Santa Clara University


Religion and Politics in Iran

See also Islam, Shiite Islam.

1. Brief Introduction
2. A Short Introductory Course
3. Other Resource Materials
4. Recent Articles

1. Brief Introduction to Religion and Politics in Iran

Iran has a population of  78.9 million, with a population growth rate of 1.25% (July 2012 est). It had a 2010 HDI ranking of #70 and a low 2012 CPI ranking of 29 (133rd globally). The CIA Factbook reports Iran as 89% Shiite Muslim, 9% Sunni Muslim, and 2% Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Bahai. The country is 51% Persian, 24% Azeri, and 25 percent other. 58% of Iranians speak Persian or Persian dialects and 26% speak Turkic or Turkic dialects. Iran constitutes the great global example of Shiite politics. While the traditional Shiite theology has deemed all governments “unjust” until the return of the twelfth imam, ayatollahs and grand ayatollahs have played important societal roles in political crises. Grand Ayatollah Khomeini helped create and stepped into the political vacuum at the end of the Pahlavi regime by preaching his theory of the nation’s political-religious reliance on a Supreme Guide [faqih]. The 1978 celebration of Ashura, the Shiite Muslims’ holiest day, brought together a broad coalition of liberals, socialist mujahideen, relatively progressive clergy, and constitutionalists, all in opposition to the Shah. After the Shah fled, Khomeini and his followers gradually took power from the other elements, including most of the other Grand Ayatollahs. Not all, however, went according to plan. Khomeini had to sign a truce with Iraq in July 1988 after horrendous losses on both sides during the Iran-Iraq War. He died in June 1989. Iran remains a complicated mixture of political and religious institutions reminiscent of medieval Europe or contemporary PRC, with the Chinese dual ideologically-based party and more technical state institutions. In Iran the Supreme Guide remains the most powerful figure, with informal alliances, both clerical and lay, fighting for control of institutions like the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, the Assembly of Experts, the military Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij. The higher clerics and civilian elites both have split on many issues and over power. Among the clerics, Grand Ayatollahs Hossein Ali Montazeri, Yousof Sana, and Asadollah Bayat Zanjani have been the most vocal critics concerning the June 2009 presidential election.

When Khomeini died, then President Ali Khamenei replaced Khomeini as the new faqih, and the conservative power-broker  Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president for two terms, 1989-97. In 1997, the reformist cleric, Mohammad Khatami, was surprisingly elected president in a landslide. Khatami called for “a Dialogue of Civilizations,” and was reelected four years later, again by more than seventy percent of the vote. But Khatami was checked on all sides by conservatives surrounding the more powerful Khamenei. Khatami also failed to deliver economically or in terms of democratic freedoms, at least not enough to satisfy student protestors or excite intellectuals. Disenchantment set in, and the conservatives took back control of the parliament in February 2004, after the twelve-member Guardian Council, which oversees elections, had disqualified more than two thousand reformist candidates.  In the presidential election of 2005, the conservative, younger war veteran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani. Voters thus sought to change the failing economy and rid the country of corruption. Ahmadinejad has since played a strong political role, while centering his ideology on the focal social justice orientation of Shiite Islam. He has also cracked down on political dissent, while seeking to build a new political-military class to replace the older conservative clerics. However, he has not been able to improve the economy, with Iran suffering from both shortages and inflation. So far, religious nationalism, e.g., social justice rhetoric and pursing the Iranian nuclear program, has kept him in power with the support of the Supreme Guide. Iran has moved to a more radical stance in both domestic and foreign affairs. In addition to pursuing its nuclear program, the country has given strong support to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The December 2006 elections for the Assembly of Experts, responsible for choosing the Supreme Guide, and the local city councils proved a setback to the president. Reformists and pragmatic conservatives defeats Ahmadinejad’s candidates. Rafsanjani became the most powerful person on the Assembly of Experts, and Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, termed a “pragmatic conservative,” retained his post as mayor of Tehran. The question remains as to whether Ahmadinejad’s hard line on the nuclear issue, his call for wiping out Israel, and his denial of the Holocaust had caused the Supreme Guide to calculate that Ahmadinejad was an international political liability, especially after U.N. sanctions of December 23, 2006 that barred the trade of resources or technology related to the nuclear program. One year later, however, the United States National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. That reduced pressure as the country prepared for parliamentary elections in March 2008. Conservatives won the March parliamentary elections, but that group also included some vocal critics of the president, especially his economic policy. Reformists did better than expected after many of their candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council, which disqualified about 40% of those who applied to run. Turnout exceeded that of the last parliamentary elections. 

