Iran: Limited democracy, unlimited theocracy

When Khomeini established his clerical rule after Iran’s 1979 revolution, many expected the new regime to collapse. On the contrary, Khomeini purged internal dissent and consolidated the clergy’s grip over the country. However, four decades later, the system the Ayatollah built has started showing signs of age

Updated - July 03, 2024 10:29 am IST

Published - September 28, 2022 10:58 pm IST

Iranian women cast their ballots beneath a poster of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in 2005.

Iranian women cast their ballots beneath a poster of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in 2005. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

There’s only a walking distance from the Imam Khomeini Square, the Qajar-era 19th century neighbourhood of the Iranian capital which used to be called Maidan-e-Toopkhaneh, to Ebrat Museum on Yarjani Street. A three-storey structure with torture wings, countless cells, echo corridors and iron doors, the building, designed by German engineers in the 1930s, was the headquarters of a section of the Shah’s infamous secret police, SAVAK, before the 1979 revolution. All the dark corridors lead to a circular, roofless inner courtyard that’s awash in sunlight. Sculptures of prisoners are hung from the iron grills of the courtyard. SAVAK used to hang prisoners on the grills and torture them — their screams would echo across the corridors and their suffering would be displayed for those in the courtyard. The museum has the images and names of the hundreds of inmates it once held — one of them was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.

History repeats

The Iranian authorities turned the prison into a museum in 2002, to showcase the brutalities of the Shah’s royal dictatorship. For the regime, the museum is a microcosm of all the evils of the monarchy from which Iranians were “liberated” by the Islamic Revolution. But four decades after the revolution, repeated protests accuse the Islamic regime of the same repressive reign from which it claims to have liberated the Iranians. When discontent grew at home, the system’s legitimacy was questioned. Voters’ turnout in Iran’s presidential and parliamentary elections started shrinking to new lows. In the 2021 presidential elections, in which hardliner Ebrahim Raisi won, voters’ turnout was 48%, a record low. The country was forced to hold a snap presidential elections in June after President Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash. While Mr. Khamenei asked Iranians to overwhelmingly participate in the elections, the turnout fell to 39.9%, down from over 80% in 2009.

A unique system

Iran’s unique political system — which has been designed in such a way that the Shia clergy has ultimate authority in all critical matters related to the state, even as elections are held in regular intervals — is a child of the revolution. While it’s popularly called the “Islamic revolution”, the anti-Shah popular movement was not only Islamic. True, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, who, while in exile in Iraq’s Najaf, had called for the Shah’s ouster, and became the embodiment of the mass agitations in the 1970s. But Iranians from different political sections, including nationalists, liberals, leftists and trade unionists, had actively joined the movement, seeking freedom from the Shah’s dictatorship.

The Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had to briefly flee the country in the early 1950s and was restored after the CIA helped the monarchists orchestrate a coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, was more or less detached from the political reality on ground. He orchestrated grand ceremonies celebrating the monarchy (such as the extravagant 1971 celebration of “the 2,500th year of the Iranian monarchy” spending some $100 million), banned all political parties except the monarchist Resurgence Party (Hezb-e-Rastakhiz) and assumed himself the title of Aryan Sun (Aryamehr) — apolitical and spiritual guide of Iran. When an increasingly isolated Shah tried to consolidate more and more powers in his hands, SAVAK ran amok in the country, rounding up political dissidents.

Iranians are no strangers to political rebellion and defiance. In 1896, Naser al-Din Shah, the fourth Shah of Qajar Iran, was assassinated inside a mosque in Tehran. The assassination and its aftermath would eventually lead to the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, which led to the establishment of a Parliament in Persia. Reza Shah Pahlavi ignored this history of rebellion when he unleashed his forces on increasingly disgruntled protesters, which eventually led to his own downfall. When the Shah fled the country in January 1979, Khomeini was in Paris. He landed in Tehran’s Mehrabad airport, which was controlled by the revolutionaries, on February 1, 1979. They turned a disused girls’ school in central Tehran into a make-shift headquarters of the Revolutionary Council. And one of the first things Khomeini did was to form a paramilitary force — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. But the Islamists could not ignore other sections of the revolution completely. So, Khomeini ushered in a new system that would have an elected President and Parliament, while the clerics would remain firmly in control. He promised an Islamic revolutionary government based on Sharia, a model which he called Vilayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Faqih, or the Islamic Jurist).

Clerical control

Iran’s state has both elected and unelected branches and the unelected branch is more powerful than the former. The President, Parliament (Majles) and the Assembly of Experts are directly elected, while the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council are appointed by the clergy. The President is the head of the government, which is in charge of running the day-to-day affairs of the country, but is not the head of the state. The Supreme Leader is the most powerful person in the country and is both the political leader and spiritual guide of the Islamic Republic.

The presidential term is four years and Presidents cannot have more than two consecutive terms. The election process itself is largely considered fair (though there were disputes, such as the 2009 elections), but all the candidates are vetted by the Guardian Council, which usually disqualifies an overwhelming majority of the candidates. The 290-member Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majles) has the authority to legislate. But all the Bills the Majles passes should go to the unelected Guardian Council, which would vet whether the Bill is in compliance with the Islamic Constitution and values. The powerful Guardian Council has 12 members, a combination of six religious experts, who will directly be appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six Islamic legal jurists, nominated by the Chief Justice (who in turn is appointed by the Supreme Leader). So the Supreme Leader’s office has direct or indirect control over the Guardian Council, which oversees the elections, vets the candidates and has a veto over Parliament.

Absolute authority

Unlike the President, the Supreme Leader doesn’t have any fixed term. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has had only two Supreme Leaders — Khomeini (who died in 1989) and Khamenei. The Constitution mandates the 88-member Assembly of Experts to elect the Supreme Leader. The Assembly, which also has the authority to oversee and dismiss the Supreme Leader, is directly elected, but the candidates are strictly vetted by the Guardian Council, whose members are directly or indirectly picked by the Supreme Leader. If there are legal disputes between the elected Majles and the unelected Guardian Council, the 45-member Expediency Council, which advises the Supreme Leader, will have ultimate adjudicating powers. And all 45 members of the Council are appointed by the Supreme Leader, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. In essence, the Islamic Constitution ensures that the Supreme Leader and the clerical establishment stay firmly in charge of all branches of the state.

Principalists and reformists

Iran’s political class is broadly divided into two categories — principalists (also hardliners) and reformists. The principalists make up the conservative bloc that enjoys the support of the clergy, whereas reformists advocate political and social reforms from within. The election of Mohammad Khatami as President in 1997 was a critical moment for reformist politics. But Mr. Khatami, an influential and popular reformist, failed to usher in any major changes in the system. Hassan Rouhani, the former President, was also a reformist, while his incumbent, Ebrahim Raisi, was a principalist. As no candidate won 50% vote in the first round of the presidential election on June 28, Iran will have a run off between the top two vote-getters — reformist Masoud Pezeshkian and conservative Saeed Jalili—on July 5.

When Khomeini established his clerical rule after the revolution, many expected the new regime to collapse. On the contrary, Khomeini purged internal dissent and consolidated the clergy’s grip when the country was fighting an eight-year long war with Iraq. Four decades later, the system the Ayatollah built has started showing signs of age, with repeated mass protests, state violence, and declining public interests in the electoral process, overshadowed by an unending economic crisis. But Iran’s rulers seem undeterred, and try to project stability and continuity.

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