As Iran’s elections draw near, the six candidates are upping the ante, participating in televised debates and nationwide tours in a bid to win the vote and secure their place as the country’s next president.
In Iran, however, the president is not the final decision-maker, and it is the only state in which the president does not have control over the armed forces.
Instead, Iran’s political structure, including its executive branch, is ruled over by a supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Khamenei, whose position is not decided by a popular vote.
Khamenei rules on the basis of vilayet-e-faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist). This essentially means he is given custodianship of the people by divine right.
“The constitution gives a range of functions to the supreme leader that relate to ‘supervising’ the presidency,” Sasan Aghlani, a researcher at London-based think-tank Chatham House, told Al Arabiya English.
“In this sense, there’s nothing in the constitution that prevents the supreme leader from intervening if he believes the president to have acted against Iran’s vital interests.”
The root of the “problem” lies in the dichotomy inherent in the constitution, says Nima Tamaddon, a Washington-based journalist and co-founder of Iran Election Watch, an independent online media project reporting on Iran’s 2013 polls.
“On the one hand, it says the supreme leader is in charge of everything, and on the other hand, it puts the president on top of the executive branch, as well as the head of state in the international arena.”
Why does Iran take to the ballot box?
Although it is true that the supreme leader has the final say in all matters of state, the president can significantly change the direction of the country.
“The presidency is the second most powerful institution in the Islamic republic, and one of the main poles of power in an intricate, multi-polar political system,” Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, author of the book Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic, told Al Arabiya English.
“The president does have some influence when it comes to domestic policy,” adds Denise Ajiri, a journalist and co-founder of Iran Election Watch, an independent online media project reporting on the election.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the president’s powers, at least to to voters in the country, is their ability to shift Iran’s economic course.
“Iranians are primarily concerned with the economy. They’re looking for a president that can ameliorate the economic situation,” and this is why choosing an able candidate is so important, said Adib-Moghaddam.
Iran is experiencing a host of economic problems, including unemployment, house-price inflation and currency inflation.
In a June report, the Statistical Center of Iran found that housing and rental pricing has more than tripled since 2005, the year that current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office.
Official unemployment levels have risen from 11.5% to 12.2% in the same period, and the country’s currency crisis has seen inflation rise to 31.5% as of March 2013, according to the center’s findings.
The president’s office has the authority to introduce economic reforms to deal with such issues.
Examples include Ahmadinejad’s 2010 subsidy-cut plan, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s various attempts to open up the Iranian market to foreign investment during his 1989-1997 tenure as president.
Rafsanjani’s presidency is so widely linked to an opening up of Iran’s market that before his disqualification from this year’s elections, “businessmen were thinking of feasibility studies, exports and expansion of business, while foreign partners were calling to see how serious Rafsanjani’s candidacy was,” Mohammad-Reza Behzadian, former head of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, told the Financial Times in May.
“The president decides on economic policy,” says Aghlani, not least by issuing reforms, a responsibility of the president which makes their position important.
Under reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, Iran significantly opened its doors to the West, and even agreed to halt uranium enrichment and give UN inspectors full access to its nuclear sites.
“I believe what [Khatami] did regarding foreign policy wasn’t what the supreme leader 100 percent agreed with, but back then the whole society was backing the reformist president, and Khamenei couldn’t stop his government,” Ajiri told Al Arabiya English.
The tone of Ahmadinejad’s tenure has been markedly different. Iran’s relations with the West have been strained, showing that the country can be poles apart under different presidents, despite having the same supreme leader.
“There’s an understanding in Iran that the Ahmadinejad presidency seriously deteriorated Iran’s international relations,” said Adib-Moghaddam.
It is therefore “no coincidence” that three of this year’s election candidates – Ali Akbar Velayati, Saeed Jalili and Hassan Rouhani – “come directly from Iran’s foreign policy establishment,” he said, adding that the next president will be key to adequately reconstructing the country’s flagging foreign relations.
The president’s key role in brokering diplomacy with the outside world is just one reason why the position matters, Adib-Moghaddam said.
The president also has the constitutional right to fill key positions of authority, and may do so with like-minded politicians to bolster their influence.
Article 176 of the constitution allows the president to choose the head of the National Security Council (NSC), the body tasked with determining the defense and national security policies of the country.
Nuclear policy is also formulated by the NSC, highlighted by the fact that its secretary doubles as Iran’s nuclear negotiator.
However, although the NSC can formulate policy and plan a foreign policy stance, its decisions are only effective after confirmation by the supreme leader.
“That’s why [Ahmadinejad and Khatami], in the last days of their presidency, said this position has no real authority. In other words, it’s all about being a handyman to the supreme leader,” said Tamaddon.
In terms of economic policy, the president has leeway to formulate decisions, the interviewed analysts largely agree.
Despite this, the presidential position seems to be overpowered regarding the formulation of foreign policy.
Although the president is an important figurehead at the forefront of Iran’s international dealings, “he’s not the decision-maker, and the only influential person behind foreign policy is the supreme leader. He must give the green light,” said Ajiri.