*(This article was originally posted on December 30, 2016, but was updated in response to President Trump’s visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel and the recent Iranian Presidential Election)
Over the past century, many countries in the Middle East have sought to move towards democracy. In these cases, some countries successfully transitioned and many others slipped towards authoritarianism. Some of the factors inhibiting the establishment of democratic governments in the Middle East include the influence of the military, cultural and historical factors, and religious factors. Additionally, the legacies of Western imperialism and the role of outside powers such as the US helped to play a role in both the successes and failures of democratization in the region. Iran is one such country that has experiences with democratic political movements. Despite its experiences with democratic political movements and the fact that the dynamics of the country make it a strong candidate for political change, Iran has yet to become a full democracy.
With a population of close to 80 million and an economy with a GDP nearing $400 billion, Iran has the largest population in the Middle East and the second-biggest economy in the region after Saudi Arabia. Iran plays a major role in the international economy as one of the world’s largest producers of oil. Iran is characterized by a highly effective and centralized governmental structure and has established a reputation as an increasingly important regional power. The Iranian people are bound together by a shared sense of national identity derived from both Shi’a Islam and pre-Islamic heritage that has endured despite governmental changes and the influence of outside powers.
History of Democratic Political Movements in Iran
Known as Persia until 1935, Iran (meaning land/place of the Aryan) has been a unified country for the past 2,500 years and resisted colonialism by Western powers. Even though Iran resisted colonialism, countries such as Great Britain and Russia had a strong influence in Iran during the 19th and early 20th Centuries and convinced the Iranian government (then under the rule of Shah Mozaffar ad-Din Qajar) to grant them full access to Iranian natural resources. Such policies angered the Iranian public, who saw their country declining at the hands of a weak government. Additionally, a new social group consisting of the intelligentsia and the middle class exposed to enlightenment political ideals called for a parliamentary system.
This desire for political change culminated with the 1905-1911 Persian Constitutional Revolution, which was a response to the 1904-1905 Iranian economic crisis. The response by Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar triggered a wave of popular unrest throughout the country. Some of the goals of the protesters included the establishment of an elected national assembly (the Majiles), a modern judiciary system, and a constitution. Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar dismissed the protesters, but eventually gave in to the demands due to an ongoing general strike and signed a decree on August 5, 1906, allowing for the holding of national elections for election to the Constituent Assembly.
The Iranian Constitution divided powers between the Majiles and the Shah. The Shah had the power to declare war, sign treaties, appoint cabinet members, and sign any proposed bills into law. The Majiles, in turn, had the authority to propose legislation and had the final say on all laws, trade agreements, concessions, and treaties. Additionally, the Iranian Constitution gave the citizens a bill of rights including freedom of speech, equality under the law, and freedom of assembly. The two dominant political parties in Iran after the Consititutional Revolution were the Moderate Socialists Party and the Democrat Party. The Moderate Socialists Party largely followed a platform aligned with traditional conservatism and gradualism, whereas the Democrat Party was a proponent of the ideology of modern liberalism and secularism.
Despite the initial optimism surrounding the Constitutional Revolution, the political leaders of Iran soon realized that it lacked the full power to reform the country, as well as to develop comprehensive solutions to the problems facing Iran such as the continued influence of the UK and Russia on Iranian politics, societal inequalities in Iran, and events such as the 1917-1919 Iranian famine (which killed an estimated 10 million people). As such, Iran by 1920 was considered a “failed state” with a weak government a political system immobilized by competing visions and rivalries.
The rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran further influenced the struggle for the establishment of democracy in Iran. Two years after leading a coup against the British-back Iranian government, Pahlavi became Prime Minister in 1923. As Prime Minister, Pahlavi sought to modernize Iran and create a strong, centralized government that would ensure political peace and societal stability. By 1925, Pahlavi had enough political support to convince the Majiles to exile Ahmad Shah Qajar and install himself as the next Shah of Iran.
After his coronation in April 1926, Reza Shah Pahlavi continued the radical reforms he had embarked on while prime minister. He broke the power of the tribes, which had been a turbulent element in the nation, disarming and partly settling them. In 1928 he put an end to the one-sided agreements and treaties with foreign powers, abolishing all special privileges. He built the Trans-Iranian Railway and started branch lines toward the principal cities, as well as developing other physical and human infrastructure such as roads, schools, and hospitals. Pahlavi also opened the first univeristy in Iran in 1934. Additionally, Pahlavi abolished the institution of slavery in Iran via the Iranian Slavery Abolition Act of 1929. Pahlavi also expanded women’s rights in Iran and encouraged Iranian women to take an active role in the future of the country. Pahlavi’s modernization policies were directed at the same time toward the democratization of the country and its emancipation from foreign interference.
The Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 resulted in the abdication of Reza Shah Pahlavi and the rise of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, into power as the Shah of Iran. Pahlavi initially turned over much of the political authority to the Majiles and did not get that involved in domestic politics. The relaxing of political restrictions in Iran led to a period of political debate not seen since the Constitutional Revolution. The two political factions that emerged during this period were the Tudeh Party and the National Front. The Tudeh Party was the Iranian communist party and had the support of the working class, student movements, and the intellectuals. The National Front was a loose parliamentary coalition comprised of members of the upper-middle class, professionals, business people, and nationalists. Led by Mohammed Mossadegh, a long-serving member of the Majiles, the National Front sought to establish national sovereignty and diminish foreign control over Iranian society. The message of independence and sovereignty put forward by the National Front resonated deeply resonated with the Iranian people, who long desired independence and the power to determine their futures.
By early 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh had mobilized enough support within the Majiles to become the Iranian prime minister and implemented a plan to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Mossadegh also proposed a series of progressive policy proposals such as an electoral reform law and a proposed replacing the monarchy with a democratic republic. Both the Shah and the British government were strongly opposed to such policy proposals and sought to remove Mossadegh from power. Eventually, the British government convinced the US government to back a coup attempt based on the pretense that Mossadegh was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and that the nationalization of Iranian oil was a threat to American oil interests in the region. The coup, known as Operation Ajax, succeeded in its goal of removing Mossadegh from power and in turn, gave the Shah increased powers in relation to the elected government of Iran and represented a setback in the quest for democracy in Iran.
In the years after the 1953 Coup, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi followed in his fathers footsteps and implemented an aggressive plan to modernize Iranian society and to make Iran a major world power. Under the Shah, the Iranian economy diversified and massive investments were made into physical and human infrastructure.
Iran also pursued a constructive foreign policy under the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Over the course of the Shahs rule, Iran developed constructive ties with all members of the international community and developed a reputation as a “non-aligned” nation during the Cold War. Additionally, Iran participated in numerous UN peacekeeping missions from the 1950s-1970s and attempted to mediate ongoing worldwide disputes such as the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Arguably the most impactful aspect of the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was the “White Revolution,” a series of policy reforms first introduced in 1962. The main goals of the “White Revolution” were to make Iran into a modernized nation and a major global power. Some of the hallmarks of the “White Revolution” were efforts to reduce gender inequality in Iran, the redistribution of wealth from the wealthy landowner class to members of the lower class, the development of Iranian human infrastructure, the nationalization of Iranian national resources, and increased cultural exchange between Iran and other countries under a so-called “Dialogue of Civilizations.”
Despite the economic and social reforms, political development remained stagnant during the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The activities of opposition political parties, press freedom, and electoral freedom were limited during the Shah’s rule and any dissent was harshly punished. Much like under his father, elections during Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s time in power were unfair and rigged. For example, the 1960 Majiles elections were considered to be “extensively and clumsily rigged,” and its results led to so much of an outcry that they were annulled. Additionally, governmental corruption and inequalities in terms of wealth, equality of outcome, and the pace of development emerged as major issues in Iran as the 1960s and 1970s progressed.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi also created the intelligence organization SAVAK in 1956 with the goal and monitoring groups opposed to his reign such as leftists and islamists. At times, SAVAK targeted members of these groups with arrest, torture, and (at times) execution. Between 1956 and its dissolution in 1978, SAVAK agents killed roughly 368 anti-Shah guerrilla fighters and executed up to 300 political prisoners. These tactics on the part of SAVAK alienated many Iranians from the rule of the Shah and increased support for his overthrow as the 1960s and 1970s progressed.
.As Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi became more secure in his role as the leader of Iran, political and social tensions drastically increased in Iran in the 1960s and 1970s. The opposition movement to the Shah during this period was led by religious leaders such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who criticized the Shah for his corruption, alliance with the US, diplomatic ties with Israel and the lack of democratic political institutions in Iran. In response to these charges, the Shah began to reduce restrictions on political freedom in Iran in 1976, allowing opposition groups to become active, issuing amnesty for political prisoners, and expanding press freedom. These changes resulted in criticism of the Iranian government under the Shah to become more common and convinced many people that governmental change was essential for Iran to become a democracy.
