Iran Geopolitics (2016)

By | December 15, 2021

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a complex and unique political entity. Born in 1979 at the end of a revolutionary process led by Ayatollah Khomeini in opposition to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, it represents a synthesis of republican elements and religious government. This particular political conformation, combined with the characteristic of being a country of Persian culture nestled in the vast Arab world – as well as the largest Shiite country in a context dominated by Sunni Islam – help to define the specificities of Iran.

More than thirty years after the revolution, Iran today finds itself dealing with the heavy legacy of Khomeinism, both from the point of view of domestic politics and from that of foreign policy. As for the internal division, the class of former revolutionaries who participated in the founding process of the Islamic Republic still dominates the political life of the country. Any leadership role, both in political bodies and in public administration, is precluded to those who cannot boast solid credentials to participate in the revolution. From a foreign policy point of view, difficulties persist both with regional neighbors and with the United States. Despite the recent openings of the current president Hassan Rouhani, in office since June 2013, primarily Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the wound inflicted on relations with Washington following the assault on the US embassy in Tehran in the days of the revolution has not yet been healed. Much of the regime’s rhetoric was founded and still is based on the opposition to the ‘great Satan’, as the United States was renamed during the revolution. Although this rhetoric is increasingly struggling to find a following among the population, it represents the main source of self-legitimacy – together with hostility towards Israel – of the Islamic Republic.

Not even the agreement on the nuclear program reached in July 2015 with the powers of the P5 + 1 group (France, United Kingdom, United States, Russia, China and Germany) and mediated by the E u, seems to have subsided for now the rivalry between the two countries. However, the effects of the agreement, which sets a rigid program to lift sanctions in exchange for a halt to uranium enrichment activities, can only be assessed in the long term.

Institutional organization and internal politics

Following the 1979 revolution, Iran became an Islamic republic, creating, in effect, a dual system of power based on the coexistence of bodies with religious legitimacy and organs with popular legitimacy. The system of Velāyat-e faqīh (‘government of the jurist’) designed by Ayatollah Khomeini in the days of the revolution, is based on the attribution of political leadership to a faqīh (‘jurist’), in charge of guaranteeing respect for Islam from part of the people, as vicar of the twelfth imam (according to Twelver Shiism, Muhammad al-Mahdī, precisely the twelfth imam, would not have died but would have entered into concealment [ ghaybat ] in 941 and would still await his return). The faqīh is politically embodied in the supreme leader, who represents the most important office of the state: he is chosen by the Assembly of Experts. For Iran political system, please check

The second office of the state is the president, holder of executive power: he is elected every four years, for a maximum of two consecutive times, with universal suffrage. The president chooses the ministers of the government, the parliament (Majlis) confirms them and can ask for their removal. The Majlis is entrusted with legislative power: it has a unicameral structure and is made up of 290 members elected every four years. To be able to stand as a candidate in the parliamentary and presidential elections, it is essential to have the approval of the Guardian Council, made up of six religious experts appointed by the supreme leader and six jurists, appointed by the Majlis on the recommendation of the head of the judicial system, also appointed by the guide. In addition to the power of preselection of candidates,legislative process of parliamentary proposals and judges the compliance of the law with the Constitution and Islamic precepts. Given the complexity of the institutional set-up, the priority role of the Council is evident, acting under the strict control of the supreme leadership.

Since 1979, only two men have held the position of supreme leader: Ayatollah Khomeini, who, after devising the position, held that role until his death in 1989, and Ayatollah Khamenei, who is still in office. The religious title of ayatollah must not be misleading as to the nature of the office. Especially during the Khamenei era, in fact, this office has been accumulating more and more political power in spite of the more purely religious aspect.

Over the years, on the other hand, the great names of the Iranian revolutionary scene have alternated with the office of President of the Republic. If from 1979 to 1989, in the Khomeinist decade, this office represented a purely honorific office, the constitutional amendment of 1989, which eliminated the role of prime minister and paved the way for the rise of former president Khamenei to the rank of supreme guide, also gave new life to the role of president. From 1989 to 1997, Hashemi Rafsanjani sat on the presidential seat, at the head of the current of so-called ‘technocrats’ who, while moving within the Islamic horizon, asked for a relaxation of the revolutionary ideology in favor of a greater pragmatism that could revive the fortunes – above all economic – of the country. From 1997 to 2005 it was the turn of the reformist Mohammad Khatami, whose attempts to change the system from the inside failed, paving the way for the rise, in 2005, of the radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The re-election of the latter, which took place in 2009 amid suspicions of fraud and manipulation, gave rise to a protest movement known as the ‘Green Movement’ which highlighted the profound crisis of consensus and legitimacy experienced by the Republic Islamic. In June 2013, the election of Hassan Rouhani, a religious considered a moderate within the vast Iranian political landscape, and considered close to the political faction led by Hashemi Rafsanjani, partly remedied this crisis.

Iran Geopolitics