The Future of Iran's Islamic Republic

Evolution or Revolution?

Azadi Tower
The Future of Iran's Islamic Republic : Evolution or Revolution? - Karim Sadjadpour

Iran's current regime, the Islamic Republic, is in a precarious position. The vast majority of the country's citizenry wants sweeping change-social, po­litical, and economic - as is evidenced by reformist President Mohammed Khatami's overwhelming re-election in June of 2001, in which he received 79 percent of the vote. While the reactionary ruling powers, namely Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the twelve-member Islamic Guardian Council, have struggled to retain the status quo and thwart democratization, in the face of modest popular support, it is becoming increasingly obvious that they are left with essentially two choices:

a) Allow for the proposed reforms of Khatami and the equally reform-minded parliament to take place, hence allowing for an evolution of the Islamic Republic into a more democratic system of government, or

b) Attempt to reverse the inertia of reform by cracking down on social and political freedoms, ignoring the public mandate for a more open society. This strategy, employed during the student riots of 1999, is dangerous for it could easily provoke more civil unrest, protest, and rioting, hence provid­ing the impetus for a counter-revolution.

The first option is the more probable one and is the goal of the country's reform movement. The question that then must be posed is what are the key reforms needed, and how long will the young Iranian populace be willing to wait for this long-anticipated transformation of their society?

The Roots of Discontent

Before examining Iran's contemporary situation, it is worthwhile to revisit the 1979 revolution, for it is crucial in understanding the country's current dilemma. Although commonly referred to as an Islamic Revolution, this term is somewhat of a misnomer. In fact, it was a broad-based and popular revolution consisting of many different factions, among them Marxists, Islamic Socialists, nationalist democrats, students, writers, intellectuals, the underclass, bazaar merchants, and religious clerics known as mullahs. While they all had different visions of what Iran should be like politically, they shared a strong dislike for the haughty authoritarianism of the Shah-whom they viewed as an American puppet1 - and his ubiquitous secret police, SAVAK, which was infamous for its use of torture.

When the Shah fled the country in early 1979, the various factions struggled for power. In the ensuing chaos the most charismatic leader to emerge was a previously unknown septuagenarian cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been exiled by the Shah over a decade earlier. While many initially believed that Khomeini would return from exile to serve as a spiritual figurehead in the holy Shiite city of Qom, the ascetic cleric's appeal was grossly underestimated. Khomeinists - "imbued with a messianic sense of right, the glow of a leader still viewed by many Iranians as a brave hero, and more thugs per square mile than the other sides"2 - were able to capitalize on the disunity of the other groups to take control, and once in power they immediately crushed any opposition. It is important to note that the resulting austere theocratic system was not what many or most of those who revolted against the Shah had in mind, and so the seeds of discontent and opposition towards the Islamic Republic were inherent from its inception.

The Hierarchy of Power in the Islamic Republic

Nearly 23 years after the revolution, today's Iran is somewhere between a religious dictatorship and a thriving democracy. Although on the surface Iran may appear to be democratic, with a popularly elected president and majlis (parliament), the failure of both the president and the parliament to carry out the will of the electorate has made it apparent that the real power lay in the hands of the unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the twelve unelected members of the Islamic Guardian Council.

Central to understanding Iranian politics is the concept of the velayat- e faqih, meaning essentially rule by the clerics. Created by Khomeini, the velayat­e faqih sought to ensure the Islamic nature of post-revolutionary Iran by sub­jecting all key matters-be they social, political, economic, etc. - to review by a faqih, or Supreme (Clerical) Leader3. Khomeini himself held this role until his death in 1989, whereupon another unelected body, The Council of Experts, selected former President Khamenei as his successor. In his role as faqih, Khamenei has jurisdiction over the judiciary, Islamic Guardian Council, armed forces, security forces, and the national radio and TV networks. Khamenei's word is considered sacrosanct, and barring a change in the constitution he will likely retain this position for life.

