Iran today is one of the worldʹs leading jailers of journalists, ranked 170th among 180 by Reporters Without Borders. While the Islamic Republicʹs press landscape displays a remarkable degree of vibrancy and openness within the systemʹs redlines, the hardline-dominated judiciary has regularly banned publications and imprisoned journalists.

Overturning the existing monarchical order, the Islamic Republic established a peculiar political system that is conventionally understood to be based on two pillars: theocratic (with the supreme leader at the top as the head of state) and republican (with an elected parliament and president). However, the latter is at best semi-republican, as the Guardian Council only allows candidates deemed loyal to the Islamic Republic to run for office.

This unique configuration has been a key impediment for the creation of democracy; non-elected institutions still dominate, while elected ones have remained faithful to the system. Most importantly, the Islamic Republicʹs hybrid authoritarianism has shown remarkable resilience against meaningful political change, leading to widespread popular frustration today with both regime wings – the so-called moderates, as well as the hardliners.

Independence inseparable from freedom

The revolutionʹs fervent opposition to both Cold War superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, was encapsulated in the revolutionary slogan "Neither West, nor East, [only] the Islamic Republic". But it was the revolutionʹs animosity toward Washington that has dominated Iranʹs international relations. And while Iran has found itself in a geopolitical confrontation with the West, it was never geopolitically integrated into the East.

Instead, as the policies of Russia, China, and India during heightened U.S. sanctions have demonstrated, Iran has found itself forced to give concessions to Asian great powers that have consistently prioritised their ties with Washington over those with Tehran. As a result, Iran has experienced new patterns of dependency on those Eastern great powers, since confronting them is not an option so long as Tehran is at loggerheads with the international systemʹs most powerful state.

Against this backdrop, how can Iranians safeguard their longstanding desire for independence in a 21st-century, interdependent world? Ruhollah Ramazani, the late doyen of Iranian foreign policy studies, rightly emphasised that in an interdependent world, there is no such thing as absolute independence, but rather degrees of dependence. In other words, Iranʹs national development will suffer if today it tries to maintain a fervent, ideological adherence to an abstract notion of absolute independence.

Iranʹs domestic authoritarian context poses another formidable challenge for safeguarding independence, as it favours close ties with authoritarian rather than democratic states. The hardline custodians of the Islamic Republic need not fear that like-minded authoritarian regimes, like China and Russia, will introduce issues like human rights and democracy in bilateral relations.

The result is a geopolitical preference for a "Look to the East" policy, mostly favoured by those forces that stand to benefit politically and economically from such an orientation. The shadow of Iranʹs antagonism with the United States has sustained its conflictual relationship with the Western world. This has not only prevented it from developing its full potential by building robust ties with both the West and the East, but has pushed the country into the hands of the latter powers who have abused Iranʹs isolation from the West and its need of the East.

For this reason, Ramazani aptly noted that a democratic polity is a necessary precondition to prevent dependency, noting that "the breakdown of the rule of law and politicised judiciary will ultimately undercut Iranʹs ability to maintain its independence in world politics." He also emphasised that freedom and independence are inseparable.

A more open political climate, as in India for example, would allow for domestic debates about foreign policy choices and the stakes involved for the population. Hence, democratisation would significantly improve Iranʹs international image and potentially improve its bargaining power vis-a-vis great powers, especially given Western powersʹ tendency towards instrumentalising human rights in order to generate political pressure.

So did the Iranian revolution eventually deliver on its promises? Despite some achievements, the overall picture looks bleak, particularly when it comes to promises of democracy. Whether that is reversible is another difficult question.

The acute triple crisis – socio-economic, political, and ecological – the Islamic Republic faces in its 40th year, a growing sense of popular disillusionment and frustration that forcefully erupted during the 2017-18 upheaval, not to mention the ongoing confrontation with the worldʹs most powerful state, leaves little hope that the same system that failed to deliver on these promises for decades will succeed in the future.


Ali Fathollah-Nejad

© Brookings Institution 2019

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