Iran’s Theocratic Attempt at Hybrid Democracy

Leonard O Goenaga

Professor Friedheim

CPO2002 Comparative Politics

April 10, 2007

Iran’s Theocratic Attempt at Hybrid Democracy

“Is Iran inventing a unique, new and Islamic form of democracy?”




I.      Opening

a.     “I walked up to my friend Hani, who happens to be an Iranian Native, and gave him a quick quiz on his opinion about Iranian government. His response to my first question concerning his opinion on the Iranian politicians was clean and simple: Crap…”

b.     Freedom of Religion, and it’s relationship to our own democracy…

II.    Body

a.     What defines a Democracy?

                                               i.     “Democracy is based partly on the two principles that all individuals are equal (especially before the law), and that people have inalienable natural rights (like right to choose religion).”

                                             ii.     Litmus Test (Book)

1.     Selection of highest public offices is on the basis of free and fair elections.

2.     Political parties are free to organize, present candidates for office, and compete in elections. Right to criticize.

3.     Accountability of elected officials.

4.     Civil and Political rights. Key state officeholders. Free assembly, conscience, privacy, and expression (criticize)

5.     Political system contains judiciary independent of Executive and Legislature.

b.     What defines a Theocracy?

                                               i.     A state governed by the clergy, who rule on the grounds that they are the only interpreters of God’s will and law.

c.     Compare and contrast Iran with our defined term of Democracy.

                                               i.     Elections

                                             ii.     Political Parties

                                            iii.     Accountability

                                            iv.     Civil + Political Rights

                                             v.     Independent Judiciary

d.     Conclude whether or not Iran is a Democracy.

                                               i.     Arguments for it being a Democracy

                                             ii.     Arguments against it being a Democracy

III.  Conclusion


I walked up to my friend Hani, who happens to be an Iranian Native, and gave him a quick quiz on his opinion about Iranian government. His response to my first question concerning his opinion on the Iranian politicians was clean and simple: Crap. It took me as a shock. It was a brute answer, and I initially suspected a lack of patriotism. After we sat down and continued our discussion, I learned that this clearly wasn’t the case. He was raised, as with most kids in Iran, as a Muslim. Upon coming here to visit some family he converted into Christianity. He then had to force himself to scramble for a student visa, because if he were to return to Iran the government would have him killed or jailed for his conversion out of Islam. It was here that my study of Iran begins.

In this essay, I will attempt to conclude whether the Islamic Republic of Iran is a unique, new Islamic form of democracy, or a theocracy in sheep’s clothing. I have developed a litmus test for determining whether or not Iran may be considered democratic, and will compare and contrast these democratic ideals with the state of Iran.

Our litmus test is based off of five matters that make up a democracy. We define a democracy as a system of government that contain five central issues. The first thing that makes a democracy is the selection of highest public officials on the basis of free and fair elections. The second is the existence of political parties who are free to organize, present candidates for office, compete in elections and the right to criticize the government. The third is the accountability of elected officials. The fourth is civil and political rights, being able to run for key state offices, free assembly, conscience, privacy, expression, and ability to criticize the government. The last point that makes up a democracy is a political system that contains a judiciary independent of executive and legislative powers. By reviewing how each of these exists in the state of Iran, we will conclude whether or not it’s a new form of democracy.

Our first issue is that of election of the highest officials. Within the Islamic public there is an elected leader, the President, yet he yields power to an even greater leader cleverly called, the Leader. This Leader contains ruling power than spans control of all three branches of government, as well as the presidential candidacy itself. This is where we first run into a terrible problem: The Leader isn’t elected by the people. The Leader is elected by an Assembly of Experts, who are partially elected by the people.  Khomeini’s doctrine of jurist’s guardianship basically put the government and all it’s officials in the hands and will of the Leader. On top of this, the Leader chooses the candidates for the presidency, Majles, preachers (Imams), director of television-radio network, heads of the Foundation of Oppressed, and other key positions. It is this control over presidential candidates, elected officials, and the lack of direct election of the Leader that fails our first look at Iranian ‘democracy’.  

