Iran Backgrounder

Author: Michael Flickinger

Iran endures as the last functional theocracy in the world, steeped in a history rich with conquest, subjugation, and cultural innovations. Popular conceptions of Iran stir images of the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seizure of the American embassy, and murals in Tehran depicting America as “the Great Satan.” More recent portrayals, however, offer what some speculate might be a crack in the impenetrable regime that has ruled Iran since the Revolution. Pictures of men and women adorned in green to support Mir Hossein Mosavi, leader of the Reformists and the Green Movement, chanting, “Death to the dictator” mingle with footage of Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death, while Basij militiamen on motorcycles beat protestors. In the span of three decades, violence once again erupted within Iran and protestors railed against the current regime with a fervor similar to Khomeini’s followers against the shah. For those who favor a less opaque and more cooperative Iran, these events raised the hope that change looms on the horizon. But does it?

Perhaps the fascination and fear that surround Iran originate from the unknown. The ability to gather accurate and precise information on the political actions within the regime are, at best, limited—at worst, they provide little more than speculation and educated guesses. Many of the Iranian people do not know how their rulers conduct their affairs and not all branches of the government are required to publicize their activities1 Ideology from the Revolution serves as the primary vantage point and motivation for the current regime. The principles of the Twelvers branch of the Shiia faith function as the foundation for the governmental structure of Iran and the framework by which all policies are drafted2. While the secular governments of the world clearly separate the power and influence of “church and state,” the theocratic government of Iran marries the two in the bonds of holy jurisprudence. In theory, at least, they are one and the same. To understand the Iranian perspective, one must take serious account of the faith of the Twelvers—much to the dismay of humanists, atheists, and agnostics. The political world of Iran does not always directly incorporate Islamic values, but those religious regulations constantly weave their way into the policies enacted by the current regime. Affronts to Islam challenge jurisprudence, Shiia ideals, and the Revolution itself3.

Against the backdrop of these variables—some, admittedly, in conflict with one another—we can more accurately assess the stability of the current regime. In order to do so, however, we must first answer a very basic question that political observers often overlook: “How does the Iranian government define Iranian/Persian identity and on what basis does it obtain its legitimacy?” This national identity provides a broad, yet vital, definition that facilitates deeper examination of Khomeini’s theocracy—mainly, his transformation of Iranian nationalism, the structure and legitimacy of the Republic, the identities of Conservatives and Reformists, and, most importantly, the sources of their legitimacy. Finally, utilizing Malcom Gladwell’s “tipping point” theory, we can determine the likelihood of an Iranian “tipping point” that would successfully challenge the stability of the current regime.

How does the Iranian government define Iranian/Persian identity and on what basis does it obtain its legitimacy?

Before examining this question, one must make a clear distinction between the historically imperial Iran/Persia and the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 Revolution. With the rise of Khomeini and his constituents, Iran shifted from a monarchy to a theocratic republic. From both a modern and historical standpoint, this shift holds significance due to the relatively recent occurrence of the Revolution and its direct contrast against the much larger section of either direct imperialism (i.e. the Persian Empire) or subjugation under imperialism (i.e. the British or, as some Iranians believe, the shah) within Iranian/Persian history. The present sense of national Iranian identity stems from Khomeini and his vision of a theocratic Iran—a nation governed by Shiite codes of discipline, ethics, and behavior. Islam moved directly to the foreground as the Revolution sought to infuse Islam and democratic-republican virtues through jurisprudence into a new Iranian identity. In other words, to be Iranian is to be both Islamic and a nationalist. The definition of identity on an individual level mirrors the structure of the government—i.e. both Allah and government officials are to work toward the same end.

Khomeini’s very words pushed to create a new sense of national identity in direct opposition to the shah’s secular government. In his twenty-first speech (which addressed religious leaders and students in Najaf), Khomeini declared, “[Eighty] million tumans (US$11.4 million) are to be spent on Tehran alone preparing the city for the festivities. Experts have been invited from Israel to take care of the arrangements for the celebrations; from Israel, that country which is the enemy of Islam, which is at present at war with Islam… In addition, according to the world’s major radio stations, Iranian oil tankers are on their way to Israel filled with Iranian oil for a country which is at war with the Muslims! These are the actions of the kings that we have to hold festivals for! Since its inception to the present time, the Iranian monarchy has befouled history. The crimes of the kings of Iran have blackened the pages of history. It is the kings of Iran who massacred their own people, who beheaded them and built towers with their skulls. Should the Islamic nation now honour the rule of such monarchs with a celebration?! Should the merchants of the bazaar in Tehran now be forced to contribute to such festivities?!”4

While the elements of propaganda in his speech stand out, the notions of Iranian identity Khomeini proposes stress Islam, not a strict sense of Iranian nationality. The anti-Zionist rhetoric also takes greater shape through Khomeini and, again, this perception emerges from Islam, not a strictly Iranian vantage point. The crimes of the past strike Islam and the decisions of the monarchy oppose Islam. Khomeini also goes to great lengths to appeal to the Iranian sense of victimization and oppression. He then counters it with a new proposal—to be Iranian is to be Muslim first. The very strength of the Revolution fully immerses itself in this ideology5. It also reveals a very subtle, yet poignant aspect in the basis for the Revolution and the current regime—the profound need for an enemy or a threat to Islam. Without this threat, the Revolution loses a tremendous amount of legitimacy and purpose outside the realm of Shiia Islam.

