Making Sense of Iran’s Administrative System and Divisions

2016/11/03

Nabz-Nameh November 2016

Introduction

Government in Iran is based on a centralized system, but in order to encourage citizen participation, the law grants local entities certain levels of authority in decision-making, implementation, consultation, and oversight. The Interior Ministry is in charge of controlling and supervising the governance process at the local level. Major areas of governance including maintaining public order, education, water and energy, universities, healthcare, and culture continue to be administered directly from the center, although local entities do have the ability to influence its decisions.

The Pyramid of Iranian Administrative Divisions


pyramid of Iran's administrative divisions

Iran's administrative divisions run from top to bottom as such: country, province, county, bakhsh, dehestan.

Understanding the state hierarchy and the different levels of government can help Iranian citizens and activists better navigate their way through Iran’s labyrinthine administrative system. In coming up with Iran’s laws, lawmakers have taken into account many ways within the government hierarchy to monitor authorities and hold them to account. On the other hand, consultation, public relations, and recommendations for improving the state of affairs all require a better recognition of the present state and the relevant authorities in charge. A lack of recognition and utilization of existing legal capacities for improving conditions at the local level increases pressure on the central government and raises expectations that politicians in Tehran are unable to properly fulfill. Corruption, inexpert decision-making, and a lack of citizen participation at the local level have a higher-level impact on people’s day-to-day lives. By better understanding the system of government, citizens can solve local issues more easily and also more quickly, with the cooperation of local authorities. The administrative system in Iran is set up like a pyramid and corresponds to the country’s geographical divisions. On this basis, Iran is divided into provinces (ostans), each of which consists of one or more counties (shahrestans). These counties are themselves comprised of at least one bakhsh1, each of which contains one or more dehestans (see image). The jurisdiction of local officials runs along these lines from top to bottom, i.e. from provincial governors (ostandars) to county heads (farmandars) to bakhsh administrators (bakhshdars) and then to heads of dehestans2 (dehdars), such that each official is in charge of the extent of territory under his authority and ranks above the administrator at the next level down.

1. Sometimes translated as district.
2. Dehestans consist of a number of adjoining villages, localities, and farmsteads that are linked with one another for cultural, social, or economic reasons. Further information is provided below.

Provinces

The province is the largest administrative unit within Iran, which as of 2016 has 31 provinces. It is typically the biggest or most centrally located city that serves as the capital of a province. In Iran, provinces receive support from the national budget based on a number of factors, and over the past century, public pressure and local social and political issues have led to the division of the original provinces into smaller ones.

Iran's Government Hierarchy at Local Levels


Iran's Government Hierarchy at Local Levels

The central government's representatives at the various administrative levels of Iran are all appointed and accountable only to high-ranking officials in the Interior Ministry or other agencies.

Ostandars

The ostandar sits atop the provincial administrative pyramid and is appointed directly by the central government. The interior minister nominates a potential ostandar, who is then confirmed by the Council of Ministers and with the approval of the president. Ostandars are removed upon suggestion of the interior minister, whose ruling is confirmed by the president. Although ostandars report to the interior minister and to the cabinet, their executive and supervisory roles place them in a unique position. Ostandars are in charge of administering the provinces as representatives of the central government and also as the heads of the Provincial Administrative Councils, which are unelected bodies that play a consultative role. The purpose of the Provincial Administrative Councils is to coordinate and ensure harmony among state institutions at the provincial level. The membership of a Provincial Administrative Council consists of all the senior officials in the province, including: the military and police chiefs; the highest judicial authorities in the province; the mayor of the provincial capital; the ostandar’s deputies; the heads of the ministries and state-owned organizations and enterprises in the province; the heads of the universities; the farmandars (county administrators); and other senior officials whose presence is deemed necessary by the ostandar.

