Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Political System: Following the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79, a national referendum approved a new constitution; several amendments were approved in 1989. According to that constitution, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a republic with nominal separation of powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. The senior figure in the system is the faqih, an expert in religious law, who also has the title Leader of the Revolution. The constitution named Ayatollah Khomeini as the first faqih by virtue of his role as leader of the 1978–79 Revolution. Faqihs are elected by a majority vote of the Assembly of Experts, a body of senior clergymen who are elected in national elections. The Assembly of Experts elected then president Ali Khamenehi as faqih after the death of Khomeini in June 1989. The legal system is based on sharia (Islamic law).

Executive Branch: The faqih, who exercises many de facto executive functions, is elected by a majority vote of the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member body of senior clergymen who are elected by popular vote every five years. The Assembly evaluates the work of the faqih in annual meetings; it can dismiss the faqih if he is deemed no longer qualified. The faqih is responsible for choosing the commanders of the military services and the head of the judiciary, setting general state policy, declaring war and peace, commanding the armed forces (including control of intelligence and security agencies), initiating and supervising amendments to the constitution, and supervising a variety of influential parastatal foundations and organizations. The executive branch is headed by the president, who in practice is the second-highest government official. He is elected in national elections every four years and is limited to two consecutive terms. The constitution specifies that the president must be a Shia Muslim. The current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected in 2005. The president selects several vice presidents and 21 ministers who constitute his cabinet. Ministers but not vice presidents are subject to approval by parliament. The faqih can dismiss a president if two-thirds of parliament votes to impeach him.

The relationship between the president and the faqih has been complicated. The strong personality of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (in office 1989–97) made him the most authoritative person in the political system, and as faqih Khamenehi acquiesced to his policies. By contrast, the reluctance of Rafsanjani’s successor, Muhammad Khatami, to engage in confrontational politics enabled Khatami’s conservative opponents to advance the authority of the faqih as superior to that of the president. In his early presidency, Ahmadinejad, whom Khamenehi did not back in the first round of the 2005 presidential election, presented himself as a restorer of the revolutionary ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini, implicitly criticizing Khamenehi and the other religious leaders of recent years.

Legislative Branch: The parliament is a bicameral legislature, consisting of the Majlis and the Council of Guardians. The Majlis comprises 290 deputies who are elected for four-year terms on the basis of universal suffrage. Five of these seats are reserved for special representatives of officially recognized religious minorities: two for Armenian Christians and one each for Assyrian Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. In 2005 some 12 women held seats. The Majlis may both propose and pass legislation, and the executive branch cannot dissolve it. Ministers of the cabinet can also present bills. All bills passed by the Majlis must be reviewed by the 12-member Council of Guardians for consistency with the constitution and with Islamic principles. Members of the Council of Guardians must be lawyers; the faqih and the Majlis each appoints six members. If the Council of Guardians finds a bill compatible with the constitution and Islam, the bill becomes law; if it finds a bill partially or wholly unconstitutional or un-Islamic, the bill is sent back to the Majlis for revision. In 1987 Khomeini resolved tension that had developed between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians by establishing the Expediency Council to resolve disputes between the two. In practice, the Expediency Council has upheld some Council of Guardians vetoes, overridden others, and sent back some vetoed legislation with instructions that the Majlis and Council of Guardians work out acceptable compromises. This pattern continued in both the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations. The speaker presides over parliament, assisted by two deputies and a system of 22 permanent committees. Select committees also can be established when necessary.

Judicial Branch: The highest judicial authority is the State Supreme Court, members of which are appointed by the head of the judicial branch. That individual, appointed to a five-year term by the faqih, also approves the candidate list from which the president chooses a minister of justice. The Supreme Court, which has 33 regional branches, oversees enforcement of the laws by lower courts, sets judicial precedent, and acts as a court of appeal for military and common and revolutionary courts. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by the faqih to a five-year term, must be a Muslim cleric and judicial expert. The two most active courts are the traditional courts, which hear civil and criminal cases, and the Islamic revolutionary courts, which try offenses involving national security, drug trafficking, economic crimes, and official corruption. A Special Clerical Court tries Muslim clerics. Military and press courts hear specialized cases. The judges of all courts must be experts in Islamic law.

Administrative Divisions: Iran is divided into 30 provinces. A 2004 law divided the largest province, Khorasan in the northeast, into three separate provinces, designated as Northern, Southern, and Razavi Khorasan. The provinces are subdivided into counties (314 in 2005), districts, and villages.

Provincial and Local Government: Iran’s provinces are administered by governors, who are appointed by the minister of interior. At the local level, directly elected city and village councils have exerted substantial authority since the first local elections in 1999. Conservative candidates swept most of the local council elections held in 2003.

