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Government

The Safavid dynasty established Iran as a monarchy under a shah, or king, in 1501. Although the ruling dynasty changed in the 18th century, the system of government did not change significantly until 1906, when a popular revolution forced the shah to accept a constitution that limited his powers. The 1906 constitution remained law until 1979, but after 1925 it was ignored in practice by the Pahlavi dynasty shahs, who created a highly centralized government over which they ruled as virtual dictators. Beginning in the early 1950s, popular disaffection with arbitrary rule increased gradually, culminating in the 1979 Islamic revolution. This revolution replaced the monarchy with a republican form of government guided by the principles of Shia Islam. Shia clergy who had played a key role in mobilizing opposition to the shah obtained important positions in the postrevolutionary government. The principal religious figure, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was accepted widely as the country's leader even though he did not participate in the actual governance of the country. Suspicious of central authority, the new rulers created a system under which the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government were separate and could check one another's exercise of power.

Although the clergy continued to dominate the highest ranks of the government in the 1990s, it was divided into liberal and conservative factions. Liberal clergy wanted to relax some of the religious restrictions on Iranian society. In the late 1990s conservatives controlled the legislature and the judiciary, and liberals under President Mohammed Khatami controlled the executive. Although Khatami won the 1997 presidential election by a landslide, conservatives sought to undermine his authority in many ways. In 1998 an Iranian court, in a trial that was widely seen as politically motivated, convicted the liberal mayor of Tehrān of corruption for illegally funneling city funds into Khatami’s election campaign. In 1999 liberals won control of most local council seats in the country’s first municipal elections. Liberals won control of the legislature in 2000, and Khatami was reelected in 2001.

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A:   Constitution

In the summer of 1979 a popularly elected assembly drafted the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran; this constitution was approved in a popular referendum in December. It named Khomeini to serve as Iran’s supreme spiritual leader, an office called velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the religious jurist; the holder of the office is the faqih), and provided for an elected assembly of senior clergy to select Khomeini’s successors. The constitution also stipulated as head of state an elected president who would choose a prime minister to be head of government, subject to legislative approval. It preserved the pre-revolutionary elected parliament, the Majlis, as the legislature. In 1989 voters approved 45 amendments to the constitution, the most important of which downgraded the religious qualifications for the faqih, eliminated the office of prime minister, and made the president both head of state and head of government. The Majlis set 15 as the minimum age for voting.

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B:   Velayat-e Faqih

The faqih generally oversees the operation of the government to ensure that its policies and actions conform to Islamic principles. The faqih is a spiritual leader whose religious authority is above that of the president and any other officials. However, in keeping with the practice established by Khomeini, the faqih is expected to refrain from involvement in the day-to-day affairs of governance. An 83-member Assembly of Experts, popularly elected every eight years, is responsible for choosing the faqih (or a council of three to five faqihs, if there is no consensus on a single faqih) from among the most politically and religiously qualified Shia clergy.

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C:   Executive

The chief executive and head of state is the president, who is elected to a four-year term and may be reelected to one additional term

. The president may appoint as many vice presidents as he deems appropriate; he also appoints a cabinet of ministers. Vice presidents do not need legislative approval, but all cabinet ministers chosen by the president must receive a confirmation vote from the Majlis. The faqih is empowered to dismiss a president who has been impeached by the Majlis.

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D:   Legislature

Legislative authority is vested in the Majlis, a single-chamber parliament. Its 290 members, 5 of whom represent non-Muslim religious minorities, are popularly elected for four-year terms. The Majlis can force the dismissal of cabinet ministers by no-confidence votes and can impeach the president for misconduct in office. Although the executive proposes most laws, individual deputies of the Majlis also may introduce legislation. Deputies also may propose amendments to bills being debated.

A 12-member Council of Guardians ensures that all legislation enacted by the Majlis conforms to Islamic principles and the constitution. The Council of Guardians also approves candidates for presidential, Majlis, and other elections. In 1997 the conservative-controlled Council of Guardians used this power to disqualify many liberal candidates from the election to the Assembly of Experts. Members of the Council of Guardians serve six-year terms. Six of the members must be clergymen appointed by the faqih, and six must be Muslim lawyers appointed by the judiciary. Conflicts between the Council of Guardians and the more secular Majlis led Khomeini in 1988 to create the Expediency Council, a body charged with resolving legislative disputes. The Expediency Council comprises the six clergymen from the Council of Guardians and seven leading government officials.

