Lawrence Ershaghi

“International Rule of Law” Externship Paper

December 20, 2006


The Balance between Democracy and State-building in Iran Today



The transition to a democratic system of governance has been slow and often bloody almost everywhere in which it has taken place. It is no secret that the development of democracy is then a painful process, but a process that societies must undertake if they wish to have a say in their future. Societies must understand that democracies are not and can not be built overnight. When King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215 [1], limiting the power of his “nobility,” it took hundreds of years later until the parliament was accepted as supreme, when Queen Mary II accepted it so in 1689. [2] Even during this time England experienced a religious split, civil war, and military dictatorship.[3] Still when parliament finally became “sovereign” it took hundreds of years until voting rights were extended to all segments of society. In light of this historical fact, the transition to democracy in Iran will similarly be slow and painful, indeed it has proven so. But the process has started and Iranian society should be patient and welcome every step towards democracy. Former President Khatami’s election in both 1997 and 2001 was an important step towards the transition to democratic rule [4], but like always, reform and change in conservative societies and political circles create backlash and thus today we find Iran presided over by one of the most ideological figures in its revolutionary history.[5]

Despite the ascendancy of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election, there still remains a genuine desire for democracy and economic reform, in Iran today.[6] In fact, the election of Ahmadinejad was not a result of his hard-line foreign policy stance, but because he was a populist candidate who showed concern for the economic plight of the lower classes. Even on the governmental level, this was the Islamic Republic’s ninth presidential and thirty-eighth national elections since the revolution of 1979. In the words of one scholar “Iran has become an improbable candidate for the flowering of democracy,” and although Iran is not a full fledged democracy by any stretch of the imagination, “it has a citizenry that understands the fundamental logic of democracy and the laws that govern its practice.”  [7] So even though the government of Iran may not necessarily embrace or espouse democratic values, most of Iranian society has and does. They have done so through the materialization of civil society[8] participation and engaging in the voting process to articulate socio-political demands.[9]

Of course, nothing in Iran is clear-cut and matters are often juxtaposed by contradictions, just like any other society. An Iranian scholar describes these contradictions, stating that:

“a theocracy coexists with limited democratic practices; a secularized middle-class youth culture shares the public sphere with a sizable share of the populace that still puts trust in Khomeini and his legacy. Daily newspapers run full-page discussions of debates between French philosophers over the meaning of ‘postmodernists discourse,’ yet the country continues to languish under the Islamic Republic.”[10]

And while the forces of reform and modernity appear to be strong, so do those of conservatism and traditionalism. Notwithstanding the strength of the latter two forces, Iran more than any other Islamic country is a “place where fundamentals are under scrutiny and open to questioning and new thinking.”[11] What is more interesting is the overlap between these two forces. In Iran, these dichotomies such as traditional and modern are also somewhat problematic, because many members of society are both as ironic as that sounds. For instance, many youth will participate in traditional Shia religious events, and at the same time go to parties and listen to pop music. And they find no contradiction in this. In this sense, it has been said that one of the achievements of the Islamic Republic has been in producing the part-time Muslim.

            The current challenge confronting Iran today, as it was a century ago when the country experienced a constitutional revolution[12], is how to fuse the desire for democracy and the imperatives of nation-building[13] together in order to a create a democratic state. That is how does Iran balance nation-building with democracy-building? It should be understood that “Iran’s path to state-building fits neither the pattern of state formation in Europe nor that of the colonial/postcolonial state model.”[14] Moreover, in Iran, “the state was not the product of war, taxation, or colonialism.”[15] So the case of Iran should be evaluated based on its own criteria and the context of socio-political developments that formed it. Complicating matters further, Iran is the first and only county to have experienced an Islamic revolution. It has been no easy task for the state in Iran to reconcile democratic desires with the imperatives of development and maintenance of the country’s sovereignty. To its credit, the state has had a good track record with nation-building and development over the course of the past century. However, the same can not be said of its ability to sustain and further democracy in the country. This lack of correspondence between economic and political development has been the main cause of much of the turbulence Iran underwent in twentieth century, which ultimately led to a revolution three decades ago.

The question remains how does the state undergo development and nation-building without neglecting democratic rights? After all, achieving a democratic state marks a balanced accomplishment of the development process. In the end, for any state to endure, it must be democratic, and Iran is by no means an exception to this rule. The objective of this paper is thus to explore the political structure of the Islamic Republic and evaluate how it has acted as either a conduit or an obstacle to the lauded goal of democracy, and where it is headed today. Moreover, given that a democratic Iran would be likely to seek rapprochement with the US, [16] possibilities of such prospects will be explored, analyzing the perspective of American policymakers in their will to materialize such possibilities.