In his thirty-fifth speech, Khomeini said, “The present situation in Iran however, is an exceptional one. From the time these usurpers of oil entered Iran and conducted investigations about it and about other Eastern countries thereby realizing the benefits to be gained there – for the East is rich in resources which are needed by the West – they launched their propaganda campaign and began to take other such measures to further their interests. Their aim was to lead us astray, to brainwash us with imperialist notions, to ensure that our minds did not develop correctly… Whatever has been passed on to us by the West is harmful for our youth. And it is because these things are harmful that we oppose them and that any reasonable person should also oppose them.”6

Once again, Khomeini makes perfectly clear the victimized mentality of Iranians through the perceived exploitation of Iran’s natural resources—mainly, oil. He also lays the foundation for the current regime’s leeriness, suspicion, and, in the case of Ahmadinejad, blatant hostility and defiance toward Western powers. Thus, the political stage became increasingly cluttered with Islamic ideology, the perception of external threats to a molded Iranian identity through Islam, and direct appeals to a national sense of victimization. These elements enabled the Revolution to garner the popular support necessary to create a profound sense of personal legitimacy in the minds of many Iranians.

The sense of legitimacy for the current Iranian government’s identity derives primarily from the Shiia Islamic branch called the Twelvers—so much so, in fact, that it is officially the national religion as listed in the Iranian constitution7 The delicate balance of this theocracy lies between the incorporation of an Islamic identity and the preservation of the Revolution from external, mostly Western, threats. Furthermore, it draws a double portion of legitimacy from the Iranian populace through this ideological union. Such a merger births a national identity that defies simplistic secular definition. To be Islamic is to be an Iranian—an affront against one raises the rally cry of the other. These are not mere sentiments of theocratic principle, political ideology, or secularly based nationalistic fervor. Instead, the Iranian regime’s legitimacy draws from religion and nationalism that assumes the threatened stance of a minority. Unity is encouraged through the defense of Shiia Islam, the expansion of the Revolution via jurisprudence, preservation of the state, increased Iranian prosperity, and, most importantly, the cumulative efforts and effects of all these interests at once—the struggle to assert Iranian regional influence to counter the spheres of influence dominated by Israel and the United States8.

One final point of interest lies in the shift between the shah and Khomeini with regard to perception of the Iranian nation. While Khomeini noted the shah’s desire for Iranian accomplishments through secular means, he directly opposed them because they were not Muslim in origin, intention, or design. After his exile and return to Iran, Peter Jennings asked the imam what he felt about returning to his native soil—to which Khomeini responded that he felt nothing9 Although some interpret this as a sign of his esoteric ideology, many note the ironic harshness in his apparent apathy. Khomeini did not seek to create a strong Persian state. Instead, he sought to create the first of many Shiite Islamic Republics meant to transcend regional identities and ethnic divisions. These Republics would then unite to forge a unified Muslim front against the threat of Western secularism. This vision falls directly in line with many Islamic teachings and, more specifically, the ideology of the Twelvers with regard to the Twelfth Imam. Khomeini never intended to give Iranians a restored national identity. Instead, he meant to give them an Islamic identity and equipped the clerics and the Revolutionary Guard to protect and expand the Revolution10. The legitimacy of the current regime under Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad emanates directly from Khomeini’s original aspirations for Iran in 1979—a Shiite Islamic Republic in a perpetual state of expansion, preparation, and accommodation for the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam, the Shiite Mahdi of Islam11

The Central Iranian Government: Opaqueness

From a humanist or secular standpoint, the idea of a functional theocratic government may seem a misguided notion of idealism at best and a dysfunctional systematic attempt to impose religious ideology at worst. Yet for the past thirty years, the Iranian regime survived on the principles of Shiia Islam interwoven with the fibers of republicanism. The complexities of this system often fall under a thick veil of secrecy and remain hidden from the eyes of even the very citizens the regime serves and represents. While some government organizations must reveal their operations to the common Iranian, others do not12. Networks and individualized spheres of power continuously overlap and compete with one another to achieve, at times, seemingly contradictory agendas. In the minds of many with a more Westernized approach to politics and governance, a reasonable question arises —“How, exactly, does the internal structure of the Iranian government function?” Many noteworthy scholars and researchers from various institutions, agencies, and think-tanks published their work on the structure of the Iranian government, the key figures involved, and how policy decisions are formulated, positioned, and determined. In order to evaluate the legitimacy of the current regime, however, we must examine the basic internal elements of the Iranian government—mainly, its structure and how players operate within it.

When Khomeini initially compiled his clerical and ideological allies to draft a new Iranian government with a working constitution, he intended to forge a republic based on Shiia Islam. Underneath this overlying objective, he wanted to prevent any single governmental body from gaining too much power and thus destabilizing the delicate balance of power over which he wanted to observe, revise, and decide Iranian policies13. While the constitution served all Iranian citizens with access to an Islamic interpretation of individual rights—such as employment, housing, health care, fair legal proceedings, security, etc—it only provided the broadest of measures for such items and the rather open-ended interpretation to these provisions created a large gap in how the government could define its role as both a popularly elected and non-elected body. The primary reason for this apparent laxity illustrates a direct effort on the part of Khomeini and the other revolutionaries to avoid a return to a monarchal type of government. The example of the shah supplemented this approach. Therein, however, one witnesses the functional dysfunction of the Iranian central government—a constant state of power-brokering that renders political change seemingly impossible14.