The Supreme Leader also has hegemony over Iran's next most powerful governing body, the Islamic Guardian Council, choosing six of its twelve mem­bers. The Guardian Council-whose duty is to maintain the "Islamic integrity" of the country's polity - has the constitutional power to screen electoral candidates as well as veto power over all parliamentary decisions, rendering impotent the elected representatives of the Iranian people. The Guardian Council, under the watchful eye of the Supreme Leader, has been active in closing down pro ­Khatami reformist newspapers, vetoing parliamentary decisions, and rejecting reformist candidates, as well as jailing pro-democracy journalists and political dissidents.

Khatami's Role

Although many believed that after Khatami's first election in 1997 Iran would immediately transform into an open society, Khatami supporters blamed a lack of success in the early years on a largely conservative parliament. When reformists aligned with Khatami won the vast majority of seats in the 2000 majlis elections, public expectations grew dramatically. Apart from a few early victories, however, reformists have made little progress since.

The slow pace of reform has begun to take its toll on Khatami's popularity. Despite the President's strong mandate from the people, many Iranians have grown tired and impatient waiting for his reforms to become reality. Not a single major legislation or policy has been introduced to address the needs of youth, women, and the middle class, the three core constituencies that made Khatami's victory possible.4 Some have begun to wonder whether he is simply a crony of the conservative establishment who was brought in to appease the masses with his eloquent but hollow calls for liberty and democracy. While much has been made of the seemingly bumpy relationship between Khatami and Khamenei, at the end of the day it must be understood that Khatami himself is a cleric; despite his affinity for democracy, he has an even stronger allegiance to the maintenance of Iran's Islamic Republic. This fact has disap­pointed many of his supporters. "All the university students voted for him, because they thought they would have a bright future," said one young female student from Isfahan. "Now they think he's just a puppet moved by the other one," meaning Ayatollah Khamenei.5

Khatami's role in expanding the accepted political discourse should not be discounted, however. The push for political reform in Iran has taken on a snowball effect in recent years; yet prior to Khatami there was little more than a snowflake. Most importantly, Khatami has inspired, engaged, and empow­ered everyday Iranians with his messages of tolerance and civility, encouraging them to participate in the democratic process and play an active role in the country's future. Indeed, says Iran analyst Farideh Farhi, "It seems that for the first time in modern Iranian history a substantial part of the Iranian popula­tion is engaged in a political discussion about the rules of the games."6 These are critical first steps. To continue on a path to a more open society, however, requires at least a few more key developments.

Needed Political Reform

Since Khatami's first election in 1997, the country has made substantial efforts to democratize, largely to no avail. Considering the current structure of the constitution, which gives almost absolute power to the Supreme Leader, many observers believe that democratic reform in Iran has reached an im­passe. Therefore, in order for the Islamic Republic to become a truly egalitarian Republic, three essential conditions must eventually be met. First, power must be transferred from the hands of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Guid­ance Council to the President and Parliament, the elected representatives of the people. Second, the Islamic Guardian Council's vetoing power and ability to disqualify presidential and parliamentary candidates must be curbed, and its transparency increased. Lastly and most importantly, the highly sensitive and controversial topic of the velayat- e faqih-rule by the clerics-must eventu­ally be opened for debate if Iran truly wants an open society.

While the congenial Khatami dwarfs the uncharismatic Khamenei in terms of popular support, it is evident that the President has very little real power compared with the Supreme Leader. The same can be said about the majlis vis­a-vis the Guardian Council. If the unelected powers continue to dominate, "people will lose confidence in the system," said Khatami advisor Mohammed Abtahi, "and their participation will decrease."7 Iranians have thus far tried their best to change their system civilly and via the democratic process, but if the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council continue to make unilateral decisions against the will of the people, frustration among Iranian citizens is bound to culminate in greater unrest. Clearly, such instability should not be a goal of either side.

In addition to a power transfer from the Islamic Guardian Council to the majlis, the Council's ability to make unilateral decisions must be abolished. Currently the Council is able to reject any candidate it wants without so much as an explanation; in a recent majlis election, 55 out of 100 candidates, mostly moderates aligned with Khatami, were dismissed without justification.8 The Council has further antagonized Iranians by upholding laws that have no popular support. For example, believing it to be contrary to Sharia, Islamic Law, it overturned a bill that was nearly unanimously passed in parliament, to in­crease the minimum marriage age for females from nine to fifteen.

