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A Duplicitous Political Structure

How democratic elements within Irans government

maintain its authoritarian regime

By: Keeli Archer

This essay will explore how Iran has survived as an authoritarian state for the last 30 years by
examining aspects of its political history, its source of economy, and the structure of its current
government. While the primary focus of this paper is to discuss how the Islamic Republic of Iran
has maintained power for so long, it will also touch on how there are vulnerabilities within Irans
economy and political structure that could potentially threaten the totalitarian government.
The first section of this essay will provide a brief history of Iran as a democracy and the
overthrow of that democracy which has fueled their turbulent relationship with the West. Irans
resentment of the West coupled with their strong nationalism is utilized by the Islamic Republic
to depict democracy as a Western value and therefore a threat to Islam and the current regime.
In other words, any democratic opposition that threatens the regime is immediately discredited
as being a supporter of the West.
The second section of this essay will look at how multi-party elections in Iran play a part
in the Islamic Republics way of governing the country while also providing voting power to the
people. This will include insight into how democratic institutions, such as elections, are used to
support authoritarian regimes.
The final section of this essay will depict how oil-based economies encourage
authoritarian regimes through the effects of rentier income. The aspects of rentier income will
illustrate how taxation of a population may create or break an authoritarian regime. Lastly, this
section will focus on another effect of rentier income a strong military/security presence.
Irans Revolutionary Guard will be used as an example of how the Islamic Republic has utilized
military force to keep any opposition to the regime in check since the revolution.
In conclusion, the Islamic Republic has maintained its hold on Iran through a multi-
faceted approach of controlling election processes, utilizing oil revenue, and framing opinions
about democracy as a Western value by playing on historic resentment. Current events have
illustrated vulnerabilities in both Irans economic and political situation, but until Iranians can
freely oppose their government without violent repression and elect officials who hold actual
power within the political arena authoritarianism will continue.

Iranian attitudes towards the West
Iran is not a country that has always been without a democracy. The last democratically elected
Prime Minister of Iran was Mohammad Mossadegh who was overthrown in 1953 and replaced
with Shah Reza Pahlavi by the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) with support from the British
government (AFP Staff, 2009). The reasons for this coup were both economic and political;
Mossadegh had nationalized Iranian oil and taken control away from the English who previously
controlled Irans oil industry (Cohen, 2009). Additionally, the United States and Russia were in
the middle of the Cold War and there was concern from the West that Iran would ally
themselves with communist Russia (Cohen, 2009). Pahlavi, a member of Irans royal family, had
been in exile for years due to the power struggle he previously had with Irans parliament. But,
due to his Western sympathies the U.S. helped restore him to power (Cohen, 2009). Once
Pahlavi was head of the government, he abolished Irans democratic multi-party system and
with the help of his secret police force violently repressed any political opposition (Cohen,
2009). Palahvi remained in power until the Iranian Revolution overthrew him in 1979. This bitter
history between the U.S. and Iran is still fresh in the memories of many Iranians as it was the
first time the U.S. had disposed of a democratic government for their own economic purposes
(AFP Staff, 2009). Iran is passionately nationalistic and this collective memory of their history
with the West only encourages that sense of patriotism (Crane, Lal & Martini, 2008; pp.34).
Therefore, no matter the discontent many may feel towards their own government they are more
likely to support their regime, authoritarian or otherwise, then they are a foreign government.
The Islamic Republic has played upon this nationalism and Western resentment by
framing democratic opposition as a war between the West and Islam rather than democracy
versus authoritarianism (Crane, Lal & Martini, 2008;pp.34). Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme
Leader of Iran once responded to the idea of an Islamic democracy by claiming, Democracy
and liberalism, both of which are inspired by Western culture, must not become encrusted in the
foundations of the Islamic regime (Takeyh, 2003; pp.44). This argument has proved useful for
the regime as they are able to play on their populations hatred of the West and discredit any
democratic reformers by accusing them of working for the U.S. or other Western nations (Crane,
Lal & Martini, 2008; pp.33). This bad relationship with the West and Iranians nationalism has
allowed the state to focus on another enemy and less on the discontent with their own regime,
therefore deterring potential democratic opposition. However, while the Islamic Republic has
utilized their political history and resentment of the West as a way to discredit the idea of
democracy as a Western concept they have integrated democratic institutions such as
competitive elections as a way to legitimize their authoritarian regime.

