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Iran, Government

The Safavid dynasty established Iran as a monarchy under a shah, or king, in 1501. Although the ruling dynasty changed in the 18th century, the system of government did not change significantly until 1906, when a popular revolution forced the shah to accept a constitution that limited his powers. The 1906 constitution remained law until 1979, but after 1925 it was ignored in practice by the Pahlavi dynasty shahs, who created a highly centralized government over which they ruled as virtual dictators. Beginning in the early 1950s, popular disaffection with arbitrary rule increased gradually, culminating in the 1979 Islamic revolution. This revolution replaced the monarchy with a republican form of government guided by the principles of Shia Islam. Shia clergy who had played a key role in mobilizing opposition to the shah obtained important positions in the postrevolutionary government. The principal religious figure, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was accepted widely as the country's leader even though he did not participate in the actual governance of the country. Suspicious of central authority, the new rulers created a system under which the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government were separate and could check one another's exercise of power.

Although the clergy continued to dominate the highest ranks of the government in the 1990s, it was divided into liberal and conservative factions. Liberal clergy wanted to relax some of the religious restrictions on Iranian society. In the late 1990s conservatives controlled the legislature and the judiciary, and liberals under President Mohammed Khatami controlled the executive. Although Khatami won the 1997 presidential election by a landslide, conservatives sought to undermine his authority in many ways. In 1998 an Iranian court, in a trial that was widely seen as politically motivated, convicted the liberal mayor of Tehran of corruption for illegally funneling city funds into Khatami’s election campaign. In 1999 liberals won control of most local council seats in the country’s first municipal elections. Liberals won control of the legislature in 2000, and Khatami was reelected in 2001.

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