Spotlight on Political Currents: How is political competition organized in Iran?
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s politics can be confusing, even for the initiated. Iranian politics does not fit neatly into dichotomies between democratic and authoritarian systems that usually characterise our thinking about comparative politics around the world. Democratic systems tend to have strong political parties with different political-ideological agendas, social constituencies, and economic interests behind them that vie for control over power centers like the executive, legislature, and judiciary, through competitive elections. Authoritarian states centralise authority in the hands of a powerful ruling elite whose opaque factions compete for power but do not use competitive elections as a mechanism to determine the distribution of power and legitimacy.
The Islamic Republic’s hybrid political system combines elements from both democratic and authoritarian systems. Iran’s political elite operate like an authoritarian ruling elite whose factions nonetheless use elections to claim legitimacy and compete over key power centers like the supreme leadership, presidency, and legislature. One of the key characteristics of this hybrid system is the lack of strong political parties: Organisations that can maintain cohesion in the face of crisis, have mutually reinforcing relationships with organised socio-economic constituencies, and effectively recruit and train new cadres. While political parties help us see a country’s political fault-lines, their absence in Iran makes it difficult to understand how politics are actually organised and work there. A better way of understanding Iranian politics may be “political currents”.
Iranian political organisations have historically tended to be top-down entities with limited grassroots support outside of electoral cycles or revolutionary moments, prone to infighting, and short-lived. Good examples include parties like the conservative Moderates and progressive Democrats in Iran’s first parliament in the 1900s; the elitist parties that proliferated around the court of Shah Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi during his reign; and the armed political organisations that sparked the guerrilla war of the 1970s. There have, of course, been exceptions like the Party of the Masses of Iran (Tudeh). In the post-Second World War period Tudeh combined la crème of Iran’s burgeoning intelligentsia, a growing labour movement centered on the booming petroleum industry, and Soviet tutelage and support, to become an entity that persisted as a formidable force in Iranian politics for decades. The Islamic Republican Party (IRP), created after the revolution in 1979 as a vehicle for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to mobilise the masses behind the creation of an Islamic Republic, is another example. Following its victory over the opposition and consolidation of power, the IRP was dissolved in 1987 amidst its descent into factionalism.
More typical forms of political organisations under the Islamic Republic have included: Small free-standing political parties representing cross-sections of the elite or prominent individuals within the Iranian system; Electoral fronts that bring together these political parties in coalitions to contest parliamentary elections; and official factions that take shape at the start of each new session of the Iranian parliament. Yet, as with political organisations throughout Iranian history, these tend to be elitist, fractious, and short-lived. More importantly, they do not give us a better understanding of the inner workings of Iranian politics. One useful concept to dispel this confusion and illuminate Iranian politics may be the idea of “political currents”.
Iranian politics may be best understood as being centered on “political currents”: Shifting alliances between political groups and prominent individuals, key socio-economic constituencies, and centers of power. Currents usually emerge as alliances of convenience to pursue common political-ideological agendas, economic interests, and constituencies. In recent years we have also seen a strategic convergence of two or more currents into broader “camps” when individual currents prove too weak to pursue common goals. While currents have similarities to political parties, there are key differences. Rather than alliances of elites and organised civil society, currents are usually made up of elites drawing on the impulses of an Iranian society without strong civic organisations. Unlike political parties in more traditional multi- and single party systems, currents also lack strong, centralised, and enduring organisational structures, instead relying on ad hoc entities for each election campaign.
Finally, formal state power centers in Iran often behave as subcomponents of particular currents. A prominent example of this is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). While the IRGC may have a diverse membership, under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s over quarter century of rule its senior leadership has been filtered to have a similar worldview. Empowered by its charter to “protect the revolution and its achievements” and thus intervene in politics, the IRGC has come to reenforce the partisan interests of one political current over others. Likewise, the Council of Guardians and judiciary are often not neutral arbiters but operate as effective subcomponents of a larger political current and camp.
Iranian political currents are complex, but most usually divide them into four currents forming two broad camps: the reformist and centrist currents, which together form the “moderate” camp; and the traditional and hard-line conservative currents, who constitute the conservative (or “principalist”) camp. All of these currents, with the exception of the hardline principalists, emerged from the Islamic Republican Party’s (IRP) remnants. Following its victory over the ancien regime and revolutionary opposition and consolidation of power in the 1980s, the IRP found itself riven by internal differences and divided into leftist and rightist currents. Ayatollah Khomeini strove to maintain regime unity and even a balance of power between these currents, though he often favoured the leftists.
Following the dissolution of the IRP and Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, the factional rivalry became more intense. With the ascension of Ayatollah Khamenei to the supreme leadership, the rightists vanquished the leftists by systematically sidelining them, including through Guardian Council mass disqualification of 1992 leftist parliamentary elections candidates. Under these circumstances, the politics that had characterised the Iranian politics of the decade of revolution and war between 1979 and 1989 faded and a new politics, with new political currents, emerged. In a series of articles over the next several weeks, we shall explore each of these post-1989 political currents, the camps they make up, and their role in political struggles in Iran today.