Iran, an Islamic state, operates under a theocracy. The country’s political system is a a unique one comprising of different centers of power. All of them influence the direction of policies. This paper intends to explore the Iranian political system, a subject that features prominently in chapter 3 of the book “The Politics of the Middle East,” by Monte Palmer.
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Islamic governance in action
Iran is a country perched along the Persian Gulf and with a population of 77.45 million people as per the census of 2013. Iran was initially known as Persia and takes pride in the exploits and achievements that the Persian Empire had. Some of the earliest recordings about Iran are found in the History of Persia which gained prominence during the rule of Cyrus and more during the reign of Darius. Although Iran is considered a Persian state, it is also home to other small ethnic groups that make up part of the population. The Farsi-speaking group who are Persians make up a vast majority of the country’s population. Other minority groups like Kurds, Lurish, Semnani and Gilaki among others have little say in the affairs of the country. Iran has a rich history of civilization embedded in history to date. The greatness of the Persian Empire and the advancement that it achieved during those years are still evident to date through architectural monuments.
History and culture
As a country, Iran has seen turbulent times in its religious and political history. Currently, its administration is a mix of a political and religious alliance that makes it an Islamic state. With Islam as the main religion in Iran, there is its infusion within the constitution.
However, a look back into the past indicates that Persia was colonized by Bedouin Arabs and converted to Islam. The Shia Muslims being the majority rule the country through the Ayatollah who is the supreme leader of the nation. Before the emergence of the Ayatollah, the country was ruled by the Shah whose deposition, later on, saw the title banished.
The colonial Era
Part of the rich history of the country is tapered with colonization by Britain and Russia which had established relationships with Iran. Iran has been under the administration of a variety of establishments that change with time. The country has seen unique transformations over a period whenever a change has come beckoning. Before and during the colonial era, Iran was run as a monarchy that had absolute power and later on by a constitutional monarchy. During the first Shah period, Iran was a constitutional monarchy before it the office was toppled in a coup. The second rule by the Shah, the office enjoyed absolute powers. The Shah Reza transformed Iran into a secular state by following Ataturk’s example in Turkey (Palmer 284).
The Era of the New World Order
The collapse of the USSR and emergence of the U.S. as a super power changed the country’s approach to world issues. America’s position became a threat to the position and influence held by conservatives who were against major reforms
Iran in the era of terror
Terrorist attacks on U.S. soil brought about tension between Iran and the U.S. since Iran seemed to hold the ideological positions of the group responsible. The threat of Iran’s nuclear program became a major point of contention in international politics with the U.S siding with Israel on the matter.
Iranian politics today and beyond
Elites and institutions
The present day Iran is governed by several institutions that work in tandem to achieve a unique form of governance unique to the country. At the helm is the Ayatollah who is the supreme leader of the country. The Ayatollah is usually selected by other Ayatollah’s and can be described as the representative of the Prophet.
The group leans towards sharia law. It emphasizes the preservation of religion at all times during the policy formulation.
The Conservatives call for strict adherence to the sharia law. Those who deviate usually face severe consequences
This group perceives the country’s administration as collaboration between the clergy and the presidency. The president offers pragmatic solutions to issues while the clergy gives the moral direction.
The liberals prefer democracy and have a soft spot for human rights. They form a considerable portion of the Islamic community.
There is a disintegration of the elite into the various groups. They include the liberals, conservatives and other multiple factions
The group basis of Iranian politics
Iran’s political culture represents a divide between hardliners who lean towards religion and moderates who lean towards a secular state. It is hard to define any other group as far left because the Ayatollah office subjects all governance issues to a religious dictum. Political office holders and aspirants campaign for their seats, in the same way; other countries perform their campaigns through debates, televised commercials, and rallies. The campaign outcomes usually decide which group takes the popular vote thus the leadership of the country.
