Consequences of the 1979 Iranian Revolution: A Theocratic Oligarchy or a Democratic Republic?

By Hezril Azmin
New York University

While Washington’s advisors and policy-makers scrambled to solve the question “Who lost Iran?” on February 11, 1979, Tehran Radio announced, “This is the voice of Iran, the voice of true Iran, the voice of the Islamic Revolution” as Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty was abolished in the wake of a revolution that called for the establishment of a new government, as well as sociopolitical and economic reforms for the Iranian people.

This new country was named the Islamic Republic of Iran as a result of a nation-wide referendum, in which 98.2 percent of the 20 million participants voted in favor of an Islamic Republic, or so its Constitution claims. The Islamic Republic was an unpredictable and extraordinary phenomenon in that it upended the trend of bloody and social revolutions, a trend of much bloodshed through the military’s resistance against revolutionary elements and its ascendance to power through coup d’états, as Theda Skocpol points out in her work Social Revolutions in the Modern World.

What is even more exceptional, however, is that the consequences of the 1979 Revolution made possible the installation of a paradoxical political system of governance unseen in more than 2,000 years of Iranian history. The historical anomaly here lies in the very name the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’, specifically in the ‘Islamic Republic’. The concept of a clergy serving at the top echelons of government to use religion as a vessel to supposedly institute democracy—a clergy that beforehand has always served as spiritual and religious advisor to the monarch and as arbitrator in matters of civil and family law—is unprecedented.

Yet, the Iran that has emerged out of this unique system of governance has seemingly shattered the dreams of the millions of Iranians who fought for it. Instead of the burgeoning democracy many had hoped for, the Islamic Republic seemed to be heading in the direction of what Behrooz Moazami terms the “theological security state.” With regards to the “Islamic Republic”, it seemed at the time that the state was becoming more ‘Islamic’—or rather was using Islam as a mask to cover an increasingly oligarchical government—than a secular republic. As Iranian poet Ziba Karbasi writes in her poem The Republic of Hate, this dream unrealized was like “the spring in our homeland that never came to fruition.” The paradoxical nature of this new Islamic Republic brings me to the pressing question: Did the 1979 Iranian Revolution establish a state built on a theocratic oligarchy or a democratic republic? In analyzing the constitutional and legislative structuring of the Islamic Republic’s government, its socioeconomic state, and the sociopolitical scene within society, I posit that the Iranian Revolution installed a theocratic oligarchy that is increasingly being challenged by sociopolitical forces yearning for a democratic republic.

breaker (12)Constitutional Structure and Legislative Nature of the Theocratic Oligarchy

The hallmark of the Iranian theocratic oligarchy is manifest in the constitutional structure of the government. Built on the principle of velayat-e faqeh, the institutionalization of an oligarchical state robed in theocratic fundamentals was actually underway even before the drafting of a constitution. The Assembly of Experts, the 73-person constituent body tasked with drafting the Constitution, was already packed with 15 ayatollahs, 40 hojjat al-islams, and 11 individuals closely connected to Khomeini.

Even though there were delegates who ran for election in August 1979, the Central Komiteh, which Khomeini had set up to supervise local religious committees and their militant guards (pasdars), had vetted all 73 candidates. Hence, the mechanism with which a new constitution was to be drafted was already ideologically skewed against Prime Minister Bazargan’s vision for an Iran modeled on the French Republic’s own political system. Ervand Abrahamian describes this imbalance succinctly in his work A History of Modern Iran: “The final product was…weighted heavily in favor of one – between Khomeini’s velayat-e faqeh and Bazargan’s French Republic…between vox dei and vox populi; and between clerical authority and popular sovereignty.”

In short (6)The structure of the state, as enshrined within the Constitution, was grounded in the hierarchical consolidation of power among the clergy. At the apex of the power structure sits not a president, but rather a figurehead titled the Supreme Leader, who is to oversee the Expediency and Guardian Councils, as well as the chief judge—and the only organ advising the Supreme Leader was the Assembly of Experts, all of whom were already vetted beforehand once Khomeini took the position of Supreme Leader in 1980. The president, who oversees the executive branch, answers to the Expediency Council and the legislative branch, which albeit supposedly influenced by the electorate, answers to the Guardian Council.