The Islamic Republic

Few, if any political scientists could fathom the creation of a theocracy in a modern nation-state.[17] The fact of it emerging from a popular revolution makes the idea even crazier.[18] Yet that’s exactly what happened on May 1, 1979 in Iran. The day the Islamic Republic was born, whereby Khomeini declared it the first day of the “Government of God on earth.” [19] The emergence of this type of revolution and government defied the conventional wisdom about revolutions and the development of history towards modernity and secularization.[20]  However, the system of governance that the people voted for remained ambiguous. After all, what does an Islamic Republic even mean and what does it entail?  The fact that Iran’s revolution was a popular one and an Islamic one, complicated matters further, because the question remained does sovereignty rest in God or the people? The twin facets of the revolution, Islamicity and populism, also helps explain why the constitution of Iran contains both theocratic and populist rhetoric.[21] It is this dualistic nature, manifested in the very title of the regime, Islamic Republic, which has created so much of the complexity and contradictory nature of Iran’s political structure. The case of Iran has also differed from the other two popular revolutions of the 20th century because “once the Bolsheviks in Russia and Communists in China had consolidated power, their leaderships were successful in creating a powerful, centralized, and most important, ideologically coherent states.” [22] In contrast to the Russian and Chinese experiences, the ideological bickering among pro-Khomeini forces has actually increased rather than subsided throughout the years after the revolution. The reason for this is because Khomeini was always above the factions and would often balance them out through his interventions, but after his demise, their frictions surfaced to the top.



Political factions in Iran today are made up of various groups and classes who supported Khomeini, the Islamic revolution, and the notion of an Islamic Republic, but who all differed on the nature of the political system and its policies. The explanation for such different views amongst the factions is because there is no specific model of an Islamic state nor are there any specific governing principles. Despite the fact that Khomeini stated the post-revolutionary regime should be Islamic, he did not provide any specific guidelines about what he meant by this, in terms of governing policies or particular policies in different spheres of the government. Consequently, “although rhetorically united under the mantle of Islam, factions in post-Khomeini Iran are ideologically quite distinct.”[23] Of course, it seems that there differences are more on matters of approach, than on outcome. They all believe in the preservation of the Islamic Republic and even Khatami was an insider and believed that reforms must come from inside the regime.[24] Although some reformists in recent years have broken away from Khatami’s stance and eventually do desire to see the transformation to a secular state.[25]

It should be understood that “while the notion of a clear-cut battle pitting conservatives against reformers is appealing, it does not do justice to the reality. There are divisions within both camps and connections between them; indeed, some actors may be ‘conservative’ (the right) on certain issues and ‘reformers’ (the left) on others.”[26] That being said, the faction, which is called the “left” or “radicals”[27] in Iran subscribes to principles similar to those espoused by most Third World leftist revolutionary forces. [28] Principles which include anti-imperialism and a welfare state based on egalitarianism through the use of subsidies. Thus, they advocate a strict control over the economy by the state. This faction also supports the export of the revolution. [29] Another faction holds “conservative” and non-revolutionary views. This faction believes in a laissez-faire economy and minimal intervention by the state in economic domain, yet in the socio-cultural domain, advocates the strict implementation of Sharia.[30] Due to its highly orthodox interpretation of the Shari’a and conservative views on economic and socio-cultural questions, this faction is labeled as the “traditional right.” In addition to this faction, there is also a faction known as the “modern right.” They are labeled “modern” because of their views in the economic sphere and “right” because of their belief in a free market economy. This faction is made up mostly of state technocrats whose main objective is the political and economic modernization of the state along the path of developing countries such as the East Asian Tigers.[31] Moreover, in contrast to the traditional right, this faction actually maintains liberal socio-cultural views.[32] Finally, there is a new fundamentalist faction[33], which is “comprised of young, highly religious, zealous individuals whose self-proclaimed ‘holy duty’ is to prevent the infiltration of western cultural norms into the country as well as fighting immorality in the Islamic Republic.” [34]

The lack of ideological unity has deprived the state of coherent decision making in all areas of policy. Thus, policymaking in the Islamic Republic is often a result of tactical scheming and engaging in partisan political activities. More often than not, the final arrangement of any particular policy is contingent upon which faction controls the delegated organization or ministry. In short, for most of its post-revolutionary period, politics in the Islamic Republic has been marred by systematic disarray as there are various centers of power and many sources of authority.[35] As one observer noted, “that's the essence of the problem -- there are so many competing factions, and so many checks built into the system, that sometimes nobody seems to be steering the ship of state.” [36]

Factional politics is not solely the domain of the elite within the Iranian polity, but has diffused itself down to Iranian society as well. In fact, divergent segments of society have taken sides in the ongoing dispute among the political elite by supporting one faction or another. For instance, the merchants of the bazaars and the orthodox clergy, along with the conservative elements of the country support the traditional right faction, whereas,[37] the university students and religious intellectuals tend to back the left and were supporters of the former president Mohammad Khatami.[38] A notable example of how society has encroached on the factionalism of the state was demonstrated through the election of the reformist candidate Khatami in the presidential elections in 1997, over the wishes of the conservative “establishment,” whom favored the candidate Nateq-Nouri.[39]  And despite the fact that “the regime has installed systemic filters to prevent “unfit” elements from running for office [40], all of the officials of the regime, including the leader himself, are either directly or indirectly elected by popular vote for those who survive the institutional filters.” [41] Of course Khomeini was the exception to this rule, given the fact that his power, authority, and most importantly charisma overshadowed all institutions and legal procedures. And since his demise no one person or group in has had enough power or popularity to influence the course of events in Iran with total omission for legal procedures.


