Iran's government has long been a source of fascination and frustration for international political analysts. Figuring out how decisions are made in the theocratic system is a difficult exercise. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports from Tehran on one powerful body in Iran that both makes and breaks decisions.
A modern but modest office building in downtown Tehran houses the Guardian Council. Reclusive and secretive, the power of the 12-member Guardian Council is reckoned by both Western and Iranian analysts to be second only to that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Council can overturn legislation by the Majlis, or Parliament, and approve or reject candidates for public office.
In a rare briefing that included foreign as well as Iranian media, the Council's new spokesman, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, said the Guardian Council's main job is to interpret the constitution in accordance with Islam.
Six members of the Council are senior Islamic clerics named by the supreme leader, and six are jurists nominated by the judiciary and confirmed by the Majlis. Each council member serves a six-year term on a staggered basis, so half the membership changes every three years. The Council is currently controlled by hardline conservatives and is headed by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.
The Guardian Council's power has proved controversial. In last year's presidential election, the Council approved only six candidates out of more than 1,000 who applied to run, none of them from the reformist camp. After an outcry, the council relented and allowed two more candidates on the ballot.
During the administration of the previous president, Mohammed Khatemi, reformists tried to curb the power of the Guardian Council to vet candidates for office, but their efforts went nowhere.
The United States has been sharply critical of the Guardian Council, calling it an unelected, undemocratic body. The criticism was especially acute during last year's presidential election.
But spokesman Kadkhodai likened the Guardian Council to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is appointed by the president and not elected either, he said, and has the power to interpret laws, just like the Guardian Council.
He also said that the Supreme Court has also intervened in political matters, noting that the court's five-to-four decision gave the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election to George Bush.