In the Western world of politics, individuals normally acquire clout and wealth prior to their entrance into the political system. In Iran, however, individuals seek to enter the political system for the sake of obtaining wealth and clout. While this reversal certainly does not exemplify an exclusively Iranian motif, it does illustrate why Iranian networks are important—survival and expansion of personal spheres of influence equate to political longevity coupled with a pragmatic means to bolster personal wealth. This perpetual field of self-interest also serves to keep all parties in check and inhibits any one group from gaining permanent control over the others. Iran is basically divided between the elite—those connected to the power hubs that revolve and compete against one another under the Supreme Leader—and the non-elite—those not connected to these power hubs15. For those on the outside, the acquisition, access to, and expression of power remains convoluted and limited at best. While certain offices—like the president—fall to the electorate to decide, the Supreme Leader directly appoints religious officers and other clerics who serve in government bodies like the Guardian Council. Even with the office of the president, however, the Guardian Council rigorously screens all interested candidates and decides who may campaign for the office and who may not. While this, in some respects, is similar to United States’ primaries, the Iranian electorate does not participate at all in the screening process and, as many often argue (particularly with regard to the 2009 elections and the protests that ensued thereafter), the process allows members of the Guardian Council to maintain control and exert direct influence by selecting candidates that best represent not only the interests of the Supreme Leader, but their own as well.

Within this convoluted overlapping system, self-interest prevails and creates considerable difficulty in the way of categorizing groups, individuals, etc. However, publicized conflict tends to originate from the clashes between the Conservatives and the Reformists. As exemplified in the elections of 2009, these two ideologically classified groups differ in most aspects of governmental interpretation and the corresponding role of Shiia Islam. Beneath that general categorization lies a more fundamental fragmentation—the identity of Iran’s central government as either Revolutionary or Republican. From its inception, Khomeini wanted to facilitate an Islamic Revolution and he designed the Iranian government to serve as the catalyst for a worldwide expansion of jurisprudence through Shiia Islam16. Members of the Iranian government and the elite political networks that favor conservative ideology (like the Revolutionary Guard), tend to interpret both the primary function of the government and their role in the government as expansionists and enforcers of the principles of Shiia Islam above all other priorities. On the other side stand the members of the government and their political networks that favor a reformist ideology. These Iranian elites tend to view their roles and the primary function of the government from a more republican perspective. Rather than spread the Islamic Revolution, their concerns revolve around the practical functions of government and pragmatic solutions to more secular-based problems17.

While institutions like RAND conducted much more intense analysis with far greater scrutiny, the above summation lays the basic framework for the overall political machinations underneath the Supreme Leader. The fluidity of movement and the back-room dealings provide the backdrop from which policies emerge and succeed or fail based on personal connections and spheres of influence. These connections tend to ebb and flow with regard to influence based on internal political trends. Personal political survival depends on these connections and these individuals compose the elite of Iran. The non-elite exist outside these spheres and only participate when permitted to vote or when fortunate enough to find a connection to these political power hubs. The original aim of this internal competition is simple—to prevent any one faction from gaining dictatorial power and to slow the process of change within the government.

The Central Iranian Government: Legitimacy—Religion

Under such an admittedly opaque political system (even from the perspective of Iranians), the question of legitimacy might initially appear equally veiled. For the sake of clarification, legitimacy is defined as the basis from which the current Iranian regime draws its credibility and authority. While many secular governments utilize a constitution not only for structural purposes, but also for separation and definition of powers, as a theocracy, Iran’s government is a little different. Despite the fact that Iran does utilize a constitution as a broad basis to define powers, stations, responsibilities, provisions, and social freedoms, the constitution does not solely support the current regime’s legitimacy. Rather, as a theocratic republic, the regime draws legitimacy primarily from Shiia Islam—the constitution merely serves a secondary reinforcement role. To understand this structure, one must consider two important factors—first, the ethnic composition of Iran versus its religious composition and, second, how Khomeini and the current regime exploit Shiia Islam to justify the continual need for their existence to the Iranian people.

The history of Persia as a state and as an imperial power vastly overshadows the three decades defined by the 1979 Revolution and the Islamic Republic. The Persian Empire conquered much of the ancient world and, with many subjugated nations, the Persian emperors diversified their armies. Various ethnic groups fought in the Persian armies, many with specialized skills unique to their regions, cultures, and overall way of life. In those periods, legitimacy flowed from the gods, sheer brutality, political marriages, and bribery. The current Iranian nation, however, does not look anything like its imperial predecessor in function or trappings, but it does share one common feature—ethnic diversity. According to a RAND study that includes an examination of Iran’s demographics, only fifty one percent of the population is Persian—twenty four percent are Azeri, eight percent are Gilaki and Mazandarani, seven percent are Kurds, three percent are Arabs, and another seven percent consist of other ethnic groups not allocated with a specific percentage of the total population18. The religious affiliation of most inhabitants, however, paints a much different picture—eighty nine percent of the total population is Shiia Muslim, nine percent are Sunni Muslim, and two percent are Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Baha’i19. Such a disparity in ethnic population versus religious identity presents a serious problem for the creation of a central government in the wake of revolution. In such a scenario, only two feasible solutions present themselves—rule by force (and/or fear of force) or rule by faith. In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein ruled by the former and maintained a cohesive and secure state through either the use of force or the fear of force. Arguably, the shah of Iran utilized similar governmental tactics via his secret police. Khomeini and his supporters, however, saw religion as a viable means to create legitimacy. Their rhetoric and propaganda appealed to all ethnic groups in Iran and succeed on two levels. First, they reminded Iranians of the brutality of the secret police and blamed the shah for ruling by force rather than benevolence. Second, instead of stressing a strictly Persian identity or advocating for increased Persian freedoms, Khomeini transposed the principles of Shiia Islam over those individuals and institutions that the shah either suppressed or neglected.

