Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

7: The Political Development of the Islamic Republic of Iran

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Modern State, Ancient Identity

    Like China and India, Iran is a modern nation-state with deep roots in the past. While a revolution in 1979 established the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iranians look back with pride on cultural and political traditions that go back to the rule of Cyrus the Great in the Sixth Century BC.   While Iran is in the Middle East and its population is almost entirely Muslim, it differs from its neighbors in the region in two important ways. While 90% of Muslims around the world are Sunni, Iran is one of two countries with a Shi’a majority (Iraq is the other). A second important distinction is that Iran is not an Arab state; the majority of its inhabitants are of Persian descent, though  there are significant Kurdish and Azeri minorities. Many of the conflicts Iran has encountered with Arab neighbors in recent years are rooted in these differences. More often than not, religion has not been the actual source of conflict. The real battles have been over power and influence in the region. As we shall see, Iranian identity has also been shaped and reshaped by foreign invasion and intervention, from Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE to Britain, Russia, and the United States in the 20th century. One of the lasting consequences of this history is a strong sense of nationalism and defense of the country’s sovereignty which most Iranians share regardless of political differences. We cannot understand the current tensions between Iran, its neighbors in the Middle East, and the United States, without taking that history into account. We will look more closely at the contemporary manifestations of these attitudes in later readings. This chapter will trace the historical events and processes that have shaped modern Iranian politics and culminated in the Iranian Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

    Foreign invasions: Change and Continuity

    As just noted, a series of foreign invaders, starting with Alexander the Great, have left lasting influences on modern Iran even as a sense of Persian cultural identity has endured. The most important of these invaders were the Arabs who brought Islam to Iran in the 7th and 8th century. While a distinct sense of Persian culture persisted in language, literature, and other cultural forms, the religion became dominant over much of the region quickly. As the reach of Arab empires receded, other invaders—Turk, Mongol, and Afghan ruled over Iran but the invaders that would leave a lasting influence were the Safavids, which ruled over Iran from 1501 to 1736. The rulers of this dynasty were ethnic Turks who migrated into the northern region of what is modern Iran during Mongol rule in the 13th century.

    After consolidating control, they sought to establish a more administratively centralized state than had existed previously, though not on the scale of a modern nation-state. In order to create a stronger sense of unity among ethnic Persians, Turks, Azeris, Tajiks, and other ethnic groups, the population was forced to convert to Shi’a Islam.  It was a brutal process; the Safavid monarch, or Shah, Ismail I killed and imprisoned Sunnis who resisted and destroyed Sunni Mosques. The Safavids, like most Muslim rulers throughout the Middle East and Europe at this time, tolerated other small religious communities, including Jews and Christians, as long as they paid their taxes and supported the kings. Despite becoming a Shi’a based empire, the Safavids also made little effort to change the cultural traditions of the population; the capital Isfahan, remained a Persian city and Persian cultural traditions and values remained strong.

    The Qajar Dynasty: External Control and Internal Reform Movements

    The Safavid Dynasty collapsed in 1722 when Afghan Tribesmen invaded. Another group of ethnic Turks rose to power after a fifty-year civil war. The Qajar rulers were descendants of a Turkish tribe that had lived in the northern region of the Safavid dynasty and served in important positions in the administration of that dynasty. Once they established effective control, the Qajars moved the capital to Tehran, where it remains today. The Qajars saw no need to reinvent the proverbial wheel and kept many of the governmental structures that the Safavids had in place. Shi'ism became the official religion of Iran, even though it was already practiced by the majority of the population. 

    In the 19th century, the expansion of European trade and commerce caused by the industrial revolution and imperialism presented significant challenges for the Qajar dynasty. While the consequences of outside influence were not on the same scale as in India and China, they were nonetheless pervasive and lasting.  Russia expanded the territorial control of the Russian empire into the Caucasus mountains region to the northwest of Iran. The Russians also demanded to be able to claim the fishing rights in the Caspian Sea. Oil rights were sold, under intense diplomatic and military pressure to various British companies, giving them considerable influence in the area and other resource rights were sold bit by bit to European investors in the region. The Qajars also borrowed vast sums of money from European lenders which increased the amount of power and influence Europeans had in Iran. At several points, the British military took direct control of Iranian customs operations to be sure taxes were paid on British goods.

