Iran’s Complex Political System

Posted January 19, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: American Foreign Policy, Blogroll, Iran

There is a great deal of talk in the Western media about the anti-democratic or non-democratic nature of the Iranian government. It is surely not the kind of liberal democracy that many in the West think they would like to see in Iran, but it is neither a closed society or a dictatorship. It is important to understand the system before we attempt to support its opponents or to open a dialogue with the country’s leaders. Let us take a brief look. Later blogs will apply this look to what has been happening recently.

Iran’s Constitution provides for one of the most complex systems of government that I am acquainted with. It is a mixture of elected and unelected officials with some interesting twists. It has both formal and informal aspects.

At the top is the Head of State (currently Khamenei: this position is also referred to as Guardian Jurisprudent, or Supreme Leader). Elected by the Assembly of Experts, he may be dismissed at any time by that body. Aside from this, he has broad and nearly unlimited powers. He is Supreme Commander of the military, appoints the head of the judicial branch, declares war and peace, and can call for a mobilization. He also appoints the Guardian Council, a branch in some ways equivalent to a Senate.

The Assembly of Experts consists of 86 Mojtahids or religious scholars popularly elected for eight-year terms. They “oversee” the Head of State and may dismiss him at any time. Since they are popularly elected, the head of state is himself indirectly elected and overseen by elected persons.

The Guardian Council oversees and vets all candidates to national office, or to the Assembly of Experts. Six members are clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six are lawyers proposed by the head of the judiciary and approved by parliament. The Assembly of Experts, the Guardian Council, and the Head of State must all be generally accepted religious leaders (or “experts in religious law”, in a law-centered religious system). It must approve all laws passed by parliament before they become law.

Parliament is elected on the national level from single and multi-member districts. It makes the laws or at least passes on them.

The Expediency Discernment Council is meant to mediate disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council when they cannot agree on legislation. Its 34 members are directly appointed by the Head of State.

The National Security Council was established after the basic structure. Its functions are rather similar to those of the NSC in the American system, but it appears to have higher status. It is concerned with national security policies understood very broadly. Its members include the heads of executive, legislative and judicial branches, the head of the armed forces, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Intelligence, as well as appointees of the Head of State (who apparently also selects the head of the NSC).

The President (currently Ahmadinejad) is directly elected, although again candidates must be vetted. His powers are quite limited. In theory, he is head of government, appoints ambassadors and proposes cabinet officers to the parliament. He appoints governors, but he no longer appoints mayors. He must approve all legislation and is automatically head of the National Security Council.

Below the national level, local and village councils are also elective.

While formally, it would seem the system is completely under the thumb of the Shiite hierarchy, for several reasons this is not as decisive as might be thought. First, there is no Shiite hierarchy comparable to that of a tight organizations such as the Mormon or Catholic churches. There are a large number of religious figures with sufficient standing in the religious world to be considered for government positions. Each with his own lay and clerical following. Some of these mujtahids are highly regarded throughout the Shi’a world, such as Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf. (Incidentally, Sistani who has long disapproved of the Iranian system has his own following in Iran, people who regularly teach and propagandize in his favor among clerical students) These men range from highly conservative to relatively liberal. Sometimes they reach consensus, but not always. Secondly, although many people, clerics or not, are not allowed to run for office because of the vetting process, in recent elections, the candidates standing for parliament, local positions, or the Assembly of Experts have represented many different constituencies, with positions from right to left. There is also a quite active public opinion with many outlets within Iran, especially now with the internet. What the general public believes evidently affects the thinking of the Head of State, a man who by inclination or the nature of the system is a far cry from being a dictator.

