The Iranian revolution of 1979 that overthrew the last ruler of the Pahlavi dynasty was one of the largest mass movements of the 20th century. This massive “participation explosion,” however, did not culminate in the creation of a democracy. The Islamic Republic that replaced the absolute monarchy was an authoritarian populist theocracy that began to consolidate its power very rapidly in the aftermath of the revolution, liquidating all the major opposition to its monopolization of political power. With the revolution having run its course, the political behavior of the Islamic Republic vacillates between pragmatism and revolutionary idealism, maintaining ideological adherence to Shiite Islam.
Since the new regime was born out of a revolution and used mass mobilization effectively to intimidate political opponents and assert its authority, it was vulnerable to the demands of this mobilized constituency. Moreover, since the political interpretation of Shiite Islam and its application in running the day-to-day affairs of a modern state was a contested arena, it allowed certain moments of spontaneity in policy debate and implementation. As such, the Islamic Republic displayed a syndrome often present in many postcolonial populist regimes: vulnerability to mass action. Insofar as the hitherto suppressed political forces that the revolution had unleashed have not been demoralized or pacified, these moments of spontaneity allow a role for civil society that has proved to be consequential in the past 35 years history of the Iranian regime.
Since the revolution was fueled by an aspiration to put an end to absolute monarchy, and its charismatic leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was keen to create a Shiite theocracy, the new government was dubbed the Islamic Republic of Iran. The new republic was supposed to incorporate the popular demand for political participation as well as respect for human and democratic rights on one hand, and represent Iranian national identity on the other. This characterization of the state, while objectionable to Iranians with a secular vision, for the most part enjoyed support among the majority who identified with their religious faith during the first decade following the revolution.
The Islamic Republic as a political project since its inception has been a contradictory phenomenon in which the tension between the republican and the Islamic ideological components of the regime had to be worked out and managed. The word “republic” connotes the sovereignty of the people, rule of secular law and respect for democratic participation. The Islamic ideological component, however, was interpreted by Khomeini as “Valayat-i Faghih,” or the absolute rule of the jurist—in this case, the grand ayatollah himself. This was a reincarnation of Plato’s “philosopher king” concept in Shiite terms that negated the spirit of a republic and the sovereignty of the people. The jurist was the judge and arbiter as well as commander of the armed forces, with ultimate power over all political decisions. In the face of such supreme powers, the elected offices of government, absent the blessing and the support of the jurist, were often devoid of real political power.
As the regime began to suppress its political opponents, alleging their violation of the sanctity of Shiism and labeling them as those who “spread corruption on earth,” the tension between the Islamic and the republican elements of its character became more apparent. Increasingly, the republican components of state ideology and identity succumbed to its “Islamic” attributes, in particular the imperatives of the rule of the jurist. While the regime attempted to forge legitimacy by holding frequent local, parliamentary and presidential elections, it simultaneously created a vetting system in which only political loyalists and insiders could run for public office. Hence, increasingly nonelected entities such as the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts—whose range of activities spans the vetting of candidates who run for public office to mediating intraelite conflict and keeping an eye on the elected officials—and the office of the “supreme leader,” or the jurist, came to dominate the elected offices and institutions, such as the parliament and the presidency.
This tendency was not confined to the political realm. In the aftermath of Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Revolutionary Guards—which had played a major role in defending the country and preserving the Islamic Republic against its nemesis, Saddam Hussein—were allowed to become stakeholders in the economy, beginning under the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997). This policy was designed to achieve a central goal: to diffuse the possibility of a coup d’etat by giving the guards a substantial share of the economic pie, hoping that they would subsequently be vested in the survival of the regime. In due time, the economic role of the guards expanded considerably, and by some accounts, under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), a former Revolutionary Guard member himself, they came to control one-third of the Iranian economy. The range of their economic activities includes such sectors as energy, construction, telecommunications, banking, medicine, imports and exports and much more.
