Iran: A Glossary of Contemporary Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran

By Mansoor, Mike | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Iran: A Glossary of Contemporary Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran


Mansoor, Mike, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Iran: A Glossary of Contemporary Politics In the Islamic Republic of Iran

By Mike Mansoor

In seeking to understand parliamentary and presidential politics in Iran, several peculiarities of the Iranian political arena must be kept in mind:

There are no formal political parties in Iran. Without organized party membership, therefore, there is no party platform, or political allegiance to a party leader. This relatively loose political system means that individuals do not adhere to agreed-upon party positions. Instead, individual politicians' positions may span the political spectrum. It is therefore difficult to label and define political groups.

There exist several, often conflicting, centers of power. Among them are powerful individuals such as Iran's president, Hashemi Rafsanjani; Iran's supreme guide, Ayatollah Khamenei; and various heads of ministries. Additional centers of power include foundations (bonyads), which are autonomous financial and political institutions, and leaders of different military organizations, such as the army, the baseej, the hezbollah and the pasdaran. The number and independence of these groups make it difficult for any one individual or group to consolidate power sufficiently to pursue a separate political agenda.

In addition, conflict between competing centers of power easily leads to political sabotage. For example, leading members of Rafsanjani's government, such as Foreign Minister Velayati, have made an effort to gloss over the Rushdie death sentence pronounced by Ayatollah Khomeini in order to assuage European ire. However, simultaneously, the Foundation of the Dispossessed (Bonyad-e-Mostaz' afin) announced it was raising the price on Rushdie's head, thereby effectively sabotaging government overtures to Western public opinion.

As in most revolutionary regimes, revolutionary rhetoric plays a central role in Iranian politics. Indeed, the anti-Western social platform and populist economic goals of the revolution of 1979-80 continue to shape political discourse. The primacy of revolutionary objectives explains why an anti-U.S. stance has continued to dominate Iranian foreign policy.

Increasingly, however, elements in the Iranian polity are challenging the dominance of revolutionary rhetoric and seeking a rationalization of both domestic and international policy based on national interests. Political boundaries are challenged not only by pragmatists and technocrats within the government, but also by religious leaders who believe that the revolution, in its attempt to control the religious establishment and harness its power of legitimation, has overstepped itself and threatened the integrity of religious belief and practice.

Revolutionary rhetoric is wielded as a weapon of legitimation and, conversely, delegitimation of political policies. For example, diplomatic rapprochement with the United States often is decried as a threat to revolutionary goals. Such a denouncement clearly seeks to delegitimize rapprochement with the U.S. for the domestic audience. This, in turn, threatens Iranian political leaders who back rapprochement with domestic opposition.

As the repository of the ideals of the revolution, Iran's Council of Guardians has the power to veto government bills council members deem counter-revolutionary. Their authority extends over the entire political arena and they are the ultimate arbiters of who may run for office in an election. Often candidates approved on local and national levels are eliminated by the Council of Guardians.

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