Map of Iran's Provinces


Map of Iran's Provinces

The province is the largest administrative unit within Iran. Over the past century, the number of provinces in Iran has grown. Map from: Wikipedia

The Duties and Powers of Ostandars

Ostandars are the direct representatives of the central government in a province, and are in charge of maintaining order and enforcing laws in the province. As such, the military and police organs of the province operate under the ostandar’s direction. Ostandars are also responsible for supervising and coordinating among the various state institutions at the provincial level, including:

  • Supervising the protection and preservation of natural resources and the environment within the province;
  • Guiding the province’s planning and budgeting processes;
  • Supervising the implementation of development programs;
  • Evaluating the performance of government administrators;
  • Overseeing the proper implementation of laws and regulations;
  • Supervising referenda and any elections conducted in the province as required by law;
  • Fostering an environment for civil society to develop;
  • Advising the Interior Ministry on the appointment and removal of farmandars;
  • Chairing the Provincial Administrative Council;

Source: “Description of Duties of Ostandars and Farmandars” (ratified by the Supreme Administrative Council - 1998), from the website of the Provincial Government of Kordestan.

Provincial Councils

The highest council in each province is the Provincial (Islamic) Council, which plays a supervisory and consultative role rather than a legislative one. Provincial Councils, unlike Provincial Administrative Councils, are elected bodies whose members are drawn from the representatives of the province’s County Councils. The main role of a Provincial Council is to supervise the performance of and coordinate among County Councils, as well as to monitor the revenues and expenditures of municipalities within the province. At the same time, a Provincial Council can make recommendations to the Supreme Council of Provinces to “eliminate discrimination and [ensure] fair distribution of amenities and resources” in the province, which would be incorporated into the law on budgets if approved. The head of the Provincial Council is also a non-voting member of the Provincial Planning and Development Council, which is likewise tied to the Management and Planning Organization of Iran. This allows the Provincial Council to be in direct contact with the planners and drafters of the provincial budget.
The table across lists the duties and powers of Provincial Councils.

Select Duties of Provincial Councils


Duties of Provincial Councils

Provincial Councils are elected bodies with supervisory and consultative roles, and whose members are drawn from the representatives of the province’s County Councils.

Membership

Provincial Councils are comprised of representatives from the County Councils of the province. Normally, each county elects one member from its County Council as a representative in the Provincial Council, which must have at least five members. If a province contains fewer than five counties, certain counties send more than one representative to the Provincial Council, in proportion with the populations of the counties. No county can have more than two representatives in a Provincial Council though. If a province contains only one county, then the members of the Provincial Council are the same as those of the County Council.
Source: “Law on Councils”

Counties

Iran’s provinces are each divided into one or more counties, of which there are 421 in Iran. Counties are themselves comprised of one or more bakhshes and are therefore a geographical unit smaller than a province but larger than a bakhsh. The province of Qom contains just one county.

Map of Iran's Counties


Map of Iran's Counties

Iran’s provinces are each divided into one or more counties, which are the second-level administrative unit in Iran.

Farmandars

The farmandar is the representative of the central government in a county. Farmandars are nominated by ostandars and appointed upon confirmation by the interior minister. Presidential administrations in Iran have typically sought to appoint ostandars and farmandars who are sympathetic to the administration’s political persuasions. As such, a change in administration brings about changes among a large number of farmandars and ostandars, and consequently among many other government officials as well. Farmandars are in charge of tasks such as implementing state policies, maintaining order, and combating crime within the county under their jurisdiction. They are also the heads of the County Administrative Councils, which are, like the Provincial Administrative Councils, unelected bodies comprised of officials from the county’s executive, law enforcement, and judiciary. The objective of County Administrative Councils is to coordinate among government agencies and other state institutions within the counties.
Read more: “Duties of Farmandars and Councils”

County Councils

Select Duties of County Councils


Duties of County Councils include:

County Councils are supervisory and consultative bodies and consist of representatives from City and Bakhsh Councils from the respective county.

County Councils are supervisory and consultative bodies with no legislative powers and consist of representatives from City and Bakhsh Councils from the respective county. Membership in County Councils is comprised of one representative from each Bakhsh Council, one representative from each City Council for cities of less than 500,000 residents, and two representatives from cities of more than 500,000. The city of Tehran (within Tehran County) has three representatives.
County Councils have at least five members, so if a county contains fewer than five cities and bakhshes, then the remaining seats are allocated to the City and Bakhsh Councils in that county, in proportion with population figures. City and Bakhsh Councils are not allowed to send more than two representatives to a County Council. Counties with only one city or bakhsh are exempt from this restriction.
Source: “Law on Councils”

Bakhshes

Each county consists of one or more bakhshes, the geographical units in which cities and dehestans are located. A set of bakhshes comprises a county, and every city is located inside a bakhsh within a county.