The 1979 Revolution appealed to many Iranians, in part, because of the meticulous speeches and public appearances made by Khomeini prior to his exile. As mentioned above, he did not seek a strictly Persian state for Persians. Instead, he sought a Shiia theocratic republic for Iranians, with him at the head. In contrast to the emperors of Persia, the current regime is only thirty years old and Iran only knows two Supreme Leaders. Markedly, one should note that without Shiia Islam, the current regime and all the political trappings of the Revolution and jurisprudence cannot survive in a nationalistic role. In other words, if eighty nine percent of Iran’s population were more diversified in the religious beliefs, the Islamic Republic of Iran might just be the Republic of Iran. Cohesive religious ideology provided Khomeini with a viable means for unified opposition. The room for religious interpretation meant that Iranians far removed from Khomeini’s direct personage could misinterpret the latter’s intentions and justify them against his or her own desires for freedom, social mobility, economic security, etc. Arguably, the Revolution capitalized on this principle and garnered support from all ethnic groups in Iran through a Shiia nationalist religious identity. In short, a religiously unified Iran, governed by a religiously minded elite, bridged any divisive ethnic gaps that might otherwise require the fist of a more suppressive regime.

The Central Iranian Government: Legitimacy—Exploitation

The second point of legitimacy builds on all of the abovementioned regarding the various ethnic groups in Iran versus an overwhelming majority of Shiia Muslims—mainly, how Khomeini and the current regime exploit Shiia Islam to justify their legitimacy to the Iranian people. They are the teachers, the holy men, the enforcers, and the guardians of the Islamic Republic and these roles were defined by Khomeini and the Iranian constitution via the exploitation of Shiia Islam. It should be noted, however, that, in this sense, exploitation simply means “to make use of” or “utilization of” Shiia Islam. It does not directly imply a deliberate abuse of Shiia Islam to obtain or retain power, nor does it directly counter such a supposition. Instead, the open-endedness mirrors the opaqueness of Iranian politics and allows for both those who intentionally manipulate Islam for personal means and those within the regime who take the religion to heart. From a secular standpoint, the first supposition is often assumed, but equally so, the second is dismissed. With regard to religion, neither one holds an absolute.

As stated above, within the complex spheres of influence and personnel networks that operate inside Iran’s political realms, a loosely categorical identification emerged—particularly after the 2009 elections—that revealed some of the basic rivalries between various individuals and their networks—mainly, Conservatives (pragmatic or otherwise) who see Iran more as an Islamic Revolution and the more liberal Reformists (pragmatic or otherwise) who see Iran as an Islamic Republic. These definitions raise two points—ironically, one per word—that require consideration. First, why they maintain an Islamic disposition and, second, why they differ on the definition of that disposition. Interestingly enough, neither can—at this point, anyway—exist without Islam directly incorporated into their vision or definition regarding the role of Iranian government and its officials, religious or elected.

Islamic Revolution—Conservative Legitimacy

When Khomeini sculpted a new Iranian identity within a Shiia mold, he set in motion an action—an ideology—that the theocracy cannot change without significantly altering the future of the Republic via incongruity with the Revolution. The primary groups—and certainly the most heavily favored by the Supreme Leader—are the Conservatives who tend to view Iran as an Islamic Revolution. Many of these individuals consist of the old guard—men like Rafsanjani, for example, although, admittedly, he is one of the more pragmatic and less confrontational Conservatives. More of these men, however, served in the Revolutionary Guard and, thanks to Ahmadinejad, gained influence and power within the Iranian government20. Khomeini designed the Revolutionary Guard as a separate force independent of the standing army to act as the Revolutions’ primary enforcers and protectors21. At the time of the Revolution, hostilities ensued between the new Iran and the Western powers that supported the shah and the old Iran. Thus, the Revolution saw itself under the attack of Westernization and feared Western subjection. The only way to counter these fears lay in the creation of a militarized branch specifically designed to enforce the will of the Supreme Leader and protect the Revolution. While the analogy does not perfectly match, in many respects, the Revolutionary Guard does not serve any different a function from groups like the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security (KGB), the Nazi’s Schutzstaffel (SS), or even the shah’s secret police. All these militarized governmental groups shared the same inception—a means by which the established regime could sustain its existence, spread its propaganda, enforce its agenda, and, most importantly, protectively reinforce its legitimacy. The Revolutionary Guard provides such services.