Negotiating with the Iranians

Posted December 23, 2006 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: American Foreign Policy, Blogroll, Iran, Iraq War


Repeated suggestions that the United States should negotiate with the Iranians seem to come to naught. President Bush has somehow gotten it into his head that Iran is an “evil state” on a par with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before our invasion. He wonders how such an evil government can be negotiated with. Sometimes he insists that if Iran changes, or if Iran renounces its present policies, then perhaps we could have something to talk about. One suspects that his demonization of Iran is a reflection through intermediaries of the bitter hostility of Israel to Iran, because of Hezbollah and because of a real fear that Iran might develop a nuclear weapon that would threaten the existence of Israel. The close connection between the thinking of the neocons that has been so influential in this administration and support of Israeli objectives is well known. (Incidentally, it is odd that concern for Pakistan’s already existing nuclear capability remains muted, in spite of the fact that Musharref might be unseated by an Islamist coup at any time and Pakistan has a record of sharing nuclear information with other states.)

Two recent events have affected the possibility and usefulness of negotiations. First, nationwide local elections including an election of the “experts” who choose the actual head of state has resulted in a setback for Ahmadinejad in Iran. The moderates and reformists have made critical gains. This would seem to offer an opening to any power that really wanted to engage the Iranians. Moreover, the exercise itself has once again shown that Iran is in no way in the league with North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq. It is a much more modernized and vibrant state, with possibilities for real choice and discussion, in spite of the continuation of controls over the media and the jailing of opposition figures.

Second, and less promising, the United States and Great Britain have announced that they are increasing the size of their fleets in the Persian Gulf. This reversion to “gunboat diplomacy” will hardly make Iran’s leaders anxious to negotiate about anything. Neither is it likely to be well received by the Iranian opposition that remains hotly nationalist in spite of everything.

At this juncture, two American diplomats who have participated in past negotiations with Iran have published an Op-Ed in the New York Times (December 22, 2006) that argues persuasively that the Iranians are never going to be willing to negotiate about particular items in an American agenda. They have been repeatedly disappointed by narrower agreements. For example, they cooperated with us in the defeating the Taliban, but in the end received nothing in return but hostility. Against this background Iran will need to be offered a broad and open agenda. In particular, it wants security guarantees from the United States and a guarantee that we will respect its borders, and no longer work for “regime change”. (The authors of the Op-Ed tell us that what they print is a censored version of what they wanted to say. But for our purposes here, the question of censorship is irrelevant. Their main points get through.)

As Baker, in discussing his Report, has pointed out: “If you have problems in a relationship, you sit down and discuss them. And you cannot have such a discussion if you insist that your partner yield on major points before the discussion begins.” One can only hope that this administration reconsider the Report’s recommendations for talks, and not just talks to avert catastrophe in Iraq. Iran and the United States share many more interests than that.

An Iran – Iraq Project for an International University

Posted December 12, 2006 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: American Foreign Policy, Blogroll, Iran, Iraq War


A recent article has discussed the attempt to raise money throughout Asia for an international university in northern India that would recapture the glory of learning in that area in medieval times. The university is conceptualized as a rebirth of Nalanda University, one of the leading universities in the world during its medieval existence from the fifth to twelfth centuries. It was established to be a center of Buddhist studies but developed programs in the fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and politics.  This effort, which is being funded from across South and East Asia, reminded me of a similar, more modest but equally high-minded undertaking, the establishment of the University of Central Asia. Begun in the nineties, the university now has  campuses in Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan. It is both private and secular. The inspiration came and basic resources were provided by the Aga Khan and the President of Tajikistan. Its creation reminds us that Central Asia was once the crossroads of civilization, an area that once gave birth to an intense intellectual and cultural life.