    As in India and China, growing foreign influence in Iran and the inability of the Qajars to maintain the empire’s sovereignty and independence provoked internal opposition. As in every other place where European nations took control in the pursuit of national power, nationalist sentiments grew in response. The Qajar concessions to British and Russian economic demands were condemned as “capitulations.” Most of these opponents were well-educated elites who saw much to admire in modern western political and economic reforms and institutions, but did not wish to live under foreign domination and strove to see Iran establish its rightful place as a sovereign, modern nation. Anger about Iran's economic and political weakness came to a head in 1905 when the Qajar ruler, Shah Muzaffar ad Din took loans from Russia to finance a trip to Europe. After he went back on promises to establish a legislative assembly group, over 10,000 Iranians camped out inside the grounds of the British Embassy and drafted a constitution which the Shah signed, under pressure from Britain, on December 30, 1906.

    Thus, the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 established a constitutional monarchy that lasted, in various forms and guises, until the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and continues to influence the constitution of the Islamic Republic.  The new constitution codified the establishment of a parliamentary body, the Majlis, which was to represent all people, including religious minorities who were assigned seats. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians all had seats in the Majlis, though Bahais were denied representation. The Majlis controlled many aspects of the state including laws, budgets, loans, and treaties.  A bill of rights was drafted which included standard civic freedoms and rights and limits were placed on the power of the monarchy. Alongside with demands for the establishment of parliamentary democracy, reforms also demanded that foreign “capitulations” be renegotiated, and Iran reassert sovereignty over its territory and resources, but the constitution did not alter the terms of foreign economic control. In fact  part of the agreement that led to the approval of the constitution granted Russia control over the army.

    One of the key points of debate and contention throughout the establishment of the constitution was the relationship between Islam and democracy. Some reformers argued they were inherently incompatible with each other, while others argued that democracy was the only form of government that could successfully incorporate Islam. Some reformers argued for the establishment of a more secular government and the weakening of Islamic influence over law and education. This was to be a debate with no easy resolution, and the new government clearly reflected these tensions. The new system was modeled after secular European systems, but also infused with Islam. Shiism was declared the official state religion. To accommodate the religious authority in the government, the Guardian Council was created. These members were senior clerics elected by the Majlis ;  they had veto power over bills that they deemed to conflict with Islam.

    The Continuing Pressure of Outside Forces

    While the new constitution appeased reformers for a time, it was far from the efficient and modern state that Iran required to alter the balance of power with European powers. The state bureaucracy remained weak administratively, with little capacity to collect taxes. In 1907, the Russian and British governments signed the Anglo-Russian Agreement which effectively carved the country into two spheres of influence and limited Iranian sovereignty to a small neutral area in the center of the country. A dispute with Russia over taxes led to Russian military forces invading and occupying the capital and suspending the taking control of the capital in 1911. The Majlis was shut down and the constitution suspended.

     From this state of weakness,  the onset of WWI launched Iran into further chaos. While not directly affected by the fighting that was going on in Europe, Iran was under pressure from Europe to pick a side since all actors coveted its oil and other resources. Alongside the pressure from Europe, famine hit, and one million people, 10% of the total population, died. Internal conflict also intensified as liberal and conservative members of the Majlis clashed over legislation. An urban middle class movement called for social reforms that would replace Sharia law, generating intense opposition from conservatives. While the conflict roiled Tehran and other major cities, there was also conflict in the countryside. The provinces that were ruled by local tribes were becoming increasingly chaotic. German forces encouraged southern tribal groups to rise up against British control and in response Britain organized its own paramilitary force of rural peoples. Russian influence dropped off with the abdication of the Tsar and the Russian Revolution, leaving Britain as the dominant international force after the war ended. 

