Due to the shortcomings of hierarchical natural resource governance, theorists have been increasing focus on the decentralization of power to local organizations. Although decentralization is associated with real participation, what level of participation do locals prefer in forest governance? Given the lack of research on forest governance in the Middle East, this study focused on rural councils in Iran as examples of local organizations with regulatory authority to govern forests and other natural resources. The perception of local council members about forest governance in Chehel-Chay Watershed Region in northern Iran was analysed. Despite the appropriate collaborative structure of rural councils and a favourable attitude of council members towards public participation, there was not a strong tendency for rural councils to engage in participation concerning local forest governance. Council members expressed a preference for closed co-management arrangements in which governmental and non-governmental actors work together to govern forests. To move away from the dominant top-down, centralized mode of forest governance, enabling actions combined with supportive factors, such as involving rural councils in forest governance and delegating authority for local legislation, are recommended as a step towards more effective decentralization which enhances public participation in the sustainable management of natural resources.