Political Structure

As a regime based on Islamic values and populism, not to mention revolutionary doctrine, the state is comprised of institutions that incorporate and execute such principles. However, it should not be assumed that political power in the regime is distributed equally. In fact, there is a hierarchical distribution among state institutions, whereby some institutions are privileged, and thus yield more power and influence than others.[42] The Iranian constitution, through its disregard for the principles of separation of power and equality before the law, permits the more powerful institutions to legally trample upon the course of action taken by other institutions they deem of lesser importance within the regime’s hierarchy.[43] As a result, the different factions in the political establishment in Iran can take advantage of this imbalance of power among state institutions to jockey for stronger standing.

In spite of the fact that Iran has a supreme leader, power is not held by any single person, group, or institution.[44] In this sense, the Iranian government differs from most of its neighbors, where a single individual exercises power and has complete control over every sphere of the state and society. In Iran, the state is not totalitarian in the sense that there exists a great number of often loosely linked and in some cases fairly independent power centers which rule. However, due to the hierarchical structure of power, there exist among these centers of power only slight horizontal relation.[45] A further important feature of Iran’s political system is the fact that prominent personalities often yield more power and influence than their official title would suggest.[46] Thus, in order to understand the internal functioning of the regime, it is often helpful to survey the various connections and support of patrons among various individuals, rather than to examining the regimes organizational structure.  

In addition to the formal political structure of the regime, there also co-exists an informal power structure, through which various influential individuals assert their power. Their power comes from a multitude of various organizations, like revolutionary foundations known as bonyads[47] to the diverse security bodies.[48] The importance of these diverse entities should not be discounted, given the fact that they constitute an important part of the power base of the system and its ideological underpinnings.  Irrespective of whether an individual or group belongs to the formal or informal section of the power structure, they are all governed by an Islamic revolutionary leadership elite consisting of Shi’a clergy and religious laypersons.


Position of Supreme Leader and President

            The constitution that was passed in November 1979 through a referendum not only laid the foundation of a theocracy, but made the supreme leader, also known as the wiliyat e faqih, the fountainhead of the Iranian political system.[49] So while in a republican system of government, the highest political official tends to be the president, given the Islamic nature of the republic, this is not the case in Iran. According to the constitution of the Islamic Republic,[50] the senior most religious figure, the supreme leader, possesses the ultimate authority and power in the country. Though indefinite, the constitutional powers of the leader are “the power to determine the general policies of the system of the Islamic Republic of Iran; supervise the effective performance of the regime’s general policies; supreme command of the armed forces; declaring war or peace.”[51] The basis for the position is explained in Article 5 of the constitution “During the occultation of Hazrat-e Vali-ye Asr (the 12th imam),[52] the leadership of the nation in the Islamic Republic of Iran shall be the responsibility of the faqih.” According to Khomeini, Islamic society should be governed by a faqih[53] who is a Grand Ayatollah (marja-e-taqlid) [54] and who rules according to the legal principles of the Quran. To prevent the position from appearing and acting like a dictatorship, two requirements were stipulated for the positions legitimacy, knowledge of the shari’a and justice.

One scholar explains the logic behind the legitimacy of clerical rule according to Khomeini,

“Divine guardianship of the Islamic community is delegated directly first to the Prophet, then to the Imams, and finally during the occultation of Imam Mahdi to the just fuquha. The vali-ye-faqih would in turn rule according to the interest (maslahat) of the community as he saw them. Given this succession, it is the religious duty of all Muslims to accept the reign of their religious guardians, the ulama. In such a system, Muslims willingly give up their sovereignty and rights and relegate them to the foqaha. In other words, with the explicit consent of the public, the sovereignty and authority of clerical rule take precedence over that of the people. For Khomeini, the clergy were clearly much more than custodians of the faith. In his view, the foqaha were perceived as not simply benign dispensers of advice and consent, but as real wielders of power.”[55]

By creating the institution of velayat-e-faqih[56] and making him the sole individual competent enough to be the ultimate source of authority, Khomeini was obviously ensuring the political order would remain Islamic. The supreme leader would ultimately act as a check against secular forces which attempted to undermine the Islamicity of the regime.  

After the faqih or supreme leader, the constitution, states “after the leader, the president is the highest official in the country.”[57] Initially when the position was created it was more or less a ceremonial position. However, the institution has evolved a great deal since the revolution. Through constitutional revision in 1989, the position of prime minister[58], which co-existed with the president, was eradicated due to unavoidable tension. From then on, the responsibilities of the prime minister were inherited by the president. Similar to the United States, the president must be popularly elected and holds office for four years and can serve no more than two consecutive terms. Despite the president being the second highest official in the country, the power of the position is limited. The Assembly of Experts who drafted the constitution intentionally created a weak executive branch and divided responsibility between the president and the supreme leader. This was ultimately a check by the Islamic part of the regime against the republican side, preventing a possible future challenge by a popularly elected president against the supreme leader. Despite the weakness of the position, the president does have some important powers, which include appointing and dismissing ministers, contingent upon confirmation by the parliament. The president is also in charge of the Management and Planning Organization (MPO)[59], which gives him considerable influence over economic policy. Moreover, the president appoints the head of the Central Bank and acts as chairman of the National Security Council[60], “an influential committee with twelve permanent members that coordinates governmental activities related to defense, the intelligence services and foreign policy.”[61] What is unique about the position of the presidency in Iran is that the entire executive branch is subordinate to the religious leadership, namely the supreme leader. And despite him being chair of the NSC, he does not control the armed forces.