The Supreme Leader thus has all three branches of government under his control. In regards to the concentration of clerical power, the Constitution had in effect established an inner ring around the Supreme Leader that was tightly knit with individuals from the ulama: the Guardian and Expediency Councils and the Assembly of Experts. The Guardian Council vets all candidates running for president and Majles (the legislative body) and can veto legislative bills passed by Majles, while the Expediency Council mediates between Majles and the Guardian Council. While all citizens can vote for the president, the Majles, provincial and local councils, and the Assembly of Experts, the vetting of candidates to the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, and the president breaches the idea of a country built more on the model of a democratic republic, rather than one built more on the model of a theocratic oligarchy. Indeed, Khomeini himself reasoned that the “people love the clergy, have faith in the clergy” and hence “want to be guided by the clergy.”

breaker (12)Socioeconomics: Rentier State and the Theocratic Oligarchy

In the consolidation period of the Islamic Republic, the domination of the theocratic oligarchical model of government over a democratic republic was evident in the concentration of wealth in the state’s economic mechanism. Here I use Skocpol’s investigation of a ‘rentier state’ tied with Akbar Karbassian’s Islamic Revolution and the Management of the Iranian Economy. Skocpol defines a ‘rentier state’ as a country where the ruler uses revenues from exports, in this case Iranian oil, to pay off those who put the ruler in power. Skocpol describes the nature of the Iranian state under Reza Pahlavi in this context: “[Mohammed Reza] became increasingly addicted to revenues from oil and natural gas…The state’s main relationships to Iranian society were mediated through its expenditures – on the military…and the like… the Iranian state bought [its people] off, rearranged their lives, and repressed any dissidents among them.” It is easy to overlook the fact that the leaders of the Islamic Republic in fact inherited the rentier state—it would be very understandable at the time, especially with Khomeini’s rhetoric to achieve social justice for the “deprived masses” amid the “tens of thousands [who] martyred for the revolution.”

In short (7)In the wake of inheriting the Shah’s rentier state, the clergy pursued deprivatization policies to accrue and concentrate wealth in the public sector—the sector under the newly formed state’s control. This came in the form of bonyads, which are “clerically-controlled [financial] foundations,” as Karbassian explains. By the year 2000, bonyads composed 11 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The state concomitantly seized all property acquired through “un-Islamic” means, especially in the private sector; as a result, Iran lost billions of dollars of liquid capital—and many entrepreneurs and foreign owners that contributed to the economy, however corrupt they may have been in their involvement with the Shah’s lucrative business deals. In this case, it is apparent that the state’s activities wore the mask of necessity for religious ‘purposes’, while providing a practical means for the state to accumulate and isolate wealth that did not necessarily make it to the coffers of the Iranian public.

While Karbassian’s research focuses on the devastation the clerical socioeconomic reforms had on the private sector, it would be vacuous to dismiss the many benefits the new regime’s reforms did bring to the working class and peasant families in areas such as Gurgan, Mazanderan and Khuzestan. For example, the regime redistributed 850,000 hectares of confiscated agro-business land to approximately 220,000 peasant families and in doing so, peasant farmers formed 10,000 cooperatives, which resulted in the self-sufficient production of cereal. Additionally one cannot dispute the positive outcomes in life expectancy, which rose from less than 56 to almost 70 years of age; in subsidies, where the government provided for bread, rice, and other basic foodstuffs, as well as electricity, sanitation, and piped water; and in literary proficiency, which doubled, so that illiteracy in Iranians aged between six and twenty-nine was nearly eradicated, amongst many other benefits that also applied to the working class.

Despite the many benefits many Iranians enjoyed, I contend these positive socioeconomic reforms were the means with which the clergy kept revolutionary elements, for the most part, at bay. Fundamentally, this was how the Islamic Republic “bought [its people] off”, within the context of Skocpol’s analysis of the Iranian rentier state. In effect, this was how the clergy maintain their position and power in society, whether one agrees or disagrees with the notion that they bought of the Iranian citizenry. I do not mean to villainize the state of the Islamic Republic—indeed, that would be a fruitless scholarly endeavor. However, when one contextualizes the socio-political policies the state conducted during the consolidation period alongside the socioeconomic reforms that were no doubt successful at the time, it is difficult to argue the merits of the state’s intention to pursue reforms for the sake of strengthening an Iran built on the foundations of a genuine democratic republic.

breaker (12)Sociopolitical Policies—and the Repressiveness of the Theocratic Oligarchy

There is no doubt that, during the consolidation period, the clergy had no intention to begin establishing a popular sovereignty. In only a period of 28 months, the judiciary’s “revolutionary courts” had executed 497 individuals who had been labeled  “counter-revolutionaries” and “sowers of corruption of earth.” The climax of political repression over the shortest amount of time came during Khomeini’s time as Supreme Leader in 1988. More than 2,800 prisoners were hung over the period of four weeks alone, mainly leftists accused of “apostasy”—they had “turned their backs on God, the Prophet, the Koran, and the Resurrection.”

