Country Profile


Situation Report

A regime of contradictions and paradoxes, Iran's deeply ideological and religious revolutionary framework sits alongside pragmatic political self-interest, with tensions between popular and theocratic sovereignty permeating the country's recent history, writes Charlie Gammell.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, a unique case study in the evolution of Shia Islamic political ideas, is a theocratic, democratic state brought into being by a broad based revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini's controversial politico-religious philosophy of velayat-e faqih (governance of the jurist). It is a regime of contradictions and paradoxes, with its front of radical Islamism and revolutionary tendencies belying a deeply pragmatic streak of political self-interest; One instance among many illustrating Iranian political and diplomatic pragmatism can be seen in Iran's comparative silence on the issue of Russian persecution of Chechen Islamist separatist fighters; maintaining the regime's good standing with Moscow is of more importance than showing any visible concern for their co-religionists in Chechnya. a state ostensibly governed by immutable laws of Sharia and a Supreme Leader, but a largely democratic republic in which elections can throw up surprise results at the ballot box, as seen in the 1997 victory of moderate reformist, President Khatami.

Two major themes have dominated Iran's political development over the last century: relations with the world and the region, and inherent tensions between popular and theocratic sovereignty. These two themes currently manifest themselves in internal debate on the constitutional evolution of the Islamic Republic, especially with the possibility of Iran needing to find a suitable candidate to replace Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the event of his death, and in Iran's foreign policy in the region, with regards to conflict in Iraq and Syria.  In this respect, Iran's attitude to Iraq echoes Pakistan's desire to marshall the chaos in Afghanistan through the use of proxies. However, whereas Pakistan's proxies are, largely, without the government, Iran has been directly influencing Baghdad since the election of Nouri al-Maliki in 2006. The former reveals a regime with more flexibility than might initially appear, and the latter reveals the deep entrenchment of sectarian divisions in the region. Issues of nuclear tensions and Iran's relations with the West can be understood through the prism of these two major themes at home and abroad.

Context of Politico-Religious Revolution

Iran's first revolution was in 1906, the Constitutional Revolution, which aimed to bring Iranian political realities in line with the ideology of European democracy and political values, and in doing so strengthen Iran against the predatory imperialism of Britain and Russia. It was simultaneously a more prosaic uprising against injustice and the incompetence of a weak and declining Qajar monarchy. The aim of the revolutionaries was to create a constitution, or laws, that would check the ability of the Qajar monarchy to rule unjustly. Broad aims, cached in strident but unspecific anti-regime sentiments, lead to a burgeoning political consciousness throughout the country, and the creation of anjomans, or collectives, to represent workers' and women's rights. However, this revolution, supported by the ulema (religious scholars, who later came to regret this liberal encroachment into their conservative sphere), Prominent among those who later came to regret their support for constitutional ideas was Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri, who had supported the protests of 1905-6, but who saw in Constitutionalism a danger to the primacy of the ulema in matters of society, education and authority. He railed against rights for minorities such as Jews, Baha'is and Zoroastrians, and eventually ended up siding with the monarch against the revolutionaries. He is something of a hero for the Iran's current leadership. in large part failed to reconcile the mosque versus state tensions that still exist to this day in Iran. Moreover, with Great Power interference hampering political development during the revolutionary years (1905-11), the pattern of internal political (ideological and institutional) development being inextricably linked to an antipathy to foreign interference was begun in earnest. For a masterful treatment of the causes of 1906 Constitutional Revolution, see Ervand Abrahamian, 'The Causes of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran,' International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 10, no. 3 August 1979, pp. 381-414. 

The mid-20th century saw the emergence in Iran of a distinct form of nationalism.

The mid-20th century saw the emergence in Iran of a distinct form of nationalism, under Mohammad Mossadeq, whose aim externally was to free Iran from Great Power control, and who domestically sought a liberal democracy with a limited monarchy under parliamentary scrutiny. For an excellent account of the life and times of Mossadeq, see Christopher de Bellaigue, Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup, London: The Bodley Head, 2012. However, despite Mossadeq's popularity within certain sections of Iranian society (as a largely secular politician, he was no friend of ulema figures), he would fall victim to the vicissitudes of Cold War politics. In the summer of August 1953 the United States was becoming suspicious of Mossadeq's populism, his vitriolic attacks on the Shah, and his close relationship with the leftist Tudeh Party, confusing it with a lurch to the left. Accordingly, a CIA and MI6 coup was engineered to remove Mossadeq, with the help of various royalist military figures and bands of paid thugs, which eventually returned Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to a position of authority. For a discussion of this controversial moment in Iran's history, see The lines between the development of a coherent internal political identity and ideology, and Iran's place in the world had again crossed, becoming inextricably linked and confused in the process. This event has cast a shadow over Iran's relations with the West ever since, despite many of the ulema having either benefited from or supported Mossadeq's removal.