The fact that former president Khatami faced a plethora of obstacles in his attempts at reforming the system[62], reinforced the notion that the presidency was a weak institution. However, this notion is somewhat misleading. The more accurate description was given by a political analyst on Iranian television, which was once asked how much power does the president have in Iran and he answered depends who the president is. In fact, this holds particularly true of the newly elected president Ahmadinejad since he has actually had tremendous influence over policy. This influence is primarily due to his support and patronage from the Revolutionary Guards.  One only needs to look at the wholesale cleansing of the governors and diplomats abroad to see how much Ahmadinejad has yielded.[63]  Moreover, it is the traditional right and not the leftists that constitute the main target of Ahmadinejad and company.[64] After all, Ahmadinejad was elected with support from poor people on populist campaign to combat corruption, which is not against reformers, but against traditional conservatives, who have accrued far too much wealth through corruption.[65] It should also be stated that Ahmadinejad’s experience during the war with Saddam molded his opinion of the international community. He witnessed no international rebuke against western nations, which backed Saddam in his aggression against Iran.[66] Therefore, he believes that the security and safety of the Islamic Republic can not be predicated on international opinion, treaties, or diplomacy, but instead believes a degree of self-sufficiency and deterrent capability is necessary.[67] Given the United States recent military interventions to displace two governments in the region, Ahmadinejad’s argument has been given validity in Iranian political circles.[68]


Constitutional Bodies

The political structure in Iran also includes a number of powerful constitutional bodies, some of which have no similar counterparts in the Muslim world. Among these unique assemblies are the Assembly of Experts, Council of Guardians, and the Expediency Council. Additional important constitutional bodies, such as the Parliament, however are common.

The Assembly of Experts, known as Majles-e Khobregan, is a constitutional body comprised of 86 clerics, who are entrusted with the task of electing and supervising the supreme leader.[69] The body meets every six months and meetings are confidential. Members of the body are elected through popular election for a term of eight years.   However, the next term will last ten years “due to the ‘election aggregation’ plan of Iran in order that the government can run one simultaneous election for both Assembly of Experts and Parliament and economize in the election costs.”[70] What is interesting about this body is that despite the existence of a supreme leader in the country, his position is not an absolute or life time appointment. In fact, in accordance with Article 111 of the constitution, the Assembly of Experts can dismiss the supreme leader. However, the chances of this happening would be highly unlikely and would probably cause severe political backlash amongst the supreme leader’s supporters and followers.  

Elections for this body are set to take place on December 15, 2006.[71] Generally, public participation for this body tends to be low, however this upcoming election is extremely important because one of the regime’s most hard-line figures is currently running to become head of this assembly and has a very high chance of winning. This figure is Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi [72], who is well-known in Iran as Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor. Ali Ansari, an Iran specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said: "Mesbah-Yazdi is on the hard Right and very authoritarian. He doesn't even believe in democracy. Having him in power would lead to a much more hard-line puritanical rule in Iran. It would not be good news for the West." [73] In fact, he is known to be the god-father of the right in Iran and is a staunch opponent of the reformist movement in Iran. While rumors are circulating in Iran that he plans on replacing the current supreme leader, its highly unlikely that this will happen. Although, it is said that he is seeking this position with the eventual goal of becoming supreme leader one day. The fact that this body is responsible for electing the supreme leader makes this quite possible. Opposing him will be a “coalition of moderate conservatives led by Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, and members of the increasingly marginalized reformist movement, who have formed an alliance to prevent what both groups fear is a drift towards political extremism.”[74] 

Another constitutional body is the Council of Guardians, known as Shurah Negahban, which is comprised of twelve jurists, half of which are clerics, and the other half are lawyers.[75] The council is extremely powerful because it possesses veto power over all legislation approved by the Parliament. This body is entrusted with the task of ensuring all laws are compatible with Islamic law. If the council decides a law is not compatible with Islamic law, it will send the piece of legislation back to the parliament for revision. If the council and parliament eventually cannot decide on a case, it will be referred for final decision to another body known as the Expediency Council.[76] This body is also very powerful because it possesses the sole power to determine whether candidates can stand for election in all the other constitutional bodies. It is this aspect of the system which many people call un-democratic. The fact that a certain body can deem certain elements “fit” or “unfit” to run for office tends to go against democratic principles. The regime claims this is to ensure that elements meet Islamic criteria, but often this vetting process can become a convenient political tool to close the electoral process to political opponents. This became the case when the Council forbid thousands of reformist candidates from running for the seventh parliamentary elections in 2004.[77]