Judicial and Legal System: Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, in practice the judicial branch is influenced strongly by political and religious institutions. Defendants have the right to public trial, choice of a lawyer, and appeal. Judicial authority is concentrated in the judge, who also acts as prosecutor and investigator with no legal counsel. In the early 2000s, reformers tried unsuccessfully to gain Majlis approval for the introduction of jury trials. The Islamic revolutionary courts deal with suspected crimes against national security and have authority to hold suspects for long pre-trial periods without the benefit of counsel. Charges often are vague, such as “anti-state activity” or “warring against God,” and lawyers have complained of being harassed and even imprisoned. The Special Clerical Court, which is outside the court system and overseen directly by the faqih, deals with crimes committed by members of the clergy, including “ideological offenses.” Such offenses include interpretations of religious precepts that are not acceptable to the establishment clergy and activities, such as journalism, outside the realm of religion.

Electoral System: Suffrage is universal at age 16. Direct elections every four years choose the Majlis, the president, and local councils. The Assembly of Experts is elected every five years. Because these elections are not held simultaneously, however, Iranians generally vote in a national election every year. Elections for the Assembly of Experts are scheduled for 2006. Each of the 290 seats of the Majlis nominally represents constituencies of about 200,000, but distribution favors urban areas. The city of Tehran, for example, has 30 at-large constituencies. Candidates for office at any level may simply declare themselves by filing a registration form and paying a nominal fee. The Ministry of Interior and the Central Oversight Committee of the Council of Guardians vet candidates for the presidency, the parliament, and the Assembly of Experts. Local boards supervise elections at the lowest governmental levels. Important qualifications for candidacy are a history of participating in the 1978–79 Revolution and a reputation for being a devout Muslim and observer of Islamic law. Postsecondary education also is relevant for national office. Candidates for the Assembly of Experts must be senior Islamic clergymen. The Guardian Council, which also organizes and oversees elections in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior, has used its vetting capacity to disqualify a high percentage of reform candidates, such as in the 2004 Majlis elections and the 2005 presidential election. In the Majlis elections, more than 2,700 candidates competed for 290 seats.

Politics and Political Parties: Official political activity is permitted only to groups that accept the principle of political rule known as velayat-e faqih, literally, the guardianship of the faqih (religious jurist). Political parties were legalized in 1998, and at least 25 were present in the sixth Majlis (2000–2004). In the early 2000s, allegiances, still based on special interests and patronage, remain fluid. In 1998, 18 parties joined in a broad coalition called the Second of Khordad Front. These were all reformist parties that supported the political and economic proposals of President Khatami; in the early 2000s, internal differences over specific economic policies have hampered the Front’s effectiveness, however. During that period, the conservatives were more united, despite the existence of three major conservative parties—the Society of the Militant Clergy, the Allied Islamic Society, and the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers. In 2002 the government permanently disbanded the opposition Freedom Movement, originally founded in 1961, and imprisoned some of its leaders. The Builders of Islamic Iran (known as Abadgaran) emerged as a powerful conservative coalition by winning a majority of Majlis seats in the 2004 elections.

Mass Media: The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, provided that published material complies with Islamic principles. Freedom of speech is not guaranteed. In 1997 and 1998, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance relaxed regulations for publishing licenses and issued several hundred licenses, which led to the emergence of scores of new newspapers and journals, most of which promoted reformist causes. Conservatives reacted by suing individual papers and publishers for libel, and in the year 2000 succeeded in getting the Press Court to suspend, temporarily or permanently, several dozen newspapers. However, reformist publications continue to express views on many contentious issues. The newspapers with the largest circulation are published in Tehran and include the conservative Jomhuri-e Islami, Keyhan, and Resalat. Among notable reformist newspapers closed by the Press Court in the early 2000s were Shargh and Yas-e Now. The state news service is the Islamic Republic News Agency, which publishes the English-language Iran Daily. Several foreign news agencies maintain offices in Tehran, including Agence France Press, Anadolu Ajansı, ITAR-TASS, Reuters, and Tsinhua. Radio 1 in Tehran is the most powerful radio station. Radio and television broadcasting is controlled by the state’s Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting company. In 2002 an estimated 13 million radios and 7 million television sets were in use. An estimated 1 million satellite dishes are in use to receive international broadcasts, although they are forbidden and jamming has occurred. In 2003 the government assigned a commission to monitor Internet news sites.

