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Iranian Politics

The Revolution of 1979 brought about a fundamental change in Iranian attitudes toward politics. Under the monarchy the political culture had been elitist in the sense that all major governmental decisions were made by the Shah and his ministers. Most of the population acquiesced in this approach to politics. The fusion of traditional Shia Islamic ideals with political values during the Revolution resulted in the emergence of a populist political culture. The principal characteristics of this political culture are pervasive feelings that the government was obligated to ensure social justice and that every citizen should participate in politics. These feelings are acknowledged by the political leadership, which constantly expresses its concern for the welfare of the mostazafin (disinherited) and persistently praises the people's work in a host of political and religious associations.

The transformation of the political culture owed much to the charisma of Ayatollah Khomeini. He was determined not simply to overthrow the monarchy, but also to replace it with a new society that derived its values from Islam. Khomeini believed that the long-term success of such an ideal Islamic government was dependent on the commitment and involvement of the masses. He envisaged the clergy as responsible for providing religious guidance, based on their expertise in Islamic law, to the people as they worked to create a new society in which religion and politics were fused. Khomeini's reputation for piety, learning, and personal integrity, as well as his forceful personality, were important factors in the mobilization of thousands of committed followers to carry out the desecularization of the country's political institutions.

Mass political involvement was both an objective and a characteristic of post-revolutionary Iran. Political participation, however, was not through political parties, but through religious institutions. The mosque became the single most important popular political institution. Participation in weekly congregational prayers, at which a political sermon was always delivered, was considered both a religious and a civic duty. For political aspirants, attendance at the weekly prayers was mandatory. Numerous religiopolitical associations are centered on the mosques. These organizations undertook a wide variety of activities, such as distributing ration coupons, investigating the religious credentials of aspirants for local offices, conducting classes in subjects ranging from the study of Arabic to superpower imperialism, and setting up teams to monitor shop prices and personal behavior. These organizations tended to be voluntary associations whose members devote several hours per week to their activities. Although most of these voluntary associations were for men, several were specifically for women.

Religious, rather than secular, organizations thus had the most important political roles. Factories, schools, and offices also had Islamic associations that undertook functions similar to those of the mosque voluntary associations. Although many secular groups exist, the majority of such associations as industrial and professional unions, university clubs, and mercantile organizations had acquired religious overtones. These private organizations generally had religious advisers who provided guidance to members on prayer ritual, Islamic law, and Shia history. Associations that tried to avoid mixing religion with business were often suspected of being anti-Islamic and risked having their articles of incorporation revoked.

The Iranians who accepted the dominant role of religion referred to themselves as hezbollahis. They tend to be fervent both in their profession of religious belief and in their loyalty to the Islamic Republic. Self-identified hezbollahis often joinned the numerous mosque-related voluntary associations, the Pasdaran, and the personal staffs of the leading ayatollahs. Given their strong commitment to the regime, it was inevitable that hezbollahis would resent those whom they perceived as critical of the government. By 1987, however, it was still not possible, owing to the lack of field research in Iran from the time of the Revolution, to estimate what percent of the adult population considered themselves true hezbollahis, what percent was generally indifferent and simply acquiesced to regime policies, or what percent strongly disapproved of the government.

Suffrage was universal at age 16. Direct elections every four years choose the Majlis, president, and local councils. Because these elections are not held simultaneously, Iranians generally vote in a national election every year. Each of the 290 seats of the Majlis nominally represents constituencies of about 200,000, but distribution favors urban areas. The city of Tehran, for example, had 30 at-large constituencies. Candidates for office at any level may simply declare themselves by filing a registration form and paying a nominal fee. The Ministry of Interior and the Central Oversight Committee of the Guardians Council vet candidates for the presidency, parliament, and Assembly of Experts. Local boards supervise elections at the lowest governmental levels.

Important qualifications for candidacy are a history of participating in the 1978-79 Revolution and a reputation for being a devout Muslim and observer of Islamic law. Post-secondary education also was relevant for national office. Candidates for the Assembly of Experts must be senior Islamic clergymen. The Guardians Council had used its vetting capacity to disqualify a high percentage of reformist candidates.