The Parliament, known as the Majlis in Iran is the legislative body.[78] The body consists of 290 members who are elected every four years through direct public participation. While the parliament is by no means a rubber-stamp institution, its power is simply not as great for instance as the Congress is in the US. Also, the Parliament cannot be dissolved. In accordance to Article 63 of the Constitution, "elections of each session should be held before the expiration of the previous session, so that the country may never remain without an assembly." [79] And despite the parliament being Islamic, five seats are reserved for the religious minorities in the country. The distribution of seats for the religious minorities is as follows, one each for Jews, Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians, and two for Armenian Christians. [80]

The last constitutional assembly is the Expediency Council, known as Majam e Tashkise Maslahat e Nezam, which literally means the assembly of determining what is in the best interests of the regime.[81] The body consists of 34 members, which are all appointed by the Supreme Leader. It was created in 1988 by Ayatollah Khomeini as an arbitration body to resolve disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council. The decision of this body is binding. The body also has a secondary function, which is to consult the supreme leader in accordance to Articles 110 and 112 of the Constitution. It is this function which makes the body a powerful institution. It has made such important consultations such as in helping end the Iran-Iraq war and is a body that has thus become prone to passing “emergency legislation.”


According to the London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran’s Iran's defense budget for 2005 is estimated to be $6.2 billion dollars.[82] This comes out to no more than 3.5% of the country’s GDP, making Iran’s defense expenditure less than every other Persian Gulf nation, with the exception of the UAE. [83] Yet given this fact, Iran has been recognized as “having the most powerful military in the Middle East, according to the senior U.S. commander in the region.”[84] The Islamic Republic of Iran is unique in that there exists two kind of armed forces in the country, the regular forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Although, both fall under the command of the Ministry of Defense & Armed Forces Logistics.

The regular armed forces has three branches, ground forces, air forces, and navy. The IRGC, known as Sepah e Pasdaran is “separate from, and parallel to, the Iranian army.”[85] They consist of five branches and are equipped with their own special forces (Qods forces), ground forces, air force, navy, and the most important the Basij, which is a paramilitary force.[86] Iran's military as a whole includes about 545,000 personnel and 125,000 in the five branches for the IRGC (excluding the Basij).[87] The operations of the Revolutionary Guards are “geared towards asymmetric warfare and less traditional duties. These include the control of smuggling, control of the Strait of Hormoz, and resistance operations.”[88] Iran’s current president Ahmadinejad was a member of this organization during the Iran-Iraq war and has recruited many of its members into his cabinet. This organization has also given many members of Hezbollah military training at its bases.[89] In fact, during the civil war in Lebanon, Iran sent around 2000 Revolutionary Guards to train Hezbollah militants in response to the Israeli invasion in 1982. In 1994, Iran also send hundreds of revolutionary guards to help fight in Bosnia. [90]

Next to the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militia is the most powerful paramilitary organization in Iran. It was established by Khomeini’s revolutionary decree ordering the creation of an “Army of 20 Million”[91] to protect the Islamic Republic against both external and internal enemies (US and counter-revolutionaries).[92] According to estimates by the Basij commander Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi, the number of Basij personnel is at 11 million. [93] The Basij tend to be comprised of youth who are very firm in their ideological convictions and are generally from rural or poorer parts of large cities. It was this group of young volunteers that fought Saddam Hussein and were famous for their “human wave attacks.”[94] What makes the Basij so powerful and influential is that they “have a quasi-decentralized network with branches in almost every Iranian mosque.”


Revolutionary Foundations

Another way, political factions contend for power and influence in the Islamic Republic is through control of revolutionary institutions, known as bonyads.[95] Initially, known as Iranian charitable trusts after the revolution, they were set up during the time of the Shah to channel money to his own personal fortunes. After the revolution, the goal of these institutions “was to work alongside the government to deal with the socioeconomic and spiritual needs of the population at large, and safeguard the religious and revolutionary principles of the new regime.”[96] However, given the fact that these organizations are not accountable to the regime, bodies such as the Foundation of the Dispossessed, have collected so much socio-economic and political power today that they act quite autonomously from the political system. Rather than serving its original noble cause, the Foundation of the Dispossessed accrued so much wealth, that today it resembles a business enterprise rather than a revolutionary body. And even though many of these institutions act autonomously from the state, they are considered governmental bodies. [97] In fact, they receive a significant amount of their funding from the annual budget.  And despite the fact that it gets government funding, the central government exercises very little, if any control over them. Not only do they receive government funding, but these foundations are tax exempt and only answer to the Supreme Leader. These institutions are so powerful that they are often referred to as states within the state. Among the most powerful of these organizations include the Foundation of the Dispossessed, Imam Khomeini’s Relief Committee, the Fifteenth of Khordad Foundation and the Martyrs Foundation. [98]                               