Ironically, according to the constitution, the only way to limit the Guard­ian Council's reach is by passing a law in parliament. When the 'parliament did exactly that in late 2001, the Guardian Council vetoed it, causing an outrage in the majlis and heightening people's frustration. In its report on Iran, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights shared in the frustration of many Irani­ans, saying, "Without calling for the disbandment of the [Islamic Guardian] Council as it operates at present, the Special Representative believes it to be a major obstacle to the further development of democracy in the Islamic Repub­lic of Iran."9

The Velayat-e Faqih

Although President Khatami seems to believe that the velayat- e faqih can be compatible with popular sovereignty, this remains unproven. Many women, for example, would refrain from wearing the obligatory hejab (headscarf) and manteau if it were not adamantly enforced by the faqih. Highly regarded Is­lamic intellectual Abdolkarim Sorush believes this sort of interference into people's personal lives is perhaps even worse than a secular dictatorship,, for it is a despotism that taints the name of religion in the process.10

Even prominent members of the clergy have voiced their displeasure for the current system. Dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri, Khomieini's former heir apparent and now one of the Islamic Republic's most vocal critics, says that he and the other original framers of the 1979 Islamic Constitution never intended for the institution of velayat-e faqih to be given absolute powers. "The Supreme Leader can never be above the law, and he cannot interfere in all the affairs, particularly the affairs that fall outside his area of expertise, such as complex economic issues, or issues of foreign policy and international rela­tions," he said. "The most important point to be highlighted is that Islam is for the separation of powers and does not recognize the concentration of power in the hand of a fallible human being."11 Political criticism, especially criticism of the Supreme Leader, is not tolerated in Iran, however, even .from fellow clergy­men; Montazeri has been under house arrest in Qom since 1997.

Simply put, without a transfer of power from the Supreme Leader to the President or the abolishment of the velayat- e faqih as it exists today, the evo­lution of Iran into a more open society will continue to move at a slower pace than is demanded by the people. But a referendum on the velayat- e faqih would question the very existence of the Islamic Republic itself, and the ruling powers are not likely to agree on this anytime soon. While the long-term stabil­ity of the velayat-e faqih appears at best unstable, a more feasible short-term goal of the reform movement will probably be to transfer some of the power of the Supreme Leader to the President.

Needed Economic Reform

According to President Khatami, Iran's economy these days is mariz, sick. The vast majority of his constituents would agree. "It is one thing to defeat opponents and an entirely different matter to govern and to manage a modern economy," says Iran analyst Mohsen Milani. "Although the fundamentalists demonstrated much talent in the former task, their record in the latter has not been impressive, to say the least."12 The revolution and its aftermath-hostages, war, emigration of experts, population growth, economic sanctions and inter­national isolation-have led to the creation of an economy that is in a constant state of stagflation-recession compounded with rampant inflation. As opposed to other developing nations whose per capita incomes have always been low but have steadily increased, the majority of Iranians have experienced a marked decrease in their standard of living since the 1979 revolution; average Iranians' real per capita income is about a quarter of what it was during the Shah's tenure in the 1970s.13

In addition, the Islamic Republic has the most daunting task of creating 600,000 to 800,000 new jobs needed annually to accommodate Iran's burgeon­ing young labor force.14 To do so in an economy that consistently ranks among the last in the world in terms of foreign direct investment requires nothing short of a miracle. The Islamic Republic is beginning to understand more fully that the country's deteriorating economic conditions could lead to the demise of their regime, and in order to bring urgent life to an anemic economy, Presi­dent Khatami has proposed a two-pillar solution for economic reform, focusing on privatization and foreign investment. These initiatives are of course interre­lated and obviously easier said than done. The most important goal in the short term should simply be forward progress, as an overnight solution to Iran's economic woes is unrealistic.