The Revolutionary State

Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979 was a nation-wide movement of opposition to the brutality and incompetence of the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi regime, its overly-close relations with Western powers, and its inability to direct Iran's vast oil wealth to benefit the Iranian people. In many respects, Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979 was a re-interpretation of themes which dominated the 1906 revolution; how to incorporate Western ideas within distinctly Iranian political and philosophical traditions and how to ensure rights for minorities within Iran whilst also finding a place for Iran in a changing world? Whereas 1906, ultimately, tended to move towards an approach which sought to embrace Western political thought, or Iranian interpretations of Western political thought, 1979, and the regime to which it gave birth, was very much a conscious rejection of many Western influences and relations, albeit within a revolutionary framework: Islamic, Shia heritage dominated much of the anti-imperial and anti-western ideological narrative of 1979. Much like the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, this movement was an alliance of bazaar, clergy, and middle classes, an alliance united by the ulema's ability to marshal and direct opposition. The multi-hued strands of opposition to Pahlavi repression united behind the towering figure of Ayatollah Khomeini and a clique of lay Shia political agitators such as Ali Shariati and Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, whose mixture of themes of anti-imperialism, social justice and revolutionary ideology with Iranian and Shia symbols of resistance and opposition created a powerful revolutionary discourse. In February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after exile in Iraq and Paris; his binary revolutionary slogan of 'The Shah must go' was stark and effective, reflecting the call of the intelligentsia in Iran's 1906 revolution that the only alternative to Qajar despotism and corruption was to be found in the largely secular notion of Qanun, law.

Political Structures

The central pillar of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the politico-religious doctrine of velayat-e faqih, a doctrine formulated by Ayatollah Khomenei during his time in exile and in response to what he perceived to be the threats to Iran's Shia heritage from the Shah's westernisation of the country. For a translation of Khomenei's text which first laid out these ideas, see  Velayat-e faqih, enshrined in the constitution, Article 5 stipulates that, in the absence of the Hidden Imam, the leadership of the Shia community should be entrusted to a 'just and pious jurist aware of the circumstances of his time.' envisions an active political role for the ulema in the affairs of state, in which political and religious duties are combined in the form of the rahbar, the 'Supreme Leader,' a figure first manifested by Ayatollah Khomeini himself. However at the time of the revolution and in its immediate aftermath these ideas were played down so as not to scare off the more liberal minded elements of the anti-Shah revolutionaries. In a strange mirroring of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 in which many of the ulema were unsure as to the true meaning of the Western-oriented ideas of Qanun and representation, so the liberals in the 1979 revolution underestimated the power of the Islamic ideology which gave Khomeini his authority and popular appeal. With the Iran-Iraq War, the Salman Rushdie affair and the US Embassy hostage crisis, Khomeini managed to secure the Islamisation of the revolution, wresting control from more liberal elements of the revolution, men such as Mehdi Bazargan, Iran's first post-Pahlavi prime minister. According to the doctrine, the rahbar should act justly and in accordance with the Sharia, and should take direct involvement in political affairs of state, notions which were anathema to traditionally quietist notions of political engagement in Shia Islam. Khomeini had become concerned at the pollution of religious ideals within Iran, and in his work Islamic Government, he laid out the ideas that would form the backbone of Iran's Islamic Republic.

The central pillar of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the politico-religious doctrine of velayat-e faqih.

Monarchy was condemned under the argument that Islam knows neither monarchy nor dynastic succession. All that was needed for life, declared Khomeini, was the Quran and the Sunnah in which can be found cures for the ills of contemporary society. Khomeini saw Islam in danger of being corrupted by the advance of Western ideals into the private sphere; he saw Islam as having the ultimate task of purifying Iranian society from the advance of secularism and Western ideas. Iran would be strong again (regionally and internally) if it simply embraced its Shia Islamic heritage. Khomeini was not the only Iranian thinker during this period to challenge Western supremacy in the sphere of political ideology; men such as the sociologist and revolutionary Ali Shariati and left-leaning ideologue Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, whose stinging critique of the West resonated with many who saw Iran's Shia and national identity jeopardized by the West, appealed to a youthful audience, but also went to the heart of Iran's political development as a nation. Shariati saw Shia Islam as having a dynamic role to play in the future of Iran, and saw justice as the centerpiece of that theory, a simplistic take on solving Iran's political and social ills reminiscent of the constitutionalists faith in the power of 'Law', qanun. Khomeini's desire for the ulema to play a greater role in political life found echoes in the thought of lay Shia thinkers such as Mehdi Bazargan, Iran's first post-Pahlavi Prime Minister, which criticised clerical traditionalists for their immersion in theoretical theology, and their focus on minor points of faith in the face of so much injustice in the world. Islam, Bazargan said, is modern and dynamic and practical, and in no way incompatible with the world of politics or revolution. Religion must set the aims of politics; the means are a human problem.

However, velayat-e faqih does not receive broad theological acceptance amongst Shia ulema. Clerical opposition to the regime has existed, in some part, since the revolution's inception, and even before, as numerous Islamic scholars, both within and without Iran, reacted against Khomeini's abrogation of traditional notions of political quietism in Shia politico-religious philosophy. Although the Iranian Shia ulema have traditionally played a role in political mobilisation and the forming and expression of dissent, Such episodes include Iran's 1906 Constitutional Revolution in which clerical support for the constitutionalists, even if they were unsure as to what exactly constitutionalism was, was crucial in mobilising support and appealing to the masses. Even 1979 provided an excellent example of the ulema's ability to unite different oppositional factions – Marxists, Communists and middle classes – behind Islamic and revolutionary slogans. their default political setting is one of quietism, preferring to remain distinct from the political process. Khomeini found validation for velayat-e faqih in the juristic tradition that saw the ulema as the one remaining rightful authority in the absence of the Hidden Imam. But, whereas according to classical Shiism the ulema's authority was confined to matters of the Sharia, Khomeini drew upon traditions within the Shia canon, as well as on previous, principally 19th century interpretations for those traditions, suggesting the ulema and a faqih (jurist) might exercise executive power in place of the rightful ruler, the absent 12th Imam.