This led me to thinking of the remarkable center of learning established by the Sassanian (Iranian) king in the fifth century: Jundi-Shapur in what is now Iranian Khuzistan. Originally seen as a center for medical studies. its curricula and research came to cover many fields. It was a center where scholars from India, Greece, and Syria could work together and exchange information. The original impetus was apparently the expulsion of the Nestorian Christians from the Christian lands to the west. Nestorian scholars were the primary students and translators of the Greek legacy at the time and the Persians wished to profit from their knowledge. Jundi-Shapur established as their new home. Some scholars claim that at the time of the Arab conquest Jundi-Shapur was the leading university in the world. It continued to function for many years after the Arab conquest. But when the Abbassid Caliphate was set up in Baghdad, many of the university’s scholars were brought to Baghdad. Eventually a new university was established in Baghdad for these transplants,  a university sometimes referred to as the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom). It was in the setting of these two linked universities that the most authoritative translations of the Greek texts into Arabic were undertaken. Greeks, Christians, Jews, Indians, Arabs and Persians worked together on this common scholarly undertaking.

The Iranians have always taken an interest in what is now Iraq, particularly since the capital of their Sassanian Empire was at Ctesiphon near modern Baghdad. (Ctesiphon may have been the largest city in the world in the sixth century.) Their continued interest is suggested by the recent offer of the Iranians to help rebuild the great arch at Ctesiphon. It now occurs to me that sophisticated Iraqis and Iranians might be interested in cooperating on the building of a great international university in or near Baghdad that would be understood to be a direct descendant of both Jundi-Shapur (said to be founded on the model of the Alexandrian academy) and the Bayt al-Hikma. It could be seen as a gift from Iran to the Iraqi people, or perhaps the gulf states could be involved. It should be seen as an attempt to establish an institution that would rise above the sectarian, religious, and nationalist controversies of the day. Obviously, this is not a project to be organized in a day. It might not be acceptable in the sense described here to any of the major players in the current scene. But Iraq and its neighbors need a vision, a future goal that might lift the spirits of those intellectuals who have practically abandoned all hope for the country. Fortunately, there is enough oil money in the area to make the project feasible without significant money from the West.

The Holocaust and Iranian Credibility

Posted December 10, 2006 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Uncategorized

Iranian credibility has been weakened by the announcement by Tehran that it is hosting a conference on the reality of the European Holocaust in the 1940s. One can agree with Ahmadinejad that the Israelis have used the holocaust to strengthen the appeal of their cause. Much the same can be said of the reasons why the Turkish government allows no discussion of Armenian claims that a holocaust occurred in their lands. One can agree that there may have been exaggerations in both cases. And we can certainly agree that the fact that a holocaust of Jews occurred in Europe gave no special right to the Zionists to acquire lands in the Middle East. But it is a serious mistake to publicly propose that these events did not occur on something very near to the scale alleged (or that the case for their existence needs to be made once again by “scholars”). The evidence is too voluminous and has been known to the world for too long. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, German citizens, and Jews directly observed what occurred, and reported their observations from 1945 onward. The Nazis themselves recorded their activities in countless documents. Regardless of how the up-coming conference is said to turn out, it will take years before the negative effects of these claims on Iran’s image are overcome.

Claiming that the holocaust did not happen is paranoid thinking, a type of thinking all too common in the world. It often takes the form of assuming that there are massive conspiracies all around us and that nothing is what it seems to be. One could hold a conference in the United States with academics from all over the world, including the United States, on how the attack on the World Trade Center was planned by elements in the American government. Serious papers would be presented and discussions would be far ranging. However, this would not produce any believable outcome because there is simply too much known about what happened and the motivations of the known and possible unknown players for there to be any doubt — unless one has a strong motivation to believe in a level of evil doing at the heart of our system that has never been demonstrated in our history. Even much more likely alleged conspiracies, such as a purposeful failure to prepare for an attack on Pearl Harbor or a planned assassination of President Kennedy by elements in the American government have never been shown to have any substance, in spite of many years of vigorous research.