Bakhshdars

Map of Qom County


Map of Qom County

The province of Qom consists of one county (Qom County), which is comprised of several bakhshes and cities, with the city of Qom as its capital. Source: Wikipedia

The governor of a bakhsh is called a bakhshdar, who is the supreme representative of the central government, and also the highest-ranking executive official, within a bakhsh. Bakhshdars are appointed and dismissed by nomination of farmandars and confirmation of ostandars, under the ruling of the interior minister.

Bakhshdars are responsible for implementing the general policies of the country in relation to government offices and institutions and state-owned enterprises (or businesses affiliated with the state) within the bakhsh. They are also in charge of coordinating among state institutions in the bakhsh and are the heads of the Bakhsh Administrative Councils. These councils, like their equivalents at the county level, are unelected bodies whose members are drawn from among government officials within the bakhsh. The Bakhsh Administrative Councils do not have legislative or executive powers, but are rather consultative bodies.
Further reading: Information Portal of Tehran County

Bakhsh Councils

The members of the Bakhsh Councils are representatives from Village Councils from within the bakhsh. Each village sends at most one representative to the Bakhsh Council. If a bakhsh contains fewer than five villages, then the membership of the Bakhsh Council is elected proportionally from among all the representatives of the Village Councils within that bakhsh, such that each village has at least one representative.
Source: “Law on Structure, Duties, and Elections of the Country’s Islamic Councils” - from the website of the Guardian Council

Dehestans

Dehestans are the first-level administrative unit in Iran and are considered a subdivision of bakhshes. They consist of a number of adjoining villages, localities, and farmsteads that are linked with one another for cultural, social, or economic reasons. The dehdar is the representative of the government within a dehestan and is responsible for the implementation of government policies and the carrying out of elections (for the Assembly of Experts, parliament, and presidency) in the dehestan, as well as oversight of executive affairs and development.

Source: “Law Defining National Administrative Divisions” - from the Majles Research Center

Cities

Hierarchy of Councils in Iran


Hierarchy of Local Councils in Iran

The system of councils in Iran begins with the election of City and Village Council members by citizens and ends with the Supreme Council of the Provinces.

“A city is a legally defined location within the geographical limits of a bakhsh, which in terms of infrastructure, employment, and other factors is marked by certain characteristics, such that the majority of its permanent residents are engaged in business, commerce, industrial work, agriculture, services, and administrative activities; which has relative self-sufficiency in terms of municipal services; which serves as a center for and influences social, economic, cultural, and political interactions within its region; and which has a population of at least 10,000 people.” (“Law Defining National Administrative Divisions”)

According to the “Law on Municipalities”, a municipality is established in each locality whose population is greater than 5,000 people. However, the law permits the Interior Ministry to establish municipalities even in cases where the population threshold is not reached, if the “location and circumstances necessitate the establishment of a municipality.” Municipalities are local structures for administering the affairs of cities, such as construction and development, healthcare, and citizen welfare. They consist of two bodies: the City Council and the municipal administration.
Source: “Municipalities (Duties and Powers)” - Bagher-al-Oloom Research Institute

Mayors

Mayors are in charge of implementing directives from City Councils. They are nominated by City Councils and approved by the Interior Ministry, and serve as heads of the municipal administrations for four-year terms. If a City Council has not been formed, the interior minister selects the mayor directly. The Majles is currently reviewing a bill which, if ratified, would make it so that in cities with a population greater than 200,000, mayors would be elected by direct popular vote. Mayors are the only local executive officials in urban Iran who are elected by citizens.

A mayor’s primary duties include:

  • Building public roadways and spaces at the municipal level.
  • Cleaning and maintaining public roadways and waterways and handling wastewater.
  • Monitoring the affixing of prices to goods, implementing City Council decisions regarding affordability and availability of foodstuffs, and stopping the sale of fraudulent goods.
  • Watching over public health issues.
  • Curbing the practice of begging in the city.
  • Building medical/cooperative/cultural institutions such as shelters, orphanages, clinics, hospitals, nurseries, asylums, kindergartens, and the like. With City Council approval, a municipality can offer its land or property, while retaining ownership, to such institutions.
  • Calculating and adjusting the municipal budget.
  • Coming up with industry regulations and putting them forth to the City Council.
  • Overseeing and controlling the use of municipal lands.
  • Preserving the city’s historic structures and monuments.
  • Issuing construction permits.
  • Recommending the levying or abolishment of municipal taxes.

