The Changing Landscape of Party Politics in Iran -- A Case Study
By Abbas William Samii,
M.Phil., Ph.D. (Cantab.)
Source: VASETEH -- THE
JOURNAL OF THE EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR IRANIAN STUDIES, v. 1, n. 1 (Winter
Dr. Samii is the regional
analysis coordinator for Southwest Asia and the Middle East at Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty. Views in this article are his own.
Iran went from being a single-party state under the
monarchy to having close to 100 political parties in the months immediately
following the country's 1979 Islamic revolution.1 As the clerical revolutionary
leadership consolidated its position it went after the more secular of these
parties. The emergence of the Islamic Republic Party (IRP), which was
established just 10 days after the collapse of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's regime,
can be seen in this context -- its main task was to rally supporters of
Velayat-i Faqih (Rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent) in an organization
that had a clerical leadership. The need for this party died out as the
opposition organizations disappeared, and it also suffered from internal
ideological disputes and political competition -- the IRP disbanded in May-June
A few parties continued their activities in the coming years, and
new ones emerged as well. Parties truly took off after President Hojatoleslam
Mohammad Khatami's election in 1997 and his promotion of them. The triumph of a
hardline candidate in the 2005 presidential election, however, is not a sign
that the surge of parties associated with Khatami has come to an end. Indeed,
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is a member of a party -- Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i
Inqilab-i Islami -- that has existed for less than a decade. This paper
examines the emergence of this party and its role in Ahmadinejad's victory. This
serves not only as a case-study on party politics on Iran, but it also provides
insight on the political arrival of Iran's second revolutionary generation and
what the future holds.
The role of parties in the Islamic
The existence of parties is codified in Iranian law.2 Article
26 of the Islamic Republic of Iran's 1979 constitution permits the "formation of
parties, societies, political or professional associations, as well as religious
societies, whether Islamic or pertaining to one of the recognized religious
minorities... provided they do not violate the principles of independence,
freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic
Republic." A Parties Law passed in September 1981 specified what a political
party is and defined the conditions under which it could operate, and it made
the formation of a party dependent on getting a permit from the Interior
Ministry. Article 10 of the Parties Law specified that a commission (the Article
10 Commission) of one Interior Ministry official, two parliamentarians, and two
judiciary representatives would issue party permits and dissolve parties acting
illegally. The Parties Law was not really implemented until late-1988, when the
Interior Ministry submitted to parliamentary pressure, and almost thirty
organizations applied for permits in the following months.
1980s and into the 1990s the main parties were primarily clerical. The
conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i
Mobarez-i Tehran) actually predated the revolution. Members of this
organization who were more reform-oriented created the Militant Clerics
Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez) in 1988. In 1996 the
Executives of Construction (Kargozaran-i Sazandegi) was created to back
then-President Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. This was a significant
development because not only were the group's founders not clerics or
ostentatiously Islamic in character, but it was technocratically-oriented and
Parties came into their own after the May 1997
election of a new president, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, who was an advocate
of their role in civil society, and a House of Parties was established in 2000
to create some sort of legal framework for party activities and to minimize
differences between the parties.3 Yet Iranian officials acknowledge that their
party system is far from perfect.
Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad
Javad Haq-Shenas said when he was secretary of the Article 10 Commission that
although there is party political activity in the country, "the system, as a
whole, is not conducive to political parties."4 A House of Parties was
established in 2000 to create some sort of legal framework for party activities
and to minimize differences between the parties. Mohammad Hassan Ghaffurifard,
head of the Parties House, noted that Iran has more parties than most
democracies, their activities are obscure, and the public has little confidence
in them.5 The Parties House, he added, "does not support the parties whose
activities are insignificant." In meeting with Parties House officials in
late-2004, President Khatami said they must interact more effectively with the
country's political groups.6
More than 100 licensed political
organizations currently exist in Iran, but many of them -- such as the Islamic
Association of Veterinarians -- have no real political role. Moreover,
individuals can be members of several organizations. In elections, furthermore,
the parties do not field candidates. Rather, each party publishes a list of
candidates that it backs. Yet the different parties in a faction rarely back
identical candidates. Political parties in Iran, therefore, are in a very
Origins of the Devotees
Of the more than 100
registered political organizations in Iran, one that is rarely discussed is the
Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami, roughly translated as the Islamic
Revolution Devotees Society and known simply as the Isargaran. Isar is
the Arabic word for altruism and, in the Iranian context, isargaran
(plural of isargar) has fairly specific connotations. "Isargari
technically means giving selflessly and isargar refers to someone who
gives selflessly to a sacred cause, but now it has been adopted for a specific
meaning, namely somebody who has sacrificed in the name of the Islamic
revolution," Iranian scholar Farideh Farhi writes.7 The term is used officially
as a reference to those who have given their own or a loved one's life defending
Given this provenance, the word isargaran is used
frequently in Iran. There is the Party for Defending Devotees and the
Constitution (Hezb-i Defa az Isargaran va Qanun-i Asasi), as well as a
Devotees of Pure Mohammedan Islam (Sazeman-i Isargaran-i Islam-i Nab-i
Mohammadi). In August 2004, the latter group distributed registration forms
for volunteers to defend the sacred shrines in Iraq. An Assembly of Devotees
(Majma-yi Isargaran) existed in the sixth legislature. There also is a
state foundation that provides services to the families of those who gave their
lives in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and to the former prisoners-of-war; it is
called Bonyad-i Shahid va Omur-i Isargaran.