The list of notable dissenting clerics to the politicisation of Shia Islam is a long and distinguished, if occasionally silenced one.

This ruling came from a delegation from the 6th Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, and is conferred on the ulema because of their knowledge of Shia traditions. Initially this theory of the general delegation (niyabat-i 'amm), which evolved first in the 10th and 11th centuries, referred only to juridical authority: the executive functions of the Imams were considered lapsed during the 12th Imam's ongoing occultation. Khomeini's appropriation of executive power was an encroachment into divine territory; this angered many leading ayatollahs. The list of notable dissenting clerics to the politicisation of Shia Islam is a long and distinguished, if occasionally silenced one. Since the time of the revolution, leading clerics, men such as Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Kho'i and his successor Grand Ayatollah Sistani, denied this philosophy any theological legitimacy, seeing the doctrine as a misinterpretation of Islam. Sistani's website can be found here,  Within Iran, opposition to velayat-e faqih has focused largely on its institutional and political aspects.

Ayatollah Hossein Boroujerdi, a leading Iranian cleric, has consistently denounced the validity of velayat-e faqih as a perversion of the ulema's true role in Iranian society. Religion, Boroujerdi argues, has become tainted with political involvement: an indirect echo of Khomeini's own attempts to purify the religious sphere through the introduction of velayat-e faqih, and a direct echo of Iran's major theme of the place of religion, and the ulema, in political life. For an in-depth look at the crisis of 'religious legitimacy' in Iran, and in particular at the shaky foundations on which Ayatollah Khameini's claims to political and religious legitimacy are based, see Roy, O., "The Crisis of Religious Legitimacy in Iran", in Middle East Journal, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Spring, 1999) pp. 201-16. 

The incorporation of religious duties into the state apparatus runs the risk of alienating the ulema, and of damaging the fabric of religious observance as a private pursuit. The 'statisation' of religion, as it becomes subsumed to political concerns, endangers the positive role in Iranian society of the traditionally flexible, dissenting and independent-minded ulema. Simultaneously the institutionalisation of a previously decentralised and independent body of clerics is a source of ideological concern for the regime. As Khamenei becomes increasingly involved in political affairs, and as the religious elite resembles more and more a ruling class, this danger intensifies. An example of state control of religion, is the outlawing of bast, a traditional Iranian medium for protest in which refuge can be legally sought in certain official buildings. In a sense, Khomeini's determination to impose Shia Islam as the dogma of the state is undermined by traditions of that same Shia faith. Much clerical opposition towards the current regime also stems from the supposed theological inadequacies of Ayatollah Khamenei, a man who did not meet the required standards of theological excellence required by the Islamic Republic's original constitution. The constitution was duly altered to remove the requirement of marja'iyat (expertise as an jurist) and laid special emphasis on political and management requirements for the position of Rahbar. In 1994, his election to the position of a Grand Ayatollah saw four of Iran's Grand Ayatollahs refuse to recognise this elevation in clerical rank. Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, in 1997, questioned the Rahbar's credentials, religious and political, and was punished with the closure of his seminary in Qom, attacks on his offices, and a prolonged period of house arrest.

State Ideology

Themes of revolution, anti-colonialism, and 'opposition' to foreign interference inform the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a study on the press of the early days of the Islamic Republic, it was established that more column inches were devoted to coverage of organisations such as the Italian Red Brigades and the Baader Meinhorf Gang, than to coverage of Islamic resistance movements of the time: Afghanistan's Mujahedeen and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. See, Fischer, M. D., Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, University of Wisconsin Press, 1980. Constitutionally, the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is inextricably linked to a foreign policy of fiercely guarded independence. Article 152 of the Constitution states that 'non-alignment with hegemonic superpowers' is a fundamental cornerstone of Iran's foreign policy.  Theocracy sits alongside Iran's place as regional hegemon; Article 3 of the constitution includes as one of the goals of the Islamic Republic of Iran, "The elimination of imperialism and foreign influence." Simultaneously, the constitution largely follows traditional Western political systems in that universal suffrage, separation of powers and rule of law have a nominal place. Theocratic and popular sovereignty coexist in an uneasy tension, as seen in Articles 1, 2, and 6. While articles 1 and 2 place sovereignty in God, article 6 mandates elections for the office of the presidency and the majles, or parliament.

The Guardian Council is easily the most influential and powerful body in the Islamic Republic.

At the head of Iran's political system sits the Supreme Leader, the rahbar, whose responsibilities range from appointing the head of the judiciary, to positions in the armed forces. The rahbar, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is elected by the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 clerics with responsibility for overseeing the office of the Supreme Leader. They, in turn, are elected by the Guardian Council, a part of the legislature, which is staffed by six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six jurists elected by the majles (parliament) from among the jurists nominated by the head of the judiciary. The Guardian Council is easily the most influential and powerful body in the Islamic Republic.