In the first decade following the revolution, when Khomeini was alive, creating an Islamic utopia embodying the reign of virtue and justice and the deliverance of the faithful to the path of “unity with God” was declared as the ultimate goal of theocracy. In this period, the regime drew its legitimacy from its revolutionary credentials, its presumed religious sanctity and the promise of salvation for the faithful. While many of these aspirations remained unfulfilled, Khomeini’s charisma as the leader of the revolution, combined with his stature as a grand ayatollah whose emulation was incumbent upon pious Shiites, confined political dissent to militant groups that were suppressed and whose leading members were, in many cases, executed. The most notable among these groups were the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (People’s Mojahedin of Iran), which espoused a revolutionary Shiite ideology, and the Fedayan-e Khalq (Organization of Iranian People's Fadaian), which adhered to Marxism-Leninism.
With the ascendance of Rafsanjani to the presidency in 1989, Iran opted for a more pragmatic political course domestically and internationally. Lacking Khomeini’s charisma or religious stature, and with the contingencies of war with Iraq behind him, Rafsanjani had to deliver on the promises of the revolution. He began to privatize some of the state-owned enterprises and provided more space for the private sector, while also inviting some foreign investment. He relaxed the restrictions on social life and the legislation of morality and began implementing social reforms. In an attempt to break out of international isolation, he reached out to Iran’s moderate Arab neighbors, foremost among them Saudi Arabia. Rafsanjani also attempted to build Iran’s relations with Western Europe and expanded ties with Russia and China.
Under the Rafsanjani administration, the parastatal foundations (Bonyads), which were initially created to provide services and patronage for the underclass and consolidate the primary base of support for the regime, transformed into commercial entities. In due time, as the economic and political power of these organizations expanded, they constituted a parallel economy and parallel centers of political power. These organizations came under the immediate supervision of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and were accountable to him and his office. This development had a dual impact: Economically, these entities came to have privileged access to government loans, no-bid contracts and lucrative business opportunities. Thus through their oligopolistic control of the market, they substantially undermined the role of the private sector and free competition. Politically, for the most part, they transferred power from elected institutions to unelected ones. Taken together, this combined to reduce both economic efficiency and political accountability.
With the surprising ascendance of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997, Iran underwent a process of political opening in which restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press and assembly were eased, and a genuine political and policy debate flourished on the nature of Islamic government, the role of civil society and the rule of law. Whereas in the previous administrations censorship of the printed press, literature and cinema was pervasive, during Khatami’s first term in office censorship was relaxed and many restrictions on political associations diminished. Many nongovernmental organizations, syndicates and guilds emerged. In this period, student organizations became particularly active, and many intellectuals found their voice and published new journals and books contributing to the political education of the public. The lively debates on the relations between Islam and democracy were accompanied by the mushrooming of websites, including blogs, and it was in this period that social media was first used effectively as an instrument of political education and popular mobilization.
These political developments and the emergence of a robust civil society alarmed the conservative wing of political elite, led by Khamenei. Fearful that reforms implemented by Khatami administration may unleash social forces that the regime may not be able to control, the conservatives used the security forces, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij paramilitaries to sabotage many of Khatami’s political initiatives and reforms and to crack down hard on student protest and intellectual dissent. They were determined that Khatami’s Iranian version of Perestroika and Glasnost would not have the same outcome that prefigured the collapse of the communist regime in the former Soviet Union.
Moreover, while Khatami’s political rhetoric included abundant references to rule of law and civil society, it remarkably lacked any components to tackle economic issues, including the widening gap between the rich and the poor, or propose any remedies to endemic corruption. The Khatami administration also failed to transform any institutional structures of the Islamic state, a necessary step to genuinely democratizing Iranian society. Therefore, the structural impediments to democratization remained intact.
While Khatami’s administration aroused many members of the educated Iranian middle class, raising their expectations about the possibilities of politics to change Iranian society fundamentally, it did little to inspire the rural and urban poor and enlist their support for his government. By not addressing the issues of economic equality and social justice and by proving unable to control the paramilitaries and security forces’ assault on civil liberties and human rights, in due time, Khatami began to lose support among both the middle and the lower classes. Thus by 2005, the political pendulum moved to the right and Ahmadinejad, a populist with humble origins who had been a relatively unknown member of the Revolutionary Guards before serving as mayor of Tehran, ascended to the presidency.