Working As A
Parliamentarian Hussein Fadai, who is from Shahr-i Rey in Tehran,
is secretary-general of the Isargaran. Ali Darabi was his deputy until his
replacement by Lutfollah Foruzandeh in October 2005. President Ahmadinejad is a
founding member of the Isargaran, as is Economy and Finance Minister Davud
Danesh-Jafari (who served in the fifth and seventh parliaments). Other prominent
members are legislators Fatemeh Alia, Nafiseh Fayazbakhsh, and Mehdi
Kuchakzadeh. Members in the media include the director of the hard-line daily
Siyasat-i Ruz, Ali Yusefpur, as well as Bijan Moghaddam, who was
appointed the director of Iran, the Islamic Republic News Agency's daily,
in October 2005.
Mujtaba Shakeri, Hadi Imani, and Ahmad Moqimi are some
of the other founding members of the Isargaran. Central council members elected
in the February 2002 congress of the Isargaran, who are not identified above,
are: Ali Ahmadi, Ali Mazaheri, Mohammad Mehdi Mazaheri, Ahmad Nejabat,
Abol-Hassan Faqih, Seyyed Jalal Fayazi, Ahmad Moqimi, Abdul Hussein
Ruholamini-Najafabadi, Alireza Sarbakhsh, Sediqeh Shakeri, Masud Sultanpur, and
Mohammad Ali Taqavi-Rad.8
Most members of the Isargaran are veterans of
the Iran-Iraq War, and the organization also includes disabled veterans, freed
prisoners of war, the family members of martyrs (people who died in the war),
and those who were involved in the revolution against the monarchy. For example,
Secretary-General Fadai's younger brother, Mohammad, served in the Islamic
Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in northwestern Iran, and he lost his life during
the campaign against Kurdish insurgents. Fadai himself was imprisoned for his
revolutionary activities, and he served as a combat engineer during the war --
possibly with the IRGC. After the war, he continued as a military engineer --
apparently for the now-defunct Construction Jihad Ministry -- and then worked
for the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation.
According to some sources, the Isargaran began organized political
activities in the year beginning March 1995, but the extent of its activities in
the 1996 parliamentary elections is unknown. At least one of its founders was
elected that year. According to a reformist newspaper, the Isargaran was founded
on 3 February 1997.9
In the May 1997 presidential election, the
Isargaran backed the conservative front-runner, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar
Nateq-Nuri. Two years into Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's tenure, in August
1999, the Isargaran issued a highly critical analysis of his presidency.10 The
analysis noted a "lack of consideration for economic reform" and referred to
unemployment, falling incomes, and a reduction in purchasing power. It accused
the administration of replacing skilled managers with individuals not selected
on the basis of merit. The analysis warned: "Social instability, growing acts of
robbery and murder, social decadence, administrative corruption, and constant
humiliation of the people in their day-to-day business dealings and a widening
of the gap between the people's expectations and government policies have
together created a deep crack which could culminate in a national crisis."
Isargaran unhappiness with Khatami continued, and the society issued
another critique that dismissed presidential complaints about a lack of real
power.11 It said individuals who raise these complaints are doing so to settle
political rivalries instead of concentrating on solving people's problems: "In
circumstances in which society is being eroded by economic problems, and
hardships, unemployment, drug addiction, discrimination, and corruption on
various levels, which economic or social dilemma can possibly be resolved by
focusing on the issue of whether or not the president should be given more
authority?" The Isargaran worried that the constitution's checks and balances
are in danger.
