Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Democracy and Islam: Can it Co-Exist? The Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran has been an “Islamic Republic since the 1979 Islamic Revolution” and is a “mixture of theocracy and democracy” with political system emphasis based on “clerical authority and popular sovereignty, on the divine right of the clergy and the rights of the people, on concepts derived from early Islam and from modern democratic principles (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 579-580).  Before looking at the Iranian political structure and attempting to identify which portions are democratic and which are not, two points must be considered:

1.  The Iranian population consists of 89% Shia Muslims, 9% Sunni Muslim, with Christian, Jews and others comprising the remaining 2% (CIA, 2013).  These demographics actually support the argument that theocracy and democracy function together in the case of Iran’s constitution which “affirms faith in God, Divine Justice, the Qur’an, the Day of Judgment, the Prophet Muhammad, the Twelve Imams, the eventual return of the Hidden Imam (the Mahdi)” (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 599).  While the U.S. Supreme Court reviews legislation based on the U.S. Constitution, the Iranian constitution is aimed toward Islam and the teaching of the Quran.  It is irresponsible for a person from the West to criticize the political structure of Iran, especially those who have not studied Islam in order to understand Islam, by denouncing Iran’s political structure as undemocratic.  With 98% of the Iranian population being Muslim, theocracy and democracy co-exist and function as a system equivalent to any political system in the west.

2.  While most developing states are post-colonial possessions that inherited European style government structures after colonial withdrawal and so-called state independence in the first decades of capitalist globalization, “Iran was never formally colonized by the European imperial powers and has always been independent” (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 617).

So how democratic is the Islamic Republic?

The Iranian presidency, limited to two four year terms, is elected by the “general public” and “all citizens, both male and female, over the age of eighteen have the right to vote (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 599).  If a “candidate does not win a majority of the vote in the first round of the election, a run-off chooses between the two top vote getters” (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 601).  The “executive power for the president” is defined in the “constitution of the Islamic Republic” and once elected the Iranian president has the responsibilities to “conduct the country’s internal and external policies, including signing all international treaties, laws, and agreements; chair the National Security Council, which is responsible for defense matters; draw up the annual budget, supervise economic matters, and chair the state planning and budget organization”, as well as the responsibility to propose legislation to the Majles (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 601).

The legislative branch of Iran consists of a unicameral body, the Majles, that consists of 290 seats and is elected by direct national elections “every four years” (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 580).  The Majles “can remove cabinet members—with the exception of the president—through a parliamentary vote of no confidence” and “can withhold approval for government budgets, foreign loans, international treaties, and cabinet appointments” (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 609).

In addition to a president and a legislative body being elected by popular vote, the “Assembly of Experts is elected every eight years by the general public” (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph,601).  It is this eighty-six member Assembly of Experts that “appoints the Supreme Leader”, that is placed to “supervise the supreme leader’s capabilities to determine whether he is able to perform his duties”, and to “dismiss him if he is unable to perform his constitutional duties or it becomes known that he did not possess some of the initial qualifications such as “social and political wisdom, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership” (Farhi).

Overall, the structure of the Iranian political system appears highly democratic and quite different from how it is usually portrayed on Fox News.

The Supreme Leader, appointed by the democratically elected eighty-six member Assembly of Experts, is often the center of democratic criticism from the capitalist western states, especially the United States.  The state constitution “gives wide-ranging powers to the Leader” which allows the elimination of “presidential candidates”, and “as commander-in-chief, he can mobilize the armed forces, declare war and peace, and convene the Supreme Military Council. He can appoint and dismiss the commanders of Revolutionary Guards as well as those of the regular army, navy, and air force. (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph,600).  One of the most interesting nongovernment posts held by the spiritual leader is “director of the national radio-television network”.  Again, the Supreme Leader is not some unchecked power and is held to his constitutional duties, a constitution which is aimed toward Islam, by the Assembly of Experts (Farhi).

The Guardian Council is the “most influential body in the Iranian system and is comprised of “six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament” (BBC).  While the Majles is the main legislative branch, “bills do not become law unless the Guardian Council deems them compatible with Islam and the Islamic constitution.” (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 580).  The review process ensures that passed bills “conform to the shari’a” (Kesselman, Krieger, and Joseph, 603).  The Guardian Council is also the body that approves election candidates based on compatibility to the Islamic Republic and Islam.


The following news report link from WMTV in Madison, Wisconsin is a democratic example of elections in Iran and is entitled “Iran Citizens vote for president at Wisconsin Hotel”.


BBC News.  2013.  Iran: Who Holds the Power?  Accessed on December 4, 2013.

CIA.  2013.  CIA World Factbook.  Accessed on December 4, 2013.

Farideh Farhi.  2013.  The Assembly of Experts.  United States Institute of Peace.  Accessed on December 4, 2013.

Mark Kesselman, Joel Krieger, and William Joseph. 2013. Introduction to Comparative Politics, 6th edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth


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