The dark side innate to the political system in the Islamic Republic is thus consistently ignored: namely, that the domination of the elites continues unabated, systematically shutting out the vast majority of the population from political and economic participation.

We therefore must conclude that the situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran – despite claims to the contrary from both the state itself and abroad – much resembles that in the neighbouring countries of the "Arab Spring". The Iranian system's resistance to reform as mentioned above narrows down the country's possible democratisation options, as found in a recent comparative study by the sociologist Misagh Parsa. Gradual institutional reforms will not be sufficient for real change.

Reformers caught in the system's wake

Against this backdrop, the assertion constantly repeated for years by many Iran analysts and European media-makers that the only viable route to democratisation in the country is through step-by-step reforms can be seen as nothing but an echo of the views of the reformist wing of the Islamic Republic's own political elite, which is more interested in moderate modification of the system than in any real change.

Representatives of the Revolutionary Guard in Tehran (photo: Tasnim)
The real rulers of Iran: the Revolutionary Guards command the army, air force, navy and special units. The Guards exert enormous political influence; many politicians either were or still are members. Playing a leading role in key sectors of the Iranian economy, they also dominates the countryʹs many influential foundations

Iran's foreign policy

And yet it would also be misguided not to recognise any changes at all in Iranian policy. We must in fact acknowledge that President Rouhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif, who is highly respected in international diplomatic circles, have pursued a different language when dealing with the West.

The successful conclusion of the nuclear deal can be seen as a success of that new tendency. However, there are still continuities in foreign policy that receive too little attention. Because the truth is that neither the government nor the foreign ministry have any real authority over foreign policy. The charge that they serve merely as a PR machine thus appears to be not completely out of hand. Iranian policy towards Iraq and Syria is still primarily determined by the Revolutionary Guards and the head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who are interested less in a balance of power than in retaining and expanding Iranian regional power.

One of the central analytical errors made by observers is thus to equate one-to-one the conciliatory foreign policy proclaimed by the government and the foreign minister with Iran's power politics in Iraq and Syria. While such a projection has been adopted uncritically by some European media and political circles, with the long-term goal of a strategic political rapprochement with the regional power Iran, many neighbouring countries fail to comprehend this attitude and see it as the expression of clear favouritism toward Iran.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad

© 2018

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center; Iran expert for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and at the Belfer Center of the Harvard Kennedy School.

This is an abridged and slightly updated version of a longer analysis, published in the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung's Iran Reader 2017 under the German title "Kritik der Iran-Analysen unter Präsident Rohani: Von Dämonisierung zu Glorifizierung".

More on this topic