A Guide to the Legal System of the Islamic Republic of Iran
by Omar Sial
Published March 2006
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Omar Sial is a partner in the law firm of Hasan & Sial, Advocates and Corporate Counselors.
Table of Contents
Administrative divisions (or Provinces)
Iran, also called Persia, is a Middle Eastern country located in Southwest Asia. It borders Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan to the north, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east, and Turkey and Iraq to the west. In addition, it shares the Persian Gulf waters with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Known as Persia until 1935, Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 after the ruling shah was overthrown by a popular revolution. The official name of the country is Islamic Republic of Iran and Shi'a Islam is the official state religion.
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Administrative divisions (or Provinces)
Iran is divided into 30 provinces. These are: Ardabil, Azarbaijan-e Gharbi (West Azarbaijan), Azarbaijan-e Sharqi (East Azarbaijan), Bushehr, Chahar Mahaal and Bakhtiari, Esfahan, Fars, Gilan, Golestan, Hamadan, Hormozgan, Ilam, Kerman, Kermanshah, Khorasan-e Jonoubi (South Khorasan), Khorasan-e Razavi (Razavi Khorasan), Khorasan-e Shomali (North Khorasan), Khuzestan, Kohkiluyeh and Buyer Ahmad, Kurdestan, Lorestan, Markazi, Mazandaran, Qazvin, Qom, Semnan, Sistan va Baluchistan, Tehran, Yazd, Zanjan.
System of Government
Iran is a constitutional Islamic Republic, whose political system is laid out in the 1979 constitution called Qanun-e Asasi. Iran's makeup has several intricately connected governing bodies, some of which are democratically elected and some of which operate by co-opting people based on their religious inclinations. The concept of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) plays an influential role in the governmental structure. It is vital to understanding some of the inspiration, basis, and institutions such as the position of the Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians.
The government is based upon the Constitution that was approved in a national referendum in December 1979. This republican Constitution replaced the 1906 constitution, which, with its provisions for a shah to reign as head of state, was the earliest constitution in the Middle East. Soon after the Revolution, however, on March 30 and 31, 1979, the provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan asked all Iranians sixteen years of age and older to vote in a national referendum on the question of whether they approved of abolishing the monarchy and replacing it with an Islamic republic. Subsequently, the government announced that a 98- percent majority favored abrogating the old constitution and establishing such a republic. On the basis of this popular mandate, the provisional government prepared a draft constitution drawing upon some of the articles of the abolished 1906 constitution and the French constitution written under Charles de Gaulle in 1958. Ironically, the government draft did not allot any special political role to the clergy or even mention the concept of velayat-e faqih.
Although the provisional government initially had advocated a popularly elected assembly to complete the Constitution, Khomeini indicted that this task should be undertaken by experts. Accordingly the electorate was called upon to vote for an Assembly of Experts from a list of names approved by the government. The draft constitution was submitted to this seventy-three member assembly, which was dominated by Shia clergy. The Assembly of Experts convened in August 1979 to write the constitution in final form for approval by popular referendum. The clerical majority was generally dissatisfied with the essentially secular draft constitution and was determined to revise it to make it more Islamic. Produced after three months of deliberation, the final document, which was approved by a two- thirds majority of the Assembly of Experts, differed completely from the original draft. For example, it contained provisions for institutionalizing the office of supreme religious jurist, or faqih, and for establishing a theocratic government.
The first presidential elections took place in January 1980, and elections for the first Majlis were held in March and May of 1980. The Council of Guardians, a body that reviews all legislation to ensure that laws are in conformity with Islamic principles, was appointed during the summer of 1980. Presidential elections were held again in 1981 and 1985. The second Majlis was elected in 1984.