Conservatives, however, invariably exploit a glaring ideological reality—the Revolution needs enemies from without to justify its legitimacy from within. Khomeini pressed for change and the circumstances that surrounded the creation of his government certainly justified that fear. The Iran-Iraq War illustrates this point. Saddam specifically chose the time of his attempted invasion because he believed that, with the shah abdicated and a new government barely formed, he could capitalize on the apparent weakness. While neither Iran nor Iraq technically won the war (Iranian casualties were quite high), Iran did defend itself and, much like Hezbollah after Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2006, the Revolutionary regime under Khomeini used the defense as propaganda to drum-up more support for the new government and draw further legitimacy for itself via a provision-of-security route22. Khomeini, however, created a Catch-22 situation for his regime. Due to the fact that the regime gained so much support through the crisis of the Iran-Iraq War, it created a self-fulfilling prophecy and forced regime congruity that forbade contradiction—much like the canonical stance of the Catholic Church (the church technically cannot contradict itself, so any reform-minded popes struggled against cardinals who feared that change would undermine the church’s authority). The Iran-Iraq War set the stage for a crisis-oriented fear that the Revolution’s enemies actively sought to destroy it and the need for the Revolutionary Guard solidified23. With so much legitimacy drawn from the idea of a fledgling Islam government under siege, the regime created the need for enemies—real or perceived. If the Revolution is not under threat from violence or social upheaval, its only source of legitimacy is Shiia Islam. Therein, one can witness these two principles exemplified in Ahmadinejad. He adamantly defies Western powers through controversial rhetoric and vehemently defends the Revolution through security crack-downs on the protestors in 2009, but he also appeals to a universal sense of Islamic unity. He provides the Conservatives with the perfect candidate—a president who passionately defends the Revolution from enemies, strictly endorses Islamic law domestically, and appeals for the exportation of the Revolution via Islamic unity—an, arguably, more subtle application of jurisprudence.

Islamic Republic—Reformist Legitimacy

Khatami and, more recently, Mousavi emerged as the figureheads (intended or otherwise) of the reformist groups within Iran’s government and the Green Movement which lost the 2009 elections. While many liberal individuals and Western nations held a great deal of hope for Khatami’s presidential election in the 1990s, his tenure did little to advance the Reformist agenda—mainly due to Conservative blocks. However, the more recent elections in 2009 showed that the Reformists are not without significant support, as protests over Mousavi’s contended loss demonstrated. The Basij militia cracked down on protestors after the electoral review and many Conservatives, especially Amahdinejad, blamed it on interference and rabble-rousing led by Western powers like the United States and Great Britain. The contention and protests serve as a visible reminder that the reformist groups do hold legitimacy in the eyes of many Iranians, but the justification for their authority differs slightly from the Conservatives. The Reformists’ source of legitimacy originates from the principles of Shiia Islam merged into state politics, but its secondary source derives from an almost parallel tactic displayed by Khomeini before and after he seized control of the government—appealing to specific social types of Iranians and decrying governmental infringements on personal liberties24.

Like their conservative counterparts, the Reformists draw an initial sense of legitimacy from the Shiia principles which Khomeini utilized to create his theocracy. However, the primary difference lies in their interpretation of the role of secular government and Islamic theocratic values. The Islamic ideology fused with the secular aspects of government superseded any and all purely secular functions. In other words, Khomeini focused primarily on the expansion of the Revolution. The Reformists, however, appear to take a more pragmatic view. While they do not necessarily refute the role of Shiia Islam within their government, their concern seems to dwell more on the aspects of jurisprudence that focus on social justice—not expansion of Islam via Revolution. Where Khomeini sought to utilize Iran’s theocracy as the prototype for a series of replicated Islamic states across the entire Middle East, the Reformists (and, arguably, even some more pragmatic conservatives like Rafsanjani) no longer focus primarily on the expansion of the Revolution. Rather, the role of Islam still provides a sound basis for legitimacy, but the Republic aspect—including the more secular and basic needs of the Iranian population—build on Shiia Islam to further legitimize Reformist authority.

The other aspect that grants the Reformists legitimacy originates in how they present themselves and, more importantly, to whom they present their ideology. Against the backlash that ensued after the post-2009 election results, the Reformists sought not only justice for what they called election fraud, but also seemingly gave voice to a vast array of protestors. Many of these individuals were students. Much of the popular support for the Reformists comes from intellectually liberal elite groups, students, and some more moderate clerics. The irony of this arrangement emerges when contrasted against Khomeini’s support group—students and conservative clerics25. Herein, a similar historic theme presents itself with regard to the Reformists’ legitimacy among young Iranians and the intellectually liberal elite: in the midst of conservative regimes, especially when state-sponsored suppression of disagreement and censorship strengthens, groups and individuals will seek to undermine the suppression via subversive and legal political means. In some respects, the Reformists mirror the Girondins and the Menshevicks—a legitimate political group emphasizing that the ends do not justify the means when applied to political action, fairness, and the value of human life. Like the Girondins and the Menshevicks, the Reformists do not entirely undermine the current political or religious system. Instead, they present themselves as proponents of reform within that system and, thus, appeal to those of a more liberal mindset in Iran who seek to alter, not completely overhaul, the current political system.