Foreign Relations: The election of Khatami in 1997 led to improved relations with Iran’s neighbors and with most of the West, excluding Israel and the United States. The Khatami government (in power 1997–2005) stressed commercial and geopolitical relations with Western Europe and Japan, which have opposed the U.S. Iran-Libya Sanctions Act banning major investment by third countries in Iran’s energy resources. Foreign relations have been an area of consensus among conservatives and reformers since the late 1980s. In the early 2000s, attempts by the Khatami regime to find common ground with the United States did not achieve the desired normalization of bilateral relations. In fact, the Bush administration’s inclusion of Iran as part of an “axis of evil” in 2002 brought relations to a new low in the post-1989 period. In 2004 and 2005, relations deteriorated further because U.S. officials believe that Iran intends to develop a nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration also expressed concern that Iran might be supporting insurgents against U.S. forces in Iraq and Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process in Israel. As relations with the United States remained strained and mutually distrustful in 2006, relations with Europe also declined because of Iran’s insistence on processing nuclear fuel for its nuclear energy plant. In early 2006, the European Union (EU) supported a U.S. demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) refer Iran to the United Nations (UN) Security Council if the nuclear fuel enrichment program continues. Russia, which since 1995 has been building Iran’s twin nuclear energy reactors for electricity generation, tried to reach a compromise agreement whereby Iran would agree to transfer all of its nuclear fuel processing program to Russia.

Since the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has established cooperative relations with the interim government, which is dominated by Iraqi Shia political parties that have had a close relationship with Iran since 1979. In the early 2000s, relations with other regional Arab countries have varied from “correct” or relatively good (e.g., with Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates) to relatively strained (e.g., with Algeria and Egypt). Iran also has had relatively good relations with China, India, and Russia, particularly in the area of military cooperation. Relations with neighbors Pakistan and Turkey have been correct but not close; in 2006 a major gas pipeline deal had the potential to improve relations with Pakistan.

Membership in International Organizations: Iran is a member of the following international organizations: Colombo Plan, Economic Cooperation Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, Group of 15, Group of 24, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Control Commission, International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), International Development Association, International Development Bank, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Organization for Migration, International Telecommunication Union, Islamic Development Bank, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Pollution Control Agency, United Nations, United Nations Committee on Trade and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Universal Postal Union, World Confederation of Labor, World Federation of Trade Unions, World Health Organization, World Tourism Organization, and World Trade Organization (observer status).

Major International Treaties: Iran is a signatory to the following international treaties: Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal; Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; Convention on Biological Diversity; Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter (London Convention); Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction; Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction; International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards Agreement; Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer; Partial Test Ban Treaty; Ramsar Convention; and Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.


Armed Forces Overview: In 2005 the armed forces, under a unified command with the faqih as commander in chief, included about 540,000 active personnel in the regular forces and 120,000 in the auxiliary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Since the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88, a main policy goal has been to be as independent as possible of alliances and foreign arms supplies. Accordingly, Iran has eschewed military alliances, although it has reached military supply agreements with a number of countries. Modernization of the navy, seen as vital for protecting interests in the Persian Gulf, is a high priority. Iran has purchased submarines and surface vessels from abroad and manufactures tanks, artillery, medium-range missiles, and helicopters. Technology purchased from North Korea and China, and refined by the domestic defense industry, supports a growing missile force that is considered the most important element of air defense policy.

Foreign Military Relations: In 2001 Iran signed a 10-year military-technical agreement with Russia that included assistance in aircraft maintenance and design estimated to be worth US$4 billion. In 2002 Iran signed a defense cooperation agreement with India. The latter agreement allows India to use Iranian military facilities in case of a war with Pakistan and provides Iran with Indian technical assistance in the building of aircraft and tanks. North Korea has supplied Iran with an unknown amount of technical assistance and equipment supporting the development of Iran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missile.

External Threat: In 2003 the removal of Saddam Hussein from the presidency of Iraq eliminated a major regional threat, although during the 1990s United Nations sanctions on Iraq had limited the possibility of conflict. The events of 2003 replaced Saddam’s threat with the large-scale, potentially long-term presence of the United States, a country that Iran officially considers its primary enemy. That event compounded the worry caused by the entry of U.S. forces into Afghanistan, to Iran’s east, in 2001. Iran also considers Israel a major threat because Israel often has threatened an air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Defense Budget: Iran’s defense budget for 2004 was estimated at US$3.5 billion, which was a slight increase over the 2003 level of US$3.0 billion. The 2002 budget also was US$3.0 billion. Between 2000 and 2002, defense expenditures rose from 3.3 percent to 4.8 percent as a percentage of the gross domestic product.

Major Military Units: In 2005 the army had about 350,000 active personnel assigned to four armored divisions, six infantry divisions, two commando divisions, one airborne brigade, and five artillery groups. The navy had about 18,000 active personnel in 2005, of whom 2,000 were in naval aviation and 2,600 in marine units. The navy operates bases at Bandar-e Abbas, Bushehr, Khark Island, Bandar-e Anzelli, Bandar-e Khomeini, Bandar-e Mahshahr, and Chabahar. The air force had about 52,000 active personnel in 2005, including 15,000 assigned to air defense units. Air force combat forces were organized in nine ground-attack fighter squadrons, five fighter squadrons, and one reconnaissance squadron. In addition, in 2005 the ground forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) included an estimated two armored, five mechanized, and 10 infantry divisions and one special forces and 15 to 20 independent brigades. The IRGC also included one brigade of marines.