The current head of the Guardian Council is the hardline cleric Ahmad Janati whose pronouncements on Israel and America, given his influence, do not bode well for President Rouhani's aims for better relations with the West. An example of his stridently anti-Western and anti-Israel position can be seen here, The Guardian Council vets potential candidates for electoral posts, thus putting certain limits on genuine popular sovereignty. Similarly, the lawmakers in Iran's majles – elected by the public for four-year terms – have to pass potential legislation by the Guardian Council to ensure Sharia compliance. Iran's constitution, in theory, allows for dissent within an Islamic framework, and permits the emergence of internal factions, but any real legislative flexibility is hampered by executive and legislative control wielded by conservative elites, ensuring that it is entirely possible to frustrate an opposition that seeks to reform the political framework from within. This was the fate of the reformist president Sayyed Mohammad Khatami, whose attempts to push through a legislative and foreign policy agenda of reform were rebutted by the Guardian Council. The fear that this will fate will befall Rouhani is not a remote one.

Religion as Regional Foreign Policy

The anti-imperialist and anti-Western rhetoric of 1979, and the regime to which it gave birth, led to Iran's effective isolation on the world stage. The storming of the US embassy in November 1979 by Islamist students loyal to the group 'Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line,' and the subsequent hostage crisis in which 66 US diplomats and embassy staff were held for 444 days irreparably damaged US-Iranian relations. As if to further this sense of isolation, Iran was dragged into the longest running conventional war of the 20th century when it was attacked by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in September 1980, beginning a war that lasted until August 1988. For an excellent account of the Iran-Iraq war and its consequences, see Michael Axworthy, Revolutionary Iran, pp. 187-323. 

Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers, had a profound impact on Iran's psyche.

Iran's pretensions to regional Islamic revolution threatened Saddam Hussein's control of Iraq's sizeable Shia population. Hussein's aspirations to regional supremacy were perceived to have been strengthened in the face of a supposedly chaotic and weak post-revolutionary Iran; he thus invaded Iran via air and land on 22 September 1980. The conflict, and Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers, had a profound impact on Iran's psyche, deepening its suspicion of Western powers, many of which supplied Saddam with arms and publicly backed the Baathist dictator. This convinced the Iranian government of the need to control, or at least profoundly influence, the regime in Baghdad. Iran's emergence from the conflict – an effective stalemate in which Iran failed to capture Iraqi territory, or topple Saddam Hussein, and Iraq failed to annex the contested territories on the east bank of the Shatt al-Arab River – was neither victorious nor triumphant. This fed a sense of international victimhood and entrenched the victory of Islamist hardline tendencies in the Islamic Republic. The UN Security Council Resolution that brought the conflict to an end, Resolution 598, albeit after initially being rejected by both sides, was referred to by Ayatollah Khomeini as 'drinking a poisoned chalice.'

The years after Iran's exit from the war saw the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the accession to the office of rahbar of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, previously Iran's wartime prime minster. Along with the Iran-Iraq war, the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989 is seen as a key turning point in Iran's relations with the outside world, leading to further condemnation and isolation, as Islamism became a tool of foreign policy. Rushdie's book Midnight's Children was deemed to be blasphemous by Khomeini, and a fatwa was issued in which Muslims were encouraged to kill the author. A bounty put on Salman Rushdie's head. Khamenei criticized the bounty and suggested that were Rushdie to repent, he should be forgiven, but he was slapped down by Khomeini. On 28th February, the Majles passed a bill breaking off diplomatic relations with Britain, and it was only in 1998 that diplomatic relations reopened with any significance. Similarly, the reform of the constitution to move from velayat-e faqih to velayat-e motlaq (Absolute Guardianship), to facilitate Khamenei's accession, who was not qualified under the original criteria to ascend to the office of rahbar, had shifted religion onto a more overtly political footing: now totally subordinated to the requirements of power. Alongside this strikingly pragmatic initiative was the election of Hashemi Rafsanjani to the presidency in July 1989.

Iran had emerged from the Iran-Iraq War with little to show for its efforts, save an image of itself as an independent nation capable of withstanding huge hardships and able to stand on its own in the region, a feat that was the cause of much pride within Iran. It was the task of Iran's new rahbar and Hashemi Rafsanjani to bring about the country's reconstruction after years of conflict. Rafsanjani is a shrewd political operator who favoured economic reform and investment in Iran's economy to kick-start its ailing post-war economy; a pragmatist in Iran's political landscape. In 1989 he was enormously powerful, effectively playing king-maker to Khamenei when the latter became rahbar, and bringing in ambitious plans for a more efficient and less state-run Iranian economy. Rafsanjani's policy of attempting to attract greater investment into Iran – in particular its petrochemical and oil industries – rarely achieved what he had hoped for, blocked by vested anti-US and isolationist interests within Iran's conservative elites. Rafsanjani's second term (1993-1997) saw a currency crisis and criticisms from the parliament of failures to bring investment to the war-affected regions of Iran. Iran was heavily sanctioned during this period (especially through the 1996 Iran/Libya Sanctions Act which affected US investments) and highly criticised for its human rights record at home. Iran's involvement in various assassinations, most notably that of former Pahlavi prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar, and suicide attacks on US targets hampered Rafsanjani's image of an Iran open for business and investment.