Furthermore, the sociopolitical policies the state enacted included the censorship of literature and written intellectual works that advanced secularism and European political ideologies. Such policies paralleled the imprisonment and execution of Bahai’s, as well as the repeal of the Family Protection Law, so that girls were once more married off at the age of thirteen, men divorced their wives without a court ruling, and women were removed from the judiciary and secular teaching posts—of course, there was also the well-known requirement for women to veil in the form of the “Islamic code of public appearance”, popularly associated with the black chador. The repression of women can be interpreted as an oligarchical move to exclude women from sharing the rule, so to speak, of the country, from participating in running the affairs of civil society.

In these ways the clerical élite fulfilled their role as velayat-e faqeh, to rid those that conceivably posed a threat to what Skocpol depicts as the “Islamic Republic of Virtue.” There is no doubt that the velayat-e faqeh is not simply a necessary stipulation to temporarily fill the void of the umma’s leadership in anticipation of al-Mahdi, but that there is also a moral component that Khomeini himself was convinced of in institutionalizing the political hegemony of the clergy, as evident from Khomeini’s characterization of his government as one lead by the “righteous and the pious.” In this way the sociopolitical policies, or rather the sociopolitical repression many Iranians faced reinforces the theocratic oligarchical nature of the Islamic Republic and that the republican component of the new nation’s name was, in short, a farce.

breaker (12)Desire for a Democratic Republic and Conclusion

My analysis of the question of the Islamic ‘Republic’ as a theocratic oligarchy that emerged as a result of the 1979 Revolution has been, on the most part, a series of examinations and explorations of the three ways that oligarchy has overwhelmed the democratic component of the then-newly established state. However, this article is not intended to paint the Islamic Republic as a complete theocratic oligarchy, or perhaps a totalitarian state in its paradoxical execution of a new democracy—one based on a tainted image of the Muslim faith to advance the clergy’s political interests. Rather, I posit that for the most part the new government was a theocratic oligarchy constitutionally and legislatively, socioeconomically, and socio-politically speaking.

With this in mind, however, many Iranians, including Khomeini’s immediate successor, Ali Khameini—together with Hashemi Rafsanjani as President—pushed back the tide of a constricted and isolated society and form of government designated to prioritize the interests of the clerical few, rather than the human masses. Indeed, the people and the newly formed government of the Islamic Republic pursued an era of more moderate and credible reforms, one which did away with what Rafsanjani himself described as “excesses, crudities, and irresponsible behavior”—an era Abrahamian has appropriately termed “Thermidor.”

Indeed, the struggle continues well into the 21st century for a more democratic republic through the Green Movement, a social struggle that protested against the 2009 election results, beginning in June of the same year, which saw the continuation of the right-leaning Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as Iran’s president. The Green Movement “soldiers on” in the words of Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, despite the political assassinations that ensued in the minds of many Iranians, especially the youth, who constitute 35 percent of the population and 70 percent of the unemployed as of 2009. Many may have argued whether or not the Thermidor resumed in the wake of Hassan Rouhani’s successful victory in the 2013 presidential election, but it seems appropriate to at least argue that the Thermidor—or at least the beginnings of it—are definitely in motion in the wake of the United States’ and Europe’s lifting of oil and fiscal sanctions, this past January. Whether or not the effects of the sanctions will alter the fundamental nature of the theocratic state—and if it does, how—remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, in reflecting on Iranians’ hopes and struggles for an Iran that truly embodies the “Republic” part of its official name, I do not posit that a true Islamic Republic—a democratic republic that coexists with Islamic ideals of coexistence and peace, ideals that do not pervert the faith of many Iranians such as the theocratic oligarchy’s state had done for too long—is impossible, or even unfavorable. However, such a possible future will be up to the Iranian citizenry to shape, now more than ever in face of an Iran that will certainly be more influenced by the import of external forces, as both ideas and goods.

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