    The Rise of the Pahlavi Dynasty

    In response to the growing anarchy and national dissolution,  Iranian military officers seized power in 1921. Colonel Reza Khan, who was the commander of the Cossack Brigade, took control, and after becoming Prime Minister in 1923, declared himself Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1925. Taking his name from an ancient Persian monarch, the new Shah set out to build a more effective central state that could reassert physical control over the country. The political model he sought to emulate was that enacted in nearby Turkey by another ambitious military officer, Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk sought to build a modern, secular state in which a powerful military would reinforce an administratively more powerful and effective modern bureaucracy while fostering a European style national identity. Ataturk systematically weakened Islamic forces and banned wearing of the veil and other Islamic forms of dress and display in public places such as government offices and schools.

    Reza Khan pursued the same path in Iran.  He shared Ataturk’s disdain for representative democracy, pursuing a form of “modernizing authoritarian” rule designed, like Bismarck’s policies in Imperial Germany, to make Iran a modern state, with secular nationalism as the anchoring ideology. As a result, the size of the state bureaucracy grew while the power of the Majlis, already weakened by political divisions, was further diminished by executive power. A system of universal conscription was established and the army grew from a fragmented collection of local forces to a strong, unified force. National development programs fostered new industries and greater production of consumer goods. A trans-Iranian railroad was constructed along with a more extensive system of roads. Increased employment in state agencies, including an expanding school system led to the growth of a middle class.

    Reza Pahlavi’s policies established greater territorial control and brought more internal order to Iran, though at the price of political rights and the aspirations of constitutional reformers. At the same time, Great Britain and the Soviet Union remained interested in the region and in order to keep both sides happy, Khan had to maintain a delicate balance act. But World War II raised the stakes for outside powers and in 1941, the Shah abdicated his throne as Britain and the Soviet Union, who feared it falling under German control, took effective control of Iran.

    Nationalism, the Cold War, and More Foreign Intervention

    After World War II, the United States joined Britain as a major-power influence on Iran. When abdicating in 1941,  Reza Pahlavi left his son Muhammad Reza Shah on the throne. In the initial context of the Cold War, the Shah was pressured to move Iran towards a parliamentary democracy in which the Shah’s role would be more symbolic and ritual; he would be head of state but subordinate to the rule of the Prime Minister and the Majlis in the construction of domestic and foreign policy. Press freedoms expanded, along with a stronger judiciary and competitive elections. Dr. Muhammed Mossadegh led the National Front, a middle class nationalist party whose most important policy goal was to take control of Iran’s oil resources from the British owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The Front also sought to accelerate the process of making the Shah more of a figurehead and symbolic representation of the Iranian past, with parliament and prime minister in control of the state and the military. 

    The most powerful rival political movement was the communist Tudeh party, whose membership came heavily from working-class trade unions. The United States initially saw Mossadegh and the National Front as a group it could work with to marginalize the communists. But things turned quite sour when, after becoming Prime Minister, Mosaddeq carried through with the plan to nationalize Iran’s oil by creating the National Iran Oil company in 1951. The move received unanimous support in the Majlis, reflecting widespread popular support. The United States initially sought to work with Mossadegh to create a compromise by which the AIOC would get some compensation as well as continued access to Iranian oil. Such a deal was not acceptable to Britain, however. After the International Court of Justice sided with Iran, Britain worked with forces close to the Shah to overthrow Mossadegh, but this was initially unsuccessful and strengthened the Prime Minister as a defender of Iranian sovereignty.

