Repression with a dash of freedom: Iran's authoritarian-democratic politics

Repression with a dash of freedom: Iran's authoritarian-democratic politics
5 min read
10 November, 2015
Analysis: Iran's political system is famously inscrutable because it is neither completely authoritarian nor completely democratic, but a curious hybrid of both.
Khamenei: Supreme leader and mediator of the political fray [Getty]
After the optimism and hope embodied in the 14 July nuclear deal, Iran is once again making headlines for the wrong reasons.

Two Iranian poets and a filmmaker were last month sentenced to lengthy prison terms and lashes on charges that included "insulting sanctities", and just this week a prominent journalist was arrested for insulting the supreme leader.

Iran is also on track this year to break the record 753 death sentences it carried out in 2014.

The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ahmed  Shaheed, said his latest report was "marginally more optimistic" than his previous - but only because the Iranian government was more willing to engage with the UN.

Meanwhile, the head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, defiantly told state news agency IRNA: "Tehran will never surrender to the human rights as interpreted by the West."

And last Wednesday, thousands of protestors angrily chanted "Death to America" and burned the US flag outside the former US embassy in Tehran.

It is all in the system - it is a bit harsh, a bit open
- Pejman Abdolmohammadi
This confounds Western expectations of a softer Iranian domestic policy emerging as diplomatic tensions with foreign powers ease.

However, the emergence of a more tolerant domestic policy was always unlikely, Pejman Abdolmohammadi, a visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

According to Abdolmohammadi, the contradictions Western observers perceive in the Islamic Republic of Iran are in fact structural features of the political system.

"It is all in the system - it is a bit harsh, a bit open," he said.

The Islamic Republic is a hybrid regime.

"It displays, in fact, many characteristics of an authoritarian system, but it also presents some elements, albeit limited, of a democratic system," Abdolmohammadi wrote in an article he penned recently with Giampiero Cama in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.

"It is a very sophisticated system," he said.

An awkward compromise

Iran's political system emerged after the 1979 Iranian revolution as a compromise between Islamist political forces and secular groups including nationalists and leftists.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder and its first supreme leader, wanted a pure Shia Islamic state; the secularists wanted a republic.

They compromised, and founded the Islamic Republic.

"It can be seen as a sort of cohabitation between two worlds," Abdolmohammadi wrote.

The Iranian constitution has both democratic and theocratic elements. An elected presidency and parliament subordinate to a supreme leader and a Guardian Council both vested with considerable powers of oversight over the democratic elements.

The Pasdaran are close to the conservatives [Getty]
Executive power is shared, though not equally, between the position of the supreme leader and the president.

The supreme leader is close to the conservatives, but he is first and foremost the mediator of the political system.

Further, there is no structured alternation of power between political parties in government. Instead, alliances of interests compete for access to state power and resources, among them the presidency.

Elections in Iran are about genuine competition between representatives of different elements from within the regime. They function as a safety valve for the regime, but they are also about prominent personalities jockeying for position within a network of relationships and alliances.

This means that no one faction is completely in control of the Iranian political system, and no faction is completely out of power.

Though President Hassan Rouhani is in the camp of the moderates, his current justice minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, is a conservative.

Many of the conservatives in government are aligned with key institutions for the security of the regime like the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards Corp, and the associated Baseej militia.

The Pasdaran also has business interests worth billions of dollars.

Many conservatives are also linked to bonyads, charitable Islamic foundations that function as pseudo-state institutions and control formidable business interests in their own right.

Conservative backlash

The conservative alliance of interests embedded in the Iranian state is a powerful force for the preservation of the status quo. The conservatives will close ranks if they feel the system or the Islamic basis of the state is threatened.

The amount of political freedom fluctuates with the conservatives' perceptions of the level of threat to the Islamic Republic.

Decades of tension with the US, the dominant hegemonic power in the region, and tension with regional rival Saudi Arabia have made the conservatives paranoid.

The conservatives do not only fear the prospect of a direct invasion, which seemed possible at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, they also fear an attempt to overthrow the regime from within - what they euphemistically call a "soft revolution".

Paradoxically, the more open the president the harsher the system becomes
- Pejman  Abdolmohammadi
According to the Pasdaran-linked Payvand media outlet, this could be done "under the cover of scientific and cultural contacts between Iranian and US nationals".

These fears of regime change from within resonate in Iran; the democratically elected nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was toppled by a popular uprising engineered by the CIA and British spies in 1953.

The students who stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took embassy staff hostage in 1979 reportedly did so because they feared the embassy would be used to launch a similar operation against the revolution.

It is precisely when the Islamic Republic appears to be opening up to the rest of the world that repression often becomes more intense.

"Paradoxically, the more open the president the harsher the system becomes," Abdolmohammadi said.

The Iran nuclear deal has seen a small opening to the rest of the world but, he said: "I am sceptical if this opening will continue over the long term."

Many factors will determine the level of threat to the Iranian system perceived by conservatives perceive - the Iran policy of the next US president, the regional tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia fuelling proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and also the shape Russian involvement in the region takes in the future.

But no matter what happens, the relationship of Iranian civil society and civil activists with the regime will be fraught.

"[There is] a very interesting tango between civil society and [government] institutions at the moment," Abdolmohammadi said. "To keep them under control, and not to let them compete for power."