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E:   Judiciary

Islamic law was introduced into Iran’s legal system following the Islamic revolution of 1979. The country’s highest judicial body is the Supreme Council of Justice, a five-member group of senior clergy that supervises the appointment of all judges and codifies Islamic law. The council also drafts all legislation pertaining to civil and criminal offenses; the Majlis then debates the drafts and may amend any proposed bill before voting to accept or reject it. The faqih appoints the head of the Supreme Council of Justice; constitutional amendments passed in 1989 combined this office with that of chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reviews decisions of the lower courts and renders judgments regarding their conformity to Islamic legal principles and the constitution. There are three types of lower courts in Iran: revolutionary, civil, and criminal. Revolutionary courts try cases involving antirevolutionary behavior, a broadly defined category that includes crimes ranging from plots to overthrow the government by violent means to trafficking in illegal drugs. Civil courts hear suits involving disputes between individuals or corporate entities. Criminal courts deal with murder and theft. In addition, there are special administrative courts, such as the Court of the Clergy and the Press Court, that hear cases of professional misconduct. Responsibility for the administration of courts is vested in the Ministry of Justice. More than 100 crimes—including murder, drug trafficking, spying, terrorism, treason, rape, adultery, and corruption—carry the possibility of a death sentence.

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F:   Local Government

Iran is divided into 28 provinces, each headed by a governor appointed by the Ministry of Interior. The provinces are further divided into counties, each headed by an executive appointed by the Ministry of Interior on the recommendation of the provincial governor. Each county includes two or more districts, which are headed by district commissioners appointed by the county executive. The districts are subdivided into urban municipalities and rural areas. Each municipality has an elected council; the rural areas encompass a number of villages, each run by elected village councils. The local councils have the power to regulate zoning and issue building permits. They also organize the provision of, and assess fees for, various public services.

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G:   Political Parties

Political parties developed in Iran during the 1940s. Most parties were banned after forces loyal to the shah overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and instituted martial law in 1953, although many continued to operate secretly until the 1979 revolution, when they reemerged openly. Immediately after the revolution, Iran’s leading clerics established the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), which dominated politics until it was dissolved in 1987 due to internal dissent. Following uprisings by several opposition parties in 1981, new regulations made it increasingly difficult for political groups to hold public meetings and recruit new members. An official body was created to license political parties, but since 1987 it has recognized the legal existence of only a few parties.

Nevertheless, the government tolerates political activities by various associations that function as de facto parties by endorsing candidates for legislative and presidential elections. One such unofficial party, the Jamiyat-e Ruhaniyan Mobarez (Association of Militant Clergy), generally supports legislation favorable to private business. The Majma-e Ruhaniyat-e Mobarez (Society of Militant Clergy), which dominated the Majlis from the late 1980s until 1992, advocates government regulation of the economy and progressive income taxes to redistribute wealth equitably. The Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (Servants of Construction), followers of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, support a strong government role in development projects. The Nezhat-e Azadi (Liberation Movement of Iran) stresses the need for expanding and protecting civil liberties. The (Hezb-e Mosha Karat-e Islami Iran (Islamic Iran Participation Party), supporters of Khatami, stress the need to create a civil society based on the rule of law.

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H:   Defense

Upon the recommendation of the president, the faqih appoints a joint chief of staff to coordinate the five branches of the armed forces. These consist of an army (totaling 350,000 forces in 1997), an internal security force known as the Revolutionary Guard (125,000), a rural police force (40,000), a navy (20,600), and an air force (45,000). In addition, a total of 200,000 men and women were enlisted in a volunteer reserve force, the Basij. A two-year period of military service is required of all male citizens of Iran aged 18 and older. The Ministry of Defense exercises general supervision over the armed forces. In general, the military is under the tight control of the civilian government, and armed forces personnel are encouraged to avoid involvement in partisan politics.

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I:   International Organizations

Iran is a charter member of the United Nations (UN) and belongs to all of its specialized agencies. The country is also a founding member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which promotes solidarity among nations where Islam is an important religion, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Iran also belongs to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

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