The Role of Privatization

A galvanizing factor for many of those who revolted against the Shah's regime was the gaping socioeconomic disparity between the haves and have­nots of Iranian society. Many revolutionaries thus had socialist and commu­nist tendencies. While the Mullahs immediately clamped down on these leftist groups after seizing power, their professed sympathy for the mostazefin, the downtrodden, and their dislike for American capitalism led them to create a largely state-owned economy. The mass nationalization of industries and eco­nomic entities previously belonging to the Royal family or private individuals thus put some 60 to 80 percent of the economy under the government's control.15

Given that government-run industries have been corrupt and inefficient and domestic investment has been low, Khatami's hope is that privatization and development of a functioning private sector will serve as a catalyst in in­creasing investment, productivity, and consumer confidence. The push towards privatization actually began under former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who took over the country shortly after the eight-year war with Iraq that ravaged Iran's economy. Few of Rafsanjani's initiatives were realized, however, due in large part to domestic squabbles over the constitutionality of transferring state­owned entities to private firms. Khatami's plan for economic recovery builds on much of what was proposed by Rafsanjani-such as the privatization of tele­communications, railways, banks, and certain sectors of the oil industry-and has met with somewhat less resistance this time given the economy's dire situation.

Privatization is a critical element of economic recovery in Iran for the simple fact that investors-be they domestic or foreign-do not trust putting their money into the hands of a government that has very little transparency, efficiency, or accountability. Privatization will certainly not lead to the immediate eradica­tion of these problems; however, the greater degree of accountability for private firms will likely offer them incentive to adopt measures of greater efficiency and transparency that will attract much-needed investors.

Foreign Investment and Relations

Increased foreign investment is the other key facet of Iran's economic recovery plan, which is contingent upon both domestic concerns as well as Iran's foreign relations. As mentioned earlier, Iran consistently ranks among the last in the world in terms of foreign direct investment. While this can be attributed to previously discussed problems such as corruption, lack of trans­parency, political instability, and negative economic growth, part of the prob­lem is the country's Constitution.

In order to avoid repeating the oil concessions that Iran offered foreign companies earlier in the twentieth century, Article 81 of the Constitution states, albeit ambiguously, that "The granting of concessions to foreign individuals and companies is prohibited."16 While President Khatami and the majority of the majlis favor amending or simply ignoring this act, conservatives have fought to uphold it, vetoing a recent bill in parliament that sought to ease foreign investment restrictions. Thus, the problem of foreign direct investment in Iran is two-fold, for it needs not only to attract foreign investment but also to justify the legality of receiving it.

Iran’s foreign relations have increased and improved dramatically under Khatami, especially its ties with the European Union and Iran’s Arab neighbors. Now most Iranians, including many prominent politicians, believe it is high time to reconcile ties with the United States. Official U.S.-Iran relations have been virtually non-existent since the revolution, and believing that Iran continues to seek weapons of mass destruction, sponsor terrorism, and oppose peace in the Middle East, the U.S. recently renewed sanctions on Iran. Iran analyst Gary Sick offers this astute explanation for the mutual enmity between the two countries: "In a curious sense, Iran and the United States are mirror images of each other. Both countries are prone to a moralistic air of self-righ­teousness, especially in foreign policy matters; and both are inclined to ideo­logical rigidity and a sense of moral superiority. Each perceives itself as the indispensable state."17

Ayatollah Khamenei and the Islamic Guardian Council continue to shun renewed ties with the U.S., but Iranian pragmatists and moderates realize that the country's economy cannot survive much longer in international isolation.

"The Islamic revolution's most clearly articulated ideas," said Ali Shakourirad, a parliamentarian from Tehran, had to do with "opposition to America and the capture of its embassy; the war with Iraq; and the basij [morals police]. Which one of these has improved the people's economic situation?"18 In addition to becoming a respectable player within the international system, for Iran the incentives to renew ties are numerous, such as freer access to international capital markets, World Bank loans, and the speedy settlement of past mon­etary claims. Despite President Bush's recent designation of Iran as a member of an "axis of evil", along with North Korea and Iraq, U.S.-Iran ties are of in­creasing importance after September 11th, especially in the rebuilding of Af­ghanistan, and moderates on both sides will continue to seek an end to the tired mutual antagonism that has existed for the past 23 years.

Perhaps most importantly, foreign investment is an imperative for Iran's oil sector, upon which the economy is largely dependent. After years of neglect and disinvestment, Iran's oil industry is in immediate need of large-scale in­vestments and technological upgrades to increase efficiency and output. Al­though prohibited from doing business with Iran, American oil companies be­lieve that the best export route for the Caspian Sea's rich oil reserves are through Iran and for this reason favor a U.S.-Iran rapprochement.

