The Possibility of Democracy in Iran

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  • 0:00 Defining Iranian Democracy
  • 0:50 Government Structure
  • 2:21 Government and the Revolution
  • 3:32 Feeling of the Youth…
  • 4:36 Reformation and Revolt
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

A number of talking heads on the news concern themselves with the status of democracy in Iran as if some simple solution can be found. However, as this lesson demonstrates, democracy in Iran is far from simple.

Defining Iranian Democracy

If you were to ask political scientists who specialize in the Middle East what the three most democratic countries in the region are, chances are they will mention Iran - and maybe even crack a smile because they know the answer is often cause for confusion. Iran? Really? After all, Iran has a non-elected head of state known as the Supreme Leader. They have also publicly financed terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

These things don't seem very characteristic of a democracy, but Iran is a democratic nation. To understand the rise of democracy in Iran, we must remember while there are aspects of Iranian democracy familiar to people in the West, Iran is a complicated country whose decisions and way of life may be unfamiliar or even confusing to some.

Government Structure

Let's go back to that point I made about Iran being one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East. Political scientists often say that Iran is a parliamentary democracy with a religious theocracy. Parliamentary democracy means that there is a parliament elected by the people. Meanwhile, religious theocracy refers to the fact that religious authorities are never far away from seats of power.

Iran has high rates of voter turnout, guaranteed representation for minorities, and universal suffrage. The Supreme Leader, a religious figure with overarching powers, maintains a delicate balance between the desires of secular and religious parts of the country. The Supreme Leader is always a Shia Muslim and an expert in Islamic law. Shia Muslims make up the majority of the Iranian population, but account for just 15% of the world's total Muslim numbers.

The Iranian government has a constant system of checks and balances by which different segments of the government must work through issues. Every political candidate has to be approved by the Supreme Leader. The power to approve political candidates is officially maintained through the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council is made up of elders, with half of the council appointed by the Supreme Leader and the other half elected by Parliament, all of whom were vetted by the Supreme Leader. As a result, the Supreme Leader largely controls the Guardian Council.

Government and the Revolution

You may be asking yourself why a country with democratic ideals like universal suffrage would even entertain the idea of a Supreme Leader. The answer is actually more simple than you would think. First of all, we've only been calling Iran, Iran, for the last few decades. Before that, everyone called it Persia. Persia has always managed to have an independent cultural identity, going all the way back to the time of the Persians fighting the Greeks. Therefore, it's really not surprising that Iranians have maintained their language, Persian, in spite of centuries of Arabic influence.

Additionally, the Persians adopted Shia Islam centuries ago, and it has long been a way of distinguishing themselves further from Sunni Arabs. Remember, Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the world's Muslims. In short, the Supreme Leader is a manifestation of a uniquely Iranian culture. Combining this with a general distaste for Western capitalism and Soviet communism, and by offering a truly Islamic and Iranian solution, the Revolutionaries of 1979 found a winning strategy.

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