The Landscape of Factional Politics and Its Future in Iran

Article excerpt

This article offers a schematic overview of factional politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In addition to the divisions between those who oppose the Islamic Republic and those who support it, there has come to be a lively debate and competition among the major factions of those supporting the system, defined here as "reformists, pragmatists and fundamentalists." These factions have been evolving towards traditional political parties in which substantive issues, rather than ideological stances, dominate. The article analyzes each of these factional groupings in turn, as well as their political discourse on domestic and international issues. It then offers an analysis of this evolution.

During the last few years, Iranian politics has witnessed intense factional debates at two levels. On the one hand, there is an ongoing debate between those for and against the Islamic Republic. On the other, factional politics has dominated the atmosphere within the Islamic Republic since its birth in 1979. Presently, there are harsh debates between and among reformists, pragmatists, and fundamentalists. In this article, I will first draw a schematic landscape of factional politics in Iran. Then, I will present the issues in debate among the dominant forces in the Iranian political landscape.


Due to the dominant populist culture, each office-seeking candidate must appeal to the populace. This political culture enhances the chance of success of those candidates with populist agendas. However, since their promises are usually too ambitious to achieve, and only serve to enhance popular expectations, once in power, those candidates cannot fulfill their promises. As a result, most major incumbent politicians leave office with low popular approval, while incoming politicians receive soaring public support. This context of politics is more prone to the emergence of subsequent charismatic Mites and cleavages among factions involved in the electoral processes.


Based on the three most recent elections, out of 67% voter turnout in the last presidential election, 78.3% went to reformists including the Pragmatist Party, Kargozaran Sazandegi, and 15.9% went to the fundamentalists, including E'tedal Va Tose `eh, a party which is in an unofficial coalition with the fundamentalists.

Power distribution in Iran does not reflect the popular vote. Even with 70% of the electoral vote and 78.3% of the popular vote, the reformists have limited power. Non-elected institutions controlled by the Supreme Leader restrict reformists' power in the executive, Majlis, and City Councils. Furthermore, 70% of the highest state power positions are filled through appointments by the fundamentalists.1

Implicit in these statistics is the disenchantment of a sizeable 33% of the population who refused to vote in the 2001 presidential election. The unpopularity of the fundamentalists' and pragmatists' approaches, and the ineffectiveness of the reformists are criticized for the drop in voter turnout. Although 90.5% supported political reform in 2001, dissatisfaction with the efficiency of reform is considerably on the rise.


Although all three factions (fundamentalists, reformists, and pragmatists) fall within the pro-Islamic Republic sphere, their approaches to Islam are different. Fundamentalists are representative of political Islam. In other words, they deem that the power of government is necessary to implement Islamic ordinances. Reformists, on the other hand, differentiate between the functions of the state and that of religion. According to them, Iran is a nation-state, established to maintain the security of the individual and the polity as a whole. However, since most Iranians are Muslims, they support security measures that do not violate Islamic precepts. These diverse interpretations of Islam rather come from very different cultures and backgrounds. …