Iran has been a focus of global attention for many years, and once again it ranks at or near the top of diplomatic agendas. After more than a year of uncertainty and procrastination, America has finally decided to renege on the nuclear deal that has so far kept Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It’s an important and troubling issue, and I have already discussed it in 2 older articles. But let’s step aside from the fixation with nukes for a bit and discuss something more fundamental: the ongoing contradiction between Iran’s government and society. It underlies a great deal of Iranian policy (and foreign policy toward Iran), even when it’s not immediately apparent.
As usual, a bit of historical background is necessary. Iran (Persia) is an ancient land with a coherent national identity and culture dating back to the 500s BCE. For most of that time, it was ruled by an emperor (or “shah”) with few limits on his power. Although Iran was modernized in the early 1900s by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the shah’s power was still pretty much absolute. A constitutional movement at the beginning of the century gave the country a legislature, the Majlis, but it was subordinated to the shah.
This continued under Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah (who is almost invariably referred to as just “the shah”). He offered very generous terms to foreign investors and suppressed opposition parties, enforcing his rule with a sinister secret police force, SAVAK. By 1978, a cycle had developed of anti-monarchist protests that were put down violently, thereby provoking even bigger protests, and so on. With even the legal political parties turning against him and military units switching sides, the shah’s power was untenable, and in early 1979 he left Iran for medical care, never to return.
This pattern of events is not unusual in revolutions, but what happened next in Iran is unique. Without the shah, politics in Iran dissolved into a messy struggle between factions with wildly different visions of Iran’s future (much like what happened in the Arab world in 2011) — and the Islamic Republican Party had the most public support. It wiped out its opponents and created a theocracy, or rule by religion. Muslims in many countries pine for a strong(er) role for their religion in government; in Iran the religious establishment actually took over.
In a system called vilayat-e faqih (“rule by jurist”), a Supreme Leader replaced the shah as the head of Iran’s government. This Supreme Leader was originally Ruhollah Khomeini, an ayatollah (a high-ranking cleric within Iran’s Shi’ite sect of Islam); he has since been replaced by Ali Khamenei (not the same guy). Khomeini attained the position mostly by his charisma and fame and legitimized it by his knowledge of Muslim law and jurisprudence. The Supreme Leader has the final say in government policy, oversees judicial and military appointments, and interprets the constitution. Beneath him is the president, who is elected every four years by the people — the catch is that candidates must first be vetted by the Supreme Leader and Council of Guardians, which is entirely made up of clerics. The Majlis persists, and like the president its members are also popularly elected; also like the president, they are vetted by the Council. There is a Supreme Court and a Special Clerical Court (the latter of which watches the watchmen), and they are also composed entirely of mullahs.
There are also the Revolutionary Guards. This corps was created during the revolution to “protect” (enforce) it by rooting out monarchist or secularist elements and jailing them. They are the regime’s enforcers and spy and crack down on protests or political dissent, not unlike their monarchist predecessors. Since students in particular are trouble, they are regularly hounded by the Basij, one of the Guards’ arms; another arm, the Quds Force, intervenes in wars in West Asia (Syria, Iraq, Yemen) to coordinate militias and advance Iranian foreign policy there. Analysts debate whether the Guards are controlled by the president or the Supreme Leader; in reality, they probably compose their own power center, and even if they enforce Islamic law, they act more like the paramilitary they are. They are definitely the single biggest economic force in Iran today after a major expansion under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13), and own powerful companies in the oil, telecoms, car and construction sectors.
Iran has a rich stew of political parties, but politics there normally fragments into two factions. The “reformists” want Iran to lighten up: lift government controls of the economy, trim clerical control of the government, court foreigners more, and allow more freedom of expression. The “hardliners,” well, want the opposite. They defend the status quo and the spirit of the Iranian Revolution and rail against reform as backtracking and dangerous. They taunt reformers as gharbzadegi (corrupted by the West) and either call for continued focus on Shi’ite principles and austere piety or defend government domination of the economy as necessary for protecting the Iranian people, depending on their background and emphasis.
That being said, Iranian politics can be bewildering and complex, and it gives foreign analysts much to do to track the shifting fortunes and positions of its main figures. Ahmadinejad, for instance, was a bit of a rogue who challenged the elite and promoted populist economic policies while championing Islam, demonizing Israel and the West, and alienating the young. He was ultimately distrusted by the Supreme Leader and Council for being a wild card who relied too much on the Guards, but during the “Green Movement” of 2009, when protesters railed against his reelection, Khamenei sided with him and squelched the movement, reasoning that he was the lesser of two evils. Khamenei has given his presidents substantial latitude, especially compared to Khomeini, but he is as hardline as they come and is not above making subtle digs at them in sermons to keep them nervous and in line. President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) was somewhere in the middle, trying to open up Iranian society after Khomeini’s harsh austerity but without betraying the revolution; as usual for moderates, this just meant that both sides ended up angry with him.