Reformists won control of the sixth parliament (2000-04),
but approximately one-sixth of the victors were candidates backed by the
Isargaran. Fadai said the Isargaran "did not take part in any coalition and was
the only formation or political party whose lists consisted of principled
persons loyal to the ideals of the Imam and the followers of the leader."12 He
continued, "Apart from Tehran, we presented 187 candidates, some of whom were
also on other parties' lists; according to results announced up to noon
yesterday, more than 50 of the Association's candidates have gained seats." A
conservative newspaper reported that 42 Isargaran affiliates were elected.13
Regardless of these apparent gains, Isargaran warnings continued. In
early 2001, the group announced that Iran was in danger of being subverted from
within, as the efforts of foreign governments, counterrevolutionary groups, and
elements within the ruling system converged.14 The repetition of American and
"Yeltsinesque" reformist slogans are meant to deceive people, it said, and the
legislators are being distracted from serving the public -- it referred to
"popular issues," including "people's livelihood,...unemployment and other youth
predicaments such as marriage and housing,...development,...security, being
accountable,... respect for the law,... [and] the fight against poverty,
corruption, and discrimination." A later Isargaran statement said that
"extremists and the revisionist current" are preventing the legislature from
doing its work.15
Fadai claimed that the United States is supporting the
reformists.16 He urged "revolutionary forces and the genuine reformists" to
adopt a resolute stance against these elements. Fadai continued: "America must
be made to realize that among the revolutionaries who are firmly committed and
loyal to the ideals of the Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and the Islamic
revolution martyrs, there are no disputes and disagreements about the principles
of preservation of independence, and the rejection of foreign domination and
interference. Furthermore, it must be made absolutely clear that those who link
their fates with the demands and aspirations of America can expect nothing but
loss and harm in the future."
A Hard-Line Resurgence
Reformist domination of elected institutions seemed fairly complete after
the 2000 parliamentary race, with control of the executive and legislative
branches, as well as the municipal councils. The hard-liners did not give up,
however, and turned their attention to the 2003 council elections. Indeed, it
was at this time that the heretofore unknown Islamic Iran Developers Council
(Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami) emerged, and 14 of 15 candidates
whom it backed won seats in Tehran. The council then selected a mayor --
Isargaran founding member Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- on 29 April 2003.
hard-liners then focused on the next election -- for the legislature in 2004. As
part of the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, the Isargaran
backed 17 exclusive candidates, and it backed another 13 who had the support of
other parties.17 Isargaran leader Hussein Fadai, furthermore, headed the
Abadgaran election committee.18 Aided by the Guardians Council's rejection of
most viable reformist candidates -- including more than 80 incumbents -- the
Abadgaran fared well in that race, winning all the seats in Tehran and many more
in other constituencies.
The Isargaran were not content with this
situation, however, and set about trying to create an Isargaran faction in the
legislature.19 Abadgaran leaders discouraged this in an effort to impose
uniformity and the appearance of cohesion. When Hojatoleslam Nateq-Nuri
addressed an Isargaran central committee meeting, he emphasized the need for
unity among the hard-line forces.20
Eyeing The Prize
Tehran press began discussing Tehran Mayor Ahmadinejad as a presidential
candidate in the summer of 2004, but he was such an unknown quantity at the time
that other prospective candidates garnered much more media attention in the
ensuing months. The Isargaran continued to work quietly during that time, but it
issued a prophetic statement: "The more famous the candidates, the more their
agendas will be overshadowed by their names, and consequently the destiny of the
country will be the same as it has been up to now."21
But any illusions
about unity and solidarity among the conservatives had been put aside. As of
December 2004, there were at least five possible hard-line candidates, and as
some stepped aside others took their places. When the more traditional
Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces -- which included the older
organizations such as the Tehran Militant Clergy Association and the Islamic
Coalition Party -- met in March 2005 and selected Ali Larijani as its candidate,
Hussein Fadai of the Isargaran abstained from voting. Soon thereafter he created
what came to be known as Coordination Council II, which considered others'
The Isargaran eventually backed the candidacy of national
police chief and former Revolutionary Guard Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, announcing
that he won out over Ahmadinejad, Larijani, Ali-Akbar Velayati, Mohsen Rezai,
and Ahmad Tavakoli.22 The Isargaran statement explained that all the candidates
had the minimum qualifications, and it added that the Isargaran met with all the
candidates to exchange views. The society pledged that it would depend on the
outcome of public opinion polls to determine who would earn the most votes, and
for that reason it chose Qalibaf.
This was a peculiar situation, with a
party backing someone other than one of its founders. The move could be
perceived as a Machiavellian political maneuver meant to deceive the competitors
in the presidential race. Indeed, after his loss, Qalibaf complained of betrayal
by his supposed supporters. The decision to back Qalibaf, furthermore, created
splits in the Isargaran -- central council member Abol-Hassan Faqih left to lead
Ahmadinejad's election headquarters, deputy-secretary general Ali Darabi joined
Ahmadinejad's campaign, and Ali Ahmadi left to head Mohsen Rezai's campaign.23
Regardless, the Isargaran backed Ahmadinejad in the second round of the
election, when he defeated Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The Isargaran
announced: "Undoubtedly, our association will firmly support Mahmud
Ahmadinezhad, a principle-ist candidate, who is the symbol of justice and
honesty in action and words, and will full our religious and national duty."24
What Does The Future Hold?
