The Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic, constitutional republic in which Shia Muslims clergy, as well as political leaders, vetted by the clergy dominate the most crucial power structure. The legitimacy of the Iranian Government depends on the twin pillars of the popular sovereignty and the rule of the supreme leaders of the Islamic Revolution. This research paper considers the related policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, using the framework for the comparative political analysis. A wide range of interrelated dimensions of the political system is also considered by this structure and even the variables that are directly or indirectly defining it. In this paper on the Islamic Republic of Iran, it analyzes the origin, strength and the scope of Iranian Government, the attempts to categorize the political regime if Iran and also define its dominant features, describe the political institutions of Iran and points out the conditions that are responsible for the establishment. It also examines the causes for the weakness of the Iranian political parties, placing Iran into a broad scope of International Politics.
Authoritarian, totalitarian and democratic tendencies coexist within the Iranian regime and have its adherents, especially at every level of the country’s organization. In the course of this research, I will attempt to conclude whether that combination of the features of various regime type found in Iran of the authoritarian model the most. Furthermore, between the factions of political networks, an equilibrium seems to have emerged in Iran, which lead to the opening of the public sphere of debate and discussion. Therefore, it remains to be observed if the equilibrium result to the emergence of a conclusion on the mechanisms is used when formulating policy and the establishment of sturdy legal culture to the entire rule of law that can guarantee stability, and predictability of the public life and of course, render the implementation of governmental policies and decisions.
The Paradox of Islamic Nation-State
The modern Iranian Government, with a nationally centralized administration and army, started back in the 1920s. The Iranian Islamic Revolution, which was experienced back in 1978 to 1979 paradoxically contributed to the firm roots of the Iranian Nation-State. What the paradox of the Iranian Nation-State stems from the fact that the global unit of solidarity is the supranational Islamic community of faith, in accordance with the Islamic thinking, the umma, and hence the territorial national-state is not compatible with the higher unity. Furthermore, alongside the global solidarity, there is the more immediate solidarity of communities depending on tribe, region or sect, which is also not compatible with the nation-state. Therefore, the country gave a religious legitimacy to it at the expense of transnational solidarity. According to the constitution of Iran, the supreme leader, who is the guide or faqih, is not necessarily supposed to be Iranian though the body, which has the responsibilities of electing the Guard, is made of Iranian citizens, who are elected by the public. Because the Revolution emerged from a dual legitimacy, political and religious, it resulted in Iranization and politicization of the supranational Shi’ism (Roy, 1999).
Iran is governed by a written constitution, which was drafted after wide-ranging debates by an elected Assembly of Experts, the parliament (Majlis), and the elected president. It was then ratified by a referendum, back on December 2-3, 1979. The contradictory duality of this sovereignty is outlined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which included the independence of the popular will, alongside with the democratic nation-state constitutions as well as the novel principle in the Government and politics (Velayat-e faqih). This places the entire judicial system under the exclusive control of the clergy, which has undergone provisions of the extensive revision of the legal codes, in order to render them Islamic (Zubaida, 1988).
The Strengths of Iran State/Government
Similar to the majority of the states in the world, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a unitary system with the authority and power concentrated to the central government. Iranian Government displays both the weaknesses and strengths. First, the state has managed to fulfill its core functions of offering order, security, and law in the cases of political instability and continued violence as well as the uncertainty on the borders of Iran. The safety of Iran is threatened by the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan to the east and the insurgencies in Iraq, west of Iran. On the other hand, the existence of authoritarian, totalitarian, and also the democratic features in the Iran’s political system. They prevented the full emergence of a conclusion on the mechanism that should be used in formulating policy and the development of a strong legal culture that was conducive to the rule of law, without which the public life unpredictability renders the implementation of the governmental decision as well as policies uncertain.
Theocratic Regime of The Islamic Republic of Iran
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic regime, such that the religious authorities govern and the spiritual laws are part of the legal code of the country. The existence of a written constitution in Iran that rationalized the theocratic government distinguishes it from the other theocracies, and the last of which was pre-1959 Tibet (Almond et al., 2008). Islamic religion admits a variety of interpretations. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, which is characterized by a high degree of hierarchy and bureaucracy, the Shi’ite clergy is more loosely organized, which, on the other hand, allow some degree of pluralism as well as the limited diversity of policy preferences and opinions. This contradicts the definition of totalitarianism. Because the Islamic Republic of Iran does not fully meet the entire criteria of the dictatorship or the democratic model, it appears to fit the authoritarian regime best.