In 1997 Rafsanjani's presidency came to an end with the victory of the reformist cleric, Mohammad Khatami, a man who, like Rafsanjani, sought to open Iran to the world via his policy of 'Dialogue of Civilisations,' from which he hoped Iran would be welcomed back into the international community. The reformist camp was well-supported, especially after the years of political repression and the notorious 'chain-gang' murders of the early 1990s. Its victory in the parliamentary elections of 2000 marked its apex: both legislative and executive powers were now held by reformists. However, the reformists were plagued (as many now fear to be the case with President Rouhani) by a lack of tangible influence on the coercive levers of power; whilst Khatami could boast great popular support, the fact that the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader were against him, as well as sections of state-aligned ulema, meant that he was only ever able to achieve a fraction of what his reformist constituency had hoped. Frustration inevitably turned to disillusionment for the reformists' supporters, and eventually this frustration made itself known as an apathetic Iranian public voted in conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005.

Ahmadinejad demonstrated his political will and determination to advance his confrontational agenda at home and abroad.

Whilst the reformists had argued that the Iran-Iraq War interrupted Iran's development towards the goals outlined in the pre-1979 days, the conservatives saw this period as a Golden Age of glorious sacrifice. For an excellent treatment of this phase of Iran's recent history, see Ansari, Iran Under Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad's presidency epitomised a confrontational Islamic Republic, a conscious throwback to the years of revolution and war when the good opinion of the world mattered less than Iran's independence and self-sufficiency. By the autumn of 2006, Ahmadinejad had demonstrated his political will and determination to advance his confrontational agenda at home and abroad. He was secure at home and could afford to gloat abroad. Many diaspora Iranians respected his refusal to be cowed on the international stage, and confrontation abroad strengthened Ahmadinejad at home. He was also helped by oil prices: Ahmadinejad had entered office with oil at 60 US dollars a barrel, in contrast to Khatami's time – 10 US dollars a barrel. Whilst Khatami was seen to have wasted electoral goodwill, Ahmadinejad wasted hard currency on wasteful social welfare projects aimed at buying support, and this profligacy and economic mismanagement, along with his increasing obsession with the imminent arrival of the 12th Imam from a well in south Tehran, angered erstwhile conservative supporters and voters alike. His administration saw the hardline factions split, particularly after the contested 2009 presidential election and the suppression that followed in its wake, and internal divisions emerge between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei. When Ahmadinejad's years in office came to an end in 2013 with the victory of current president Hassan Rouhani, it seemed that the pendulum had swung again away from the isolationism and hardline conservatism of the previous years. It must be noted that whilst Rouhani is seen as in the West as a more reform-minded figure, in the mould of former-president Khatami, he is a member of the Combatant Clergy Association, a grouping of politicised right-wing clerics.

Key Players: The Revolutionary Guards

If the regime's ideological bases are velayat-e faqih and the rahbar, and its legal essence is a democratic constitution, it all relies, at home and abroad, for protection and power on its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). This institution was established to guard the revolution's achievements, as per Article 150 of the constitution, and the existence of the Islamic Republic. The Guards, roughly 125,000 strong, contains naval, ground and air forces; it takes the lead in the protection of Iran's Persian Gulf whilst also effectively showing the way for Iran's regional and global foreign policies. The IRGC is a mixture of military might and ideological zeal, and now, enormous economic and political influence and power.

The overseas division of the IRGC, the clandestine paramilitary Quds Force, acts as the strong arm of Iran's foreign policy, training Shia militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as having a hand in the Afghanistan conflict. The Quds Force was a key player in setting up the Lebanese Shia resistance movement, Hizbullah, in the 1980s and was designated a terrorist organisation by the US in 2007, ostensibly for its assistance to the United States' enemies in the region. Suleimani called upon Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah leader, to send in Hizbullah fighters to assist in the defence of the key Syrian town of Qusayr in 2013. Now, however, given the convergence of interests in the region, it is likely that American and Quds personnel will have to cooperate in fighting ISIS. Recently, CIA Director John Brennan hinted that the convergence of US-Iran interests might lead to limited cooperation betweenthe two nations on the issue of combatting ISIS in Iraq.

Perhaps the most important man in Iran's foreign policy apparatus is the head of the Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani, a veteran from the Iran-Iraq War and a man who has directed Iran's foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria since 1998. See also, Suleimani effectively runs Iran's fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and helps the Assad regime in Damascus to stay afloat. He was crucial in engineering ceasefires between Shia militias and the Iraqi government at the most violent stages of the recent war in Iraq. His role in Afghanistan was often thought to involve assisting the Afghan Taliban in its fight against the Karzai administration and international troops.

Suleimani effectively runs Iran's fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and helps the Assad regime in Damascus.

