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The Consent of the Governed: Country Studies - Islamic Republic of Iran

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 6 Political Rights, 6 Civil Liberties (Not Free)


Iran is the 18th-largest country in the world by area (only slightly smaller than Alaska) and by population (approximately 70 million). It shares land borders with seven countries (Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) and also borders three bodies of water (the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Oman). The economy is dominated by oil, as Iran has the world's fourth-largest oil reserves. Oil revenues have not spread throughout society or significantly reduced poverty, however. While it was 29th in the world in nominal GDP for 2006 ($223 billion), Iran was 109th in GNI per capita ($3,000). Ranking by PPP was not much better at 20th in GDP ($592 billion) and 94th in GNI per capita ($8,480). The poverty rate is estimated at 40 percent; unemployment is about 15 percent, according to the government.

Iran is a theocratic republic, meaning supreme power is exercised by Islamic clerical leaders.

The Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979 after a revolution led by a senior cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ended the 38-year reign of the country's monarch, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi. The area that now constitutes Iran has been ruled by monarchical dynasties for nearly all of its recorded history. Since 1979, the Islamic regime has maintained a strong grip on the country's politics, economy, society, and culture. A small reformist and prodemocracy movement continues to be active despite renewed repression. The president elected in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has provoked an international crisis by insisting on Iran's unfettered right to develop nuclear technology. His confrontational rhetoric and calls for Israel to be "wiped off the map" have raised fears that the nuclear program, ostensibly aimed at power generation, could be used to create nuclear weapons.


Cyrus the Great

One of the greatest ancient empires based in what is now Iran was founded by the Persian ruler Cyrus II in about 550 BC. Known as Cyrus the Great, he went on to conquer all of the Middle East and Asia Minor, and acquired a historical reputation for tolerance of local customs and religious practices. He is known, for instance, for allowing the Jews to return to their homeland after years of captivity in Babylon. Archaeologists discovered a clay cylinder inscribed with Cyrus's pledges of beneficent rule following his conquest of Babylon, and some modern observers have characterized it as an ancient precursor to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the founding documents of the United Nations. (To show its importance, the United Nations has translated the cylinder into all of its official languages, and a replica is housed at the UN headquarters building.)

From Alexander to the Qajars

Cyrus's Achaemenid dynasty and empire was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, and after Alexander's death one of his generals founded a new dynasty, the Seleucids, that controlled much of Iran.

Cyrus Cylinder
Their rule was followed by two long-lasting Persian dynasties, the Parthians (247 BC–AD 224) and the Sassanids (AD 224–642). The Muslim Arabs invaded Sassanid territory in 636 and had largely subdued Iran by 650, converting it to Islam. Thereafter, the country was ruled by a series of Arab and Turkic dynasties, until being conquered in the 13th century by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, whose dominion stretched to China in the east and Russia in the north. After more than two centuries of Mongol and Turkic rule, the Safavid dynasty established itself in northwestern Iran in 1502 and soon took control of the country. The Safavids also made the Shiite sect of Islam the official religion, and Iran today remains predominantly Shiite. After the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in the early 18th century, two short-lived dynasties preceded the rise of the Qajar dynasty, founded by Aga Muhammad Khan in 1794. The 19th century featured encroachment on Qajar territory by Russia from the north and Great Britain from its possessions in India and interests in the Persian Gulf.

The Constitutional Revolution

The Constitutional Revolution of 1905–06 established Iran's first elected parliament, making the country a constitutional monarchy. However, the Qajar shahs subsequently resisted parliamentary government with Russian military assistance. Foreign influence was formalized in the 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement, in which the two powers delineated their respective spheres in the south and north, with a "neutral" area in the center. In the south, Great Britain established the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to extract energy resources near the Persian Gulf. Constitutionalists' efforts were further hampered by World War I, which brought an increased Russian and British military presence. After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution sent Russia into turmoil, Britain attempted to assert greater control over Iran with the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement, but it met with serious resistance and was not ratified by the parliament.