The Process of Electing Mayors and Dehyars

The Process of Electing Mayors and Dehyars

The Duties and Powers of City Councils

Duties and Powers of City Councils

City Councils

Supervisory Duties of City Councils


Supervisory Duties of City Councils

The City Council is considered the legislative body of a municipality. The members of a City Council are elected directly by popular vote and must be accountable to the voters. For the purposes of electing City Council members, every city is divided into electoral districts in proportion with the population of the areas that comprise the city. Three representatives are elected to the City Council from each electoral district. The delineation of electoral districts at the city level is the responsibility of a committee consisting of the farmandar or bakhshdar, the mayor, the police chief, the local head of the Statistical Center of Iran, and the head of the National Organization for Civil Registration in that city. The number of members in a City Council is determined as such:

  • City of Tehran: 30 representatives, 10 electoral districts.
  • Cities of population greater than 150,000: 15 representatives, 5 districts.
  • Cities of population between 100,000 and 150,000: 12 representatives, 4 districts.
  • Cities of population between 50,000 and 100,000: 9 representatives, 3 districts.
  • Cities of population between 10,000 and 50,000: 7 representatives, no districts.
  • Cities of population below 10,000: 5 representatives, no districts.

Source: “An Introductory Primer on Local Government in Iran”

Legislative Duties of City Councils


Legislative Duties of City Councils

Shorayaris

In order to encourage the residents of Tehran to participate more in the city’s affairs, the Tehran City Council established the Shorayari Associations of the City of Tehran. Shorayaris are elected, non-governmental, and voluntary councils that are formed at the neighborhood level in Tehran. They are consultative bodies which identify local issues and problems and craft recommendations for improvements to deliver to the Tehran City Council. The responsibilities of shorayaris are of an “identificatory, supervisory, consultative, and cooperative” nature. Each shorayari is composed of seven permanent members and three alternates, elected to two-year terms. (Further reading: “Statute of Shorayari Associations”)

The duties of shorayaris include:

  • Identifying environmental problems and forming recommendations to overcome them.
  • Identifying public transportation issues and forming recommendations to improve them.
  • Coming up with plans and recommendations for expanding recreational, sports, and cultural spaces.
  • Working with the Tehran City Council to foster peace and security.
  • Coming up with plans and recommendations for locally-led management of public places and helping manage city parks locally.
  • Working with the Tehran City Council to form voluntary associations.
  • Working with the Tehran City Council to control prices.

Villages

The “Law Defining National Administrative Divisions” specifies the village as the initial unit for the country’s administrative divisions. Villages consist of at least 20 households or 100 residents whose professions are directly or indirectly connected with agriculture, animal husbandry, horticulture, hunting, or other rural occupations. The dehyar is the administrative head of a village.

Dehyars

The position of dehyar (who heads a dehyari) is one of the newest elected offices within the state hierarchy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, established through the ratification of the “Law on the Establishment of Independent Dehyaris in the Country’s Villages” in the year 1998. The dehyari is a non-governmental and independent office that, under the leadership of the dehyar, is in charge of implementing the directives of the Village Council. Dehyars are elected indirectly by citizens, on the part of Village Council members. As such, dehyars as heads of villages are among the few state officials in Iran who are elected without the involvement of the central government and who are accountable solely to the voters. Dehyars represent the final rung on the state hierarchy of Iran, and their duties include:

  • Implementing Village Council directives;
  • Cooperating with executive bodies at the village level, including the police and the Environmental Protection Organization;
  • Preserving public facilities and helping improve citizens’ livelihoods, such as healthcare;
  • Attending to the affairs of higher-level government entities which lack representation in the village.