In their absence, an increasing number of European and Asian firms have begun investing heavily in Iran, helping the country upgrade its oil industry. Iran, in turn, has said that oil revenue for the government treasury will be fixed at $12.50 per barrel of crude oil. Any excess income will be placed into an account called the Stabilization Fund, as part of Khatami's plan to promote non-oil sectors. Iranian officials hope efforts like these can help create the much needed jobs to combat the country's severe case of brain drain; last year alone it was estimated that 220,000 educated young Iranians left the country to make their lives elsewhere.19

Social Factors

The most important statistic to consider when talking about modern Iran is the country's youthful demographic makeup: 50 percent of Iranians are be­low 20 years of age, 70 percent are below 30. At the onset of1 the revolution Khomeini encouraged families to produce many offspring in order to produce a robust Islamic Society, an edict that has now come back to haunt this regime. These young people struggle to enter university and find jobs, and identify very little with the austere religious society under which they live. Many have ac­cess to satellite TV and the Internet and see how their counterparts in the rest of the world-particularly the West-are living, and have begun to demand the same freedoms and opportunities.

This was evidenced in the massive student riots that took place in the summer of 1999, in reaction to the closure of several pro-Khatami newspapers. The protests started out peacefully, but as is commonly the case, they turned rowdy when non-violent student demonstrators were attacked by the pro­ Hezbollah morality police know as the basij. As a result, thousands more stu­dents took to the streets to protest their lack of civil liberties, which led to more violent attacks by the basij that left two students dead and dozens severely injured. Khatami pleaded for calm and eventually the students heeded his wishes, but the riots of 1999 sent a clear message to the Islamic Republic's ruling elite that young Iranians are fed up.

As is frequently the case, Iran's many political and economic problems have manifested themselves in social problems. Drug abuse has soared; an estimated two million Iranians are addicts while perhaps as many as three million-5 percent of the population-are regular users.20 Prostitution, suicide, and divorce are also at unprecedented levels. These are particularly embar­rassing problems for a regime which prides itself on its religious credentials and moral superiority. "I must say that if not all, at least 90 percent of young people are unhappy," said Mohsen Sadrai, a 20-year-old from Isfahan. "We have no freedom, no opportunity for work. If we had a healthy freedom, we wouldn't have to do these things."21

While these unfortunate trends are not irreversible, they will not be allevi­ated without significant political and economic progress. Jobs must be cre­ated, political and social restrictions must be eased, and Iran's youth must be inspired to believe that a hopeful future exists. Khatami seems to understand this, as do the majlis. But the country's conservative establishment seems to be in a constant state of denial. With widespread usage of the Internet and satellite television, however, even by continuing to restrict freedom of the press, it is no longer possible to keep Iran's young citizens in the dark.

Prospects for a Revolution

Given the widespread discontent and frustration with both Khatami's and the majlis's inability to successfully implement reform, some Iranians-particu­larly those in exile-are beginning to feel that the Islamic Republic is beyond repair and that the only way to reform the system is through revolution. When U.S. bombings helped rid neighboring Afghanistan of the Taliban, some of the many young Iranians who took to the streets wished aloud that the Islamic Republic would share the same fate as the Taliban: "We need the U.S. Army," said a young protestor in Isfahan. "The Afghan people are very lucky."22

Though popular support for changing the current regime may exist, Ira­nian authorities show little mercy to political dissidents, and for this reason few organized political opposition groups operate from within the country. Re­cently, several dozen members of the country's outlawed Nationalist Party­arguably Iran's most popular political party, whose members included respected former Prime Ministers Mossadegh and Bazargan-have been thrown into prison and allegedly tortured, despite the fact that the majority of them are elderly men ranging from age 60 to 80. Others have fared worse, such as fierce Persian Nationalist Daryoush Fourohar and his wife Parvaneh, who were stabbed to death by government thugs. Given the high level of intimidation, it can be said that there are currently no united political opposition movements within Iran that pose a serious threat to the Islamic Republic.