Therefore, the regime of Iran displays the following authoritarian characteristics: dominant ideology, limited pluralism, strong leadership, and mobilization. The limited political pluralism of the contemporary Iran is manifested by different competing factions that are not dominant or adequately represented in the governing system. However, they participate without any fundamentally challenging to the system, which is a feature of authoritarianism. The conservative institutions, which are non-elected, and controlled by the supreme leaders restrict the reformists’ power or authority in the executive, City Council and the Majilis. Approximately 70% of the highest power of state positions are filled through the appointments by the fundamentalists (Seifzadeh, 2003).
Among the non-democratic polities, Iran is unique by having regular parliamentary as well as presidential elections in which citizens or voters have a valid though limited options. Before the elections are carried out, candidates are screened, and the genuine opposition candidates are prevented from running for the position. Also, their political parties are discouraged. The powers of both the parliament and the president are circumscribed by most of the supreme leaders, who typically hold real financial and political forces. However, while this Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime is somewhat responsive to its citizens, it is not countable. On the other hand, two crucial and related features of the Iranian ideology are populism and anti-cosmopolitanism. Back in the 1990s, the conservatives in the Islamic Republic of Iran openly divided the public into Khodi (Insiders) and the gheyr-e Khodi (outsiders) through accepting active political participation for the former. However, while the number of Iranian who are considered fluent in at least one foreign language has increased manifold, especially since the 1930s, these citizens of Iran are conspicuous by their absence among the current regime officials (Chehabi, 2001). Therefore, populism is intimately connected to anti-cosmopolitanism and permeates all the official Iranian discourse.
Furthermore, the current regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran emerged from mass mobilization that was conducted by the anti-Shah opposition, back in 1978 to 1979. The present rulers of Iran disapprove oppositional mass mobilization as it was recently denoted by the suppression of the demonstrations held after elections. However, they still mobilize their supporters on a regular basis, probably weekly and annually to demonstrate for the liberation of Jerusalem and also to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution.
The Shi’a Islam and Clientelism
Because all the principles of Islam are incorporated into the politics of Iranian, culture also plays a crucial role in the political structures of the country and institutions, the ownership patterns and factional politics. The current political power structures in Iran depends on the Shi’a hierarchy, which is a system that is characterized by multiple objects of emulation as well as parallel power. This operates concurrently with the Clientelism. Clientelism in Iran is connected to the Shi’ism and the rentier state, and to the Islamic Revolution, which, on the other hand, resulted in many autonomous groups that were formed in patron-client bonds. According to Alamdari, he defines the term clientelism as a non-class system with a power structure that has separate vertical rival groups, instead of horizontal class layers (Alamdari, 2005). Therefore, the structure of power in the Shi’ism is mainly based on a voluntary relationship between the adherents of faqih and the faqih itself. This structure crosses occupations, classes, and ethnic identities. It also organizes the society based on family or mafia-style relationships, that is, cliques and clans, and of course, based on patron or client interests. According to Alamdari, the extent of clientelism disintegrates occupational, class and ethnic solidarity rather than organizing people into rival groups and clique- or clan-type of relations. The context of Clientelism discusses the complex political structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran using the parallel institutions. The scope of such parallel organizations and responsibility often overlap and offer valuable insights into the factional nature of Iranian politics, where, of course, the factions dominate political parties.
20th Century Events Defining Modern Iran Government
The Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905 to 1906)
The constitutional revolution that happened between 1905 to 1906 represented the first attempt at the government of Iran by an elected assembly as it led to the establishment and development of a parliament in Persia (modern Iran) and also the signing of its Constitution back in 1906. This constitution, which was modeled mainly from the Belgian Constitution, confined the Shah under the rule of law and the crown was then a divine gift offered to the Shah by the public (Alamdari, 2005)
The Rise of the Pahlavi Royal Family.