US-Iranian Relations

The triumph of the Islamic revolution in 1979, marked a dramatic turning point in US-Iranian relations, whereby the two countries have not had relations ever since. Since the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States has pursued a policy of containment[99] in various forms, basically depending on political threats and economic sanctions to force Iran to change its policies. The failure of this policy has been repeatedly mentioned by the U.S. State Department.[100] American diplomats fail to grasp how, after almost twenty-eight years of sanctions and containment, Iran’s behavior has not changed by any measurable means. Maintaining the pretense that Iran doesn't exist is  childish and furthermore a policy of military solution, would be an unquestionable debacle, and would destroy the iota amount of credibility America has left internationally. Therefore, it is time for United States policy to change and engage in dialogue with Iran. Even incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has recently articulated his support for such a move[101] and so have former Secretary of States James Baker and Colin Powell. [102] Given the fact that Condoleezza Rice has said to the Senate Appropriations Committee, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," [103] makes negotiating with the Iranians all the more compelling.

The fact that the US is the only nation in the world currently imposing sanctions on Iran, and the fact that they have proven to be ineffective[104], suggests to the Iranians that the Americans are engaged in behavior with Iran which is merely antagonistic, not achieving any results. Then in 2002, when Bush labeled Iran as an “axis of evil,”[105] this only provided more fuel to vilify the US in Iran. This epithet was particularly shocking, given the fact that Iran was cooperating with US over dismantling the Taliban government in Afghanistan. In the words of one analyst,

“In our haste to lash out at those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, we forget that Iran not only condemned the attacks, as did its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, but that it nearly fought a war against Afghanistan's Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies in the late 1990s. There is no greater potential ally in the struggle against Sunni extremism than Shiite Iran.”

It appears the epithet struck a blow in the opportunity to realize how the presence of a common enemy could have united the two nations and maybe even build trust. Indeed, an advisor to the Iranian president at the time told reporters “Afghanistan provided the two countries a perfect opportunity for improved relations,”[106] given the hostility both US and Iran harbored toward the Taliban regime.

The former Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, of Iran seemed to have the right idea with his Dialogue of Civilizations proposal. In fact, the United Nations proclaimed the year 2001 as the Year of Dialogue of Civilizations in light of his speech in 1998 to the UN General Assembly.[107] And President Clinton calling the landslide electoral victory of Mohammad Khatami back in 1997, which introduced a new era of Iranian politics, as a “hopeful sign” was also encouraging prospect for improved relations.[108] These were indeed both positive reciprocal steps taken by the leaders of the two nations. Despite, the Clinton administration adopting a somewhat appeasing approach toward Iran, vilification of Iran since 1979 revolution has been the norm in Washington and has continued even more so under the current Bush administration. In light of this fact, Council of Foreign Relations member, Jerrold Green, argues that, “It is time for the West to accept the Iranian revolution while nudging Iran back into the global community where it belongs.”[109] The Iranians also feel the US has double standards on the recent nuclear controversy. They feel that they are being unjustifiably singled out and threatened, when they point that they are merely pursuing their legal rights under the NPT treaty.[110] They accuse the United States of hypocrisy by saying that Israel has over 200 nuclear warheads and is not even a signatory of the NPT, yet Iran which has no nuclear warheads and is a signatory is criticized.[111] They also point to other nuclear nations such as Pakistan and India and even North Korea.[112] It seems that US should demonstrate to the Iranians that they are not being unfairly discriminated against.[113]

In constructing a viable strategy toward Iran, the US can gain lessons from the history of its relations with China, which, similar to Iran, was an ideological regime shifting between moderation and militancy. The history of Chinese-US relations was similarly marred with emotional wounds. Yet the realization of common interests allowed the two nations to move beyond their historical grudges and create improved relations. Despite the fact that US and China continue to disagree on certain issues, they also realize they have equally important shared objectives. For instance, the US may disagree with China’s Taiwan policy, but this does not prevent dealing with China on the issue of North Korea and the stabilization of Northeast Asia.[114] The two countries also realize a common interest in fields like trade and commerce. But so long as the US views Iran as a competitor and its influence as fundamentally hostile,[115] it will be impossible to arrive at a similar arrangement, which it currently enjoys with China.

The U.S. policy, through its emphasis on “linkage” is also problematic. The US stands by the stance that before relations can be restored or even improved, an entire spectrum of Iranian policies must change. The problem with this is that it sends the message to the Iranians that even if they were to for instance stop enriching uranium, they could not expect any hopes of having sanctions lifted. Basically, all Iranian behavior which US disagrees with is curiously lumped together.[116] This insistence of preconditions set forward by the US, prevents an inclusive diplomatic process, which would address the two parties interests. In the words of one expert, “the problem with the policy of linkage is that is has produced paralysis. For progress to be made, the United State must not just revise its policy of containment but discard its practice of linkage.”[117]

American policy of accommodation would indeed signal to Iran that moderating its behavior has its benefits and will be awarded. The United States would be correct in its efforts to persuade Iran that they have more to gain from friendly relations with the West than from confrontation.[118] The problem for the US of course would remain how to ensure that Iran would stick by its promises and modified behavior.[119] In this regards, the US could follow a policy of deterrence based trust, through recompensing favorable measures and punishing hostile behavior. This would be preferable than following an all or nothing approach, which would burn bridges that take so long to build. 

