Functional or figurehead? Why Iran’s presidency matters

Mistakenly seen by many as a ceremonial role, the intricate system of governance in Iran means that whoever succeeds Ebrahim Raisi will actually have an important role to play.

Functional or figurehead? Why Iran’s presidency matters

The elected presidents of the Islamic Republic of Iran are commonly seen as having limited influence. Many think the Supreme Leader's substantial power and overarching authority render the president pointless. According to lore, the Supreme Leader (the clue is in the title) sets the general direction of the regime, and the president is constrained by that. But is it so? Debate on the matter resurfaced after President Ebrahim Raisi's tragic demise in a helicopter accident on 19 May, rendering the presidential office vacant.

Candidates undergo scrutiny by the Guardian Council, which assesses and sanctions their eligibility for the presidential race, but their ultimate ascension relies on endorsement from the Supreme Leader. Furthermore, as Article 110 of the constitution outlines, the Supreme Leader has the prerogative to remove the president if either the Supreme Court or the Parliament deems it necessary.

If all power and authority—including control over the armed forces and supervision of the judicial and executive branches—is concentrated in the hands of the Supreme Leader, what need is there for a president? Why hasn't the role been abolished?

After all, Iran ditched the role of prime minister in 1989. If the president appointed the next Supreme Leader, that would count as important, but that is done by the Assembly of Experts. Is Iran’s president simply a symbolic figure, akin to a European monarch or the president of India?

Distinctive structure

In practice, the distinctive structure of the Iranian regime mandates the existence of both the Supreme Leader and the president, which is in line with the underlying principles of the Iranian system known as Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist). The Supreme Leader, known as Wali al-Faqih, is deliberately positioned beyond the purview of conventional accountability mechanisms prevalent in other political systems.

The criteria outlined in Article 109 of the Iranian constitution create an almost insurmountable shield around the Supreme Leader. Theoretically, the Assembly of Experts can hold the Supreme Leader accountable, but the process of electing Assembly members is inherently political. This creates unwavering loyalty while marginalising rivals and dissent.

Iran's president plays a vital role in ensuring the regime's continuity by integrating religious ideology with the daily tasks of governance.

Raisi was excluded from the Assembly after falling out of favour with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was unhappy with the nation's economic ills. Raisi had long been considered a contender to succeed Khamenei, but economic underperformance meant his name was removed from the running.

Executing the vision

The Iranian president serves to 'humanise' the regime, serving as a conduit between the jurisprudence embodied by the Supreme Leader and the pragmatic, day-to-day concerns and intricacies that the Leader is shielded from.

The Supreme Leader's authority is underpinned by ideological and religious principles that shape the state's fundamental direction. They articulate the vision, offer guidance, and make recommendations. The president, the government, and their respective bodies are tasked with translating these directives into action.

In instances of failure, those who are entrusted with the implementation are held accountable, not those who formulate the recommendations. This 'buffer zone' between a Supreme Leader insulated from accountability and a president who represents civil governance and is subject to public scrutiny is expected to endure within the system's duality.

Far from being impotent and ceremonial, therefore, the President of the Republic is not concerned with formalities. Rather, they play a vital role in ensuring the regime's continuity by integrating religious ideology with the daily tasks of governance.

font change