Nationalism and the Kurdish Question

Posted December 10, 2006 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: American Foreign Policy, Blogroll, Iran

Nationalism has always been with us. But the modern version of nationalism grew out of eighteenth century thinking. This movement led to many of the countries or countries-in-waiting that exist today. It is characteristic of nationalism that it may both strengthen and tear apart a polity. Spanish nationalism made possible the establishment of the present Spanish state, but it has also led to the increasing threat of the dismemberment of that state as its subdivisions, beginning with Catalonia, are granted increasing political power. In Africa, new nations developing nationalisms on the basis of political subdivisions established by colonial masters, are threatened by nationalist movements that would further subdivide the continent. There is no reason for the international community to reject such movements out of hand. Each must be judged on its own merits, no matter how difficult “merits” may be to establish in such matters.

In the Iranian region the nationalist ideology produced many of the regional nationalisms that exist today, including Iranian and Turkish nationalism. The modern emergence of Turkey and Iran bares some similarity. Turkey is the remainder of the Ottoman Empire after the rest of it was whittled away before and during World War I. For a time, Turkey also represented the only sovereign state left over after the great Turkish diaspora dating back to well before Genghis Khan. Recently, new Turkish states have emerged in Central Asia and the Caucasus after the Soviet collapse. Iran is the renamed successor to the Persian Empire (with many names) that went through several advances and retreats after its emergence at the beginning of the classic period in the West. Its most recent territorial losses were around Herat and in the Caucasus. Although descended from great empires, both polities appear to have settled on the modern nation state as the best alternative for now.

During World War I Turkey embarked on an extreme nationalist policy that granted nothing to minorities. On the west, the Greeks were largely driven out of the country. To the east, the Armenians were driven out and killed in massive numbers in an attempt to create an ethnically pure Turkey. Fortunately, the Armenians have at last achieved a truly independent state of their own in the Caucasus after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Their attacks on the Armenians combined with their treatment of their large Kurdish minority, has been a major stumbling block on Turkey’s road to membership in the European Union.

Iraq was one of several states carved out of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious Allies at the end of the War. Before 1920, few people understood that they were supposed to belong to an Iraq nationality, although there were several nationalities in the area of Iraq. The Kurds felt that they had been promised a state of their own, but the international community and local interests in the end denied Kurdish claims. The Kurdish people were divided up among Syria, Turkey (the largest number), Iran (the second largest number), and the new state of Iraq. Both Turkey and Iran have struggled to keep their Kurdish subjects down. Eastern Anatolia has been plagued by a Kurdish insurgency for years. In part, this is a response to a Turkish state that until recently denied the existence of Kurds. They labeled them “Mountain Turks”. Kurds were not allowed schools or broadcasts in their own language. The Iranians have been faced with occasional flareups of Kurdish nationalism. After World War II, the Russians sponsored a Mahabad Republic among the Kurds until the Shah and the Americans forced them to abandon the project. More recently, the Islamist state brutally put down Kurdish revolts. Nevertheless, in the Kurdish provinces of Iraq regional states and the international community has come closest to recognizing an entity that has achieved something very close to independence. One should not romanticize the Kurds or their achievements. The long term unity of even this small area and the “democracy” they have achieved are doubtful. Yet it is certainly true that they have demonstrated far more than most peoples in such situations that they really would like to manage their own affairs and may be capable of it.

For more on this, consider a short paper placing Kurdish self-determination in the context of a more general argument. I expanded the question of self-determination in my Freedom in the World: Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 1978, especially pages 180-215.

In spite of vigorous efforts to promote their own rights of self-determination as absolute, the leaders of Turkey, Iran, and Syria have sometimes been unwilling to grant these rights to others. In particular, the leaders appear to fear that if an independent Kurdish state finally emerges in Iraq, this will encourage independence movements in their states that they will be unwilling to abide. However, if these states allow Kurds a reasonable level of communal self-expression and fairly divide power in such a way that their Kurds do not feel dispossessed, there should be little danger. There is now, after all, an independent Azerbaijan next to Iran’s Azerbaijan, and there seems to be little danger that this will lead to an insurrection in Tabriz. It would help the reputation of all three nations were they to see their way clear to welcoming an Iraqi Kurdistan into the community of nations, should events lead to this result. The United States and the world community should not be reluctant to work with them on developing this opportunity in their midst.