A colonel in the Persian army, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who seized the throne back in 1925 and also became the Shah of the Imperial State of Iran, is considered by most scholars as the father of the modern Iran. Shah ended tribalism and regionalism and developed a nation-state for the first time in the history of Iran. Reza also changed the name of the country from Persia to Iran. The reign that was headed by the former colonel initiated a rapid modernization of both the economic and the political systems, with the aim of matching the dissatisfaction of traditional social groups that were related with the bazaar (Iran’s conventional import-export merchants) and clergy. This made Iran emerge as an essential oil exporter all over the world. However, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate by the Anglo-Soviet forces that occupied the Iran country, back on September 16th, 1941. Then, the son of Shah, Mohammed Reza, replaced him on the throne and was sought to ally Iran closely with the Western Powers, mainly the United States. The developing nationalist, however, forced Mohammed Reza to appoint the nationalist Mohammed Mosaddiq as the Prime Minister of Iran, back in 1951.
Clientelism and Political Structure of Islamic Republic of Iran
The power structure of Iran is clientelistic, and mainly, it is composed of many autonomous parallels groups that are formed depending on the patron-client bonds. The structure of politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran is not building like a canopy, whereby removing the central pole may result in the collapse of the Government. Instead, it is constructed on many independent, rival, parallel columns of powers, which is responsible for holding the entire Government system together (Alamdari, 2005). Therefore, rather than having horizontal layers of classes, the structure of power in both the Clientelism and Shi’ism are based on a vertical columns of rival as well as the autonomous groups, whereby the traditional Shi’a institution of Marja’iyat (Source of emulation) frequently come into conflict with the elected and running Iranian Government (Alamdari, 2005). This makes the resulting political structure of the Iranian Government to be reasonably sophisticated since it seeks to balance and developed an equilibrium in exercising democracy, since Iran usually hold regular and frequent elections, using the parallel systems of unelected institutions, which are designed to check both the legislative and the executive apparatus. The entire dual power structures of the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for combining the supreme leaders and also the president.
This ambiguities and complexity of the Islamic Republic State of Iran’s political system result from the constitution that was implemented back in the year 1979 (Chehabi, 2001). Also, the Islamic Revolution was conducted by a broad coalition of forces that are within the society of Iran, and not all of them were Islamists. The following are some of the unelected institutions that vet and of course, arbitrate the foundations of the Iran’s political structure.
The duties and responsibilities of Supreme Leader in the constitution depend on the idea of Ayatollah Khomeini. He presented and positioned the leader at the top of the political power structure of Iran. The Supreme Leader appoints the head of the judiciary, Friday prayers leaders, the commander of all the armed forces, and six members of the influential Guardian Council. He is also responsible for selecting the head of radio and TV. The Supreme leader confirms the elections of the presidents, and he is chosen by the clerics, who make up the Assembly of Experts. The periodic tension that is experienced between the office of the leader and the position of the president reformist Mohammad Khatami’s term in office- a reflection of the more profound tensions that exist between the democratic aspirations and the religious rule of many Iranians.
The armed forces consist of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and also the regular armed forces. These two bodies are under the joint general commands and all the leading army, as well as the IRGC commanders, are selected or appointed by the Supreme Leader. They are, therefore, answerable to him. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was formed after the revolution that was aimed to protect the new institutions and leaders. They were also responsible for fighting those people or institutions who opposed the revolution. The IRGC has a strong presence in the other organizations and regulates and controls other volunteer militias with branches in each town. The influence of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) within the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to mount, as it has now wielded the military, economic and political powers. The Ministry of the Interior may have passed a regulation, back in the years 2017, that incorporated the IRGC into vetting the entire processes for political candidates. However, regardless of this, the informal interference of the Iran Security Forces in the election remains influential. In fact, the former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including Ahmadinejad, holds a crucial position within the Iranian Government, and it has been awarded the right of the first refusal for the entire Government Contracts, whereby some of them have been termed as extremely lucrative.