During the 2005 presidential race, Ahmadinejad’s electoral campaign mobilized the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij networks to get out the vote for him. Given his promise to distribute the country’s oil wealth more equitably and fight corruption, he did particularly well among the urban and the rural poor as well as the socially conservative sector of the lower middle classes. During his tenure as president, Ahmadinejad initiated a number of policies to consolidate his base of support among his constituencies. He expanded the role of the Revolutionary Guards in the economy, providing them with extensive and lucrative no-bid contracts, as well as the ownership of many formerly state-owned enterprises and assets transferred to them at low prices in a privatization campaign. While curtailing subsidies on gasoline, he spread cash payments and handouts in the provinces and in the poor neighborhoods of select cities to expand his populist appeal.
Despite his distributive policies, Ahmadinejad oversaw a crackdown on dissent and civil society groups. In his attempt to impose his conservative moral vision on the society, he further restricted the limited freedoms of speech, press and assembly. His administration arrested many activists, journalists and student leaders. The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij paramilitaries were given a free reign in suppressing opposition forces. Politically muzzled, the Khatami-era civil society groups and political activists went underground.
As a result of these policies, toward the end of his first term in the office, Ahmadinejad became particularly unpopular among Iran’s educated middle class. This loss of public support manifested itself dramatically in 2009 when, in his presidential re-election bid, there were reports of widespread irregularities, tampering with ballot boxes and election-rigging in his favor. The subsequent massive anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrations, dubbed the “Green Movement,” revealed how much the base of support for the Islamic Republic has eroded since its inception in 1979. When Khamenei publicly supported Ahmadinejad and denounced his critics and political opponents—investing much political capital in reinstating him to power for a second term, given the extent of Ahmadinejad’s unpopularity—it led to the erosion of Khamenei’s personal legitimacy as well. It also put into question the honesty of the entire electoral process on which the republican legitimacy of the regime resides.
As Ahmadinejad’s confrontational political posture came to alienate many within his constituency as well as the different sectors of Iranian elites, including the supreme leader, the president became a political liability for the political system as a whole, with negative ramifications for both domestic and foreign policy. As a polarizing figure, Ahmadinejad’s reinstatement to the presidency for a second term also divided the clerical elite, with Rafsanjani, Khatami and other reformists on one side, and Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and other notable conservatives on the other. While the two sides displayed their differences publicly, and the two leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were put under house arrest, the partisan divide did not culminate in a bloody confrontation between the two factions. While at times lower-ranking members of the ruling elite have lost their heads politically—and literally—for stepping out of line, since its inception, the Islamic Republic has refused to engage in bloody violence to settle internal elite factional differences at the highest levels. This policy has proved to be prudent for the longevity of the regime.
While Ahmadinejad’s tenure in office coincided with a rise in global oil prices that brought large amount of petrodollars to the government’s coffers, his mismanagement of the economy toward the end of his tenure increased the rate of inflation to 42 percent, with unemployment climbing to 18 percent and consumer prices soaring. His removal of subsidies on gasoline made life more difficult in particular for the very poor people that he had promised to protect.
The imposition of a fourth set of U.S., European Union and United Nations sanctions on Iran, which encompassed the energy and the banking sectors, diminished the flow of oil income and caused the value of the Iranian currency, the rial, to plummet by 80 percent, exacerbating the country’s economic woes. With the eruption of the “Arab Spring” uprisings revealing the fragility of the region’s authoritarian regimes and their tenuous hold on power, it became abundantly clear to Iran’s ruling elite that a change of political course at home and abroad was necessary to restore the flagging legitimacy of the regime and to ensure its survival.
The ascendance to the presidency in 2013 of Hassan Rouhani, a graduate of Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland and a man with decidedly different political temperaments than his predecessor, marked the official declaration of this change of course. Some observers have described Iran’s 2013 presidential election as an example of “electoral authoritarianism,” whereby ruling elites allow a facade of democratic competition in order to curb a crisis of legitimacy, placate reformists, conceal the coercive mechanisms of state power and ultimately to incubate their hegemony over the domestic political sphere. Others have dubbed this election an “electoral uprising” of sorts, in large part because it illustrated that a single ideological stream cannot irreversibly determine the course of Iran’s political system. Still others, such as Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, an Iranian sociologist, have argued that the main reason that the Iranian people’s “mobilizational potential turned into an electoral uprising” lay not in the structure of the Islamic Republic but in the social forces that repeatedly remake it from below.