    After the failed effort to oust Mossadegh, the British continued to enforce an embargo on the export of Iranian oil, greatly weakening the economy. They also sought the support of the Eisenhower Administration in a joint effort to remove Mossadegh and restore the full powers of the Shah. They convinced Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that Mossadegh was pushing Iran towards communism, citing the Prime Minister’s collaboration with the Tudeh Party. The CIA, the British MI-5, and Iranian military officers loyal to the Shah began a program of destabilization, Operation Ajax. CIA-paid protesters, posing as members of the Tudeh Party staged increasingly violent demonstrations. This in turn generated a wave of strikes and demonstrations that led Mossadegh to strengthen his power. Between August 15 and 19, 1953, a group of military officers, supported by the CIA, removed Mossadegh from power and banned the Tudeh Party, arresting many of its members. The coup was seen in Washington as a stunning success and its methods were applied the next year in Guatemala in Central America. In the context of the Cold War, the Eisenhower Administration believed it had scored an important victory in containing the spread of communism in an area of vital interest to the United States. As we will see, however, the 1953 coup eventually produced significant “blowback,” a term used in the intelligence community for the long term unintended negative consequences of intelligence operations.

    The White Revolution

    From the beginning, Iranians were divided about the coup. While the economy had weakened because of the oil embargo, and Mossadegh had become increasingly authoritarian, the long history of foreign intervention in Iran colored how many viewed events. The Shah himself had opposed the coup thinking it was unlikely to work and having himself been a supporter of nationalization. But once in power, he quickly moved to continue the policies of his father, seeking to strengthen the Iranian state, build up the economy, and weaken Islamic authorities and institutions. This became known as the White Revolution.

    The Shah's modernization policies were most visible in the area of defense and security. The military grew to be the 5th largest in the world by 1979 and was fortified by the purchase of over $12 billion in military hardware from the United States. They also had the largest Navy in the Persian Gulf and the largest air force in Western Asia. Iran also developed an impressive tank brigade. A secret police force was created, SAVAK, or the Organization to Protect and Collect Info for State. This secret police force’s main objective was to obtain information about possible sources of dissent or track down "enemies of the state," which included almost all of the Shah's political opposition. It was ruthlessly effective; thousands were jailed and torture was widespread.

    The principle development goal of the White Revolution was to make Iran a modern industrial economy. The Shah’s father, Reza Pahlavi, had begun a significant effort to develop modern industries, largely focused on developing local consumer goods industries. Using the resources from rising oil prices, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi greatly expanded the role of the state in continuing this process. A land reform program made sharecroppers owners in an effort to modernize agriculture. The Shah pursuit of secularization also led to a narrowing of the reach of Sharia law in family law, which increased legal rights for women in relation to divorce and employment. They also gained equality in political rights, but the significance of this was diminished by the curtailment of those rights for all Iranians.

    Foreign investment was encouraged, and Tehran quickly became home to the local offices of hundreds of foreign banks and companies attracted by the apparent stability of the Shah’s government. Economic growth rates reached some of the highest levels of any developing state in the post-World War II era. By 1979, 21 government ministries employed over 300,000 civil servants. Bridges, roads, ports, and highways were all built in Iran, expanding the infrastructure and making  more internally connected. One of the biggest accomplishments of the Transport ministry was the expanded construction of the Trans-Iranian railways which connected Iran regionally in a way that it had not been before. The efforts of the transportation ministry coincided with efforts of the Ministry of Industries to expand the number of factories in Iran. These factories began manufacturing consumer goods.

    The Agricultural Ministry carried out one of the signature elements of the White Revolution: a program of land reform. Promoting small scale farm industry by the agricultural ministry was viewed as an effective way for  the Iranian state to prevent a communist revolution and promote a class of prosperous farmers. While the program weakened landed elites, the follow up did not support farmers adequately. As a result, agricultural production stagnated and the country grew even more dependent on oil production. The land reform program was also undermined by corruption as a system of royal patronage system enabled the Shah and his allies to acquire property and accumulate huge tracts of land on which to develop their own companies.