The presidential election of June 12, 2009, demonstrated the wide splits among the national elites. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in a landslide almost immediately, and the decision was protested by the other candidates Mir Hussein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohsen Rezai, who were supported in this protest by Rafsanjani and Khatami. While students staged similar protests in 1999 and 2003, the demonstrations of June 2009 constituted the largest public protests since the founding of the Islamic Republic. Cellphone photos and other modern technology were used to excellent political effect during these protests. However, Ahmadinejad, backed by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards and Basij, made many arrests and several martyrs emerged. In mid-August Moussavi announced  the formation of the Green Wave of Hope, a "grass-roots and social network" to promote democracy and law, not a political party which would require government approval. Throughout these protests, Moussavi's supporters used Islamic symbols like the color green. See more recent articles below for more coverage of the dynamics of these protests and the divisions of elite politics. In both the Iranian and Chinese (Tiananmen) cases, elite struggle gave more room for popular discontent.

Hanson, pp. 215-21, discusses “Shiite Politics in Iran: The Ayatollah and the President in the EMC Systems.” 

2. A Short Introductory Course to Religion and Politics in Iran

Katouzian describes the Pahlavi regime. Hegland narrates the coming of the Iranian Revolution to a small village, in which the people’s changed understanding of the religious meaning of Husain influenced their political views and vice versa. Zahedi compares the success of Iranian revolution with the much less likely overthrow in the year 2000. Siavoshi summarizes the roles of religion in Iranian politics. Finally, read the newspaper coverage for the summer 2009 protests surrounding the election of Ahmadinejad. These protests demonstrate the splits among lay and clerical elites and the political usages of various institutions. Baktiari provides a detailed and well-sourced commentary on the battle over shari'a.

Katouzian, Homa, “The Pahlavi Regime in Iran,” in Chehabi, H.E. and Linz, Juan J., Sultanistic Regimes (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 182-205.

Hegland, Mary, “Two Images of Husain: Accomodation and Revolution in an Iranian Village,” in Kedde, Nikki R., ed. Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi’ism from Quietism to Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).
Zahedi, Dariush. The Iranian Revolution Then and Now: Indicators of Regime Stability. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2000.

Siavoshi, Sussan, “Between Heaven and Earth: The Islamic Republic of Iran,” in Jelen, Ted Gerald, and Wilcox, Clyde, eds. Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective: The One, the Few, and the Many (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 125-40.

Baktiari Bahman, "The Islamic Republic of Iran: Shari'a Politics and the Transformation of Islamic Law," The Review of Faith & International Affairs (Winter 2012).

3. Other Key Resource Materials for Religion and Politics in Iran

Akbarzadeh, Shahram, "Where is the Islamic Republic of Iran heading?" Australian Journal of International Affaris 59 (2005): 25-38.

Amiranhmadi, Hooshang, and Zahedi, Dariush, eds. Iran in the New Millennium: Opportunities and Challenges.  Princeton, N.J.: American Iranian Council, 2001.

Amipur, Katajun. "The Changing Approach to the Text: Iranian Scholars and the Quran," Middle East Studies 41 (2005): 337-50.

Chehabi, H.E. “Religion and Politics in Iran: How Theocratic Is the Iranian Republic?” in Daedalus (1991).

Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). For the issue of secularism and Iranian polititcs, see Chapter Four (Iranian domestic politics) and Chapter Six (Iran and the United States).

Kazemipour, Abdolmohammad, Ali Rezaei, "Religious Life Under Theocracy: The Case of Iran," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42 (2003): 347-61.

Kedde, Nikki R., ed. Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi’ism from Quietism to Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Kemp, Geoffrey. Iran and Iraq: The Shia Connection, Soft Power, and the Nuclear Connection (Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace, 2005).

Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah's Men (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004).

Milani, Abbas. Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran (Washington, DC: Mage Publishers, 2004).

Mohaddessin, Mohammad. Enemies of the Ayatollahs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

Moqadam, Afsneh. Death to the Dicrtator! A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price. (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2010). Transformation of twenty-something Mohsen Abbaspour into engaged citizen during election.

Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).

Pollack, Kenneth, and Takeyh, “Taking on Tehran,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2005).

Tehami, Amine. “The Social Construction of Political Islam in Najd (1739-86), Iran (1963-79), and Algeria (1954-95),” paper delivered at 1998 APSA, September 3-6, 1998.

4. Recent Articles on Iran (a. General Politics; b. Politics and Economics; c. Religion and Society; d. Foreign and Security Policy):

a. General Politics

“Winner in Iran Calls for Unity; Reformers Reel,” New York Times, June 26, 2005. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

“A New Face in Resurrects an Old Defiance,” New York Times, January 30, 2006. Ahmadinejad builds domestic support in debate over nuclear right to process and simple life. Spiritual mentor Yazdi. Rival Rafsanjani chairman of Expediency Council.