The Mojahedin

Outside of Iran, the most organized and militant of these opposition groups is the Iraq-based Mojahedin-e-Khalq, or "People's Holy Warriors," an urban gue­rilla group which played a central role in the 1979 revolution and mixes ele­ments of leftist radicalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Somewhat surpris­ingly, considering their penchant for terrorism and support from Saddam Hussein, some members of the U.S. Congress have vowed support for them. New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli, addressing the National Com­mission on Terrorism, said, "More than a hundred members of the House of Representatives, the majority of the United States Senate in previous years, have actually asked the State Department to engage in dialogue with the People's Mojahedin." According to Torricelli, it does not matter if the Mojahedin are a terrorist organization because "they have the objective of overthrowing the Ira­nian government."23 The Mojahedin has virtually no popular support within Iran, however, and the fact that they fought with Iraq against their fellow Irani­ans in the Iran-Iraq war has earned them the nickname "Monafeqin", or hypo­crites. For this reason, despite uninformed support from senators like Torricelli, the menace of the Mojahedin deserves little attention when discussing poten­tial successor regimes to the Islamic Republic.

Reza Pahlavi

Perhaps a more promising development in the past year is the growing popularity of Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah's eldest son, who currently resides in suburban Washington, D.C. Nowadays in Iran nostalgia abounds for the days before the revolution, a time in which Iran's currency, the toman, was seven to the dollar (it is now 800). Capitalizing on this mix of discontent and nostalgia, Pahlavi has begun regularly appearing on Iranian television stations in Los Angeles that are broadcast to millions in Iran via satellite. He has called on Iranians to practice civil disobedience, and his vision for a more democratic and liberal Iran has resonated, particularly among the disaffected youth who have no recollection of the corruption and excesses of his father's regime. One 19-year-old who heard Pahlavi talk about democracy via satellite television said he made "a lot of sense. We need a leader right now, and he's the only leader we have. People are fed up with this regime. They don't want a religious government anymore."24

In the wake of September Uth, Pahlavi has enjoyed newfound attention in the major US media as well, where he has denounced the Islamic Republic as "one of the world's most cynical oppressors and an enemy of democratic val­ues" and even dismissed Khatami as an "abject failure."25 Given that these same words were once used to describe the Shah's regime and the Shah him­self, one of Reza Pahlavi's greatest challenges will be to prove to skeptical Irani­ans that he is his own man. While his nascent movement can currently at best be considered only a minor footnote, if there is ever a serious possibility that the Islamic Republic will fall, Reza Pahlavi's name will likely appear.

While there is not currently an Iranian opposition group or leader popular enough to seriously challenge the Islamic Republic, it hardly follows that frus­tration with the regime will subside anytime soon. The student riots of 1999, as well as recent post-soccer-match, anti-government protests, show that sponta­neous rioting against the Islamic Republic is never too far away and has the potential to unite the diverse masses of disenfranchised Iranians in much the same way as the abrupt and unscripted revolts that did away with the Shah three decades earlier.


In August of 2001, while driving through impoverished southern Tehran, I passed a giant billboard with an oversized image of the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Adjacent to Khamenei's likeness, in giant block letters written in both English and Persian, the billboard proclaimed: "The Future Belongs to the Hizbollians," or Party of God, as Iran's theocratic estab­lishment sometimes refers to itself. My companion, an Iranian journalist and supporter of President Khatami's reform movement, seemed to relish the mo­ment and flashed me a satisfied smile. "Would you ever see a billboard in the United States or France saying "The Future belongs to Democracy?" he asked rhetorically. "Of course not - it goes without saying. If these Mullahs were confi­dent about their future ruling this country, this billboard would not exist. They know their time is running out."

Whether the Islamic Republic evolves into more of a democracy or will crumble in revolution is anyone's guess. For the vast majority of Iranians in Iran, a people who have already suffered one disillusioning revolution and are still recovering from a brutal eight-year war with Iraq, peaceful evolution is the more favorable option. One thing that is certain, however, is that the current status quo in Iranian politics will not remain the same; the younger genera­tion, the 70 percent of the population aged thirty and under, eager for jobs and social freedom and opportunity, cannot be held down.

Karim Sadjadpour is currently an M.A. candidate in Middle East studies at The Johns Hopkins University - SAIS in Washington, D.C. Previously an Associate Producer at, he spent 3 months in the summer of 2001 traveling throughout Iran.