Major Military Equipment: In 2005 the army had 1,613 main battle tanks, 210 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 300 armored personnel carriers, 2,010 pieces of towed artillery, 310 pieces of self-propelled artillery, 976 multiple rocket launchers, 5,000 mortars, 12 to 18 surface-to-surface missiles, 75 antitank guided weapons, and 1,700 antiaircraft guns. The navy had 3 submarines, 3 frigates, 56 patrol and coastal combatants, 7 mine warfare vessels, and 10 amphibious vessels. The air force ground-attack fighter units had F–4D, F–4E, F–5E, Su–24MK, Su–25K, and Mirage F–1E aircraft; the fighter units had F–14, F–7M, and MiG–29A aircraft. The air force also had 34 helicopters.

Military Service: Males are legally eligible for conscription between ages 18 and 50, for an active service term of 21 months, followed by voluntary reserve service. Individuals may volunteer for active duty at age 16. About 80 percent of army personnel are conscripts, as are 60 percent of the Revolutionary Guards; navy and air force personnel are mainly volunteers.

Paramilitary Forces: The volunteer paramilitary force, the Popular Mobilization Army, or Basij, includes an estimated 300,000 personnel, mainly youths, with an estimated capability to expand to 1 million if needed. The Basij are under the authority of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Military Forces Abroad: In 2005 Iran had about 150 Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel in Lebanon, military advisers in Sudan, and three observers with the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Police: About 40,000 police serve under the Ministry of Interior, including border patrol personnel. The Police-110 unit specializes in rapid-response activities in urban areas and dispersing gatherings deemed dangerous to public order. Marine police have 90 inshore patrol and 40 harbor boats. In 2003 some 400 women became the first female members of the police force since the 1978–79 Revolution.

Internal Threat: Despite strong government countermeasures, Iran is a main transit country for narcotics from neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan and destined for Europe, Central Asia, and the Gulf region. Considerable quantities of these narcotics are sold illegally in Iran and are the main source of a serious and growing addiction problem. In 2005 Iran had the highest rate of opium addiction in the world, and illegal drug sales in Iran were estimated to value US$10 billion. In the early 2000s, other types of smuggling increased rapidly, especially in Iran’s impoverished border provinces. Corruption in the border police is a major factor in this trade. The Iraq-based Mojahedin-e Khalq (National Liberation Army) seeks the removal of the Iranian regime by armed action, and its methods include the use of terrorist tactics. However, its activities inside Iran have been minimized by a domestic crackdown and by the fall of its patron, Saddam Hussein. Smaller insurgent groups are the People’s Fedayeen, Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdestan, and Komala. The Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran is the umbrella group of the Mojahedin-e Khalq for overseas opposition groups.

Terrorism: During 2005 several incidents of domestic terrorism occurred using bombs planted in public places; most of these were in areas of ethnic tensions, such as West Azerbaijan (Kurds and Turks) and Khuzestan (Arabs and Lurs) provinces, although there also were bomb incidents in Tehran during the presidential election. Although Iran has consistently condemned all terrorist actions abroad, including those carried out against Israel, the U.S. Department of State named Iran the most active state sponsor of terrorism in the year 2004. Israel and the United States have contended that Iran has supplied funding, havens, training, and weapons for the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad.

Human Rights: International human rights organizations have cited major abuses in Iran’s judicial system. Violations listed include arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, denial of access to attorneys, restrictions on family visits, prolonged periods in solitary confinement, and inhumane punishments in unofficial detention centers. Prison conditions are poor, particularly regarding food and medical care. The government has acknowledged its policy of incarcerating political enemies. The paramilitary Basij sometimes monitor behavior in public spaces and are authorized to detain individuals deemed in violation of dress codes.

After a period of liberalization in the first regime of President Khatami (1997–2001), in the early 2000s government control of the media grew noticeably more stringent. The government controls all television and radio broadcast facilities. Domestic and foreign publications and films are censored. The State also filters Internet content.

Members of religions not specifically protected by the constitution (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism) do not have full rights to assemble. Iran’s estimated 300,000 Bah’ais are people most affected by this lack of protection and in the past have been subjected to legal and religious discrimination.

The Family Protection Law of 1967, which had extended some rights to women, was repealed after the 1978–79 Revolution. Marriage law discriminates against women in divorce, child custody, and inheritance from deceased spouses. In theory a man may have as many as four wives at one time, provided he has the written consent of his wives; temporary marriages also are permitted, although they do not provide women with the same legal rights as permanent marriages. Court testimony by a woman is regarded as worth one-half that of a man. Although women have equal access to education, social and legal conditions limit their professional activities.

Index for Iran:
Overview | Government


Country profiles index | What's new | Rainforests | Madagascar