The small scale criticism of the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi began to heat up in the fall of 1977 and Iran eventually entered a revolutionary stage by the beginning of 1978. The Shah generally continued with his policy of liberalization as a way to reduced revolutionary sentiment and refused to authorize the Iranian military to use force against the protestors. These actions further emboldened the protestors and made the overthrow of the Shah inevitable.
Additionally, many of the countries allied to Iran such as the US, UK, France, Germany, and Israel did not offer Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi much support in the lead up to his overthrown. The lack of support offered to the Shah perhaps can be attributed to the fact that Iran was beginning to become more independent from the West as the 1970s progressed. Moreover, it has also been alleged that the US, UK, and France may have assisted Iranian opposition groups during the Iranian Revolution as a way to weaken Iran and further destabilize the Middle East.
Ultimately, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi fled Iran in exile in January of 1979 as the protest movement reached its zenith. Before leaving Iran, the Shah appointed Shapour Bakhtiar, a leader of the secular democratic movement as prime minister of Iran. While he attempted to transition Iran to a parliamentary democracy, Bakhtiar eventually surrendered to Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian government collapsed in February 11, 1979. Khomeini subsequently declared Iran an Islamic Republic on April 1, 1979 and approved the current Iranian constitution in December of 1979.
In the aftermath of the Revolution, Iranian society was characterized by conflict between various political factions. Some of the political factions who sought power during this period were the People’s Mojahedin of Iran, the Freedom Movement of Iran, and religious conservatives. The key event that allowed the Iranian government under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini to consolidate was the nine-year-long Iran-Iraq War, which united the country around the government in the face of an existential threat. Even though the war ended in a stalemate, Iran was considered to have won because it lost no territory and successfully repelled a foreign invader who was backed by major Western powers such as the US, France, the Soviet Union, and the UK. The victory over Iraq further aligned the Iranian people with their government and allowed Khomeini to consolidate his hold on power.
Political Structure of Iran
After the Iranian Revolution and the consolidation of power by the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, an entirely new governmental structure was set up and Iran was declared to be an Islamic Republic. While Iran previously had a legal system based on secular law, Khomeini introduced a Sharia-based legal system. While the claimed goals of these laws was to make Iranian society a more religious and pious country, such laws have had the opposite effect and have made Islam a symbol of torture and oppression in the eyes of many Iranians. Additionally, the rights of religious minorities in Iran were limited by the Iranian government. In particular, members of the Baha’i faith and Sunni Muslims have had their rights limited by the Iranian government and have been the target of government actions such as arrests, mass executions, and the denial political freedoms.
Additionally, the Iranian economy largely changed as a result of the Islamic Revolution. While largely characterized by global integration during the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Iranian economy post-Revolution is characterized by a reliance on Import-Substitution-Industrialization (ISI) and lack of global integration. These factors have negatively impacted the Iranian economy and resulted in numerous problems such as high poverty, inflation, and corruption among government officials.
Since the Iranian Revolution, the human rights situation in Iran has largely declined when compared to the situation during the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Iran overall ranks in the bottom five in terms of human rights and is particularly criticized for its treatment of political prisoners, ethnic minority groups, and gender apartheid policies. For example, it is estimated that the Iranian government has killed roughly 45,000 political prisoners since the Iranian Revolution (with nearly 34,000 alone killed in 1988). Moreover, Iran presently has the highest number of political prisoners in the world and its legal system lacks mechanism meant to prevent unjust arrest and persecution of political opponents.
An in-depth analysis of the Iranian political system was previously done by the author of the site and can be found here: The Political System of Iran
Even though observers characterize the Iranian political system as authoritarian, the political structure of Iran on paper be described as a hybrid system. Iran’s political system includes elements of both authoritarian and democratic political systems. Examples of political organizations within Iran that can be described as authoritarian are the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and the Islamic courts. Democratic political institutions within Iran include the presidency, the Majiles, and the regular court system.
Political activism is commonplace within Iran, with a high level of political mobilization among all elements of the population and a substantial degree of competition between candidates for public office. For example, the most recent Iranian Presidential election had a turnout of ~73%. On the other hand, the Iranian Constitution places strict limits on civil and political liberties and places several limits on individual freedom.