The Supreme Leader
According to Iran's Constitution, the Supreme Leader of Iran is responsible for the delineation and supervision of "the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran." In the absence of a single leader, a council of religious leaders is appointed. The Supreme Leader is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and controls the Islamic Republic's intelligence and security operations; he alone can declare war. He has the power to appoint and dismiss the leaders of the judiciary, the state radio and television networks, and the supreme commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He also appoints six of the twelve members of the Council of Guardians. He, or the council of religious leaders, are elected by the Assembly of Experts, on the basis of their qualifications and the high popular esteem in which they are held.
After the office of Leadership, the President of Iran is the highest official in the country. His is the responsibility for implementing the Constitution and acting as the head of the executive, except in matters directly concerned with (the office of) the Leadership. According to the law, all presidential candidates must be approved by the Council of Guardians prior to running, after which he is elected by universal suffrage to a 4-year term by an absolute majority of votes. After his election, the president appoints and supervises the Council of Ministers (the cabinet), coordinates government decisions, and selects government policies to be placed before the parliament. Eight vice presidents serve under the president, as well as a cabinet of 21 ministers. The Council of Ministers must be confirmed by Parliament. Unlike many other states, the executive branch in Iran does not control the armed forces.
The Parliament (The Majles)
The unicameral Iranian parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly or "Majles-e Shura-ye Eslami", consists of 290 members elected to a 4-year term. The members are elected by direct and secret ballot. It drafts legislation, ratifies international treaties, and approves the country's budget. All legislation from the assembly must be reviewed by the Council of Guardians. Candidates for a seat in the Majles require approval by the Council of Guardians
The Assembly of Experts
The Assembly of Experts, which meets for one week every year, consists of 86 "virtuous and learned" clerics elected by the public to eight-year terms. Like presidential and parliamentary elections, the Council of Guardians determines eligibility to run for a seat in this assembly.
Members of the Assembly of Experts in turn elect the Supreme Leader. The assembly has never been known to challenge any of the Supreme Leader's decisions, although according to the Iranian constitution it has the authority to remove the supreme leader from power at any time.
The Council of Guardians
Twelve jurists comprise the Council of Guardians, six of whom are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The head of the judiciary recommends the remaining six, which are officially appointed by Parliament.
The Council of Guardians is vested with the authority to interpret the constitution and determines if the laws passed by Parliament are in line with sharia (Islamic law). Hence the council can exercise veto power over Parliament. If a law passed by Parliament is deemed incompatible with the constitution or sharia, it is referred back to Parliament for revision.
The Expediency Council
Created by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, the Expediency Council has the authority to mediate disputes between Parliament and the Council of Guardians. Presently, according to the constitution, the Expediency Council serves as an advisory body to the Supreme Leader, making it one of the most powerful governing bodies in the country, at least in name. The council also examines presidential and parliamentary candidates to determine their fitness to run for a seat.
The former monarchy and the Constitution of 1906 were abolished by the revolution of February 1979. The 1979 Constitution dates 24 Oct 1979 and is in force since 3 Dec 1979. Significant amendments were adopted on 28 July 1989.
The 270-member Majlis (Islamic Consultative Assembly) can initiate laws, but is subject to a number of restrictions and needs the support of at least fifteen members. The Majlis can hinder the President's policy, veto cabinet appointments, and even impeach ministers. Its speaker is powerful due to his seat on all of the main councils of state.
The Preamble is very long, containing a history of the revolution, a description of the new state, and quotes of Koranic verses. The Preamble states that Economy is a Means, Not an End. It also asserts that the home centered role of Women in Islam is actually a liberation, assigning women special rights. Iran places no belief in Government Control.
Iran has an official religion, some recognized religious minorities, and acknowledges rights of non-Muslims. Iran grants a right to work, extensive welfare rights, and a right to fruits of business. The Constitution requires that the taking of foreign aid be approved by the Parliament. Concessions for foreign businesses are forbidden. The Constitution acknowledges committee legislation and features a religious leader as well as a Head of Judiciary. Public officials are subject to an asset control.
