Iran and Democracy
- The Islamic Republic of Iran has struggled with its primary political identity since the 1979 revolution: Should the state be based on religious principles mandated by God? Or should it be based on man-made laws about democratic governance and the will of the people?
- Prominent reformists have sought to harness Islam for democratic ends. But hard-line clerics insist that Twelver Shiism vests ultimate power in the Rahbar, or supreme leader, with his allies in the clerical establishment.
- Protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election reflected the intense internal debate over the linkage between Islam and democracy.
- A new generation of ultra-hardliners in the “New Right,” led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has sought to weaken parliament, even as they proclaimed their commitment to the will of the “people.”
- The New Right has antagonized well-established lay political groups and the clergy who share a common interest in preventing a new Islamic despotism. But they lack a common vision of the political future and a leader with the populist allure to define such a vision.
- The clerical right was a group of radicalized clerics. Backed by the urban lower classes, they perceived Khomeini as a charismatic, even semi-divine, savior. Loyal disciples, they embraced his novel idea of velayat-e faqih or the “guardianship of the jurist.” Khomeini’s doctrine called for a supremeleader who would rule with executive and judicial authority inherited through the Prophet Mohammed.
- The Islamic left was a group of lay political intellectuals joined by a new breed of left-leaning clerics. These clerics were based in institutions such as Tehran University and invoked the ideas of a charismatic sociologist, Ali Shariati. Shariati blended Shiite Islam with Marxist notions of popular revolution under an intellectual vanguard speaking for the masses. Shariati held that a dominant lay political party – rather than the clerics—should constitute that vanguard.
- The debate over republic versus religion will be central to Iranian politics for the foreseeable future, even if the Green Movement recedes as an opposition force.
- The new generation of ultra-hardliners will complicate – and possibly preclude – a peaceful resolution to the democracy versus Islam debate.
- For the New Right, electoral procedures now appear useful largely to legitimize their rule.
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"The Iran Primer"--Book Overview
The world’s most comprehensive website on Iran, “The Primer” brings together 50 experts—Western and Iranian—in concise chapters on politics, economy, military, foreign policy, and the nuclear program. It chronicles events under six U.S. presidents. It also has leader bios, timelines, data on nuclear sites—and context for what lies ahead. Click here for a hardcopy. New articles are added at the top.