Current Political Issues within Iran
There are currently several different issues facing Iran that play an impact on the future of democratization within Iran and the outcome of such issues be explained through the application of several theories regarding democratization. One of the major issues facing Iran in recent years is the conflict between the reformists and the traditionalist political factions. Reformist political leaders seek to increase the power of democratic institutions, open Iran to the international community, and implement a series of long-lasting structural changes to the Iranian political system. On the other hand, the more traditional groups within the Iranian political system are generally opposed to major reforms and seek to preserve the Iranian political system in its current form. The traditional factions argue that any reforms within Iran will weaken its government and allow nations hostile to Iran to gain a foothold in the country.
The struggle between the reformist and conservative elements in Iranian politics reached its peak during the reformist presidency of Mohammed Khatami, which lasted from 1997-2005. Despite control of the Majiles by reformist political parties and widespread support among the Iranian populace, the reform efforts by Khatami were hindered by political institutions such as the Guardian Council, the Judiciary, and even by the Supreme Leader. Additionally, because Khatami was part of the Iranian political establishment, his reforms only focused on the policies put forward by the government, they were not intended to establish a new form of government within Iran.
The dynamic between the hard-liners and the soft-liners within the Iranian government reflects the theory proposed by Adam Przeworski in “Democracy and the Market.” A possible democratic transition in Iran is dependent on any agreement made between the moderates and conservatives within the government. The overall success of such an arrangement is dependent on the resilience of political institutions within Iran and the willingness of the moderate factions in both the pro-democracy and anti-democracy groups to reduce the influence of the radical elements who are opposed to any political compromise. An agreement between both political factions within Iran may also result in an increasing level of political liberalization and the opening of the Iranian political sphere to an increasingly diverse group of people. The higher level of political liberalization may, in turn, may result in the collapse of the current regime and the replacement of it with a more democratic government. Despite its potential successes in forcing a regime transition, political liberalism is not feasible unless everyone has a full and accurate knowledge of everyone’s political preferences and the probability of successful repression by the government.
The overall societal attitudes towards democracy also play a factor in determining the likelihood of a democratic transition in Iran. Several studies carried out in Iran between 1975 and 2008 reveal a relatively mixed picture regarding support for democracy within Iran. Both studies showed that democracy support was negatively correlated with religiosity, with the more religious respondents expressing weaker support for democracy. The surveys revealed that education, gender, and age correlated with higher support for democratic reform and that the greater the public dissatisfaction with the government, the greater were the demands for democratization. Such findings reveal that there is a lack of consensus and national unity among the Iranian people regarding the ideal political system for their country.
Modernization theory stipulates that as economic development increases, the level of democracy and political freedom in a country will increase as well. The experiences of Iran over the past few decades show the opposite trend. For example, Iran experienced high levels of industrialization throughout the 1950s through the 1970s that allowed it to emerge as an economic leader of the developing world. Despite the high level of economic development that characterized Iran during this period, the overall level of democracy and political freedom remained stagnant. Additionally, Iran has again witnessed increased levels of economic growth and investment since the partial removal of international sanctions against it over the past year. Despite the removal of sanctions and increasing relations between Iran and the rest of the international community, overall political development within Iran continues to remain stagnant and political change seems unlikely in the near-term.
The role of the military in a democratic transition in Iran is also a major factor. The Iranian military is divided into two different factions, the regular military, and the Revolutionary Guards. Whereas the regular military is charged with protecting Iran from any outside threats, the Revolutionary Guard is tasked with preserving the Iranian governmental system from any internal or external threats. The Revolutionary Guards has trained several violent extremist groups active in the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah and has recently been involved in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Revolutionary Guards were involved in suppressing the 2009 protests in response to alleged disputes in the Iranian Presidential election that year. Iranian politicians in both the reformist and moderate political factions are opposed to the increasing role by the Revolutionary Guards in Iranian politics and have repeatedly sought to place limits on the organization’s influence and power. In response, the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards has often threatened to support a coup against the Iranian government if their authority and power are reduced.
Several factors may ultimately influence a proposed democratic transition in Iran. Arguably the strongest factor that would play a role is the relationships between the hardliners and the moderates within the government. In the relationship between both the hardliners and the reformists within the Iranian government shows that there is a minimal chance for Iran to become a democracy through gradual means. As such, it is likely that the best way for Iran to become a full democracy is through a change in the political system of Iran. The likelihood of changing the political system of Iran is dependent on continued activism by the Iranian people and increasing awareness of democratic political ideals.