents of Iran emphasized the necessity to increase their powers. 

Recently, heads of the executive power have faced problems of not having enough power. On behalf of the Supreme Leader, the presidents are instructed to pursue the foreign policy of the country according to the stated principles. Though in practice, the president does not have or rather is not given the correct levers to fully and effectively fulfill the tasks set out by the government. As a result, successive presidents have failed to fulfill the order of the Supreme Leader and therefore the activity of the party is assessed negatively becoming the subject of criticism of political opponents and often by the people.

Perceptions of the set political system in Iran vary: particularly, the opposition figures working outside of Iran consider the contradictions between the structures as artificial, claiming that it is aimed at maintaining the power within. According to critics, the system allows the president to avoid all responsibility, justifying that the government failed to fulfill its promises due to the lack of powers the president was given. [1].

The complicated system of Iran’s political administration [2] allows to avoid ratifying documents problematic for the country and authorities by drawing contradictions between certain state institutions. However, the processes during Hassan Rouhani’s presidency reject the mid-institutional thesis of being entirely artificial.

“Negotiations with the United States”, “Nuclear Program” and “Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism CFT” are the main discussions that cause fragmenting lines between the Spiritual Leader and President. Similar disagreements are also evident between the President and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which is (IRGC) significantly more visible to the public.

Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly referred to the president’s insufficient powers during the second term of his presidency. Rouhani touches upon the issue in a broader context, when he refers to Article 59 of the Constitution, namely, “The most important economic, political, social and cultural issues are resolved through a referendum, by applying the will of the people directly”. While on the other hand he tries to reinspire the citizens after the failure of the nuclear deal so as the people become more involved in political processes. 

When Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif resigned in February 2019, Iranian experts explained the resignation with external issues, whereas many others explained it with internal political developments. After the President did not accept the Foreign Minister’s resignation, the political situation calmed down.  Months later, a campaign against the Foreign Minister Zarif ensued, when the relations between Iran and the United States began to strain again. Iran’s State-Owned Television, the head of which is appointed by the Supreme Leader, began broadcasting a documentary series, where the Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif was presented as “incompetent” and “incapable” figure.

Mohammad Zarif 2 days after submitting the application for resignation. The President and the Foreign Minister of Iran attend the official welcoming ceremony of RA Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Saadabad Palace, February 27, 2019.

What was the motive for starting such a campaign against the Foreign Minister? Such a process against Zarif began, when the United States unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal and restored the sanctions against Iran [3]. The minister had stated in one of his interviews, that “if there was an opportunity today, I would sign the nuclear deal again” [4]. 

Those who are familiar with the peculiarities of Iran’s state system know that any Iranian official, especially the foreign minister could not make a statement that would contradict the principles of the supreme authority. That means, that there is no consensus among the political institutions on the most important issues for Iranian society, and contradictions are immediately apparent in every tense situation.

As the official statements and processes prove, some disagreements between the political authorities and IRGC over both domestic and foreign policy arisen. For instance, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting  doesn’t allow the president to talk directly to citizens, doesn’t cover government sessions comprehensively and coordinate the president’s proposals for reforms [5].

During the President of Syria Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Tehran, the meeting with the Supreme Leader was attended not by the officials responsible for foreign policy, but by Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the IRGC's Quds Forces (killed in January 2020).

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s surprise visit to Tehran, February 25, 2019.
The Commander of the IRGC’s Quds Forces Qassem Soleimani was also present at the meeting with Assad, IRI Supreme Leader and President.

The processes of expressing no-confidence to the President and the Foreign Minister took place in the last two-three years, and Foreign Minister Zarif submitted the application for resignation once a year and noted in his letter to the Supreme Leader about the inappropriateness of holding office within the context of actions against him [7].

If the contradictions between government- IRGC or president-supreme leader are mostly understandable from the point of view of domestic political developments, then they are perceived differently from outside and of course the policy towards Iran is developed in accordance with these realities, about which Zarif has voiced many times [8]. 

At the time, when Zarif was portrayed as inactive in a film broadcast by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the United States announced that there was no sense to negotiate with Zarif, as he had no influence in Iran.  

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s actor in “Gando” series

Or in another situation, when Iran’s Foreign Minister suggested to Saudi Arabia and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf to negotiate on regional security issues and made such a remarkable statement: “I suggested to Saudi Arabia, if you don’t trust my words, you can negotiate with Qassem Soleimani” [9].

The discussions on the so-called dual power in Iran intensified when in an interview with the German Spiegel newspaper, the Iranian Foreign Minister talked about the possibility of negotiations with the United States, emphasizing, that Iran is ready for the negotiations, if the United States changes the course and comes back to the negotiating table [10].

Zarif’s words shocked everyone in Iran after Qassem Soleimani’s murder, receiving a severe criticism by radical groups [11]. At that time, Zarif was again accused of carrying out an activity, which contradicts Iran’s official position, in response to them, politicians supporting the presidential team asked their opponents: “What plan do the critics of the president and foreign minister have, which would neutralize the US policy of sanctions and isolating Iran? What suggestions do they have and what will be their their actions?” [12] After the interview with Spiegel, Spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry Abbas Musavi was forced to deny that there were disagreements in the management system, assuring that Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed the position of the supreme authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran” [13].

After that incident, discussions on the need to hold a referendum and resolve the public issues reactivated, about which Hassan Rouhani spoke during the meeting with governors on January 27 [14].

Iranian printed press coverage of Hassan Rouhani’s suggestion to hold a referendum

Analyzing the current developments in Iran, and considering the current situation in and around Iran, contradictions between the two state institutions tend to get deeper which can lead to a political crisis.

During his presidency, Hassan Rouhani tried to increase the role of the Foreign Ministry, which implies an opportunity to act more independently. After the presidential elections in 2013, the powers of negotiation over the nuclear deal passed from the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Minister, the activity of the Foreign Minister was targeted and was perceived as a self-activity disagreed with the Supreme Leader.

Campaigns against the MFA and especially against Zarif are aimed at depriving the Foreign Ministry of the opportunity to negotiate with the US in any format because a new component is added to the traditional conservative-reform debate, which refers to the relations with the United States. It seems, new groups appear in the political arena: “Proponents of negotiating with the US '' and “Rejectors of the relations with the US in any format”.

Until Iran’s politics has clearly decided for itself what form of relationship it should have with the US, where do the “red lines” intersect and after which border do Iran’s sovereignty and state interests are endangered, it should have the same problems as the current government of Iran has.

Much the contradictions between the Supreme Leader and the institutions of the President fit into the logic of domestic political developments and form a part of inner-Iranian agenda, such a situation can be exploited not only by the opposing countries of Iran but it may also be incomprehensible to partner countries.

Please note that this article is a translation, which has been written originally for readers versed in this topic.


[2] See: Iran 4 years after nuclear deal