The Restoration of the Shahs—and Their Final Fall

An army officer named Reza Khan organized a coup in 1921. After restoring order in the country, in 1925 he had the parliament depose the largely powerless Qajar dynasty and make him the new monarch under the name Reza Shah Pahlevi. Over the following years, he introduced a number of reforms in an effort to modernize Iran, while repressing internal dissent. His refusal to help the Allies in World War II led Great Britain and the Soviet Union to invade in 1941, and he abdicated in favor of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi. Although Soviet forces initially threatened to remain, Allied troops withdrew from the country by 1946. In 1951, the parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, a move that would end the British role in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. A nationalist proponent of the plan, Muhammad Mossadegh, became prime minister despite the opposition of the shah. Monarchists and military officers, with public and covert support from the United States, helped the shah return from a brief exile and oust Mossadegh in 1953. The shah, already inclined to favor Western interests, allowed the establishment of a joint British, Dutch, French, and U.S. oil consortium to develop Iran's reserves and split the profits with the state.

Under the shah, Iran developed economically, implemented land reform, and began a period of modernization. However, early measures to open the country were replaced by a system of increasing political repression and torture. At the same time, the shah failed to understand the growth of an Islamic movement led by the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, who combined religious, nationalist, and anti-Western ideology. As the shah faced increasing strikes and protests against the regime, the military, his main base of support, showed signs of disloyalty. The shah fled in January 1979, allowing Khomeini to return in triumph on February 1. With Khomeini's blessing, a national plebiscite was held to establish an Islamic Republic of Iran, and the proposal was approved by a large margin. In November 1979, radical students seized the U.S. embassy and took 53 Americans hostage for 15 months. The incident signaled the beginning of Iran's hostile relations with the United States, which Khomeini called "the Great Satan."

Consent of the Governed

As described above, Iran was governed by hereditary dynasties exercising absolute control for most of its history. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905–06 established a unique period of consent, but the constitutionalist movement was largely thwarted by foreign interference and a military coup. The parliament asserted greater powers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the Mossadegh government was ousted and the shah restored in 1953. Despite some measure of openness early in his reign, the shah returned to authoritarian rule and responded to dissent with harsh repression.

The Islamic Republic

Since 1979, Iran has been governed as a theocracy, a state ruled by religious leaders.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
The regime was established by a national plebiscite, but the vote was greatly affected by intimidation and a lack of any real debate following the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. Thus, the secular authoritarian regime of the shah has been replaced by a religious authoritarian regime. Formally, there is a division of government into executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with elections for president and a parliament, the Majlis, every four years. However, according to the constitution, this system is "supervised" by a high-ranking faqih, or expert in religious law. Khomeini is named in the constitution as the first faqih to serve as supreme leader of the new state.

The Supreme Leader

The supreme leader is granted the power to appoint the heads of the military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the chief of the judiciary, the head of state television and radio, and half of the Council of Guardians. The council, whose other half is appointed by the judiciary chief, is tasked with vetting political candidates and reviewing legislation passed by the parliament, enabling it to limit electoral competition and block new laws. Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988 created another appointed body, the Council of Expediency, to resolve disputes between the parliament and the Council of Guardians. The supreme leader has vaguely worded supervisory powers over all parts of government, and during his period of rule, Khomeini exercised enormous influence and imposed a strict set of Islamic laws that banned informal contact between unrelated men and women, forced women to cover their heads and bodies in public, and barred consumption of alcoholic beverages, among other restrictions.

The constitution stipulated that after Khomeini died, a new supreme leader would be chosen by the Assembly of Experts, a body of senior clerics that was elected every eight years. Upon Khomeini's death in 1989, the assembly appointed President Ali Khamenei, who lacked his predecessor's stature as a religious leader.

