Iran: A brief tour

The Islamic Republic of Iran

Iran: Political Map

Roughly the size of Alaska, Iran is home to nearly 70 million people and its capital, Tehran, is the Middle East’s largest city. Known as Persia until 1935, Iranians consider themselves Persian, not Arab. Farsi is the national language and Iran is overwhelmingly a Shi’a Muslim nation. Iran’s geographical position oversees the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, through which nearly half of the world’s maritime oil shipments flow, making Iran an important regional and global power. Iran is also a founding member of both the United Nations and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The Islamic Revolution: 1979

The Islamic Revolution can be described as the conclusion of many decades of foreign influence in Iranian domestic affairs. Since oil was discovered there in 1911, Iran had been plagued by foreign powers attempting to control its wealth.

During the Second World War, the Allies invaded neutral Iran and deposed Reza Shah Pahlavi allowing his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to assume power. Pahlavi, known as “The Shah”, was a pro-Western authoritarian monarch who has been credited with sowing the seeds of the Islamic Revolution. While the Pahlavi did instigate a series of modernizing reforms such as improving Iran’s infrastructure and women’s’ rights, his reign was characterized by its dictatorial elements. Soon the Iranian people began to rise up in opposition to the Shah’s undemocratic regime.

As discontent mounted, a general strike erupted causing the Shah to flee Iran with democratically elected and Western-educated Dr. Mohammed Mosaddeq taking charge. Mossadeq quickly set Iran on a course of autonomy, nationalizing Iran’s oil industry and returning it to Iranian control.

Naturally, this was unpopular with the foreign-owned oil concerns who were accustomed to the Shah’s assistance when exploiting Iran’s oil wealth. Quickly the British and US hatched a scheme to remove Mossadeq and return the pro-West Shah to power. The Shah’s return triggered a full-blown revolution as Iranians rejected foreign influence and united Iran under an Islamic regime. This Revolution represents the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran as it exists today.

The Iran-Iraq War: 1980-1988

Another equally influential event in Iranian history was the Iran-Iraq War which took place between 1980 and 1988. This indecisive war was incredibly destructive and a disaster for Iran in terms of industry and lives. Iran and Iraq had long-standing border disagreements and the Iranian military had been weakened by the military purges of the Revolution. Saddam Hussein, acting on this perceived weakness and fearing an expansion of the Islamic Revolution into Iraq, invaded Iran in September of 1980.

While the war ended in a brokered peace treaty and stalemate, Iran found its military and industry shattered and politically ostracized by eight years of war. Rebuilding its military, its economy and its global standing has been the goal of the Iran ever since.

Political System

While Iran is a theocratic republic, it has a unique political structure characterised by a complex arrangement of religious oversight seeking to balance a democratic system with fundamental Islamic principles. Anyone Iranian citizen over the age of 18 can vote in Iran.

The centrepiece of the Islamic political system is the concept of Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists). This policy revolves around the idea that Iranian society must always be in accordance with Sharia law and the assumption that the average Iranian citizen does not have the religious qualifications to maintain this balance.

The government of Iran has six distinct bodies each tasked with a specific function; the Supreme Leader, the office of the President, the Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts, the Expediency Council and the Majlis.

The Supreme Leader

The office of the Supreme leader is the figurehead of this unique political system. An appointed Islamic cleric boasting impeccable Islamic credentials, the Supreme Leader wields near supreme authority in all matters. He directs policy, maintains control of the military and has the power to declare war. Currently the office of Supreme leader is held by Ali Khameini. The Supreme leader holds office for life and is answerable only to the Assembly of Experts.

The Assembly of Experts

The Assembly of Experts consisting of 86 religious experts is popularly elected every 8 years and is tasked with overseeing the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader is appointed by, and usually from within, the Assembly of Experts.  As a group they have the power to remove, replace the Supreme Leader and veto his decrees. However, there are no known examples of the Assembly of Experts ruling contrary to the Supreme Leader. Presently the Assembly of experts is headed by former president and conservative reformer Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The Guardian Council

This body consists of 12 learned clerics, six appointed by the Supreme Leader and the remainder being elected by Parliament. The Guardian Council is the political representative of the Velayat-e Faqih principle and ensures that all parliamentary and presidential candidates meet rigorous Islamic credentials, dismissing those who do not. Additionally, the Guardian Council can veto parliamentary legislation deemed not sufficiently Islamic.

The Majlis

Working alongside, but occasionally in conflict with the Guardian Council is the Iranian Parliament, called the Majlis. The Majlis consists of 290 popularly elected representatives who introduce legislation and approve the national budget. The Majlis does have the authority to remove the President; however as mentioned, all parliamentary candidates are first subject to Guardian Council approval. The current head of the Majlis is Ali Larijani, known for his role as chief atomic negotiator.

The Expediency Council

Naturally it is not uncommon for the conservative Guardian Council and the more liberal Majlis to disagree on legislative issues and the interpretation of the Constitution. Therefore the Expediency Council has been established to mediate these differences.  The council members are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the council is currently headed by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The Office of the President

Conducting the practical day to day matters of the Iranian state is the President; this office is currently held by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In comparison to other governments, the office of the President does not control Iranian foreign policy or military. In Iran the president is tasked with conducting the administrative functions of the state; budget planning, appointing offices, making appearances, receiving foreign dignitaries and signing agreements. The President is elected by popular vote, and like all political candidates, must first acquire the approval of the Guardian Council. The Previous President, Mohammad Khatami, was known for his attempts to reform Iranian politics.

Iranian Military

The military of Iran is well-respected and can be separated into two distinct forces; regular and paramilitary.

Regular Army

The conventional Iranian army numbers around 650,000, most of which are conscripts. Following its poor performance in the Iran-Iraq war, Iran sought to modernize its military and reduce its dependence on foreign suppliers. Recently, Iran has expanded its domestic arms producing capabilities by developing a domestic arms industry.


Iranian military doctrine places a significant amount of emphasis on paramilitary forces. The Pasdaran, the Basij and the Qods forces represent Iran’s core military capability.

The Revolutionary Guards

Formed during the Revolution, The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or often called the Pasdaran is a type of ideologically-motivated private army numbering around 120,000. Indispensible to the survival of the regime, the main task of the IRCG is to act as a counterbalance to the Iranian Regular army. Additional activities of the Pasdaran are training and equipping foreign paramilitary forces and controlling Iran’s surface missile force.

The Basij

The Basij, under the jurisdiction of the Pasdaran, is a type of voluntary national police force tasked with enforcing Islamic morality within Iran. Typical activities are policing demonstrations and ensuring behavioral codes. The Basij, numbering in the millions, accepts applicants as young as fifteen and can be called upon to act as an emergency mobilization force in the case of foreign aggression or domestic unrest.

The Qods

Another element of Iran’s defense force is the Qods Force. The Qods are a semi-clandestine force much like Special Forces units found in other nations functioning as a type of mobile insurgency training force. Created during the Iran-Iraq War, the Qods have close ties to Hamas and Hezbollah and have operated in various hot-spots such as Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Kurdistan and former Yugoslavia. Numbering anywhere between 3,000 and 50,000, the Qods Force is considered to be one of the most capable and experienced special operations forces in the world.

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