    While carrying out these modernization efforts, the Shah’s regime kept a tight rein on political activity. He believed a strong and authoritarian state was necessary to maintain control over the modernization process and ensure that the country moved forward. While there were two main parties, Iranians sarcastically referred to them as the party of “yes” and the party of “yes, sir!” The Shah believed, as had his father, that democracy would produce instability and that the tight control of dissent and opposition was necessary. By 1975, Iran was effectively a one-party state and dissent was not tolerated. The ambitious goals of modernization and industrialization, like many other states before, had an adverse effect on democracy. From the perspective of the Shah, the reduction of  political rights within Iran was, for the time being, the price of progress. 

    The Islamic Revolution 1979

    While the human rights abuses of the Pahlavi Dynasty were the target of international criticism from human rights organizations, most western governments valued the continued supply of oil as well as the stability that the Shah seemed to provide in a volatile region. For many westerners, impressed by the shiny veneer of modern Tehran, the Shah was seen as a perhaps tough but necessary form of rule for a modernizing country. He continued to sell oil to Israel when the Arabs would not, and he was a central player in the Nixon Administration’s post-Vietnam “doctrine” of supporting local strongmen in place of direct intervention. By 1975, the regime seemed firmly entrenched and the notion that within 4 years it would be swept away by a revolution that would establish an Islamic Republic was beyond inconceivable to any observer of the region.

    Revolutions always seem unlikely in advance and inevitable after the fact and this is especially true with the Iranian Revolution. At the time, the Shah’s regime seemed to reign supreme, supported by strong global allies, a large military, effective security apparatus and a growing modern economy. What made the revolution possible? The Shah’s policies were successful in statistical terms, but those numbers masked some significant problems. Rapid industrialization made Iran become a far more urban society very quickly. Land reform had given sharecroppers land but not the tools to become prosperous and many migrated to cities in which wealth and poverty were quite visibly contrasted. While the middle class benefited from some of the economic growth, and while some may have supported the removal of Mosaddeq initially, the role of foreign powers in the coup left a humiliating stain for many Iranians, which the lack of democracy in the new regime only deepened. A well-educated and more prosperous middle class expected, as middle classes have everywhere, more political rights.

    However, the most pointed criticisms of the Shah and his reforms came from religious voices, most notably the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ayatollahs are the highest level authority figures within Shia Islam. (There are no Sunni ayatollahs). There is no doctrinal equivalent of the Pope above them and they have diverse views on the relationship between religion and politics.  Some focus on scholarship and do not get involved in politics, but Khomeini was not like that. While he was a highly respected jurist and scholar, he was also a long-time critic of the Shah’s secularization policies; he had been exiled first to Iraq and then France. But his ideas were disseminated through cassettes of his sermons which were smuggled into Iran. A listener, selling his wares in the streets of Tehran could hear a blistering attack on the Shah for turning away from Iran’s cultural and religious roots and selling out the country to foreign interests. This critique fused Islam and nationalism in a way that could mean many things to many people and became one of the most important intellectual foundations for a movement which emerged and grew stronger in the mid 1970s. It was a socially and intellectually diverse movement—students, workers, women, secular and religious reformers, liberals and communists. Anger over the role of Western powers, especially the United States, Britain and France, and a desire to retain control of the country’s sovereignty united these disparate groups. Corruption by the Shah and his cronies, the abuses of the SAVAK, and the lack of democracy were other common themes.

    As the domestic protests against the Shah grew into a mass movement, previously bedrock international support in the United States and Europe gave way to very mild calls for the Shah to pursue political liberalization. The Shah reacted indecisively; statements of conciliation combined with repression indicated that the Iranian leader was not prepared for the depth of opposition, and even hatred, being expressed by so many million of the citizens he thought he had been serving so well. In November 1978, he rejected a SAVAK plan to arrest more than a thousand of the movement’s leaders, and he ordered the release of all political prisoners. But these concessions seem to have only weakened his hold on power. Members of the military began to see the writing on the walls and negotiated with the opposition. Finally, on January 16, 1979, he left the country, piloting his own Boeing 707 to Egypt, the first of several stops on what was to be a most humiliating exile.

