Iran: a transition to reform and moderation

Of all the countries in the Gulf, the Islamic Republic of Iran has alone proved to possess a stable, electorally legitimate political order. Although operating within an Islamic framework, the country has held regular parliamentary, Assembly of Experts and presidential elections since the establishment of its Islamic Government 37 years ago. This makes Iran the only functioning "theo-democratic" state in the region.

The Islamic Republic's latest elections for a new Parliament and Assembly of Experts – the highest clerical organ which elects and dismisses Iran's supreme religious and political leader – have just taken place at a critically transitional juncture for the country. It carries the potential to set a new course of moderation and pragmatism in the conduct of Iran's domestic politics and foreign relations. The results so far point to a substantial shift in favour of the centrist and reformist forces in Iran's very complex power structure and system of governance.

The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who assumed power in the wake of the revolutionary overthrow of the Shah's pro-Western monarchy in early 1979, essentially forged a Shia Islamic two-tier system of governance. One tier was to represent the "sovereignty of God", personified by an Assembly of Experts-appointed jurist as Supreme Leader (Khomeini being the first), with no fixed term of office but enormous religious and constitutional powers, to preside over the polity as a whole.

Another tier was to reflect the "sovereignty of the people" through a universally elected president and national assembly within Khomeini's version of Shia Islam. Khomeini was succeeded by a devotee, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the system that he established has essentially continued to set the direction for Iran.

Yet, as both a combative and constructive cleric, Khomeini did not wish to leave behind a monolithic political system. In spite of his hardline supporters dominating the system from its beginning, he allowed a degree of political pluralism to flourish within his Islamic framework. As a result, three Islamic factions have contested power in Iran since Khomeini's death in 1989: the traditionalist, the pragmatist and the reformist.

The latter two factions joined forces to ensure the triumph of the centrist-reformist Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections. Rouhani's success was largely due to two factors. The first was the growing public disillusionment with the traditionalists' mismanagement of Iran's domestic and foreign policies that placed Iran under UN and more importantly severe Western sanctions, causing massive economic and social stagnation. The second was Rouhani's promise to achieve the intertwined goals of economic and social reforms, and the lifting of sanctions.


He and his able Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have secured the lifting of the sanctions by negotiating a resolution of the Iranian nuclear dispute and opening the way for Iran's reintegration into the international system. This has delighted most Iranians and raised their hopes for better living conditions. They have rewarded the Rouhani government in the recent elections.

This does not necessarily mean, however, that the centrist and reformist factions will now have a majority in either the 290-seat National Assembly or the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which could elect the next Supreme Leader, given that the 76-year-old Ali Khamenei is reportedly not in very good health. However it does suggest that Rouhani is now in a stronger position to be re-elected for a second term in 2017, and he and his supporters have greater influence in the legislature to press on with his reform agenda and in the selection of the Supreme Leader, should the need arise.

Even so, the Rouhani government will still face daunting challenges in addressing not only Iran's mounting economic and social problems, especially in the light of a dramatic drop in Iran's main source of revenue, oil, but also the incongruity that has come to feature in Iran's two-tier system of governance.

From time to time serious disagreements have surfaced in the relationship between the two tiers. The dispute over the results of the 2009 presidential elections, which resulted in major bloody clashes between the hardline and moderate-reformist factions, underlined the severity of the issue. Rouhani, who himself is a product of the Islamic system and therefore committed to the preservation of the system, will need to re-establish the organic ties that Khomeini had promoted between the two tiers and therefore a balance between the traditionalist hardline factions.

The latter still dominate some of the powerful government-linked organs, such as the Revolutionary Guard and Bonyads (Islamic charity organisations) that control a great deal of Iran's wealth and function as the soft power hand of the Islamic government, with vested interests in maintaining the system and an adversarial attitude towards the US, Israel and conservative Arab states in the Gulf. In contrast, their reformist counterparts would like to see a speedy process of an opening up of the Iranian economy, social and political reforms, and wider international engagements, including improved relations with the United States.

Whatever the outcome, Rouhani and his supporters are for now availed of a unique opportunity to move Iran in a direction of reform and moderation on both the internal and external fronts. How this will pan out, only time will tell. On the whole, the Islamic Republic has come a long way from its early years of revolutionary turmoil. It has proved to be resilient, pragmatic and enduring, with more regional influence than could originally have been anticipated.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of political science, Public Policy Fellow, and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of Iran at the Crossroads (Cambridge: Polity Press 2016).