However, his influence is not solely confined to foreign policy. Suleimani has played an active part in Iran's internal political evolution since the late 1990s, ensuring that the revolution is not threatened from within or without and has shown his hand as an anti-reformist hardline sympathiser. In July 1999 Iran experienced a wave of student-led civil unrest and protests against the Islamic Republic, with calls for a separation of mosque and state and greater freedom of the press. (President Rouhani was among those who condemned the protestors as 'enemies of God.') Suleimani was one of a number of Guardsmen who wrote to President Khatami threatening a military coup if the president did not curb or withdraw his reformist policies. The two major themes of internal religio-political legitimacy and foreign policy are rarely far from the surface.

The IRGC is, for the time being, entirely loyal to the Supreme Leader, the man to whom the Guardsmen swear an oath of allegiance, and who represents the soul of the revolution, the essence of Iran's Islamic Republic. Blood shed in wars against Iraq, and the bitter internal feud with the now outlawed opposition group, the Mujahedeen el-Khalq, demonstrated the Guards' clear loyalty to the regime and to the Supreme Leader; Suleimani's own actions display a steadfast commitment to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, not personal ambition. However, it is plausible that the Quds' disruption of elections and strong presence in media, business and political circles is being conducted to the end of appointing their man as Supreme Leader. Some have suggested that the Guards wish to oust clerics from positions of real power and influence, and see for themselves a role in Iranian society and politics similar to Egypt's army, Pakistan's ISI, or Turkey's military elites, with religious figures acting as symbolic leaders of Iran. It is certain they will emerge as king-makers in the coming years, and any major change, be it constitutional or merely political, would have to be approved by the organisation. Recent endorsement of the nuclear deal in Lausanne by senior IRGC figures can, accordingly, be taken as a positive sign for the potential success of this deal.

Another major political operator since the Revolution has been Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's richest man and a figure who has occupied the posts of Friday Prayer Leader, President, Interior Minister, and who currently sits on the Assembly of Experts. He has a strong relationship with Iran's mercantile communities, and his efforts at rebuilding Iran after the conflict with Iraq manifested his belief in a pragmatic approach to politics and economics in which revolutionary principles are maintained alongside a vision of Iran connected with the world and open for business. He has occupied a middle-ground in Iranian politics, occasionally siding with reformists, such as Khatami, and at other times very much sitting in the conservative camp, most notably with regards to his alleged involvement in assassinations of dissident Iranians abroad in the 1990s. Rafsanjani's current political influence is unclear, as his miscalculation in the recent elections to the Assembly of Experts indicated a loss of influence amongst Iran's hardliners, many of whom are highly critical of his stance on welcoming détente with the US.

Key Players: The Green Movement

If the IRGC, alongside Iran's hardline politicised clerical establishment, represent political orthodoxy within the Islamic Republic, Iran's Green Movement can be said to represent an opposition element, along with silenced clerics. An excellent account of religious tensions and themes in Iran can be head at Debates surrounding the imprisonment of its leading dissidents continue to divide the regime, exposing historical fault lines in the Islamic Republic that date back to early left-right splits from the Iran-Iraq war era. Only in November 2014 for example was Mir Hossein Mousavi, the movement's nominal leader, deemed mohareb, an enemy of God, and accused by conservative clerical and political figures of attempting to topple the regime.

The Green Movement came into being in the run-up to 2009's presidential elections. It was largely mobilised through the widespread use of social media as a large section of Iran's middle-classes, previously supportive of former-president Mohammad Khatami's Second Khordad Movement (in reference to the date on which Khatami came to power in 1997), transferred their support to Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and close confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini. These disputed elections, ostensibly won by Ahmadinejad, were the trigger for the largest demonstrations seen in Iran since 1979, and gave vent to the anger and frustration felt by reformist circles, effectively neutered since the early 2000s.

Protests, ostensibly using the slogan 'Where is my vote?', provided a simple oppositional message to the regime, and a message that was neither revolutionary nor violent; protestors sought to demonstrate within the confines of accepted normative political and religious boundaries and did not challenge the legitimacy of the regime per se. The movement has support from a wide range of exiled dissidents from both political and clerical backgrounds, many of whom have their roots both in the revolution of 1979, and the reformist movement of the 1990s. Sayeed Hajarian, a former intelligence official, revolutionary stalwart and key figure in the Khatami administration, was himself gunned down and crippled by suspected allies of the hardline Principalist, or Osulgaran, movement in March 2000. Continued support for the release of former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and former Speaker of the majles, Mehdi Karroubi, comes from within the clerical establishment – men such as majles Deputy Speaker Ali Motahhari are pushing for their release; clearly the Green Movement is still an issue of concern within Iran. President Rouhani promised their release as part of his election campaign so as to appeal to the reformist bloc which they still represent. Khamenei and conservative figures fear the Green Movement once again providing a grouping around which dissent, or fetna (sedition) can coalesce in the March 2016 majles elections.

From the outset, the Green Movement sought to portray itself as inheritors of Iran's ideological struggle to establish sovereignty, i.e. constructive independence from foreign interference while not sacrificing Iran's preeminent position as a regional hegemon, and to reform political institutions so as to guarantee rights and justice for the people of Iran. The text of the Green Movement Charter can be found here, The Green Movement attempts to speak for Iran as nationalists and yet through progressive Islamic political reform. Its charter declares that 'We are all Iranians, and Iran belongs to all of us,' a clear nod toward a more pluralistic and communitarian notion of Iranian nationalism that respects the rights of minority groups in Iranian society: Arabs, Turks, Bahais, and Jews in particular.

