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Elevating religious identity to strengthen democracy Islamic Republic of Iran

Elevating religious identity to strengthen democracy: Islamic Republic of Iran
Christine Danielson
Chamberlain College of Nursing
POLI330 Political Science
January 2019
The Islamic Republic of Iran is approaching the end of four decades since ‘democracy’
arguably became the country’s system of governance in 1979. A key aspect of democracy in
countries throughout the world is the extent to which structures and practices vary based on the
historical and present day context of each country. Iran’s marriage of democracy and theocracy
demonstrates the significant role that religion, specifically Islam, has for Iranian citizens and
within the country’s history and culture. The connectedness relative to shared religious and
cultural identity can be elevated to unite the Iranian people by minimizing the political power
exercised by a supreme leader and clerics comprising the guardian council in favor of symbolic
authority and cultural capital. This is a key aspect in strengthening democracy in Iran and is best
facilitated through transitioning to a parliamentary democracy.
One significant challenge Iran experiences relative to governing by democracy is the
contrast between the beliefs and values underlying Islam and those, such as individual freedom
and equal opportunity, promoted in the democratic governance practiced in the West. This is
further compounded by 50 years of political influence by Western countries to serve their own
interests (Tezcur et. al., 2012). A democracy endorsed by the Iranian people honors Islam as a
part of their culture. A parliamentary democracy offers roles that elevate visibility of Islam and
cultivate a sense of pride in shared national identity while maintaining systems that endorse
aspects of governance critical to the definition of democracy.
The development of a theocratic democracy in Iran was a bi-product of political strategy
that created governing structures and distributed power in ways that set the stage for Islamist
clerics to increasingly exercise power over elections. Citizens elect a president and members of
the legislature, which are overseen by unelected clerics within governing institutions. Despite the
presence of free and fair elections to select representatives, the governing structure and
concentration of power undermines the extent to which Iranian citizens are truly determining the
individuals who exercise rule. The Guardian Council, composed of clerics, must approve any
political candidate prior to running for office.
Government rule is best described as authoritarian with power in the hands of the faction
of the supreme leader with few to none checks and balances as oversight. Many believe the first
supreme ruler of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, intentionally created two parallel
systems of governance to maintain the appearance of democracy while slowly taking over
control of all governance (Tezcur et. al., 2012). Upon Khomeini’s death in 1989, his allies
quickly made changes to the constitution to name the then-President Khameni as supreme leader
to prevent power from shifting toward elected officials. Political strategy such as this is common
among supreme leaders, clerics, and their factions and ultimately serves to further weaken
Transitioning to a parliamentary democracy accomplishes key objectives in strengthening
the extent to which Iran operates as a democracy: It shifts power to the citizen-elected legislature
and enhances the extent to which the Guardian Council and supreme leader serve in solely
symbolic roles to promote Islamic nationalist identity that motivated the revolution that
established Iran as an Islamic Republic. The theocratic arm of Iranian government can then
maintain integrity to religious beliefs and values incongruent with acts of political corruption and
serve in uniting Iranians in the the context of their unique culture and the significant of Islam for
the majority of citizens. This elevates religion as a unifier and transitions political power to the
legislature and president who have been elected by the people.
Abbasa, Syed Raheem & Asimb, Muhammad. (2015). What is a Theocratic Democracy: A Case
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Magstadt, T. M. (2017). Understanding politics: Ideas, institutions, and issues. Australia:
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Tezcur, Gunes & Azadarmaki, Taghi & Bahar, Mehri & Nayebi, Hooshang. (2012). Support for
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