In any case, the unanticipated ascent of Rouhani to the presidency once again demolished the conventional binary view of the Iranian polity in which an omnipotent and omnipresent supreme leader holds all the power, controls the political conduct of all political actors and determines all political outcomes. While Iran is by no means a democracy, and the vetting of the candidates who run for the public office, including the presidency, demonstrates the extent to which Iranian elections are engineered and staged, many members of Iranian civil society have concluded that the person who ultimately becomes the steward of the ship of state can make a difference in their lives. Moreover, voting matters because it is the only game in town. This reveals that the popular aspiration for political participation that manifested itself in the Iranian revolution of 1979, as well as in the 2009 Green Movement, is alive and well, and so are the moments of spontaneity and inspired political initiatives, which, though dormant at times, tend to catch all experts by surprise.
In a state founded on personalized rule, rather than on institutions and the rule of law, in which the maintenance and extension of the supreme leader’s power is dependent on cultivating divisions among his political foes and friends alike, the vulnerability of the state to such internal bursts of public discontent, as manifested in the June 2013 vote that brought Rouhani to power, is the hallmark and the central paradox of patrimonial government.
The Limitations of Democratizing a Theocracy
In addition to the tensions between the republican and the Islamic attributes of Iranian government discussed earlier, the duality of power also poses formidable challenges to democratization of the political system. The Iranian state and polity represent a hybrid mix of parallel institutions. Politically, there is the unelected supreme leader buttressed by other powerful unelected entities such as the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council. This unelected power structure is juxtaposed with the elected and official institutions of power such as the presidency and the parliament. In this hybrid form of governance, while the parliament and president deliberate and carry out the day-to-day affairs of government, the supreme leader has the last word on all political matters regarding domestic and foreign policy. Since real power resides in the supreme leader, the unelected offices come to dominate the political landscape.
This parallel power structure is not confined to the political realm. It encompasses the Iranian economy as well. On one hand, there is an official economy with a stock exchange, a private sector, trade and barter and the like. On the other, there is an unofficial economy in which the parastatal foundations and the Revolutionary Guards use their political influence and connections to dominate the market.
The third major parallel power structure is found in the security forces, with the regular army existing alongside the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij paramilitaries. The regular army is a more professional institution and is used for the defense of the country’s borders. The guards and the Basijis, whose ideological indoctrination is more intense and whose loyalty to the regime is less in doubt, are used to suppress the opposition and maintain “law and order” throughout the country.
This dual power structure in the political, economic and military realms can potentially lead to malfunction and political paralysis. But it can also serve as an arena of contestation in which, with skillful balancing, the different levers can present the leader with several options and instruments for the exercise of power and implementation of policy. As long as this multiplicity of power, and the chaos it may induce, can be handled skillfully, the regime will survive.
Because the public political sphere in Iran is restricted and often stifled, real political life goes underground and assumes a subterranean existence, surfacing only in moments of acute crisis or opportunity, as was witnessed in 2009. Once the next major crisis comes, however, the resourcefulness and the ideological orientation of these forces will certainly play a decisive role in determining the future course of Iranian society.
Manochehr Dorraj is professor of political science at Texas Christian University. He has published extensively on Iranian politics, including the books “From Zarathustra to Khomeini: Populism and Dissent in Iran” and “Iran Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Islamic Republic” (co-edited with Mehran Kamrava). He has also authored more than 50 articles and book chapters on Iran in scholarly journals. Among his most recent publications are “Iran’s Expanding Relations with China and Their Strategic Dimensions” with M. Monshipouri; “Iran’s Foreign Policy: A Shifting Strategic Landscape” with N. Entessar; and “Iran’s Northern Exposure: Foreign Policy Challenges in Eurasia” (2013).