Sources: “Modern Administration of Villages”, the website of Sarvabad County, Wikiroosta, the website of the Dehyari of Hajji Kola

Village Councils

Village Councils are elected bodies whose members are elected directly by the residents of the village. In villages of 1,500 or fewer people, the Village Council has three members, and in villages with more than 1,500 residents, the Village Council consists of five members.
Source: “Law on Structure, Duties, and Elections of the Country’s Islamic Councils” - ratified by the Majles on May 21, 1996

The duties of Village Councils include:

  • Electing a dehyar for a term of four years.
  • Supervising the implementation of Village Council directives and development and construction plans in the village.
  • Devising and recommending plans for addressing deficits and needs in the village.
  • Fostering citizen participation in village affairs.

Supreme Council of the Provinces

The Supreme Council of the Provinces is located at the top of the pyramid of elected councils in Iran. The Iranian Constitution states that the purpose of the Supreme Council of the Provinces is to “prevent discrimination in the preparation of programs for the development and welfare of the provinces, to secure the cooperation of the people, and to arrange for the supervision of coordinated implementation of such programs.” The members of the Supreme Council of the Provinces are drawn from representatives from the Provincial Councils from throughout the country. According to Article 102 of the Constitution, the Supreme Council of the Provinces “has the right within its jurisdiction to draft bills and to submit them to the Islamic Consultative Assembly [Majles], either directly or through the government.” The Majles is obligated to review these bills. Before submitting the budget to the presidential administration, the Management and Planning Organization of Iran must first provide it to the Supreme Council of the Provinces so that the Council can ensure that the budget is balanced across the provinces.

Duties of the Supreme Council of the Provinces

According to the Law on Councils, some duties and powers of the Supreme Council of the Provinces include:

  • Reviewing recommendations received from Provincial Councils.
  • Announcing shortcomings and problems in executive agencies and pursuing them.
  • Reviewing recommendations and delivering them within bills to the Majles or to the president’s office.
  • Reviewing the national budget and delivering recommendations to the Management and Planning Organization.
  • Determining items addressed by ministries or state institutions but which could be carried out by the municipalities themselves; the Supreme Council of the Provinces delivers a bill to the government regarding those items that could be transferred to the municipalities.

Refer to the text of the “Law on Councils”. Further reading: “Internal Bylaws of the Supreme Council of the Provinces”

Membership

According to the “Bylaws on the Conduct of Elections for County and Provincial Islamic Councils and the Supreme Council of the Provinces”, the Provincial Council of each province, in addition to determining its own leadership, must elect a representative to the Supreme Council of Provinces from among its members in a secret ballot during its first session. This representative is elected by a simple majority of the votes of the Provincial Council members. Each province sends one representative to the Supreme Council of the Provinces.

The Elected and the Appointed

Local Government: Elected vs. Appointed


Elected vs. Appointed in Iran

The contrast between elected and appointed bodies in Iran has brought about a confusing state of affairs, such that it is often difficult to form an understanding of the powers and responsibilities of government officials and entities. Even though the trust placed in the people’s vote by law is fraught with limits and conditions, certain significant aspects of the state’s power still have their source in the votes of citizens, to whom the government must be accountable.

To this day, City and Village Council elections are spared from the approbatory supervision of the Guardian Council. This supervision is one of the most important tools by which the state restricts the power of voters in Iran. In addition, the powers of local councils have been mainly limited to certain kinds of municipal and village services. Decision-making on the supply and distribution of water and energy, education, healthcare, security, and on many other aspects of governance remains under the purview of the central government, outside the control of local elected councils.

However, this does not mean that citizens have no way to hold local institutions accountable. Experiences in Iran have shown that with sufficient knowledge and awareness of the state bureaucracy and the mandates of public institutions, citizens can work together with local officials to improve conditions in their communities. The process of bringing about change often requires patience, compromise, and constructive relationships with authorities. It could even be in the form of starting a campaign to help elect a candidate(s) who prioritizes people’s demands. Today, in line with policies to increase transparency, many local entities provide information about their policies and programs via their websites. Since these websites are publicly accessible, citizens can learn from the experiences of other cities and villages. Public demand for greater transparency can encourage local officials to provide better information and to update it more frequently. By law, many appointed government entities are required to take into account the recommendations and opinions of local councils at the city, village,

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