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There is suppression of full-fledged parties in Iran. However people are aligned along the major ideological groups. Due to the fear that the people have against a purely Islamic state, Iran’s political arena has turned out as a battle between hardliners, reformists, and moderates. Reformists believe in an Iran that should separate religion from politics. Reformists have been seen as highly radical in their quest to change the system but have always been contained by the guardian council which vets and vetoes candidates together with bills brought to parliament. According to Palmer (288), Iran’s political culture can be divided into several groups depending on their ideological leanings. Two main groups that emerge are the conservatives/radicals and the reformists. The country’s political culture is usually swayed by presidential elections and parliamentary elections which determine the ideological agenda that will prevail.
Bureaucracy in this context is the way decision-making is observed and done. As a country with sharply divided political and social opinion, one can describe its decision-making process as being too bureaucratic. Due to many institutions running the country at the different levels, Iran has remained divided as the various agencies strive to influence decision-making. The presidency and the cabinet are responsible for policy and drafting legislation which is subject to parliamentary approval. The guardian council has a certain level of influence on matters that have been passed by the legislature. At the top, the Ayatollah has supremely divine powers to veto and give specific direction. Vested interests have allowed corruption to reign within all systems of government because of resistance to change. The ruling elite which is a clergy related through marriage has put a stranglehold on the country to the extent that only their agenda can prevail (Palmer 288). Due to many years of squabbling among the ruling elite, corruption in the public service sector has taken center stage. State-run corporations have been turned into unprofitable organizations due to systematic corruption.
Iran is rife with political groups that emerge and disappear after some time. Most of these groupings are formed by like-minded individuals to pursue a certain political agenda that interests them and before disappearing from the scene (Palmer 291).
The era of revolution and optimism
The history of Iran is marked with coups and revolutions. Each coup or revolution is being inspired by certain sentiments that become popular thus leading to change. Many leaders of pressure groups change their stance once they get into power and fail to end the same problems against which they campaigned.
The era of Islamic resurgence
After the revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the clerics got divided between the right and the left with each group working to appease the supreme leader. These two groups were ideologically divided.
Due to Iran’s intolerance to political parties, its politics is based on ideologies which attract candidates that identify with them. Several pressure groups exist in Iran. They include the Baazaris, clergy, students, women and opposition groups. Each of these groups provides an agenda that its followers identify within the society. The setup in Iran is highly intolerant to opposition parties thus the main opposition party operating from exile in Iraq is the Mujahedin-el-Khalq (Palmer 296).
The context of Iranian politics
As part of its effort to gain influence and power, Iran has resorted to developing nuclear technology that would give it much say on the international stage. Iranian politics is a mix of local and international politics. The country and its leadership have not shied away from engaging the international community into a push and pull game as it strives to strengthen its position.
Since the deposition of the Shah in 1978, the country moved on to nationalize oil interest owned by foreign companies. The move attracted economic sanctions from the international community as it strived to force Iran into submission. Iran has lived with sanctions since that period, and it continues to survive more sanctions. A look at the country’s geographical location indicates that its location is strategic and as such attractive for various international interests.
Political culture and mass behavior
The Iranian leadership has strived hard to influence the politics of the region by sponsoring groups to destabilize other nations that are pro-western. Hezbollah is one of the biggest terrorist groups that have been commissioned by Iran to protect Lebanon from Israel. The influence of Iran specifically targets Shia majority states which subscribe to the Ayatollah belief.
Looking toward the future
The influence of different pressure groups is likely to determine Iran’s future politics. Fragmentation of the elite, a weak economy, apathy of the masses and immense pressure from foreigners among others is likely to dampen the countries initiatives of having strong policies in place.
Clearly, the book, “The Politics of the Middle East,” by Monte Palmer provides great insights into the Iranian political system. Iran remains a powerful country in the Middle East and more so a threat to western interests. Local politics remain a competition between radicals and reformists who exchange the baton after every election. It will be interesting to see the path that Iran takes if it successfully attains nuclear technology.
Palmer, Monte. The Politics of the Middle East. 2nd ed., Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2006.