There's a Newfound Respect for the Public in Iranian Politics

8 MINS READMar 23, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
A cutout without a face stands in Karim Khan Castle in Shiraz, Iran.

A cutout without a face stands in Karim Khan Castle in Shiraz, Iran. 

(JOHN MOORE/Getty Images)
  • President Rouhani will seek to introduce some flexibility into certain social issues in Iran but powerful, unelected and conservative political factions will block major changes as they seek to preserve the Islamic republic's stability.
  • Questions surrounding women's rights and media freedoms will become the topic of greater discussion this year amid Rouhani's efforts to make good on specific campaign promises.
  • Persistent economic pressure will lead all political factions, including both reformists and conservatives, to treat popular dissent carefully.

Iran's leaders successfully weathered the hurricane, but the storm clouds seem to be perpetually gathering on the horizon. Citizens poured onto the streets around the country at the beginning of 2018 to protest a variety of issues that included their economic lot in particular, but also political and social problems. And while the surge of demonstrations has since ended, demands for reform continue to nag leaders in Tehran. This public pressure, which has affected Iran's unelected and elected institutions alike, has become pronounced enough that President Hassan Rouhani alluded last month to the possibility of a popular referendum to "heal" Iran's internal crisis.

The referendum call highlighted the government's awareness of the importance of heeding the demands of citizens. Amid the various economic issues, which run the gamut from high unemployment and underemployment to economic uncertainty, inflation and poor infrastructure, Rouhani has shown signs of opening up on two galvanizing issues in particular — women's rights and control over the media — even though the president and his moderate reformist allies will encounter deep political barriers. But in their desire to respond to the populace's demands and preserve national stability, all political factions are willing to lend an ear to the mounting calls for change.

To Reform, or not to Reform, That Is (Always) the Question

Rouhani is not the first Iranian president to propose a popular referendum in the country's recent history. In 2003, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's fourth president and a politician who wielded considerable influence for decades, proposed a referendum on relations with the United States. Mohammed Khatami, often considered by historians to be Iran's first "reformist" president after he rode a wave of popular desire for change to win elections in 1997, proposed a popular vote on the government's legitimacy during the Green Revolution in 2009. Although authorities never conducted it, the very call for referendums underlines the strong role the popular vote plays in the unique democratic-theocratic system constructed by the architects of the Islamic republic.

As their name suggests, Iran's most influential political reformists seek changes within the system rather than the complete overthrow of the Islamic republic. Accordingly, they desire a role for secular governance and espouse more liberal social policies within the appropriate boundaries, which are ultimately determined by the supreme leader and the clerical establishment. Previous reformist efforts to shake up the system have provoked an institutional backlash from the hard-liners and conservatives that dominate the state establishment, but the recent economic protests have provided enough warning that the government has acknowledged the need to offer a valve for protest.

Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran's leaders have not succeeded in creating a system that fulfills popular economic demands while also keeping an entrenched patronage network happy. Despite their lack of political power versus conservatives, reformists have promoted pragmatism and change in a fashion that appeals to an important section of the Iranian electorate, 28 percent of whom identify themselves as reformists, according to a 2017 poll. In contrast, just 15 percent of voters identified with hard-liners. Rouhani's first election in 2013 and re-election in 2017 are a testament to the power of the reformist promise, and the next few years will test his ability to deliver on the pledges that drew him support from reformist-leaning voters.

Putting Women's Rights Front and Center

Rouhani has gone on record saying "we don't want gender discrimination," which means the president is likely to push for progress on women's rights during the remainder of his term. In recent months, women have organized through grassroots campaigns and on social media to demonstrate against compulsory hijab and the customary chador (full body covering) policies by shedding their head coverings, suggesting that Iran is reaching a tipping point for a new discussion on women's rights. Although the (unequal) foundational laws governing women's freedoms are unlikely to change quickly, the increasingly frequent demands for gender equality — including a push to attend soccer matches in the country — will oblige all political factions to heed public demands for change for fear of losing political control.