The head of the Judiciary is appointed by the Supreme Leader, who in turn appoints the head of the Supreme Court and the chief public prosecutor. Public courts deal with civil and criminal cases. "Revolutionary" courts try certain categories of offenses, including crimes against national security, narcotics smuggling, and acts that undermine the Islamic Republic. Decisions rendered in revolutionary courts are final and cannot be appealed.
The Special Clerical Court handles crimes allegedly committed by clerics, although it has also taken on cases involving lay people. The rulings of the Special Clerical Court, which functions independently of the regular judicial framework and is accountable only to the Supreme Leader, are also final and cannot be appealed.
Article 156 of the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary. According to Articles 157 and 158, the highest judicial office is the High Council of Justice, which consists of five members who serve five-year, renewable terms. The High Council of Justice consists of the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the attorney general (also seen as State Prosecutor General), both of whom must be Shia mujtahids (members of the clergy whose demonstrated erudition in religious law has earned them the privilege of interpreting laws), and three other clergy chosen by religious jurists. The responsibilities of the High Council of Justice include establishing appropriate departments within the Ministry of Justice to deal with civil and criminal offenses, preparing draft bills related to the judiciary, and supervising the appointment of judges. Article 160 also stipulates that the minister of justice is to be chosen by the prime minister from among candidates who have been recommended by the High Council of Justice. The minister of justice is responsible for all courts throughout the country.
Article 161 provides for the Supreme Court, whose composition is based upon laws drafted by the High Council of Justice. The Supreme Court is an appellate court that reviews decisions of the lower courts to ensure their conformity with the laws of the country and to ensure uniformity in judicial policy. Article 162 stipulates that the chief justice of the Supreme Court must be a mujtahid with expertise in judicial matters. The faqih, in consultation with the justices of the Supreme Court, appoints the chief justice for a term of five years.
In 1980 Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti was appointed by Khomeini as the first chief justice. Beheshti established judicial committees that were charged with drafting new civil and criminal codes derived from Shia Islamic laws. One of the most significant new codes was the Law of Qisas, which was submitted to and passed by the Majlis in 1982, one year after Beheshti's death in a bomb explosion. The Law of Qisas provided that in cases of victims of violent crime, families could demand retribution, up to and including death. Other laws established penalties for various moral offenses, such as consumption of alcohol, failure to observe hejab, adultery, prostitution, and illicit sexual relations. Punishments prescribed in these laws included public floggings, amputations, and execution by stoning for adulterers.
The entire judicial system of the country has been desecularized. The attorney general, like the chief justice, must be a mujtahid and is appointed to office for a five-year term by the faqih (Article 162). The judges of all the courts must be knowledgeable in Shia jurisprudence; they must meet other qualifications determined by rules established by the High Council of Justice. Since there were insufficient numbers of qualified senior clergy to fill the judicial positions in the country, some former civil court judges who demonstrated their expertise in Islamic law and were willing to undergo religious training were permitted to retain their posts. In practice, however, the Islamization of the judiciary forced half of the former civil court judges out of their positions. To emphasize the independence of judges from the government, Article 170 stipulates that they are "duty bound to refrain from executing governmental decisions that are contrary to Islamic laws."
The Court System
The courts are functionally classified according to their area of jurisdiction, civil or criminal, and according to the seriousness of the crime or the litigation, e.g., value of property under dispute or the level of punitive action involved. There are four civil courts: first level civil courts, second level civil courts, independent civil courts, and special civil courts. The latter attend to matters related to family laws and have jurisdiction over divorce and child custody. Criminal courts fall into two categories: first and second level criminal courts. The first level courts have jurisdiction over prosecution for felony charges, while the second level courts try cases that involve lighter punitive action.