In May 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took a big step in America’s dealings with Iran, announcing inclination to participate with Iran in multilateral talks, albeit, solely focused on the nuclear issue.[120] The problem with this diplomatic gesture is that it distorts the contention between the US and Iran as nothing more than a disarmament agreement.[121] The irony of it all is that the Iranian’s pursuit for nuclear arms originates in the first place from its desire to ward off an American invasion. Furthermore, America’s recent military interventions which overthrew two governments in the region appears to have validated the Iranian quest for such deterrent capability. [122] Therefore, any diplomacy with an opportunity of significant success should be broad enough to take into consideration a series of issues. The mistake in the US approach so far has been in identifying only a single issue to negotiate, such as Iraq as outlined by the Iraq Study Group recently.[123] The problem with this is there are more issues at stake. [124]Moreover, the United States should recognize that “diplomacy does not equal appeasement, and it does not equal coddling our enemies. We need tough but genuinely constructive negotiation.[125] In fact, “the essence of diplomacy is to focus on areas of possible agreement, with the two powers gradually transcending their animosities and entering a new stage of relations.”[126] Once Washington reaches a level of satisfaction with Tehran, then it may be possible to reach an agreement on the other issues, such as the terrorism issue.

Despite the utility of multilateral talks[127], the best way to forge a lasting relationship of sorts and make any meaningful progress with Iran is to engage in direct negotiations. And it should do so on the issues of crucial importance, such as Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, nuclear program, and the future of Iraq. In this respect, European diplomatic gestures and nuclear talks with Iran[128] have created hope, but it is clear that the only way to deal the other such thorny issues such as Iran’s support for Hezbollah and militant Shia groups in Iraq is through constructive engagement.[129] Sign after sign indicates that Iran, despite all the tough rhetoric, is ready to negotiate.[130] Such an opportunity should not be missed. It should be noted that a comprehensive diplomacy can go a long way. In the words of one analyst,

In addition to significantly reducing the risk of a disastrous conflict, it would do more to encourage moderation and peace in the region than any amount of saber-rattling could ever hope to accomplish. And it would do more to help America prevail in the so-called Global War on Terror than any war plan the Pentagon could assemble. In the end, that is what defines good policy--something sadly lacking in Washington today.”[131]

Now, while the US should engage in a broad range of issues, this should not mean that if progress is made on one issue, but not another, a breakdown in all tracks of negotiation should occur. Since, it is very likely that the two parties may agree on the Palestinian issue for instance, but not the nuclear issue, or vice versa. An expert on the issue explains,

Progress on any one track should not be necessarily contingent on the others. For instance, if the United States and Iran are making important strides on the nuclear issue, negotiations should not be discontinued for lack of progress on terrorism or Iraq. Having stipulated the essential autonomy of each individual track, it is important to stress that in actual practice progress on any one of these issues is bound to have positive reverberations for others. An Iran that finds its relations with America to its advantage is bound to be a country open to tempering its radical tendencies regarding terrorism.”[132]

In the end, America must realize that its relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran will most likely not be one of “friendship,” but one consisting of dealings on an evolving selection of various issues, where the two parties interests may converge at times and diverge on other times. However, if politics is understood to be about interests, and not friendships, then when the interests of the two parties do converge, they should not hesitate in cooperating, despite the areas where they disagree on.   



Almost three decades have passed since the revolution and its people and leaders are deeply divided about the country’s future. Numerous political groups and factions co-exist and all sorts of political infighting occur over every imaginable issue facing Iran. No other country in the Muslim world possesses as much intellectual debate and cultural experimentation at all levels of society, with the possible exception of Turkey. Moreover, no other place in the Muslim world is the project of modernity examined as intensely and painstakingly as in Iran. In the past 27 years, the esteem which the clergy enjoyed (prior to the revolution) has now been diminished. This has created the emergence of a new type of religiosity in Iran, which is antithetical to the mullahs. In other words while Iranian society remains deeply faithful, they disavow any privileges enjoyed by the religious class.            Also, Iranian youth today seem to view religion more of a matter of personal and private affair, rather than one than governs or even informs political and social arrangements.                                                                                                                                  Of course, things were less complicated in the days just after the revolution. Back then, in that colossal event, Iranians were visionaries, seemingly infused with a clear mission and purpose. There's no doubt that the revolution was about ideals, as are most revolutions. Everybody was utopian, old and young. They rose up to change the world for the better, so they believed. Soon after, the revolutionaries began breaking up into different camps. Iranian politics has been infected with factionalism from the inception of the revolution and has remained its enduring legacy in Iranian socio-political life. If one were to describe Iranian politics, one could say it is like a design of an old colorful Persian rug, consisting of vast networks of institutions and multiple centers of power, which are competing to acquire, keep, and increase power. There are those who are sincerely struggling over ideas, while others are engaged in the ancient game of power politics. The ordinary Iranian citizen on the other hand cares most about his daily life and bread and butter issues. Despite the desire for democracy, the average Iranian goes about his/her everyday life and seems to be indifferent to debates and discussions amongst the elites and intellectuals.                                                                                                    Today Iran is a nation in transition. But nobody can say to what exactly. However, one thing is certain, that what Iran is experiencing is a journey to a more participatory democracy. Naturally, there will be numerous obstacles and indeed the road will be very bumpy. More likely, Iran will not look like the types of liberal democracy found in the west. Iranians tend to be contradictory people, insofar that they wish to see cardinal changes in the way there country is managed, yet want to see this occur in an environment of absolute stability. Moreover, Iranians are reluctant to proactively bring about such change, but at the same time do not welcome foreign intervention. In the end, everybody will be better served to allow Iran to work out her contradictions.  