“Iran Chief Eclipses Clerics As He Consolidates Power,” New York Times, May 28, 2006. Ahmadinejad’s strategy for new political elite and strengthening country amid economic woes.

“Who’s Afraid of Shirin Ebadi?” New York Times editorial, August 15, 2006. Government attack on Center for Protecting Human Rights in Tehran, which provides free legal representation. Threatens to arrest Ebadi unless she closes it.

“Iran’s Powerful Top Cleric Grows Into a Role He Once Questioned,” New York Times, September 9, 2006. Rise in influence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his support for President Ahmadinejad.

"At Home, Tehran Deals With a Restive Arab Minority," New York Times, September 22, 2006. Country is majority Persian, 3% Arab, and many other groups. Political and societal issues.

“Tally in Iran Vote Spells ‘Setback’ for President’s Hard Line,” New York Times, December 19, 2006.

“Rebuke in Iran To Its President On Nuclear Role,” New York Times, January 19, 2007. Criticism of Ahmadinejad by newspapers owned by Supreme Guide and connected to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. The President defended his position strongly a few days later.

"Iran Cracks Down on Dissent, Parading Examples in Streets," New York Times, June 24, 2007. Attack on cultural "riffraff" in state of political and economic stress.

"Slightly Off Religious Path, Iranian TV Finds Viewers," New York Times, October 16, 2007. State media offers love stories between less-than-pious actors, with indirect political message, in attempt to win back viewers.

"A President's Defender Keeps His Distance," New York Times, January 8, 2008.  Ahmadinejad receives more criticism for Iran's economic performance, and Ayatollah Khomeini less ready to defend with less U.S. pressure resulting from National Intelligence Estimate. Other political changes.

"Radical Left, Iran's Last Legal Dissidents, Until Now," New York Times, January 20, 2008. Background of Iranian Marxist students, permitted as counterweight to liberal democratic movements until recently. Now seen as threat and banned.

"Big Turnout as Iran Votes in Parliamentary Elections," New York Times, March 15, 2008.

"Reformers Gain in Iran Vote, Despite Many Being Barred," New York Times, March 16, 2008.

"Conservatives Prevail in Iran Vote, but Opposition Scores, Too," New York Times, April 27, 2008. After second round of voting, the departing Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi said that 198 of the 290 seats in parliament went to conservatives. Many, however, oppose Ahmadinejad's economic policies. Pourmohammadi said reformers won 47 seats, up from 40 in prior body. Guardian Council had barred many reformers from running.

"New Post For Rival of President of Iran," New York Times, May 29, 2008. Ali Larijani, former chief nuclear negotiator, becomes speaker of parliament by 232-31 votes. This post makes it more likely that he will run against Ahmadinejad in 2009 presidential election.

"Chief Cleric Says Iran Doesn't Seek Nuclear Arms," New York Times, June 4, 2008. Khamenei states that Iran "is in principle and on religious grounds against the nuclear weapon."

"Chief Cleric Of Iran Defends President," New York Times, August 25, 2008. Khamenei defends Ahmadinejad, praising domestic policies and support for the country's nuclear program. However, the cleric urged the government to curb the rampant inflation.

"Defiance Grows as Iran's Leader Sets Vote Review," New York Times, June 16, 2009. Following massive opposition protests, Ayatollah Khamenei asks the Guardian Council to examine the election. Most see it as a bid for time since Khamenei has control of body.

"Iran Stepping Up Effort to Quell Election Protest," and "Ahmadinejad Reaps Benefits of Stacking Key Iran Agencies With His Allies," New York Times, June 25, 2009.

"A Revolution Reinterpreted," New York Times, July 19, 2009. Rafsanjani interprets the meaning of the Iranian revolution for current politics in a Friday sermon. He demands release of those arrested, easing of media restrictions, and eradication of "doubt" in the election result.

"Details Emerge on Prison Abuse After Iran Vote," New York Times, July 29, 2009. After reports of prison abuse, rape, and deaths, government releases 140, Ahmadinejad calls for "Islamic mercy," and Khamenei closes a particularly notorious detention center. The debate over whether rape occurred became a major issue. Mehdi Karroubi, who supported the charge, had his newspaper closed in mid-August. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami denounced the charge at a Friday sermon at Tehran University. See New York Times, August 15, 2009.

"Iran Leader Takes Oath of Office," New York Times, August 6, 2009. Ahmadinejad takes oath with many parliament seats empty.