The Guardian Council
The critical role of making sure that the presidency, as well as the parliament, conforms to the Islamic principles of Iran rests on the hands of the Guardian Council, which is a conservative vetting body in the Government of Iran. The Guardian Council comprises of six Islamic clerics, who are appointed by the Supreme Leader, as well as six lay jurists, who are nominated by the Judiciary with the approval of the parliament. The members of the Guardian Council are elected for six years on a phased basis, and therefore, the half the membership changes in every three years. The Guardian Council has recently become, in effect, an upper house of the parliament. This body of the Iranian Government has the right to vet all the legislation that is passed by the Majlis and also to veto laws that it judges non-compliant with the entire Islamic law or the constitution of Iran. This process has been used by the conservatives, which dominates the body, to reject the crucial pieces of reformist legislation. The Guardian Council is also responsible of vetting the candidates standing for presidential elections, and it is possible for the Council to reject without any right of appeal, those it deems to be unqualified for the position. These powers enable the conservatives enormous influence during elections.
The Expediency Council
The role and a core duty of the Expediency Council are to mediate the disputes that may arise between the Guardian Council and the Parliament (Majilis), and it tends to rule on the side of the former. A former president, Akbar Rafsanjani, took over as the chair of the Expediency Council, when his second presidential terms ended, back in 1997. He has used the position to make sure that he continues to command the influence at the heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In facts, after the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad as a president, back in 2005, the Expediency Council was granted an undefined supervisory authority all over the three branches of the government, which included the foreign affairs.
The Assembly of Experts and Judiciary
The Assembly of Experts is an elected 86 members all-clerical body, with a core role of choosing the Supreme Leader and of course, the members of the Guardian Council. This assembly may theoretically dismiss the Supreme Leader if he does not meet some specific criteria or is unable to execute his duties and responsibilities satisfactorily and Mr. Rafsanjani was appointed as the Head of Assembly of Experts in August 2007. On the other hand, the Judiciary is another branch of political structure. All over from the revolution that happened in 1979, the Judicial system of Iran has been based on the Shari’a law. Therefore, the structure of the court has been broken into some elements, which includes the Supreme Court, dozens of Revolutionary Courts, Courts of Pace, and Public Courts. Also, the Supreme Leader is responsible for appointing the head of the judiciary for a five-year period.
The President, Cabinet, and Majlis
The president of Iran is elected for four years, but he cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. According to the Iranian Constitution, the president is described as the second-highest ranking official in the country. The president is the head of the executive branch of power and is responsible for making sure that the constitution is appropriately implemented. Practically, however, the clerics and conservatives in the Iran’s power-structure confine the powers of the president. Unlike in other most countries where the president is the one who controls the armed forces and makes decisions in numerous fields such as security, defense, and major foreign policy issues. In Iran, it is the opposite; it is the Supreme Leader who controls the armed forces and makes decisions. The Guardian Council vets all the presidential candidates. The first president of Iran was Mr. Ahmadinejad since 1981 and is not a cleric.
On the other hand, it is the president of Iran who chooses the cabinet members or Council of Ministers. The parliament then approves them. Also, it is the parliament which passed the ministers, and it is still the same parliament which can impeach them. When it comes to Supreme Leader, he is the one who is intimately involved in defense, security, and foreign policy. Also, his office holds the influence in decision making. It is the conservatives who heavily monitored the reformist ministers under former President Khatami. The president or first vice president, was the one responsible for cabinet affairs, chairs the cabinet.
The Majlis which instilled the principle of universal suffrage for the very first time was created in regards to the 1979 constitution. The member of Majlis is elected for four-year terms. The elections are typically held based on the multi-member constituency – the Guardian Council vets the candidates. The voters can cast as many votes as there are the seats of the Majlis assigned to their constituency. And not only can the Majlis ratify legislation but cab also proposes bills, even though all the Majlis bills have to be approved by the conservative Guardian Council. Considerably, the Majlis enjoys all the political independence since the executive cannot dissolve it. Additionally, the Majlis is empowered to vet the ministerial candidates presented by the executive and can consequently summon the ministers to account for their behavior.
Fractional nature of Iranian politics
Rafsanjani, the former president and the current head of the Expediency Council, complained about challenges of moving beyond the multi power government, saying: “In Iran, many prefer to form bonds rather than political parties, because it leaves them unaccountable. In fact, bonds operate in place of political parties” (Alamadri, 2005). Also, bonds are best captured by factional nature of Iranian politics. The first factions are the fundamentalists on one side and the reformists, pragmatists on the order side of the political spectrum in Iran. Moreover, all the factions tend to fall within the pro-Islamic Republic sphere although their approaches to the Islam are entirely different. However, the most ultimate challenge of conflict between the factions is the overlapping between religion and politics. As pro-Islamic, factions tend to support the fusion of politics with the religion. Nevertheless, various factions tend to disagree about the extent and the mechanisms of this fusion. (Seifzadeh, 2003).