    As in other countries in which a revolution brought down one regime, the Iranian revolutionaries also confronted the “Humpty-Dumpty” problem: what new system will replace the old? In Iran, the overthrow of the Shah turned out to be the easy part in many ways. Once he was gone, a power struggle ensued between the secular and religious forces within the revolution. Everyone agreed that the Shah had gone to far in marginalizing Islam, but how far should it be brought back? Ayatollah Khomeini’s speeches before the Shah fell from power had talked about the compatibility of democracy, human rights, and Islam, but revolutionaries less driven by the later had assumed the Ayatollah would go back to his scholarship and serve a more symbolic role.

    However, it quickly became apparent that Khomeini had quite different intentions. The leader for the Provisional Government that initially emerged was Mehdi Bazargan, a secular nationalist politician. In the initial chaos of these early days, it was Khomeini’s supporters who were able to mobilize more effectively. They put together a referendum calling, in undefined terms, for the establishment of an Islamic Republic; it received 96% of the vote. Khomeini skillfully targeted his opponents with anti-US rhetoric suggesting secular forces would be the continuation of rule by the Shah. Events in the US ratcheted up this conflict when President Jimmy Carter, pressed by members of the Republican Party whose support he needed to pass an arms control agreement before the Senate, reluctantly agreed to let the Shah enter the United States for medical treatment. The move provoked outrage in Iran and led students loyal to Khomeini to take over the United States Embassy on November 4, 1979 and hold on to it for 444 days. In this tense and angry context, a referendum on Khomeini’s constitution, which combined elements of democracy and theocracy but gave him the strongest position, was passed overwhelmingly.

    Khomeini constructed the position of Supreme Jurist (what became widely identified as the Supreme Leader) on a Islamic principle called velayale-e-faqih, which asserted that God’s sovereignty was the most important thing, not human sovereignty, and it could only come about through clerical guidance by a revered clerical authority. His view of this concept and the power it gave to the Supreme Jurist was not shared by most other Islamic authorities. But Khomeini asserted that all laws, civic rights, financial regulations, economics, and military actions must be based on and in agreement with Islam and the Koran. The constitution would be formed with this as a guiding belief. Nonetheless, it did include the direct election of a President who would be the official head of state, and the Majlis remained the legislative body for passing all laws. The new constitution also re-established the Guardian Council, which had been made irrelevant by the Pahlavis. The Council was empowered to review all candidates for office and legislation to ensure that it was properly Islamic. In these ways, the constitution of the Islamic Republic is a hybrid of two seemingly contradictory ideas--theocracy and democracy. In other readings, we will examine that tension in practice as it has played in the four decades since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

    Once firmly in power, Khomeini and his allies deployed a combination of religion and nationalism to maintain their legitimacy and authority with the majority of Iranians. The Iraqi invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein in 1980 provided once such opportunity, though not one Khomeini would have chosen because of the terrible price the country would pay over the next decade. The conflict was not about religion; it was a battle between two regional powers. Hussein believed that instability in Iraq could enable his army to quickly capture some strategic border areas while demonstrating Iraq’s leadership among Arab nations.  It quickly settled into a bloody stalemate that lasted 8 years and killed more than one million Iranians and a half million Iraqis. Most horrifically, the Iraqis used chemical weapons against Kurd and Iranian communities in both countries.

    The Continuing Debate over the Meaning of Islamic Republic

    The war with Iraq ended in 1988 and Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989. His successor, Ali Khamenei was not a cleric with the same degree of religious authority as a scholar or Islamic thinker. Most of the senior Iranian Shi’a clerics did not support Khomeini’s conception of the role of the Supreme Leader, but Khamenei was a strong and loyal ally. He has served in this position to the present.