No recognition has been given to Sunni Muslims, and they are excluded from high office and not allowed to build mosques.

With the coming of the Islamic Republic, state ideology changed from the Pahlavi stress on the Iranian nation and its Persian language to an emphasis on Iranian Shiism with, in theory, less discrimination against non-Farsi-speakers. The constitution permits the use of local languages, but no recognition has been given to Sunni Muslims, approximately 17 per cent of Iranians. Sunnis are accordingly excluded from high office and not allowed to build mosques. Sunni Arabs in Iran have been linked to the terrorist organisation, Jundullah, which has been responsible for a spate of deadly attacks on mosques and government offices in the last 10 years and which the Iranian government suspects of receiving funds from the US government. Sunni Baluchis are especially impoverished, and Iran's southeast suffers from instability because of the smuggling of drugs from Afghanistan into Iran along a porous and highly volatile border region. Iran's struggles with drugs are costing it greatly in terms of government resources and the effect it is having on Iran's large youth demographic. For an in depth report on Iran's drug problems, old and new, see Sunni-Shia tensions look set to increase with the region's larger sectarian conflagrations inevitably spilling back into Iran.

Iran’s Regional Role

The fundamental regional lines of conflict and alliance stem from Iran's rivalry with Saudi Arabia, over which is the major global Islamic power. For the best overall account of the Shia-Sunni divide see Vali Nasr's excellent account, Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. See also, Iran had traditionally been able to straddle a sectarian divide through its support for anti-Israel and anti-US proxies – Hamas and the Taliban in particular. This might prove to be a more difficult proposition to sustain, given the deepening sectarian hue to regional conflict. Today, Iran is fighting on multiple fronts: in Yemen it is giving financial and logistical assistance to the Shia Houthi militias against loyalists to the internationally-recognised president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his Saudi Arabian backers; in Syria it is fighting Sunni extremists of all stripes while propping up the Assad regime in Damascus; and in Iraq it is fighting on the side of the Abadi government against ISIS and its affiliates. It continues to support proxies in Lebanon and Palestine, Hizbullah and Hamas respectively, although Iran's support for those two groups is weakened by preoccupations with fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Iran's advances have fuelled alarm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf as Iran now has a decisive say in the politics of four capitals – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa – an arc of potential opposition encircling Saudi Arabia. For a current snapshot of Iran-Saudi relations, see However, these alliances on a global stage are increasingly fluid, with lines of cooperation often cutting across long-standing enmities; Iran is likely cooperating with the US and Saudi Arabia in the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq, and yet these two blocs compete over Yemen.

Iran's relations with Israel were, in many ways, the defining feature of Ahmadinejad's foreign policy; his comments on the existence of the state of Israel and his openly anti-Israeli rhetoric angered many, and confirmed Iran's international isolation in the eyes of the West. Iran has long fought a war with Israel through its proxies in Palestine and Lebanon, a war that occasionally, as with Iran's role in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 in which 29 were killed and 242 wounded, went beyond the region's borders. The Islamic Republic's antipathy towards Israel is largely an attempt by Tehran to broaden its appeal beyond its Shia heartlands; support for Hizbullah and Hamas and a virulent anti-Israeli stance plays well on the Arab street. However, with Iran's recent support for the Assad regime, and its weakening ability to aid Hizbullah and Hamas, its standing among Arabs of the Middle East is lower than it was in the mid-2000s. Iran's engagement with other world powers is cautiously pragmatic, all the while hedging against US influence in the region. Iran's has turned east, fostering better relations with China as an insurance against alienation from Europe and the US. During the presidency of the pragmatist Rafsanjani, Iran saw the great potential for a railway linking India, Iran, and China – a new Silk Road – as well as a gas pipeline from Europe to the east with Iran as the hub. The Far East acts as a market for Iran's oil products. The Islamic Republic has traditionally had good relations with Russia, as the Western arms embargo of the Iran-Iraq war and beyond drove the two countries together. However, this is very much a relationship of convenience and not based on trust or mutual admiration, with Iran wary of Russia's intentions in the region.

Since 2011, Iran has been active in propping up the Assad regime in Damascus, and fighting Sunni extremist groups there, most overtly ISIS. Syria is Iran's natural Arab ally in the region, an alliance cemented during the Iran-Iraq war when the Baathist Assad regime sided with Iran against Saddam Hussein, and continuing to this day through a shared hostility towards the US and Israel. Damascus assists Tehran by smuggling arms to Hizbullah through Syrian territory. Iran, in turn, spends upwards of 30 billion US dollars a year propping up Bashar al-Assad through a network of Shia militias and conventional military support, An example of a Shia militia supported by Tehran is Liwar Ammar Ibn Yasir, a group whose symbol uses the hand gripping the AK-47 in a conscious echo of the IRGC and Hizbullah insignias. a price it is finding difficult to pay, but one that is key to Iran's regional security aims. Syria is Iran's key Arab ally and without it, despite its influence in Iraq (which is largely confined to Shia areas), Iran would be a much-weakened power. Hence, Tehran's and Suleimani's insistence that Syria be kept in Iran's orbit. Ostensibly, Iranian-backed Shia militias, every bit as variegated as their Sunni counterparts, state their involvement as being in defence of the holy Shia shrines in Syria, and some groups cite loyalty to Ayatollah Khamenei or the Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtadr al-Sadr. For an extremely comprehensive view on Shia Jihadi groups in Syria, and the regional implications of this, see,

Iraq has nine Shia provinces, which are largely funded by Iran.