The fundamentalists are considered as the representatives of the political Islam. Islam believes that God has delegated delegates his political sovereignty to Supreme Leader, who is responsible for enforcing the will of God on others. Thus, instead of concerning the democratic rule and Islam as the two fundamentals of Islamic Republic, the fundamentalists argue, “Islam and the Guardianship of Faqih are two basic principles of the Islamic system,” rather than Republic. The pragmatists and reformists position is more rational and instrumental than conceptual. They differentiate between the functions of the state and that of religion. According to pragmatists and reformists, Iran is a nation-state established to maintain the security of the individual and the country as a whole. The political parties (banned last time in Iran in 1985) are now permitted to present their candidates at elections, though they remain loose organizations. A new Majlis was elected in 2008 and is dominated by United Principlist Front – those they claim to follow the 1979 revolution’s principles. The main rival blocs are The Inclusive Front and The Participation Front (Mosharekat).
United Principlist Front (UPF)
The UPF is an alliance of 11 conservative lists which is the dominant force in the new Majlis elected in March 2008. UPF promoted the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he best represents the Principlists authoritarian vision for Iran. Factions incline towards the strict interpretation of Islam and play down democratic elements in the constitution in favor of the government by the elect. It has coalesced around the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The administration of Mr. Ahmadinejad relied on the support of the UPF, but this far from complete, given the reservations of some of its member about the economic policies of the president. The front’s strong conservative hints together with its distinctive dislike for the opposition reformist blocs make sure it’s close association with hardline conservative government.
The Inclusive and Participation Fronts (EIU)
A more vehement opposition consisting of both the conservative opponents of the president who amalgamated under the Inclusive Front and the reformist groups like the Participation Front, emerged following the parliamentary election, heralding a potential more aggressive bond between the legislature and executive. These groups actively challenged the expansionary fiscal policies of the government that they blame for mounting inflationary troubles of Iran. Primarily, the reformists criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad’s harsh rhetoric on the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic, which they claim that it has exacerbated the global isolation of Iran. Although briefly occupied during second world war by the Soviet and British troops, Iran is one of only two countries in the Middle East which were never colonized, and Saudi Arabia as well. However, Iran tends to have the longest shoreline in the oil-rich Gulf and is an essential land link between Asia, Middle East, and Europe. The geopolitical of the country has long made it of central concern to the world’s most powerful empires and the target for various political manipulation (EIU, 2009).
The constitution of Iran is a declaration of the cultural, social, economic and political foundation of the Iranian Society. It is based on the Islamic norms and principles that reflect the heartfelt desires of the Islamic community. These basic desires are elaborated in the qualities of the great Islamic revolution of Iran, and of course the process of revolutionary of the Muslim people, just from the starting to the victory. The principles were crystallized through the decisive and powerful slogans of all society segments. The concept of Islamic Government, depending on the governance of the jurisprudent, which was offered by Khomeini Imam at the height of the oppression and repression by the despotic regime, yielded a clear and unifying objective among the Muslim people. It also opened the way for those authentic people in the Islamic doctrinal struggle, and further intensified the entire struggle o the Muslims who were committed militants both outside and inside the Islamic Republic of Iran.
- Gabriel Almond et al., Comparative Politics Today: A Theoretical Framework. Fifth Edition. Parson Longman, 2008.
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- Hossein S. Seifzadeh, “The Landscape of Factional Polictics and Its Future in Iran,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, No. 1. (Winter, 2003), pp. 57-75.
- Kazem Alamdari, “The Power Structure of Islamic Republic of Iran: Transition from Populism to Clientelism, and Militarization of the Government,” Third World Quarterly vol. 26, no. 8 (December 2005): 1285-1301.
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- Said Amir Arjomand “The State and Khomeini’s Islamic Order,” Iranian Studies, Vol. 13, No. ¼, Iranian Revolution in Perspective (1980), p. 147-164.
- Sami Zubaida, “An Islamic State? The Case of Iran,” Middle East Report no. 153 (July-August 1988): 3-7.
- The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Iran Country Report (October, 2009)