There appear to be real and
continuing differences between Ahmadinejad and the group that he helped found.
As the legislature considered the president's nominees for cabinet positions in
August, the parliamentary presiding board supported the nominees. Isargaran and
Abadgaran parliamentarians were reportedly the leading opponents because they
did not have sufficient input on the candidates.25 Four of the 21 nominees
failed to win votes of confidence. When the legislature considered the four new
nominees in early November, it approved three of them. In the face of intense
criticism of his inexperience and his suspiciously amassed wealth, the nominee
for petroleum minister withdrew his name from consideration just hours before
parliament met to give its votes of confidence.
The Isargaran held its
third major conference in early October, and the organization's provincial
leaders and central committee members were in attendance.26 The organization
appears to be in a strong position -- members include the president and a member
of his cabinet, parliamentarians, a Tehran council member (Masud Zaribafan), and
a provincial governor (Seyyed Solat Mortazavi of Khorasan Razavi Province). Its
role in having some cabinet nominees rejected shows that it is capable of
mobilizing support and is becoming a political actor of some import. On the
other hand, the growing distance between the Isargaran and Ahmadinejad suggests
that it will not be a trouble-free process. Moreover, Isargaran member Mujtaba
Shakeri said that the organization has yet to determine its relationship with
the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces.27
terms, this case study highlights two important features of the Iranian
political landscape. The first is that more than twenty-five years after the
revolution the political system remains very dynamic and is therefore
unpredictable. Under these circumstances, using historical examples, possessing
a thorough knowledge of system's institutions and legal framework, and knowing
the specific personalities are essential when trying to make sense of
The second thing to bear in mind is that men like
Ahmadinejad and organizations like the Isargaran represent a younger generation
whose formative experience was the Iran-Iraq War and which wants a greater say
in the country's affairs. These are not the clerics whose formative experience
was resistance to the monarchy and then leading the country after the
revolution, and who in some case have become very rich since coming to power.
Ahmadinejad is a populist who in his campaign stressed anti-corruption and won
praise for his modest lifestyle. In his foreign policy speeches during the
campaign he stressed Third Worldism, and since then he has shown his disdain for
the West and commonly accepted diplomatic norms. These are the people and the
institutions that the world must deal with for the next two decades.
1 On early political conflicts in the Islamic
republic, see Sharough Akhavi, "Elite Factionalism in the Islamic Republic of
Iran," Middle East Journal, v. 41, n. 2 (Spring 1987); Maziar Behrooz,
"Factionalism in Iran under Khomeini," Middle Eastern Studies, v. 27, n.
4 (October 1991); and Cyrus Vakili-Zad, "Conflict among the Ruling Revolutionary
Elite in Iran," Middle Eastern Studies, v. 30, n. 3 (July 1994).
the legal background of parties, see Asghar Schirazi, The Constitution of
Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic Republic, John O'Kane, trans.,
(London: I.B. Tauris), 1997, and Bogdan Szajkowski, ed., Political Parties of
the World, 6th edition, (John Harper Publishing, 2005), pp. 307-309.
On the growing role played by parties in the country's politics, see Stephen C.
Fairbanks, "Theocracy Versus Democracy: Iran Considers Political Parties,"
Middle East Journal, v. 52, n. 1 (Winter 1998); Mark J. Gasiorowski, "The
Power Struggle in Iran," Middle East Policy, v. 7, n. 4 (October 2000);
and Mehdi Moslem, Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran, (Syracuse,
NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002).
4 Iran, 16 September 2001.
5 Entekhab, 13 September 2003.
6 Islamic Republic News Agency, 3
7 Farideh Farhi, "The Antinomies of Iran's War Generation,"
in Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of the War, Lawrence B. Potter and Gary
G. Sick, eds. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 115, fn7.
Jomhuri-yi Islamic, 6 March 2002.
9 Farhang-i Ashti, 9 June
10 Jomhuri-yi Islami, 26 August 1999.
11 Sobh, 5
12 Resalat, 21 February 2000.
13 Kayhan, 25
14 Resalat, 7 February 2001.
15 Resalat, 28
16 Resalat, 31 July 2002.
17 Iran, 16
18 Hamshahri, 27 May 2004.
19 Iran Daily, 9
20 Shoma, 30 September 2004.
21 Siyasat-i Ruz,
2 January 2005.
22 Siyasat-i Ruz, 30 May 2005.
Ashti, 9 June 2005.
24 Kayhan, 20 June 2005.
Etemad, 23 August 2005.
26 Iran, 2 October 2005.
Iranian Students News Agency, 17 October 2005.
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