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Iran: Government and Politics
Country Study > Chapter 4 > Government and Politics


The Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 resulted in the replacement of the monarchy by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The inspiration for the new government came from Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, who first began formulating his concept of an Islamic government in the early 1970s, while in exile in the Shia Islam learning and pilgrimage center of An Najaf in Iraq. Khomeini's principal objective was that government should be entrusted to Islamic clergy who had been appropriately trained in Islamic theology and jurisprudence. He referred to this ideal government as a velayat-e faqih, or the guardianship of the religious jurist. Khomeini did not, however, elaborate concrete ideas about the institutions and functions of this ideal Islamic government. The translation of his ideas into a structure of interrelated governmental institutions was undertaken by the special Assembly of Experts, which drafted the Constitution of the Islamic Republic during the summer and fall of 1979. Subsequently, this Constitution was ratified by popular vote in December 1979.

The political institutions established under the Constitution have been in the process of consolidation since 1980. These institutions have withstood serious challenges, such as the impeachment and removal from office of the first elected president and the assassination of the second one; the assassination of a prime minister, several members of the cabinet, and deputies of the parliament, or Majlis; an effort to overthrow the government by armed opposition; and a major foreign war. By 1987 the constitutional government's demonstrated ability to survive these numerous crises inspired confidence among the political elite.

At the top of the government structure is the faqih, the ultimate decision maker. The Constitution specifically names Khomeini as the faqih for life and provides a mechanism for choosing his successors. The role of the faqih has evolved into that of a policy guide and arbitrator among competitive views. Below the faqih a distinct separation of powers exists between the executive and legislative branches. The executive branch includes an elected president, who selects a prime minister and cabinet that must be approved by the elected legislative assembly, the Majlis. The judiciary is independent of both the executive and the Majlis.

Until 1987 the government was dominated by a single political party, the Islamic Republican Party (IRP). Other political parties were permitted as long as they accepted the Constitution and the basic principles of velayat-e faqih. In practice, however, few other political parties have been permitted to operate legally since 1981. Most of the political parties that were formed in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution have disbanded, gone underground, or continued to operate in exile.

The Constitution stipulates that the government of the Republic derives its legitimacy from both God and the people. It is a theocracy in the sense that the rulers claim that they govern the Muslim people of Iran as the representatives of the divine being and the saintly Twelve Shia Imams. The people have the right to choose their own leaders, however, from among those who have demonstrated both religious expertise and moral rectitude. At the national level this is accomplished through parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled at four-year intervals. All citizens who have attained sixteen years of age are eligible to vote in these elections. There are also local elections for a variety of urban and rural positions.

Data as of December 1987

Last Updated: December 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Iran was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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