[6] Vali Nasr, Iran’s Peculiar Election: The Conservative Wave Rolls On, Journal of Democracy, Volume 16, Number 4, (October 2005)

[7] Id.


[9] Hooshang Amirahmadi, Emerging Civil Society in Iran, SAIS Review, Volume 16, Number 2, 88 (Summer-Fall 1996)

[10] Vali Nasr, Iran’s Peculiar Election: The Conservative Wave Rolls On, Journal of Democracy, Volume 16, Number 4, (October 2005).

[11] Id.

[12] Significance of this event is in the fact that the country’s first constitution was promulgated.

[13] I use the term nation-building here to mean the same as state-building

[14] Vali Nasr, Iran’s Peculiar Election: The Conservative Wave Rolls On, Journal of Democracy, Volume 16, Number 4, (October 2005)

[15] Id.

[16], Abbas Abdi, a prominent Iranian journalist conducted a poll and found that over 75% of Iranians favor restoration of ties with the US. He was arrested as a result conducting this poll, given the taboo nature of discussing such things at the time. 

[17] Charles Kurzman, Structural Opportunities and Perceived Opportunities in Social-Movement Theory: Evidence from the Iranian Revolution of 1979, American Sociological Review, Volume 61, 153-170, (1996)

[18] Id.

[19] Cheryl Benard & Zalmay Khalilzad, The Government of God - Iran's Islamic Republic, 18 (Columbia University Press, 1984)

[20], “Proponents of secularism have long held a general rise of secularism in all the senses enumerated above, and corresponding general decline of religion in what are deemed 'secularized' countries, to be the inevitable result of the Enlightenment, as people turn towards science and rationalism and away from religion and superstition.”


[22] Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China, (Cambridge University Press, 1979). The thesis of Skocpol’s classic study on revolutions is that one common outcome of all modern revolutions has been a highly centralized and ideologically coherent state.

[23] R.K. Ramazani, Iran at the Crossroads, 217 (Palgrave Publishing, 2001).



[26] Wilfried Butchta, Who Rules Iran?, 14 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000).


[28] It should be noted that the left upheld such radical views throughout most of the post revolutionary years, but has greatly moderated its views since the election of Khatami, who belongs to this faction.

Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook

[30], Sharia refers to body of Islamic law.


[32] Id.


[34], Ahmadinejad’s beliefs correspond to this new fundamentalist faction






[40] The Guardian Council is constitutionally empowered to supervise all parliamentary and presidential elections and determine whether candidates are “Islamically fit” to run for office.

[41] Wilfried Butchta, Who Rules Iran,? 59 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000).

[42] Hooshang Amirahmadi, Emerging Civil Society in Iran, SAIS Review, Volume 16, Number 2, (Summer-Fall 1996)

[43] Id.


[45] Id.

[46], Hashemi Rafsanjani is a perfect example of this fact




[50] Article 112, The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Translated by Hamid Algar, Mizan Press, 1980).

[51] Id., Article 110

[52], The 12th Imam is Imam Mahdi

[53], Faqih is one who is an expert in Islamic law


[55] Hamid Algar, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, 145 (Mizan Press, 1981).


[57] Article 113, The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Translated by Hamid Algar, Mizan Press, 1980).

[58], Actual executive power was vested initially in this position as opposed to the presidency


[60] In accordance to Article 176, The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Translated by Hamid Algar, Mizan Press, 1980).


[62] He faced these obstacles primarily due to the opposition of the conservative establishment who holds the “real power”


[64], Ahmadinejad and his faction, belong to the second generation of revolutionaries, where there primary experiences were shaped in the 8 year war and not the revolution itself. 


[66] France, leading seller of armaments and German firms provided agents for chemical plants.


[68] Id.


[70] Id.



[74] Id.











[86] Id. See Chart


[88] Id.









[97] They are accorded legal status as defined by the constitution in article

[98] Wilfried Butchta, Who Rules Iran?, 74 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000).








[106] Ervand Abrahamian, Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria,  96 (The New Press, 2004)



[109] Jerrold Green, Iran’s Foreign Policy: Between Enmity and Conciliation, Current History, 16 (January 1993)

[110] The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons


[112] Id.







[119] Id.



[122] Id.





[127], Such as in the case of North Korea multi-lateral meeting