The post election protests in 2009 renewed Western interest in the Reformists after the mediocre presidency of Khatami. The rival chants of “God is great” and “Death to the dictator” encouraged scenes of protestors against the shah in the 1970s to enter the minds of hopeful allies of the Green Movement. Many, both inside and outside Iran, challenged the legitimacy of the Conservative victory and risked beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death to support Mousavi and what his reformist agenda represented to them. Once again, whatever Mousavi’s true intentions (and, admittedly, they may only serve his own political self-interest and those of his networks), as in the case of Khomeini, many Iranians saw him as a symbol against oppression and tyranny. The entire world watched anxiously as the drama unfolded. Then, it fizzled out. Hopes fell and hearts sank. It seemed that, once again, the Reformists suffered defeat26. Now, as Iranian political life returns to action behind the veil and beyond Western observation, the question remains—will the current regime remain in power or will the liberal wave of reform eventually swell to a tsunami capable of capsizing the Conservative ship in the near future?

Conservative Stability versus Reformist Victory

After the collapse of the Somali government, the issue of the failed state emerged. Many academic and political scholars began to examine the subject to ascertain a universal definition for the term, factors that contribute to it, and how states might avoid a similar fate as Somalia. Arguably, Somalia exists as the premier if not sole example of a modern failed state. Nonetheless, its collapse did raise questions about state stability and the other factors or variables that, whether quickly or slowly, contribute and build upon one another to tip the scales one way or the other and disrupt the status quo. In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that an innumerable quantity of variables converge at one specific moment to “tip” the scales and, thus, perpetuate an entirely new (favorable or unfavorable) series of results or outcomes27.

Gladwell’s theory, while compelling and, at times, undeniably ironic, only supplies half of the answer to the question of Reformist victory in Iran. The second half lies in, admittedly, perhaps, a more academically pragmatic realm—the relationship between government and the people. John Locke immediately comes to mind with his contextually radical ideas regarding the relationship between government and the governed. An inverse rationale at the time, Locke argued that governments should fear the people, not, as his time and prior history illustrated, the other way around. Perhaps the French Revolution demonstrated Locke’s point with horrific vengeance. In any event, his basic premise does present modern scholars with a common reference under slightly different interpretations—the role of public needs (and wants). Obviously, the role of government diverged from the “Divine Right of Kings” route and headed down a more democratic—sometimes socialistic—road toward legitimacy based increasingly on a government’s ability to provide security and social programs to its people. In Locke’s time, royalty lived relatively isolated from the common person and, sadly, tended to exploit them for wealth and war. In the 21st century, however, the role of government changed.

As wars between developed nations declined—particularly after the Second World War—invasions became taboo and economic stability beat-out military might. The economies of individual nations increasingly expanded beyond the geographic limitations of their national borders and intermingled with other economies through trade via private and state-sponsored business relationships. As these economic aspects continued to solidify, the standard of living became a means by which nations measured their success. For the better part of human history, the vast majority of human beings lived under poor to deplorable circumstances. Constant warfare, disease, famine, and other variables contributed to sub-standard living conditions, extremely high mortality rates, and relatively short life spans. While the Cold War did not eliminate the threat of war (nuclear holocausts certainly served as the primary motivation for the policy of mutual destruction), it did not see the likes of full-scale destruction as expressed in the First and Second World Wars. The decreased magnitude and extent of warfare helped the economies of Western Europe recover and expand. The stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union facilitated an environment of limited warfare and, while still secondary to security, economics began to shift from a largely supportive role toward one of primacy on the domestic and international landscape28. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, disparities between Eastern and Western Europe solidified the role of government, not only as a security provider, but also a social program provider and a facilitator of economic development. In the 21st century, the populations of developed nations expect their governments to provide all three services.

To predict the success of the Reformists and, to a much larger extent, the collapse of the current regime, one must account for both Gladwell’s theory and a modern government’s ability to provide security, social programs, and economic development. In order to contrast these directly against Iran, a number of statistics should be considered. First, as of 2008, sixty eight percent of the population is urbanized with an estimated two percent of annual change from 2005 to 201029. Second, the median age in Iran is approximately twenty seven years old30. Third, there’s the following economic consideration as quoted in the New York Times in 2009—the year of the election:

“In addition, unemployment is increasing fast. It was 10.5 percent four years ago, and it is now 17 percent, Mr. Leylaz said. ‘The problem is that Ahmadinejad has focused on the distribution of wealth, and what we need is the creation of wealth,’ Mr. Leylaz said. With a disproportionately young population, Iran desperately needs more economic growth and more jobs. Instead, economists say, Mr. Ahmadinejad has bought political support among the poor and lower middle class by increasing pensions and government workers’ wages. He has also handed out so-called justice shares of state firms that are selling stock to the public, and provided low-interest loans to young married couples and entrepreneurs. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rivals say the money should have been spent on creating jobs and improving Iran’s infrastructure. Yet the populist policies clearly serve a purpose. ‘He helps the poor, he supports the families of the martyrs and the wounded,’ said Hassan Muhammad Zadeh, a 47-year-old veteran who had come to show his support at a vast Ahmadinejad rally on Monday.”31