"Iran Leader Submits Loyalist Cabinet," New York Times, August 20, 2009. Struggle among elites over cabinet and other positions. Sadeq Larijani, new head of judiciary and brother of Ahmadinejad opponent parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, appoints Ahmadinejad critic Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei as national prosecutor general. Clerics complain to Khamenei about allegations that his son Mojtaba had a role in the bloody crackdown. The ayatollah denied that his son played a role. Four days after Khamenei selected Sadeq Larijani, Iran stayed  the execution of seven convicted criminals, including a young man who was under 18 when he stabbed another boy to death. Murder, adultery, rape, armed robbery, apostasy and drug trafficking are all punishable under Iran's sharia law.

"Dissidents Mass in Tehran To Subvert an Anti-U.S. Rally," New York Times, November 5, 2009. On 30th anniversary of takeover of U.S. embassy, dissidents disrupt annual anti-U.S. rally. Complications of regime's nuclear policy, Obama's more moderate approach, and domestic politics. 

"Thousands Defy Iranian Authorities In Protests and Clashes at Campuses," New York Times, December 8, 2009. Strong protests on National Student Day.

"Arrests by Iran In Bid to Quell Protests," New York Times, February 10, 2010. Major crackdown in anticipation of the anniversary of the revolution, especially against journalists and women's rights activists. This crackdown began after the success of the protests on Ashura in December. "Opposition In Iran Meets A Crossroads On Strategy," New York Times, February 15, 2010. Debate on strategy after relative failure of anniversary protests. Then "Iran Leader concedes No Ground to Rivals," New York Times, February 26, 2010. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out any compromise with opposition leaders.

"Clerics to Work Within Schools Of Iran's Capital," New York Times, July 12, 2010. One thousand clerics will work at schools in capital to ensure that students are "aware of opposition plots."

"Iran's President Renews Pressure on Conservatives," New York Times, July 16, 2010. With reformers in retreat, Ahmadinejad's group attacks traditional conservatives like Rafsanjani, in a struggle over control of Azad University; Ali Larijani, speaker of the parliament; and the merchant bazaaris over taxes.

"A Divine Wind Blows Against Iran's President," New York Times, June 23, 2011. Struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

b. Politics and Economics

"Unrest Grows With Gas Lines Amid Rationing in Iran," New York Times, June 29, 2007. Public anger at rationing, burning gas stations and attacking state-run businesses.

"Hard Times Help Leaders in Iran Tighten Their Hold," New York Times, September 5, 2007. Economic upheaval and security crackdown, and relation to Iran's nuclear enrichment program. In separate article, Rafsanjani elected as head of Assembly of Experts over conservative, 41-31. Keeps head of Expediency Council, which mediates between hard-line Guardian Council and parliament.

"A Frail Economy Raises Pressure on Iran's Rulers," New York Times, February 3, 2008. Natural gas scarcity and economic stagflation have increased tension between President Ahmadinejad and religious establishment. More than seventy percent of reform candidates for March parliamentary elections have been disqualified.

"Politically Confident, Iran Cuts Price Subsidies," New York Times, January 17, 2011. Ahmadinejad government cuts subsidies on fuel and other essential items.

c. Religion and Society

“Iranian Clerics’ Maneuvers Stir Worry on Absolute Rule,” New York Times, September 25, 2006. Political maneuvering, especially by Mesbah Yazdi, over Dec. 15 election of Assembly of Experts (every eight years). Fundamentalists supporting Khamenei’s absolute power versus Traditionalists like Rafsanjani, who influenced 1990 and 1998 elections.

"Iran Bars Inspectors; Dissident Cleric Condemns President's Stance," New York Times, January 23, 2007. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran's most senior dissident cleric, criticizes president's policy.

"Iran Exonerates Six Who Killed In Islam's Name," New York Times, April 19, 2007. Supreme Court overturns murder conviction of six members of the volunteer Basiji Force who killed five "morally corrupt" people by stoning and drowning.

"For Iran's Shiites, a Celebration of Faith and Waiting," New York Times, August 30, 2007. Celebration of the birth of the Mahdi and relation to government's attempt to strengthen Islamic versus Iranian nationalist identity. "Waiting" a theme as it was in Zoroastrianism, waiting for Saoshyant.

"Hanging and Amputation Find Favor in Iran Courts," New York Times, January 11, 2008. In restive southern Iran, judicial authorities use double amputations to discourage lawbreakers. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi protests as "cruel and unusual punishment."