In addition to the regular courts, which hear criminal and civil suits, the judiciary encompasses clerical tribunals, revolutionary tribunals, and the Court of Administrative justice. Clerical courts are entrusted with the task of trying and punishing misdeeds by the clergy. Revolutionary tribunals are charged with the responsibility of hearing and trying charges of terrorism and offenses against national security. The Court of Administrative Justice under the supervision of the head of the judicial branch is authorized to investigate any complaints or objections by people with respect to government officials, organs, and statues. The Constitution also requires the establishment of a Supreme Court with the task of supervising the implementation of laws by the courts and ensuring uniformity in judicial procedures. The head of the judiciary, in consultation with the judges of the Supreme Court, nominates the Chief of the Supreme Court and the Attorney-General who, among other qualifications, must be specialists in Islamic Law.
The Constitution requires all trials to be open to the public unless the court determines that an open trial would be detrimental to public morality or public order, or in case of private disputes, if both parties request that open hearings not be held.
Laws of Iran
- Library of Congress
The site contains extensive and (in most cases) updated information and links to various sites containing information on the laws of Iran.
- Pars Times
This is a non-profit, non-partisan and totally independent website. It's mainly targeted for researches, scholars and investors. The goal of the general webguide is to give the public easy access to the best sites on the web. It is a gateway to a variety of free resources available on the internet. The site also aims at providing comprehensive information pertaining to Iran and the Middle East.
- International Co-operative Alliance
This review of laws of Iran has been made available by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA).
- J. Nouraei & M. Mostafavi Law Office
This site is operated and maintained by an Iranian law firm. It contains information on the following laws: Articles of Association of the Arbitration Center of the Iran Chamber; Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPA); The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran; The Law of the Islamic Republic of Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Mines; Labor Law (Employment of Foreign Citizens); The Law for Allowing the Registration of a Branch or Representative of Foreign Companies; the By-law of the Law for Allowing the Registration or a Branch or Representative of Foreign Companies.
An article written by Mehrangiz Kar on the legal status of women in Iran.
- Dr. Homa Darabi Foundation
Contains basic information on selected penal laws of Iran.
- Sodomy Laws
A website dealing with sodomy laws in Iran.
- Iran Laws On Line
The site claims that they translate into English and sell selected Iranian laws and regulations. The Iranian Official Gazette is tracked and materials are chosen for translation or updating as needed in the discretion of Iranlaws.com. Documents may be ordered by e-mail or fax request. The site currently appears to contain the following laws: Iran's Contract Law; Iran's International Commercial Arbitration Act; Iran's Regulations Permitting the Establishment of Foreign Company Branches; Iran's Law Prohibiting the Use of Foreign Words, Terms, and Expressions.
- School of Law Emory
An article from the School of Law Emory on the Legal History of Iran. The contents may not be accurate but provide useful links.
- Washburn School of Law
Site maintained by Washburn School of Law. Contains some useful links to Iranian laws.
A paid service that provides information on the following laws of Iran: Banking and Foreign Exchange Laws; Buy-Back Laws; Civil Code ; Civil Procedure; Commercial Code; Company Laws; Conflict of Laws; Constitutional Law; Contracts; Copyright Laws; Criminal Procedure; Environment Laws; Export, Import and Customs Laws; Foreign Investment Laws; Free and Special Economic Zones Laws; Government Transactions Law; Health and Medical Laws; Industrial Laws; Insurance Laws; International Arbitration Law; Labor Law; Legal Presence of Foreigners (Companies); Legal Presence of Foreigners (Individuals); Mining Laws; Municipality Laws; Patents and Trademarks Laws; Plan and Budget Laws; Property Laws; Stock Exchange Laws; Tax Laws; Torts; Transport Laws.
- Iran Trade
Iran Trade Point was established on July 30, 1997 as a step to diminish physical and psychological barriers in domestic and international trading and, hence creating an efficient and effective trading channel among domestic and foreign trade organizations. Iran Trade Point is the only official trade point of Iran recognized by both the Ministry of Commerce and “UNCTAD”. Iran Trade Point objectives align with UNCTAD Trade Program which is to establish a trade information and facilitation center, and providing gateway to global trade networks for all traders.