Iran and elections
Today, Iran is a totalitarian state that has incorporated democratic institutions such as a
constitution and multi-party competitive elections into their system of governance. These
democratic institutions have ironically not caused the nation to democratize but rather have
ensured the survival of the authoritarian regime. How does this occur? To help illustrate how
Irans multi-party elections are not democratic, Levitsky and Ways minimum definition of
democracy will be explained. According to Levitsky and Way, There are four minimum
requirements a democratic regime must meet three of them directly concern the election
process. These requirements include universal suffrage for all adults; executive and
legislative branches of government are chosen through free and fair competitive elections; and
elected officials hold real power to govern and do not bow to the control of military or clerical
leaders (Levitsky & Way, 2002; pp.53). Applying this framework of democracy provides an
illustration of how Iran avoids the election process from being full democratic and therefore
maintains authoritarianism.
The first requirement of universal suffrage is one that Iran meets. According to the CIA
World Factbook, all Iranians 18 years and older, both male and female, are allowed to vote in
presidential elections (CIA, 2012).

[Courtesy of BBC News, 2012]

The second requirement for democracy is that free and fair elections are held to determine who
will make up the executive and legislative branches of government. As seen in the figure above,
Iran has a dual political system that includes both elected and unelected institutions (BBC Staff,
2012). While it is clear from the diagram that many of the executive branches such as the
president, cabinet and parliament are elected into power the legislative branch of the Iranian
government is an unelected position that is appointed by the Supreme Leader. The head of
judiciary, alone is able to nominate the members of the Guardian Council and appoints all of the
Supreme Court (Hoch, 2005). The only person the head of judiciary reports to is the Supreme
As previously stated, it can be seen that executive branches such as the president,
cabinet, parliament, assembly of experts and half of the Guardian Council are elected into office
by popular vote, as seen in the figure above. However, what the diagram does not illustrate is
that all candidates running for the presidency must first be approved by the Guardian Council
half of who are required to be clerics and whom are appointed by the Supreme Leader (BBC
Staff, 2012). This is just one example of how candidates who are elected to office by citizens
are controlled or limited by at least one of the unelected institutions. The vetting process used
by the Guardian Council can be rigorous and candidates are disqualified from the electoral race
for numerous reasons such as having committed a treasonous crime (even pre-revolution) to
having a lack of belief in Islam or even a bad reputation in their local neighborhoods (Alfeh,
2008). One candidate after learning of being disqualified to run in the presidential elections
stated that the Guardian Councils method of discernment was to ask his neighbors if he
prayed in daily prayers, if he shaved, if his wife wore a hijab and what kind of car he drove
(Alfeh, 2008). This process of disqualifying presidential candidates allows the regime to ensure
that they can neutralize any potential democratic opposition before they even make it to the
polls. In short, Iranian elections violate Levitsky and Ways minimum requirement of free and fair
competitive elections, as the process is neither free nor fair to every potential candidate. Also,
the entire judiciary is appointed by an unelected institution, which also violates the requirement
that legislative branches be elected into power.
Lastly, these elected offices do not hold any real power without the approval of a non-
elected branch. The President, for example, does not have any influence over the armed forces
(the Revolutionary Guard), no control over security/defense decisions and little voice in major
foreign policy issues (BBC News, 2012). All concerns regarding military/ security issues and
foreign policy decisions fall under the control of the unelected Supreme Leader (Hoch, 2005).
Parliament is elected by popular vote and approves the cabinet members that the President
selects however the Guardian Council must approve any bills and laws that they pass.
Therefore, all elected institutions cannot create any major political change without the approval
of the unelected institutions (BBC News, 2012). Schedler refers to this manipulation of elected
officials capabilities as disempowerment (Schedler, 2010; pp.73). Overall, Iran only meets one
of the democratic requirements established by Levitsky and Way and therefore does not meet
the definition of a democracy.
So, what is the point of holding competitive elections if the elected offices have little
political influence? To curb potential conflict by negotiating policy concessions that allow
demands to be voiced, without appearing as acts of resistance, where compromises can be
hammered out without undue public scrutiny, and where the resulting agreements can be
dressed in a legalistic form and publicized as such (Gandhi and Przeworski, 2007; pp.1280).
These cooperative institutions provide some legitimacy to the regime and help deter opposition
by providing a release valve that allows the system to engage in citizenry politically but in a
controlled way(Crane, Lal & Martini, 2008;pp.34). Arguably, this was especially important for
the Islamic Republic after the Iranian Revolution due to the fact that the people had just
overthrown a dictator who had abolished their once multi-party democratic system (Cohen,
2009). Electoral authoritarianism tends to emerge out of completely authoritarian regimes where
there were previously no institutions; including multi-party elections to even create a facade of
democracy (Levitsky and Way, 2002; pp.60). In short, Iran had gone from democracy, to
dictatorship and in order for the Islamic Republic to maintain power they needed to provide at
least an illusion of a democratic regime. The Islamic Republic would therefore be best described
as an electoral authoritarian regime a totalitarian government that utilizes elections to give a
facade of liberal democracy, but which is manipulated by the government (Schedler, 2010;pp.
71). While Irans electoral system has probably helped sustain the Islamic Republic for the last
thirty years there is a potential risk in allowing this institution to exist. Totalitarian regimes must
provide some power to elections in order for them to seem legitimate to their public, but if they
give them too much power then the elections may become an entity that is used to work against
the regime. (Schedler, 2010 pp.77). However, if the elections are to controlled by the
government, they are not viewed as legitimate by its citizens so that the illusion of competitive
elections is not longer there, (Schedler, 2010 pp. 77). This was the case in 2009 when mass
protests occurred in Iran to dispute claims that the regime had rigged the election that put
President Ahmadinejad in office for a second term (Siddique, 2009). Overall, in electoral
authoritarian regimes, leaders must carefully balance how much power to accord to elections, in
order for them to be considered legitimate but also controlled, (Schedler, 2010 pp. 77).