Three forms of alliances have arisen from the interactions between these groups: the clergy-military, the clergy-technocrats and the military-technocrats. In the 1980s, the clergy-military alliance was the dominant axis, and the clergy had the upper hand therein. In the 1990s, power shifted in favor of the technocrats and against the Revolutionary Guard.

During the Hashemi Rafsanjani period (1989–1997), the clergy-technocrats alliance was dominant, and the clerics had more weight. However, during Khatami's presidency (1997-2005), this alliance changed to a technocrat-clergy alliance in which the bureaucrats had the upper hand. The power shifted again under Ahmadinejad as the IRGC-bureaucrats alliance became the most influential group and political base of his hardliner administration (2005-2012). Under Rouhani's presidency, technocrats returned to power and are responsible for shaping government policy, while the IRGC became marginalised, at least in the administration.

With the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 and the reimposition of severe sanctions, Iran is effectively cut-off from the international financial system and unable to access services such as SWIFT for funds transfers. The Iranian economy contracted by nearly 10 percent in 2019, making it difficult for the government to maintain state subsidies and a generous cash hand-out policy that is sending it broke. Expressions of public frustration with the downward spiral of the economy and living conditions have become increasingly frequent. Such protests have been systematically met with the iron-fist of the security agencies. In November 2019, the authorities shut down the internet to contain news of public protests, and disarm protestors by taking away a very effective mobilisation tool. A chasm has opened between the ruling regime and the population that is threatening the latter’s political legitimacy. There is a growing lack of trust and confidence in the regime, reinforced by the way the leadership handled the downing of the Ukrainian airliner over Tehran in January 2020. The authorities insisted that the plane fell from the sky due to technical reasons, while knowing full well that it was shot down by Iranian anti-air defence by mistake. The inept handling of the coronavirus crisis in 2020 reinforced the political bankruptcy of the regime in the eyes of the Iranian public. It took the authorities in Iran until 06 March 2020 to address the coronavirus crisis in earnest. Schools and universities were shut. Football matches, Friday prayers and religious congregations were suspended and people were advised not to travel. But this response may have come too late to provide any meaningful containment for the contagious disease. These measures were only adopted after it was revealed that 25 members of the newly elected parliament were infected by the coronavirus, two of whom soon died. Another prominent casualty of the virus is an advisor to the Supreme Leader.

According to the Ministry of Health, the total number of infected in Iran was 6,566 until March 8. But many believe the actual number may be much higher, partly due to under-reporting by the authorities and partly due to a lack of confidence amongst those affected in the health system which prevents them from seeking medical attention. Many are concerned that visiting hospitals will put them at greater risk of contracting the virus, especially as there is no medicine to cure it.

Protests sparked by a water crisis took place in Iran since 15 July 2021. The protests were initially concentrated in Arab majority areas in the oil-rich southwestern Khuzestan province, which is home to ethnic Arabs who have long complained of discrimination in Iran. But the demonstrations have since spread to more cities in Khuzestan, as well as to other parts of the country.

The water crisis devastated agriculture and livestock farming which are the source of livelihood for many in Khuzestan, particularly in its Arab majority regions. Authorities have blamed the water shortages on a severe drought, but protesters in Khuzestan say government corruption and mismanagement, as well as “discriminatory” policies aimed at changing the region’s demography, are to blame.

Protests sparked by a water crisis in Iran spread to the capital Tehran on 26 July 2021, videos shared online showed, with demonstrators chanting slogans against the country’s theocratic rulers. “The clerics must get lost,” chanted protesters in one video, referring to Iran’s clerical rulers. Another video showed protesters chanting “death to the dictator,” a chant used regularly in anti-government demonstrations in Iran against the country’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The protesters also expressed their disapproval of Iran’s foreign policies, chanting in one video “neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran” in reference to Tehran’s support for Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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Page last modified: 20-05-2022 17:50:56 ZULU