The site contains information on how to do business in Iran as well as texts of some important business laws.
- Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran
The site of the Central Bank of Iran. Contains information on banking laws and regulations.
- Iranian Customs
Very little information on the laws of trade, however, contains useful information on customs procedures.
- The Center of Advanced Studies and Research
on Islamic Common Market
The Center of Advanced Studies and Research on Islamic Common Market (CARSICM) is an organ of the Institute for Trade Studies and Research (ITSR), which is affiliated to the Ministry of Commerce of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its history goes back to December 1997 when the Eighth Summit Conference of the OIC was held in Tehran. The site contains information on the following laws: Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran; The Monetary and Banking Laws, Regulations and By -laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran; Export-Import Regulation Act & the Executive Ordinance of Law on Export-Import Regulations(Published by ITSR); Third Socio-Economic and Cultural Development Plan of the Islamic Republic of Iran 2000-2004; Law of the Attraction And Protection of Foreign Investment; Regulations on Establishment And Operations of Insurance Institutions in Free Trade-Industrial Zones of The Islamic Republic of Iran; Law and Regulations of the Administration of Special Economic Zones; Law And Regulations On The Administration of Free Trade– Industrial Zones; International Commercial Arbitration Act.
- NGO Laws
An article by Nigar Katirai on the laws governing non-governmental organizations in Iran.
- Iran Chamber Of Commerce, Industries &
Contains useful information on doing business in Iran and some related laws and practice.
- Agency Laws
This link is to a useful article on the laws of agency in Iran.
- Iranian Bar Association
The Bar’s official website.
- Iranian Resources for Academic Needs
International suppliers of any book, journal, CD-ROM, and map title from any Iranian publisher to individuals, resellers, and libraries worldwide.
- Intellectual Property Laws
The article provides a comprehensive review of intellectual property related laws in Iran.
- Report on Iran’s Banking Industry
This report (fee based) is intended to provide our customers with a precise account of banking methods and laws in Iran. It has been proven very useful to our clients, due to its comprehensible approach towards the complicated Islamic banking laws applied in Iran. This report also covers broader issues such as Iran’s social and macroeconomic indicators, credit ratings and the history of banking in the country. The legal framework and practical aspects of banking in Iran, details on Iranian banks and case studies are other essential parts of this report.
- Petroleum Laws
The site contains laws on laws that will have an impact on the petroleum industry.
- Iran Law Library
The Iran Law Library provides a selection of Iranian legal materials which are made freely available on the Web site of Dr. Alexander Aghayan & Associates an Iranian attorney specialising in intellectual property. The law firm has offices in Tehran and New York and the Iran Law Library is aimed at Americans wanting to register or protect their intellectual property rights in Iran. The site has a copy of the Iranian Constitution in English, Iran trademarks and patents registration regulations and advice on registering trademarks and patents in Iran. There is a selection of laws, speeches, guidance and President’s reports to Congress dealing with U.S sanctions against Iran. There are also a number of articles on subjects such as human rights, Islamic banking and the environment in Iran.
- Hami Legal Services
Hami Legal Services are an Iranian firm of patent and trademark attorneys. Their site provides basic advice on issues such as filing, licensing and registering patents and trademarks in Iran along with Iranian laws and regulations concerning intellectual property which can be viewed on the site. There is also a ‘Quick Guide to the IP Law of Iran’ downloadable from the site in PDF which highlights particular aspects of the system in Iran. A section dealing with the registration of domain names is also provided and it is possible to register for a free email newsletter and weekly bulletin on trademark applications published in the Official Gazette of Iran.
Iranian Law Books
The following site(s) may be helpful:
Abgoun International Co.
1554916813 – Tehran
Tel: 0098 (0)21 8749028 – 8749029
Fax: 0098 (0)21 8749027