Rentier Effects: Taxation and Repression
Irans oil exports per year amount to $80 billion, which equates to 80 percent of its foreign
income and 60 percent of its annual budget (Kamiri, 2012). This dependence on oil makes Iran
a rentier state, which is defined as a country that receives most of its revenue from foreign
investments in their natural resources such as oil (Ross, 2001; p.329). The fact that Iran is a
rentier state may contribute to why it has not democratized. Ross explains that within rentier
states there are certain socio-political developments that occur these include taxation and
repression effect (Ross, 2001;pp.332).
Taxation effect is when governments earn sufficient enough revenue from oil that they
tend to tax their citizens very little or not at all (Ross, 2001;pp.332). Due to this lack of taxes,
citizens are less likely to demand accountability from their leadership over where funds are
being directed. Governments that have substantial non-tax income can buy themselves out of
trouble by showering largesse on the population, often keeping prices low through subsidies (as
happens in Iran) (Whitaker, 2010). It is this lack of accountability, which keeps governments
from democratizing citizens dont want to pay more in taxes and therefore dont feel any
obligation to speak out against government spending.
Despite the fact that in the past Iran has imposed few taxes on its citizens, recent
economic hardship has forced the Iranian government to consider new tax reforms. In the last
two years oil sales have not been as high in Iran additionally there have been international
embargoes placed on Iranian oil by the U.S. and the United Kingdom in an effort to financially
punish Iran for its nuclear program (Karimi, 2012). Due to the harsh economic environment
President Ahmadinejad made attempts to tax citizens in 2010 a move that resulted in public
outcry (Butler, 2010). While tax reforms would be economically feasible for Iran and could
potentially push the country towards democratic reforms, the government has not been able to
create an infrastructure to tax their citizens (Bakhtiar, 2007). Much of this is due to the fact that
many Iranians do not have a formal economy where they keep records of their business
transactions, which allows for a less transparent and more corrupt economy (Bakhtiar, 2007).
If taxation effect keeps citizens from holding their government accountable over how and
where government funds are spent, then repression affects silence those who would speak up.
In rentier states that are dominated by authoritarian regimes there may be citizens who have
democratic aspirations or who simply oppose the current government. Despite these
oppositions, these citizens may not be able to voice their concerns through protest or freedom
of speech because their government has the financial means to spend more on internal
security/military to silence them (Ross, 2001;pp.336). In the case of Iran, the Revolutionary
Guard is the internal security force that was specifically created after the Iranian Revolution to
protect the Islamic Republic and is a separate force from the Iranian military (BBC Staff, 2009).
One prime example of repression is in 2009 when civilians were tear gassed and threatened by
the Revolutionary Guard after they took to the streets to protest against the contested election
that saw President Ahmadinejad take a second term (Tran and Talt, 2009). The Revolutionary
Guard labeled the protest as a conspiracy against Iran and protesters were not even allowed to
stand together in silence but forced to disperse from each other (Tran and Talt, 2009). It is
unknown how much money goes towards the Revolutionary Guard as all finances regarding
their activities have been hidden or not put on record since their inception in 1979 (AP Staff,
2011). However, it is known that they have been given numerous privileges and enough capital
to have their own ground force, navy, air force, and Intelligence services (AP Staff, 2011).
Irans dependence on oil has created a convenient scenario where citizens may be
content to not pay taxes but are also forfeiting their right to question the government on where
funds are going. Ironically, it is this lack of accountability, which most likely allows a hidden
budget for the Revolutionary Guard who is tasked with silencing any threats or opposition to the
regime. In the case of Iran, the rentier effects of this oil dependent nation reinforce each other. It
is through this system of economic and military leverage that the Islamic Republic of Iran has
continued to survive for three decades and democratization has yet to occur. Additionally, if Iran
is unable to make enough on oil revenue and must turn toward taxation of its citizens this could
potentially lead to democratic reforms and more transparent system of where funds are being

