|The Changing Landscape of
Party Politics in Iran -- A Case Study
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 1987.
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 Republic.
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
During the 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 pragmatic ideologically.
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 dynamic
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 the regime.
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 Party
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
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
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.
The 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
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
The 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
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
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
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
In broader 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 developments.
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).
2 On 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.
3 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
4 Iran, 16 September 2001.
5 Entekhab, 13 September 2003.
6 Islamic Republic News Agency, 3 November 2004.
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.
8 Jomhuri-yi Islamic, 6 March 2002.
9 Farhang-i Ashti, 9 June 2005.
10 Jomhuri-yi Islami, 26 August 1999.
11 Sobh, 5 December 2000.
12 Resalat, 21 February 2000.
13 Kayhan, 25 February 2000.
14 Resalat, 7 February 2001.
15 Resalat, 28 November 2001.
16 Resalat, 31 July 2002.
17 Iran, 16 February 2004.
18 Hamshahri, 27 May 2004.
19 Iran Daily, 9 June 2004.
20 Shoma, 30 September 2004.
21 Siyasat-i Ruz, 2 January 2005.
22 Siyasat-i Ruz, 30 May 2005.
23 Farhang-i Ashti, 9 June 2005.
24 Kayhan, 20 June 2005.
25 Etemad, 23 August 2005.
26 Iran, 2 October 2005.
27 Iranian Students News Agency, 17 October 2005.
VASETEH -- THE JOURNAL OF THE EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR IRANIAN
STUDIES, v. 1, n. 1 (Winter 2005)