    Iran in the 1990s faced many challenges. The economy was devastated by war and economic policies carried out under the regime of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that were not able to keep up with the challenges of a young, well educated, and growing population. During the campaign for President in 1997, a reform candidate emerged, Mohammed Khatami. Educated in the west and a student of western political philosophy, Khatami’s call for a less fundamentalist form of Islam appealed to women, students, and young professionals tired of being hounded by morality police and more interested in better job opportunities than Islamic purity. Khatami was not the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Khamenei, but he won the election with nearly 70% of the vote, a clear indication of public desire for softening the role of Islam in politics and daily life.

    When Khatami was allowed to take office, many hoped that he would enact significant reforms and seemed to indicate that the democratic elements of the Islamic Republic’s constitution had real substance and power. The election emboldened a student movement that sought to liberalize educational institutions by carrying out a series of strikes and protests. The limits of reform became evident, however, when these protests were forcibly repressed by the military and police units loyal to Khamenei. While Khatami was reelected in 2001, his calls for reform became much more muted. The public, it seemed, could vote for reform, but the official who took office would continue to be limited in their ability to bring it about.

    Disillusionment among reformers led to reduced participation in the Presidential elections of 2005, and an Islamic hard-liner allied with Khamenei, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected. Riding the wave of high oil prices in the first three years of his term, Ahmadinejad fused fundamentalism and populism to generate a brief boom. But economic good times ended with the financial crisis of 2008, and the opposition in 2009 unified strongly behind Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who had been Prime Minister of Iran during the 1980s while Khamenei had served as President. (The position of Prime Minister was abolished through a constitutional amendment put forward by Khamenei and his political allies after the death of Khomeini).

    While his re-election had initially appeared likely, Ahmadinejad started to lose ground in the polls, as support for his opponent grew. The morning after the election on June 12, 2009, the government announced that Ahmadinejad had won with a 62% of the votes, but this figure was widely viewed as fraudulent. After the results were announced, Mousavi called on his supporters to protest. Over one million people protested the election result, the largest public demonstrations since 1979. The government quickly began to crack down on the protests and arrested 5,000 people. The government televised the trials and levied false charges against those who were arrested. Allegations of rape and torture of those who were arrested surfaced after the trials. Mousavi remains under house arrest in 2020. The election of 2009 demonstrated that the Iranian state was still keen on keeping a firm handle on Iranian citizens.

    The next election in 2013 also featured a reform candidate, though more moderate than Mousavi. Hassan Rouhani campaigned on improving relations with the US and liberalizing the economy. As in 1997 when Khatami was elected, the election of Rouhani demonstrated that the democratic institutions of the Islamic Republic could be used by voters to express a desire for change. However, the concrete accomplishments of the Rouhani regime have been far more modest. He negotiated an agreement with the United States and 5 other countries that limited Iran’s nuclear capability and provided for extensive international monitoring in exchange for the elimination of some of the international sanctions that had been placed on Iran. The economic consequences of the treaty were not as broad and positive as Iranians had hoped, however, and the election of Donald Trump in the United States led to the US pulling out of the agreement in 2018. Falling oil prices, Iran's involvement in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and high rates of COVID-19 have further weakened Iran's economy and marginalized it internationally.

    The Tug of War between Theocracy and Democracy

    The challenges facing the Rouhani regime reflect the  tensions within Iran’s political system. Most of the public has clearly demonstrated a desire for political and cultural change that would reduce the power of Islamic hard-liners, open the educational system, increase freedoms for women, and improve relations with the outside world. The Trump Administration, and Congressional Republicans during the Obama Administration, as well other powers in the Middle East including Israel and Saudi Arabia, have consistently portrayed Iran as an aggressive force in the region that must be contained, and perhaps even transformed through “regime change.” This in turn strengthens the hands of Iranian hard-liners who stand to lose greatly in both political and economic terms, by any process of genuine reform.  They portray Iran as once again, as so often through its history, under attack by foreign powers. So while hard-liners battle their foreign foes, the Iranian people often seem caught in the middle, observers of a situation they long to change but so far, have not been able to.

    Authors: Marc Belanger and Mary Coleman

    7: The Political Development of the Islamic Republic of Iran is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?