Vice Presidents Collage

The Veeps of Tehran: Veepology goes Global

In a previous life I was a Middle East specialist and news of Iranian President Raisi’s death would have led to analysis of what this meant for power games in Tehran and the region. Now, it isn’t at the top of my concerns, except that it turns out that Iran has a vice president. Actually, Iran has about 12 vice presidents!

Such a surfeit of Veeps, naturally I needed to know more.

The emerging field of Veepology is primarily focused on the U.S vice presidency, but we are interested in similar institutions worldwide. (We’ve got something special on this coming…)

Many nations around the world have vice presidents. They haven’t been much studied, mostly because they are generally inconsequential. Most of the countries in Latin America that have a U.S. style presidency have an appended vice presidency. But in many of these countries, the presidents not infrequently resign or are impeached. This creates few incentives for the president to really make a partner of their VP. That could change.

An Institutional Analysis

But what about Iran and its egg carton of VPs? What is that about?

First, the Vice President (technically the first Vice President) has a mandate, on the president’s death, to be a caretaker head of government until elections can be organized, which is to occur within 50 days.

The fact that the VP isn’t the successor to the president is the beginning of understanding that the Iranian system is very different and doesn’t map neatly onto ours.

To call Iran’s government Byzantine is an insult since the Iranian civilization is far more ancient than that of the Byzantium. Here’s an explainer, but the first thing to understand is that Iran’s president is more akin to a prime minister who runs the day-to-day affairs of the government and is answerable to the Supreme Leader. Parts of Iran’s government are popularly elected, but other parts are overseen by shadowy committees. There are formal executive, legislative, and judicial branches. But they are all ultimately beholden to the Supreme Leader and these committees. Off-hand, the best comparison may be to the various Communist nations which had formal government structures that paralleled that of other nations, but ultimate power was in the hands of the party and the Secretary-General of the Communist Party. That makes the Supreme Leader the Secretary-General of the Islamic Revolution. The President enacts policies that are ultimately determined by the Supreme Leader.

It is interesting that the Iranian presidential and parliamentary elections are more open than those of the Communist countries. Not open by our standards, the Islamic revolutionary apparatus often disallows candidates, and has distorted results to favor their chosen candidate in the past. But there have been spirited campaigns and changes in the presidency have also meant shifts in policy.

Iran has a Constitution (I read it so you don’t have to) which outlines the roles of the different offices. Vice presidents are mentioned once in a very specific context. It does however state that the president can have several deputies and that the first of these deputies can preside over the council of ministers and outlines this deputy’s role in the event of the president’s death or incapacitation. There is no mention of these deputies being either elected (like the president) or confirmed by parliament (like the ministers.) These deputies have been dubbed vice presidents, but they are more akin to senior White House aides, with the first of them as a sort of chief of staff. These deputies or vice presidents are generally high-level operatives with specific portfolios, but not public figures.

VP Mokhber meets head of Iranian government branches
Sitting in the big chair: Acting president (and recent VP) Mokhber meeting with his legislative and judicial counterparts

Mohammed Mokhber, now Iran’s acting president, held top positions in various state affiliated financial institutions. The other vice presidents are not required roles but currently include the head of the Atomic Energy Organization (obviously a key position), a VP for parliamentary affairs (equivalent of the White House legislative affairs office, perhaps), a VP for planning and budget (maybe akin to the OMB director), and a VP for women and family affairs.

Origin Story

Until 1989, Iran had a prime minister. We’re talking about under the Islamic regime, although through much of its ancient history Iran had a prime minister or grand vizier. The position was eliminated in the new 1989 Constitution and replaced with the deputies, who are known as vice presidents. I don’t know any Farsi, but it would be interesting to look at the language to understand the origin and use of the terms for deputy and vice president in this context.

The Prime Minister under the Islamic Revolutionary regime is an interesting position. The PM was appointed by the President and confirmed by Parliament. This model of PM seems comparable to the vice presidency the way we here at Veepology think about it – a fellow politician and governing partner. But there were problems. The Iranian PM would have more formal power than the U.S. VP, and parliament’s role in the selection could create tensions and diverging incentives. And that is precisely what happened and why the position was eliminated.

In 1981, Ali Khamenei (now the Supreme Leader), became President. He selected his ally Ali Akbar Veleyati as PM, but the Majlis rejected him and pressed for the appointment of Mir-Hossein Mousavi – who was of the more liberal faction. Interestingly, then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini (definitely not a liberal reformer within the Iranian regime), favored Mousavi – and Mousavi was competent (managing Iran’s economy during the terrible Iran-Iraq war). The PM was becoming a power center separate from the President. When Khomeini died and was succeeded by Khameinei, the regime developed a new Constitution that eliminated the Prime Minister and this potential rival and instead created this squad of deputies beholden to the president.

Analysis

The study of institutions is examining form, not substance. The Iranian regime is morally abhorrent, committing murder and repression at home and sponsoring brutal acts of terror abroad. But institutional arrangements and the ways in which they shape power politics have a logic of their own that can be studied across regimes.

In the last edition of Down the Hall, I mentioned the work of Ted Lowi, and how the U.S. presidency has accumulated more power and capability to cope with ever increasing demands. The White House now has a plethora of executive aides and offices to enable presidents to enact and implement policy that are beholden only to the president – independent of both Congress and the cabinet departments. From a distance, the Iranian VPs look to occupy a similar role, allowing Iran’s president to centralize key policy-making functions directly under his control. The centripetal forces driving the concentration of power may be a constant.

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