These three factors—increased urbanization, a young median age, and trouble with unemployment—could eventually create a Gladwell “tipping point.” Independent, they provide little more than annual statistics with a specific focus on one particular variable. Thrown together at the right time, however, they could create a political powder-keg. As the New York Times article illustrated, many believed that the 2009 presidential election would help spark the fire that would ignite that keg. It did not. Certainly, from a theoretical standpoint like Gladwell’s, the variables existed. Iran’s population is becoming increasingly urbanized. The median age shows a younger, post-Revolutionary population lacking first-hand experience of living through the Revolution let alone the shah. The economy in Iran has problems with unemployment and wealth distribution, which directly impacts Iranians’ standard of living. Record voter turnouts led to wide-spread speculation that the 2009 election results did not accurately reflect the voting population and that Ahmadinejad stole the victory from Mousavi. Why, then, did the protests fail to achieve the “tipping point” if the variables anticipated to foster revolutionary-like change all coalesced?

To answer this question, one must consider a historically proven definition for the term “revolution.” Revolutions often appear to burst forth onto the national or political landscape in a blinding frenzy of shouts, gunshots, shattered glass, and structure fires. They are violent by nature and often occur so quickly that the ideology behind them needs time to catch up to the political implications they create. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution—even the Iranian Revolution of 1979—all dramatically illustrate this point in different ways. Indeed, revolution seems to somewhat trip over itself in a mad dash to break the tape at the ideological finish line. Even so, these revolutions all took time. One might argue (as Gladwell might speculate via his theory) that these various revolutions occurred due to a perfect blend of personalities, ideology, economics, leadership, popular perception, real or perceived governmental failures, propaganda exploitation, and the willingness to use violence. In that light, it seems quite likely that the “tipping point” in Iran has yet to occur. “For most of us, the Green Movement was an empty vessel to be filled with our dreams. Its goals became our goals, its agenda our agenda. And so when it failed to do what we wanted — when winter came and the demonstrations dissipated, the regime endured, and the opposition leadership seemed paralyzed — we were quick to declare the movement dead and buried… [However], the revolution of 1979… began with popular protests that erupted in 1977. So maybe it’s a bit early to ring the Green Movement’s death knell just yet.”32 Rather than assume that the efforts of the Reformists and the Green Movement failed to enact change after the 2009 elections, it seems much more plausible that their protests indicated early contractions over the long process of labor that may birth a new regime. In other words, Iran has yet to reach the “tipping point.”

As many misunderstood the results of the Green Movement and the current regime’s crack-down on the former’s supporters, so too, it seems, many misgauged the stability of the current conservative regime. Bijan Khajehpour, a Tehran-based strategic consultant and chairman of Atieh Bahar Consulting, noted the following:
“[T]he forces on both ends of the political spectrum are likely to push forward with their agendas. Peaceful student protests against the lack of political liberalization will proceed, even as interest groups supporting the hard-liners place more obstacles in the path of reform. The student protests, while dramatic and important for long-term political consciousness, do not appear destined to turn into a mass popular uprising, due to Iranian society’s preference for evolutionary change. Political reforms will only be enacted at a sluggish pace, as they require consensus-building efforts on a larger scale than does privatization of the economy. The consolidation of the centrist coalition could pave the way for quicker, though limited, progress.

As student protests and government crackdowns continue, some advance the weak analysis that the Islamic Republic of Iran is about to collapse. The Islamic Republic is a highly adaptable regime which has matured over the past decade. Iran’s failure to evolve into a Western-style democracy does not mean that the current regime is not sustainable. Indeed, the backbone of the post-revolutionary system’s sustainability might be the fact that it continuously looks more fragile than it really is.”33

At first glance, one might assume that Bijan Khajehpour wrote his observations from Tehran regarding the 2009 post-election protests—except his article dates from December 2002. Bijan’s analysis does not read any different from much of the current opinions and analysis about the present regime’s stability in Iran. Over the course of nearly a decade, despite protests and outcries from students and the more liberal Iranian community, the current regime held its own. In fact, as Bijan points out, perhaps the regime intentionally deceives the international community and Reformists. Even if this is not true, the “sluggish pace” of political reform seems to prove the more important point. As stated earlier, revolutions simmer before they boil and, despite some popular misconceptions, do not spontaneously combust in the political landscape without warning or preparation. In all truth, it could take another decade or more before Iran reaches a Gladwell “tipping point” and those who hope for reform should patiently bide their time.


A Persian proverb says, “A stone thrown at the right time is better than gold given at the wrong time.”34 From the perspective of reform, history validates this proverb. Even from Gladwell’s “tipping point” theorem, such a seemingly inconsequential amalgamation of uncontrollable variables for, just a moment, merge together into a singly cohesive force of undeniable and indomitable change—a stone cast at the perfect time. The Western world looks at Iran through two lenses—fear and hope. Iran gave the international community both relatively quickly—hope for the results of the 2009 elections and fear over the current regime’s stubborn refusal to diverge from its present nuclear objective. Regrettably, the hope quietly subsided with the harsh governmental response to protestors and the fear rose as Ahmadinejad continued his tub-thumping rhetoric, berating anti-Zionism and, in almost melodramatic fashion, defending Iran’s right to pursue a secretive and unyielding nuclear agenda. Khomeini did not roll over in his grave just yet.