A Reform Movement Seeks Change

In the mid- to late 1990s, a reformist and pro-democracy movement arose behind the strength of student protests. In 1997, voters seeking change elected a reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami, as president. He and his allies in parliament took some steps to liberalize the media, expression of opinion, the internet, the economy, and even enforcement of Islamic social controls. Reformists won some 80 percent of the vote in 1999 municipal elections and about two-thirds of the Majlis in 2000, while Khatami won reelection in 2001 with about 80 percent of the vote. However, conservatives in the regime reasserted themselves, and the Ministry of Security ordered the arrests of outspoken journalists, human rights lawyers, and students. Reformist forces became disenchanted with Khatami's cautious approach and his unwillingness to challenge conservative vetoes of legislation, especially electoral laws, by holding national referendums.

The Regime Strikes Back

Although the president and legislature might have been able to initiate some reforms, the overriding control of the unelected religious officials, especially the supreme leader, prevented any substantial institutional, economic, or social change. In 2004, the Council of Guardians struck 2,000 reformist candidates from the parliamentary electoral list because they allegedly violated "principles of sovereignty and national unity," questioned the Islamic basis of the republic, or simply opposed the central authorities. The Majlis was consequently taken over by candidates supporting Ayatollah Khamenei. Nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and advocacy groups have been shut down on a similar basis. Any demonstrations that "violate the principles of Islam" are barred, and any independent trade unions are suppressed, with their leaders facing imprisonment.

Although the president and legislature might have been able to initiate some reforms, the overriding control of the unelected religious officials, especially the supreme leader, prevented any substantial institutional, economic, or social change.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps—the most important vehicle for consolidating the revolutionary regime in 1979–81 but a less active force in subsequent years—is now again aggressively seeking out violators of Islamic laws and national security. Anyone arrested by the IRGC goes before the revolutionary tribunals, not civil courts, and so has no due process. Students have been arrested for minor religious infractions, such as allegedly violating fasting rules during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Most significant reformist newspapers have been shut down, and leading journalists have been imprisoned over the last five years. The government has also blocked hundreds of websites deemed hostile to the interests of the Islamic Republic. Women's unequal status in society has been reemphasized, including through discrimination in Sharia (Islamic law) courts, the denial of freedom of movement, and required head coverings in nearly all public places.

Presidential Consolidation, Municipal Reaction

Having already taken over the parliament and stepped up repressive activities, the conservatives in 2005 reclaimed the presidency with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, previously the mayor of Tehran. Reformist candidates were marginalized before the poll, and active vote rigging prevented a relative moderate, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, from being elected. Since taking office, Ahmadinejad has made the presidency a seat of both patronage and intimidation. With the backing of Ayatollah Khamenei, he has also carried out Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology in defiance of the international community; threatened Israel with extinction; questioned the reality of the Holocaust; and, according to the United States and its allies, provided support to Shiite militant groups in Iraq and Lebanon.

In December 2006, however, pro-Ahmadinejad candidates suffered a setback in elections to the Assembly of Experts and in municipal elections. The turnout was 60 percent, five times the percentage from the last municipal elections in 2003, although that year's voting had not coincided with an Assembly of Experts election. The main victors in the assembly contest were Rafsanjani and his allies. Rafsanjani, though a conservative, is considered more pragmatic than the populist hard-liners associated with Ahmadinejad. Moderate and even radical reformists, in addition to pragmatic conservatives, won seats in important municipal races. Reformists claimed that there was tampering with the election results to prevent a more significant victory. Still, voters were apparently able to express their frustration with the president's policies, particularly his management of the economy. There was also some evidence that Khamenei was dissatisfied with Ahmadinejad's performance. More media criticism of the president had been permitted before the voting, and some of the pro-Ahmadinejad candidates had been disqualified.

The regime remains hostile to any potential change resulting from outside influences. In May 2007, the government charged three prominent Iranian Americans—including 67-year-old Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars—with conspiring to foment revolution.