Iran is a wealthy state that has a history of democracy yet for the last thirty years it has
sustained the same totalitarian regime. The reasons for this are linked to both its history and its
source of wealth. Due to the repressive dictatorship of the Shah between 1953-1979, the
Iranians did not even have the illusion of a democracy. Therefore, when the Islamic Republic
came to power after the overthrow of the Shah, the new regime knew that they needed
democratic institutions to at least make Iranians feel as though they had a say in politics. This
would help ensure their place as Irans governing force. Irans history also plays a very strong
role in their nationalism and bad relationship with the U.S. and the U.K. The Islamic Republic
has encouraged the nationalistic unity and resentment towards the West as it has allowed for
the Iranian people to focus much of their attention on a foreign enemy rather than criticize their
own regime. Additionally, the Islamic Republic considers democracy synonymous with Western
culture it is very easy for them to paint their democratic opposition as pro-Western or holding
U.S. interests, and therefore discrediting them. Lastly, oil wealth has allowed the Islamic
Republic to be financially independent, meaning that they can survive without any money from
their citizens. While Iranians may be happy to not be taxed, this has also taken away their ability
to hold the government accountable over where they are spending their money. This leads to
the last and possibly most effective aspect of oil wealthy totalitarian states strong security.
The Revolutionary Guard is a powerful entity of the Islamic Republic as it exists to fend off any
and all opposition that may threaten the Islamic regime. All these variables are rolled up into the
same conclusion the state apparatus has been powerful enough to withstand any serious
opposition over the last three decades by playing on historical resentment, economic advantage
and political manipulation. Current events such as international sanctions on Iranian oil and the
existence of institutions like competitive elections may later create turbulence amongst the
political regime. But, until the citizens of Iran are free to criticize their government without fear of
repression and elect politicians with the power to affect economy, security and foreign policy,
Iran remains a stable authoritarian regime.


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