Even those who dared to hope and maintained their resolve for reform in Iran must wait longer for a Green Movement that comes to encapsulate the color of the Prophet with the democratic ideology of the Reformists. Ultimately, the world watches Iran with disappointment. Secularism, once again, lost its appeal to Iran for fundamental human rights, basic equality, provision, and enlightened cooperation with the international community at large. Then again, such notions may, to some degree, justify conservative fears and distrust of the West—the latter’s desire to see the former conduct their governmental affairs in a more palatable manner. In that regard, the Supreme Leader will, no doubt, always hold the trump card for his conservative supporters and probably cry foul as many times as he deems Iran threatened by values that Khomeini so adamantly opposed—the very antithesis of the theocratic republic he constructed through years of railing against the shah and minding his Shiia aesthetics. After all, in his own words, he said he felt hichchi (nothing) on his return from exile.

It seems unlikely that Khomeini’s hard work will unravel any time soon. He established a political system intentionally designed to retard change. Reformists require patience and tenacity if they seek to win the day. Their hopes may, in fact, rest on the shoulders of the post-Revolutionary youth who will join their ranks. While many wanted to will the “tipping point” to fruition in 2009, the history of the Islamic Republic demonstrates the regime’s ability to weather social dissatisfaction, marginalization, demonization, and Westernization. As Khomeini would most certainly tell those who seek revolution, it cannot be done in a day. No, baradaram (my brother), it takes time. In the time it does take, however, the West must continue to wrangle with an entrenched regime that shows no sign of theocratic abdication—a regime that ardently strives to prove its worth on the playing field of international politics, absolve itself of perceived victimization via Western powers, and export Shiia Islam by the rocket or missile wherever applicable. It seems more likely than not that those who want another revolution will need to wait-out Khomeini’s old guard. After all, time favors the young and, given enough time, all things fade into history—even Revolutions.

[1] “Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamic.” David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, Frederic Wehrey. RAND National Defense Research Institute. 2010.
[2] “Islamic Republic of Iran Constitution.”
[3] “Religion and Politics in Iran.” Greg Bruno. Council on Foreign Relations. June 19th 2008.
[4] “Speech 21.” Imam Khomeini.
[5] “Islamic Revolution and the Cultural-Political International Changes and Transformations.” Sulayman ‘Umran Kilimili.
[6] “Speech 35.” Imam Khomeini.
[7] “Islamic Republic of Iran Constitution.”
[8] “Insights into the Future of Iran as a Regional Power.” Highlights from the conference
30-31 March 2009, Ottawa. Published June 2009.
[10] “Islamic Revolution and the Cultural-Political International Changes and Transformations.” Sulayman ‘Umran Kilimili.
[11] “Islamic Republic of Iran Constitution.”
[12] “Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamic.” David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, Frederic Wehrey. RAND National Defense Research Institute. 2010.
[13] “Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamic.” David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, Frederic Wehrey. RAND National Defense Research Institute. 2010.
[14] “Insights into the Future of Iran as a Regional Power.” Highlights from the conference
30-31 March 2009, Ottawa. Published June 2009.
[15] “Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamic.” David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, Frederic Wehrey. RAND National Defense Research Institute. 2010.
[16] “Islamic Revolution and the Cultural-Political International Changes and Transformations.” Sulayman ‘Umran Kilimili.
[17] “Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamic.” David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, Frederic Wehrey. RAND National Defense Research Institute. 2010.
[18] “Iran’s Political, Demographic, and Economic Vulnerabilities.” Keith Crane, Rollie Lal, Jeffrey Martini. RAND: Project Air Force. 2008 RAND Corporation.
[19] Ibid.
[20] “Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamic.” David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, Frederic Wehrey. RAND National Defense Research Institute. 2010.
[21] “Pasdaran – Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG)” 2000-2010 Site maintained by: John Pike. Page last modified: 13-02-2009.
[22] “Jihad: The Trial of Political Islam.” Gilles Kepel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2002.
[23] “Denial and Jeopardy: Deterring Iranian use of NBC Weapons.” Paula DeSutter. Institute for National Strategic Studies.
[24] “Insights into the Future of Iran as a Regional Power.” Highlights from the conference
30-31 March 2009, Ottawa. Published June 2009.
[25] “Jihad: The Trial of Political Islam.” Gilles Kepel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2002.
[26] “Misreading Tehran: What We Got Wrong.” Reza Aslan. Foreign Policy July/August 2010.
[27] “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.” Malcolm Gladwell. Back Bay Books. 2000, 2002.
[28] “Post-WWII Western European Exceptionalism: The Economic Dimension.” J. Bradford DeLong. University of California at Berkeley, and National Bureau of Economic Research. September 1997; revised December 1997.
[29] “Islamic Republic of Iran.” UNICEF. Updated: 2 March 2010.
[30] “The World Fact Book—Iran.” The Central Intelligence Agency. Last updated August, 8th 2010.
[31] “As Iran Gets Ready to Vote, Economy Dominates.” Robert F. Worth. The New York Times. June 9, 2009.
[32] “Misreading Tehran: What We Got Wrong.” Reza Aslan. Foreign Policy July/August 2010.
[33] “Protest and Regime Resilience in Iran.” Bijan Khajehpour. Middle East Report Online. December 11, 2002.
[34] “Persian Proverbs.” World of Quotes.