"Iran Fights Scourge of Addiction in Plain View, Stressing Treatment," New York Times, June 27, 2008. More than one million (specified government figure, with estimates going as high as ten million) Iranians addicted to drugs. Six hundred non-profit centers, supported with government money, plus 1,250 other centers which offer methadone, free needles, and other services to those not ready to quit.

"Clerics Stay Largely Quiet As Iran Keeps Simmering," New York Times, June 18, 2009.

"Unrest In Iran Sharply Divides Ruling Clerics," New York Times, June 22, 2009.

"Religion of Peace," The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2009. Report on Mohsen Kadivar outside the U.N. This theologian student of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri wrote "The Theories of the State in Shiite Jurisprudence," a three-part criticism of Khomeini's theory of the "Rule of the Jurist." (Velayat e Faqih)

"For Bahais, a Crackdown Is Old News," New York Times, June 27, 2009. Summary of Iran's repression of Bahais.

"Clerics' Call For Removal Challenges Iran Leader," New York Times, August 17, 2009. Anonymous letter from several dozen, mostly middle-ranking clerics calling for the removal of Khamenei. The 11-page letter accuses the Supreme Leader of post-election violence, turning the Revolutionary Guards into "his own private guard, and the media into an instrument to defend and propagate him."

"Cleric Wields Religion to Challenge Iran's Theocracy," New York Times, November 22, 2009. The anti-government role of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, criticizing the presidential election and abolutism as anti-Islam. For example, Montazeri denounced the Basij's crackdown (New York Times, December 1, 2009). He died of a heart attack in the early hours of December 20.

d. Foreign and Security Policy

“An old bigotry that must be faced,” San Jose Mercury News, November 27, 2005. President’s anti-Israeli remarks, including denial of Holocaust. For exact nature of remarks and translation from Persian, see New York Times, June 11, 2006.

“A Firebrand in a House of Cards,” op-ed by Dariush Zahedi and Omid Memarian, New York Times, January 12, 2006. Current strengths and weaknesses of U.S. and Iran. “Today the incentive for both sides to step away from the brink of conflict is even greater than it was at the end of the Iran-Iraq War.”

“Invoking Islam’s Heritage, Iranians Chafe at ‘Oppression’ by the West,” New York Times, February 6, 2006. Danish cartoons, nuclear stand-off, and Ashura all packaged together in Isfahan and Qum. U.S. is “World Oppressor.”

“Tehran claims crucial uranium step,” San Jose Mercury News, April 12, 2006. Current prospects for weapons.

“Iranian letter: Using Religion To Lecture Bush,” New York Times, May 10, 2006. Ahmadinejad tells Bush that his values stray from Christianity.

“Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art As Reply to Danish Cartoons,” New York Times, August 25, 2006. Response to September 2005 cartoons, poorly attended.

“For Evangelicals, Supporting Israel Is ‘God’s Foreign Policy,’” New York Times, November 14, 2006. Christians United For Israel and other rightist organizations. Importance of Iranian situation to these groups. Same date, “Deep Roots of Denial for Iran’s True Believer,” on Ahmadinejad and supporters’ denial of Holocaust.

"Jailed Iranian-American Academic Is Released on Bail," New York Times, August 22, 2007. Haleh Esfandiari, 67, released on mother's bail ($324,000) from three months in Evin prison, two weeks after Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to a letter from Lee H. Hamilton, director of Woodrow Wilson International Center. Shirin Ebadi lawyer, "innocent and held for three months." Two male academics still held.

"Ahmadinejad Meets Clerics, And Decibels Drop a Notch," New York Times, September 27, 2007. Iranian president, after tension at Columbia University, meets with 140 religious leaders organized by Quakers and Mennonites. Questions from panel of Quaker, Catholic (Christiansen), Anglican (Hamilton), Baptist (Stassen), and World Council of Churches representative (Ferguson). Iran refused to meet if Bahais came.

"Iran Launches 9 Missiles in War Games, One With Range Said to Include Israel," New York Times, July 10, 2008. Analysis of whether or not this constitutes a new threat.

"Iranian Chief Cleric Rejects Official's Remarks, Saying Country Is Not a Friend to Israelis," New York Times, September 20, 2008. Khamenei supports President Ahmadinejad, who has come under fire for remarks by tourism aide that Iran is friendly toward Israeli people. Khameini condems those remarks, but calls on critics to stop using those remarks to undermine Ahmadinejad.

"Iran's Leader Cements Ties On State Visit To Lebanon," New York Times, October 14, 2010. Ahmadinejad's first state visit since 2005 strengthens Hezbollah in wake of Hariri assassination report.

Acknowledgement: Fine paper on Iran by Senior Roujin Mozaffarimehr in fall 2007.

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March 5, 2012.