The large numbers of women arrested at the March 8 demonstration for International Women's Day for protesting the mandatory dress code testifies to the increasing significance of the issue in Iran — as well as the judiciary and clerical establishment’s dim view of the campaign. Indeed, a Tehran judge recently issued a two-year jail sentence to a woman who flouted the law earlier this month. The harsh official response, both at the Women’s Day demonstration and in the two-year prison sentence, occurred in spite of a December 2017 announcement by Iranian police who said — as part of an effort to ease public dissent — that they would no longer arrest women for failing to wear head coverings in public.

Iran's elected government disagrees with a majority of the clerical community and hard-line security establishment on the question of mandatory hijab policies. In January, the Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank linked to reformists and Rouhani's office, released a report generated in 2014 that claimed a majority of Iranians supported abolishing the country's compulsory hijab law. But an interim Friday prayer leader in Tehran represented the view of many clerics last month when he declared that it was a grave sin to justify the actions of women who flout the law on dress. Unsurprisingly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei threw his weight behind the conservative establishment, arguing that the compulsory hijab law protects Iranian women and keeps them safe from threats. Still, Khamanei could quietly permit Rouhani to implement some of the proposals he made for greater equality during his first term, meaning the president could find a window to effect change if social pressure continues to mount.

Freeing the Media

As with women's rights, Rouhani has sought to effect change in the media, albeit with little success. As part of a push for greater press freedom during his first election campaign, the president proposed a Charter on Citizens' Rights to protect Iranian civilians' access to the media. And in his first and, so far, only press conference since the countrywide protests in early January, the president hailed the positive power of social media — a paradox given that Twitter is technically illegal in Iran, even though both Rouhani and Khamanei maintain active Twitter accounts. Two months later on March 20, Rouhani released a message to mark the start of the Persian new year, again expressing his desire that Iranians, especially the youth, obtain greater access to the Internet.

A recent spat between the BBC and Iran's culture and media authorities, however, highlights the intense censorship and control that some unelected institutions wield over the country's media landscape. Officials have sought to clamp down on the broadcaster's activities in the country, prompting a response from the organization which accused the state of systematically intimidating BBC journalists, restricting their movements and freezing their assets. Earlier this month, the British outlet even took the unprecedented step of bringing its demands before the United Nations. The Iranian government claims the BBC is attempting to subvert the government's authority, adding that Article 24 of the Iranian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression to everyone but prohibits the media from critiquing Islam or offending the supreme leader.

Even the most conservative candidates have shown in their campaigns that listening to demands for change and promising economic and social reform can propel a politician to victory.

Rouhani has achieved some victories in limiting censorship on certain websites, but ultimate control over the internet and the media in the Islamic republic rests with the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, an agency under the aegis of the supreme leader, as well as the Culture Ministry, which is heavily influenced by hard-liners. The incumbent president won his post partly on the back of promises to lift the constraints on the media and the internet, yet the unelected institutions that maintain the greatest control over Iran's press are unlikely to loosen the fetters. Still, in the face of a tech-savvy youth and increasing demands for more access to information, the state is cognizant that it must move carefully and avoid clamping down too hard.

In Search of the Vox Populi

The reformists excel at channeling popular demands for reform, leading voters to continue electing them to office. Thanks to economic woes, the preponderance of a young people with little to no memory of 1979, and questions regarding the legitimacy of unelected institutions born in the firmament of the Islamic Revolution, reformists continue to enjoy much grist for the mill in challenging the conservative establishment.

But even the most conservative candidates have shown in their campaigns that listening to demands for change and promising economic and social reform can propel a politician to victory. Ultimately, the electoral strength of any faction will help shape the future direction of the country, as such power can impact the decision-making process at the highest levels of government — including the elections for the Assembly of Experts, which will eventually select a replacement for the aging Khamanei.

Rouhani's promises of reform have struck a chord with many Iranians, only to encounter roadblocks erected by the country's unelected institutions, which have an inherent interest in maintaining the status quo. But even if the latter are not directly responsible to voters, they have little desire to lose their appeal to the electorate at large. Iran's persistent economic woes threaten their grip, however, meaning that everyone – whether elected or not – will be keen to lend an ear and heed the demands for social change.

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