Given Iran's bloody experiences in the Iran-Iraq war, fighting not just Saddam Hussein but what seemed like a coalition of the world, it is not impossible to understand why, in Iran's strategic thinking, it is Iraq not Israel that is Iran's regional nemesis. Iraq has nine Shia provinces, which are largely funded by Iran, resembling an Iranian protectorate, and sectarian tensions have informed the two nation's relations since 1979 and beyond. It is in this vein that Tehran's attempts to control the Shia government in Baghdad under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and now under Haider al-Abadi must be understood. Tehran's insistence on exclusively propping up a Shia figure, Maliki, at the expense of all other groupings in Iraq (Sunnis and Kurds), may well have been Tehran's greatest foreign policy blunder of the last 15 years. This greatly facilitated the rise of ISIS, a rise Iran is now attempting to check. Iran's involvement in the recent Iraq war was aimed at bogging down the US, a task at which it excelled, but now both sides find themselves seeking similar objectives.

An insight into the type of Iranian-backed militia groups operating in Iraq at the moment can be gained from the death of Wathiq al-Battat, an Iraqi militant, killed in fighting in Diyala Province of Iraq in December 2014, with historic links to Iran and leader of one of Iraq's Shia militias, the Mukhtar Army. Battat had a virulently anti-Sunni agenda and was known to be friendly with Tehran, if not in its pay. In Ya-Lesarat al-Hossein, the weekly publication of Ansar-e Hizbullah, an Iranian semi-official military group known for its loyalty to the revolution and velayat-e faqih, a profile of Battat was published, highlighting his large role in offensive operations inside Iraq. However, whilst Iran is looking to use its network of contacts in Iraq, so is the US, and the latter may well come into conflict with Tehran over the United States' use of Sunni figures and networks leftover from the Anbar Awakening of tribal groups against the insurgency in 2006. Indeed, many Sunni and anti-ISIS groupings would never countenance an alliance with the Shia militias currently operating at Iran's behest around the country no matter their antipathy to ISIS.

Another key element of Iran's West-looking foreign policy is the decade-old and extremely complex nuclear issue. An interesting discussion on this issue, and US policy towards Iran, can be found here, It goes to the heart of Iran's place in the region as an independent and stable hegemon, free from Western or 'imperial' interference. While both Khomeini and Khamenei have issued Islamic judgments, fatawas, on the un-Islamic nature of nuclear weapons, many in the West, and Israel, remain convinced of Iran's desire to achieve nuclear weapons capability. A 2015 deal, reached in Lausanne, which essentially offers Iran much needed sanctions relief in return for limits on the enrichment of uranium and enhanced inspections by the international community, will hopefully begin a period of greater cooperation between the West and Iran on issues both relating to Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology and regional issues, such as the ending of conflicts in Iraq and Syria. The terms of the deal reached in Lausanne follow the below basic provisions: Removal of heavy water reactor at Arak, agreement to application of Additional Protocol and enhanced inspections by the IAEA, cutting installed centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000 with the remainder being given to IAEA and the reduction of stockpiles of Low Enriched Uranium from 8 tonnes to 300 kg. The White House's framework for the deal can be found here,

The deal implicitly envisions a long-term Western approach to Iran by which progress will embolden those such as Rouhani who seek better relations with the West. This is a process diametrically opposed to the previous strangling tactics of sanctions that aimed to weaken the regime, but which in reality only strengthened the hardliners, perpetuating a cycle of mistrust between Iran and the US and Europe without making many substantive gains on nuclear or regional political issues. However, for all the benefits of the deal, President Rouhani responded with some uncharacteristically strident rhetoric, stating, in line with the Supreme Leader, that Iran would not sign the deal unless 'on the first day of the agreement' the entirety of the sanctions were lifted. His response hinted at the questionable utility of sanctions which are difficult to remove; sanctions must be easy to take off if they are to be effectively applied otherwise there is no way of rewarding sanctioned states for behavioural changes. However, Rouhani's announcement did highlight the strength of desire within Iran for sanction relief. One added benefit for the international community, provided the deal is successfully implemented, and early signs suggesting support from the IRGC and Iran's military are promising, Recent pronouncements from the top of the IRGC have indicated that this is a deal will be both supported and respected by that institution. Also Hassan Firouzabadi (Iranian Armed Forces chief of staff) and Ali Larijani (speaker of the parliament) have both backed the deal. would be that the US could find itself in a position to mediate between Sunni and Shia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Islamic Republic is an enduring revolutionary Islamic regime that has withstood internal and foreign crises since its inception: it is the very embodiment of the two themes of popular versus theocratic sovereignty and Iran's regional independence. It now stands at a crossroads, with conservative hardliners struggling to adapt to the new realities in which Iran might have to become friendly with its most bitter foe – the US – and moderates seeking greater engagement and constitutional reform. How these two issues are resolved will determine the Islamic Republic's evolution.

This situation report was published on 22 May 2015.