In general, though, the central dynamic in Iranian politics is that the ayatollah is hardline and the president (including the current one, Hassan Rouhani) is reformist. This is no accident, since the president is popularly elected.
The Iranian Revolution was a grassroots movement. Tired of being oppressed, tortured and patronized for as long as anyone could remember, Iran’s masses poured into the streets in 1979 to demand change and a government ruled by mullahs. The ’80s were years of religious zeal in Iran, as women were forced to cover up and everyone was forced to abandon overt signs of Western influence.
But Iran hasn’t historically been a closed, suspicious society. Sitting astride the old trade routes between Europe and China known as the Silk Road, it absorbed foreign influences and the people who brought them while influencing outsiders too (see this article for some of the ways it influenced South Asia, for example). It is widely acknowledged as an extremely hospitable and generous country with a tradition of respecting guests. In the decades before the revolution, Western influences were widespread and tacitly encouraged by the shah — Western fashions in dress and hair, Western literature, European languages, and Western pastimes were trendy and tolerated by most Iranians.
This trend away from revolutionary fervor has been accelerated by demographics. The 2011 census revealed that 56% of the country is under 30. The 20-30 age cohort is easily the biggest (23% of the population). Most people do not remember the revolution and do not hold Khomeini in great reverence. Due in part to weariness at Islam’s relentless intolerance and conservatism (or at least, those of its followers), the young are increasingly turning away from the faith; details are murky, but there seems to be a thriving underground Christian community. While Iran’s great religious centers like Mashhad and Qom still attract crowds during holidays and pilgrimages (as do Iraq’s Shi’ite holy cities, Najaf and Karbala), many mosques are relatively empty during weekly services. Even many clerics only go through the motions, and there are plenty who are blatantly hypocritical in their own observance of Islamic law.
As a result, it is fair to say that contemporary Iranian society is fairly open and secular. As in many other Muslim countries, alcohol is freely sold and consumed despite Islam’s ban on it; a lot of people even struggle with alcoholism, catching the government off guard with how to cope with it. Teens feast on pizza, visit bowling alleys, and show off their skateboard tricks and souped-up cars. Strict censorship of un-Islamic entertainment is usually flouted; satellite dishes dot urban rooftops, and hit American movies and TV shows are downloaded off the Internet. Social codes are clearly sexist, but women have more freedom of action than in most Arab or African countries, outnumber men in universities, and mingle freely with men in public. Islam’s strict dress codes are followed, but with as much leeway as possible — women wear tight-fitting clothes, makeup, and hijab with their hair showing. Some have even taken the daring step of not wearing hijab altogether, which is liable to get you arrested.
The Basij take a nuanced approach to this. Accepting reality, for the most part they let the people do as they want, especially if they are rich or well-connected. But stepping too far will still land you in jail, and Iranians are skilled at knowing where the red lines are. Political debate is tolerated — presidential candidates hold debates around election time — but if the core precepts of Islam, the revolution or the government are challenged, authorities swoop in. Travelers are nominally welcome in Iran and are certainly greeted with open arms by ordinary people, but they are still liable to be watched, detained and questioned by the police. Journalists and unfortunate souls like hikers who stray across the Iraqi border or scholars studying the Qajar dynasty are jailed without cause or on trumped-up charges. Listening to foreign music is O.K., but uploading a video of a dance to Pharrell Williams is going too far.
In general, Iranians are used to this and take it as a fact of life or a quirk of their country. But it grates on them just the same. Being treated as a rogue state or part of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” is frustrating, and most Iranians want more freedom. That is why they continually elect reformist presidents, from Mohammad Khatami in 1997 to Rouhani in 2013. That is why the reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009 sparked a massive uprising in Tehran in support of his reformist opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, that was ultimately put down violently. That is why more protests burst out around (Western) New Year’s 2018, which originated from economic grievances (mainly high food prices) but soon escalated into demonstrations against the regime in general, and in cities across the country.
How will these contradictions and internal tensions be resolved? As in many things in Iran, it is unclear. Some analysts argue that the violent suppression of protests and continued sidelining of reformists will continue and ultimately reveal Iran’s democratic process for what it really is: a facade for military dictatorship with religious overtones. Others are more optimistic and see Iran’s government as a spent force, with the youth representing the new vanguard that will someday produce an Iran less hostile to its neighbors and more tolerant of social expression. Given Iran’s ongoing relevance on the international stage as it bids for regional domination, outside interference and influence is another complicating factor. But it is unfair and overly simplistic to see Iran as simply another grouchy, zealous Islamic dictatorship determined to slaughter infidels and torture its people. There are a variety of political, economic and social opinions circulating in Iran, and although there are significant restrictions, Khamenei and his Guards let them circulate.