*(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. Despite its ever-increasingly status as a major power, Iran has been under near-constant pressure from outside powers such as the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States who view Iran’s rise and increasing regional influence with suspicion and as a threat to the global hegemony of the US and other Western 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 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. 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. By 1920, Iran 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. Despite his aggressive plan for modernization and improving Iranian political institutions, Pahlavi limited democratic political rights. Declaring that “every country has its own ruling system and ours is a one-man system,” Pahlavi placed restrictions on press freedoms, political freedom, and workers’ rights. Additionally, elections to the Majiles under Pahlavi’s rule were far from democratic (as only property-owning men over the age of 21 had the right to vote in Iran at the time) and candidates had to be approved by the interior ministry. Perhaps the least fair election under the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi was the 1939 Majiles election, which saw not even one opposition figure elected to the Iranian Parliament.
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 that removed Mohammed Mossadegh from power, political development in Iran remained stagnant. Even though he granted women the right to vote in 1962 and continued Iran on the path of economic modernization, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi cracked down on political opponents such as Islamists, leftists and democracy supporters, banned opposition political parties, and restricted press freedom. 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.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi also created intelligence organizations such as SAVAK with the purpose of monitoring Iranian citizens and using any means at their disposal to deal with political dissent. For example, according to a 1976 Amnesty International report, Iran under the Shah had the world’s highest number of political prisoners (estimated to be ~100,000 at the time) and “the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief.” The situation in Iran was so dire at this point that even countries with authoritarian records such as the Soviet Union spoke out against such policies and called upon the international community to push Iran to reform its policies.
Because of such policies, 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 South Africa (The Shah strongly supported and encouraged Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people and the Apartheid policies of the South African government) and the undemocratic nature of his government. Due to the continued authoritarian rule of the Shah and the failures of his administration to address the long-term problems facing Iranian society, the Iranian people began to demonstrate for his overthrow in early 1978. At first, the Shah attempted to use force to crush the demonstrators, but eventually, the protesters succeeded in the goal when the Shah left Iran in exile in early 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, Israel, 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. The current Iranian constitution consists of several different elements making up the governmental structure. The Iranian Constitution is based on the idea of the veyat-e-faqih, which forms the main part of Shi’a political thought. It advocates a guardianship based political system, which relies upon a capable jurist to assume the leadership of government in the absence of an infallible Imam. The basis for the judicial system in Iran is Shari’ah law and the government requires all laws that are passed to be compatible with Islam. Additionally, the Iranian Constitution grants all Iranian citizens basic human rights and civil liberties regardless of religion, race, gender, or ethnicity. Iran also has universal voting rights for all men and women over the age of 16 (15 prior to 2005).
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 can 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% and is widely considered to be a model election in the region. On the other hand, the Iranian Constitution places restrictions on civil and political liberties (mostly related to political candidate selection) and places several limits on individual freedom. Despite the structural weaknesses associated with the political system of Iran, the high level of political mobilization among the Iranian populace suggests a level of political liberalization. Additionally, Iran is characterized by a relatively open political climate when compared to other countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, and Egypt.
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 2005 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 declined overall. 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 anti-Zionist political groups 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.
Ideal Political System for Iran
Based on the previously discussed information, the best step for Iran would be to reform the Islamic Republic system of government. Such a step would keep the current Iranian Consitution and most legislation in place but allow for a far greater level of political freedom. Additionally, this would be easy to implement due to the fact that it would not require the creation of a new political system in Iran. Under this scenario, the position of Supreme Leader would either become directly-elected or be done away with in its entirety. As such, the Iranian President (or military head) would become the main political position in the country and would have the final say on all major policies. Several countries that support the idea of gradual reform within the confines of the Iranian political system include France, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, and Ireland. It would be advantageous for Iran to continue to develop ties with these countries in order to gain support at the international level for further political reform.
On the other hand, the two least ideal political systems for Iran would be a constitutional monarchy or a secular republic. Both proposals would not be feasible because they would involve the entire restructuring of the Iranian political system, which may be resisted by hardline elements in the current regime. Additionally, a total restructuring of the Iranian political system may weaken Iranian society and allow for hostile nations opposed to a strong Iran such as the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia gain a foothold in Iran to ruthless oppress the Iranian people and commit a genocide against them (much like the one that occurred under Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi’s rule). A secular republic may also not be accepted because the values it promotes may go against the overall values of the Iranian people.
What does Trump mean for the future of Iran?
President Donald Trump has generally appointed neo-conservatives such as James Mattis and Mike Pompeo to positions of power in his cabinet and views the conflict between the US and Iran as a religious struggle between Shi’a Islam on one hand, and Christianity, Sunni Islam, and Judaism on the other. Additionally, Trump has also talked about a hardening stance with Iran over a number of issues and has met with the leadership of Saudi Arabia and Israel to build up support for an anti-Iran alliance. The development of an anti-Iranian alliance in the Middle East threatens to place the US in the course of military action against Iran.
President Trump is also close with Iranian opposition leaders such as Maryam Rajavi (the head of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (MEK), a militant group that has killed close to 20,000 Iranian civilians between 1981 and 2001) and Reza Pahlavi (the late Shah of Iran’s son, who is working as an operative for the US and Israeli governments). Both Reza Pahlavi and Maryam Rajavi have little support within Iran and would thus not be viewed as legitimate democratic leaders if they somehow gained power. If a war was launched against Iran by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, it would reduce the chances for Iran to gradually transition into a full democracy, permanently destabilize the entire Middle East, and negatively impact the global economy. Additionally, a war with Iran threatens to spark a major global conflict, as countries such as China and Russia have mutual defense pacts with Iran and would intervene on Iran’s behalf in the event of any potential attack.
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 exists the potential for Iran to go through a gradual process towards full democratization. A potential agreement between both groups may allow Iran to go through a gradual and phased transition to democracy within the confines of the current Iranian political structure. Additionally, a gradual approach to democratization might serve as a way to reduce some of the tensions that have occurred in other countries that implemented a less gradual and more immediate democratic transition. Such a transition is also dependent on continued political activism among the populace, the overall strength of the economy in the coming years, the role of foreign powers, and the future role of Iran within the Middle East.