Our second democratic issue was the existence of political parties who are free to organize, present candidates for office, compete in elections, and criticize the government. Now in theory Iran has the right to organize and express, but once again the powers of the Leader get in the way. The Leader, as well as his Expediency Council, can deem whether political parties and candidates are “Islamic” enough, and ban parties and candidates they find unacceptable. To start, Iran has banned parties such as The Liberation Movement, The National Front, The Mojahedin, The Fedayin, and the Tudeh, all because they were a threat to the ‘Islamic’ nature of Iran (Kesselman 610). We’ll see this ‘un-Islamic’ issue popping up a lot in the clerical controlled government. In addition the “June 2005 presidential election was undermined by the Council of Guardians’ rejection of all but 8 of the 1,014 candidates who registered to run.” (Freedom House 1). The cleric-controlled government has a history of banning rival candidates and the Leader’s ultimate power to reject candidates infringes on the democratic right to organize into political parties and run for positions, which is key to any and every democracy.

            Our third democratic issue is the accountability of high-ranking officials. We once again, run into the same problem: The Leader. Since he is partially and indirectly elected by the people, we cannot truly say he’s accountable to them. He works as a representation of the ‘12th imam’ in the state, and is accountable really only to God. This is troublesome, since this Leader is basically in control of the entire government. His power to reject and appoint candidates for nearly all Judicial, Legislative, and Executive positions puts the choosing over a list of the Leader’s favorites. It’s a lose-lose situation, since it completely chokes out the opposition by easily branding them ‘un-Islamic’. The only real check and balance we have here is that the Assembly of Experts elects the Leader, but in turn they’re all clerics. As former president Rafsanjani’s daughter, Ms. Hashemi said: “When there are only clerics on the Assembly of Experts, that means that leadership belongs only to the clerics,” (Jehl 1). Once again, who are the clerics really accountable to? The Leader and Allah.

            The fourth democratic idea here is civil and political rights. Here’s another area where Iran severely lacks in. In theory, Iranian citizens are protected and allowed to worship, collect, and are given free speech. Yet Iran still carries out death sentences to apostates (250 Baha’is, 400 Atheist [Kesselman 592]), and others who convert out of Islam. It also openly states that the value of Muslim men is greater than women, and non-Muslims. This is seen in Muslim men’s evidence being worth twice as much as women’s. Shari’a law allows Retribution Law, which can result in death penalties for gays, stoning for adulterers, live burials, and finger amputations. Also, expression is all limited in terms of what is ‘appropriate’. Even the Internet is censored, as “Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, announced that “anyone who disseminates information aimed at disturbing the public mind through computer systems” would be jailed.” (Freedom House 1). The “conservative-controlled judiciary closed more than 100 reformist newspapers and jailed hundreds of liberal journalists and activists”, all on grounds of people being ‘un-Islamic’ (Freedom House 1). In addition, the existence of a Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that “must approve publication of all books and inspects foreign books prior to domestic distribution.” (Freedom House 1) cripples un-Islamic speech.  These efforts have lead to the rating of a six in political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House, and the title of the country being ‘not free’ (Freedom House 1).

            Our last democratic idea is a judiciary separate of the executive and legislative branch. Like the rest of the government, the judiciary is Islamized. It contains an appeals system, and a state court hierarchy, but the state has the power to appoint and dismiss all judges.  Judges have been dismissed to seminary-educated men, which only empower the clerical regime and not the people. The clergy run courts seem to be more in favor of protecting law and Islam than those rights of the people.

            Democracy is based partly on the two principles that all individuals are equal and that people have inalienable natural rights (Kesselman 592).  In comparing our five democratic ideas, we find Iran failing these two principles and our litmus test, which leads us to conclude that Iran is a Theocracy in ‘Sort of Democratic’ clothing. (Amir 1).

 Works Cited Below


Works Cited


Amir, Taheri.  “Iran: A “Sort Of” Democracy.”  National Post.  13 January 2004. 

10 April 2007 <>.

Freedom House.  “Iran Ranking.”  2006 Edition.   8April 2007


Goenaga, Leonard.  Interview with Hani Mohamed.  Interview with

an Iranian Youth. Miami, FL. 4 Apr. 2007. 

Jehl. Douglas  “ Issue in Iran Democracy Debate: Clerics’ Power.”  Cornell Library

             15 October 1998.  8 April 2007


Kesselman, Mark and Krieger, Joel. Introduction to

Comparative Politics. Boston:    Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.


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