Negotiating with the Iranians

Posted November 28, 2006 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: American Foreign Policy, Blogroll, Iran, Iraq War

The media are discussing the desirability of negotiating with the Iranians. This is thought to be a real possibility now that the Administration has more or less admitted that it has to try something new in Iraq. All of this comes at a time when the United States and Iran are locked in a serious war of words over (1) Iranian support of terrorism, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon and (2) the willingness of the Iranians to defy the American demand that they cease their nuclear energy program on the basis that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. Some groups in Washington talk of the need to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities sooner rather than later. Many commentators have concluded we would be attacking Iran now if it were not for the Iraq fiasco. Seymour Hersh tells us that the United States is secretly supporting anti-Tehran forces in Iranian Kurdistan in the west and Balochistan in the southeast. This is in addition to supporting the planning and propaganda of mainline anti-regime elements based in the West. All of this against the background of a relationship that includes a continuing absence of diplomatic relations because of an incident dating back to 1980. One is reminded of the cake for Tehran scandal in the mid-sixties when another Administration decided that they needed to develop communications with Tehran, and were willing to risk exposure of Administration duplicity to attain what were quite short-run objectives at best.

I suggest that we need to take a deep breath, reconsider out relations, and then set out to fundamentally restructure the American relationship with Iran.

We should recall that official American policy, reinforced recently by a Senate vote, is to support the development of nuclear energy in India, a country that openly broke the ban on nuclear proliferation. Because of the known relationship of Pakistan and India, the fact that Pakistan has also developed a nuclear weapon has also been accepted without letting this damage our relationship with that country. Turkey on the west is part of NATO, an alliance that depends on nuclear weapons for deterrence. It is an open secret that Israel, a country that has often announced the need to “do something” about Iran has nuclear weapons. I do not know if the Iranians will or will not develop a nuclear weapon if they continue their nuclear program. But I do know that it is unlikely that Iran, whether ruled by mullahs or democrats, will feel that the United States has justice on its side in the nuclear dispute. This being the case, it is unlikely that threats or sanctions will in the long run arrest the development Iran wishes; indeed, it may even give added ammunition to those Iranians who want nuclear weapons so that the country might more easily stand up to the Americans.

We should recall that after 9/11 the Iranians has shown itself to be much less involved in terrorism directed against the United States and Europe than its neighbors. In fact, Iran assisted the American effort to defeat the Taliban in Iraq. Since Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are also extremist in their anti-Shi’a diatribes, Iran is in many ways a natural ally of the United States in this part of the anti-terrorist “war”. We should also recall that Iranians have been largely absent from the list of terrorists that have been arrested for terrorist activities in Europe and the United States. I note there have been North Africans, Saudis, Egyptians, Gulf states, and, also and especially, Pakistanis among the accused. The terrorists frequently seem to train in Pakistan. We should note that the United States and Pakistan have been close allies during the Cold War and the War Against Terrorism, as odd as this may seem. It is true that Iran has been involved in helping Palestinians and their allies in their struggle with Israel, but regardless of our ties to Israel, this is not a struggle with which we should identify American interests.

Iran has a greater interest than any other country outside the American Coalition in the outcome of the chaos in Iraq. Its interests are three-fold. First is its historic record as a dominant power in the area now occupied by Iraq. Second is its domination by Shi’as, the national religion of Iran and the dominant religion in more than half of Iraq. The relation of the societies through the Shi’a bond goes back to the conversion of half of Iraq to Shi’ism by the Iranians in the 15th and 16th centuries. The overwhelming majority of foreigners who visit the holy cities of Iraq are Iranians. We remember that Ayatollah Khomeini plotted his victorious return to Iran from his exile in Iraq. Third, is the natural desire of Iranians to make sure that a powerful Iraqi state dominated by Sunnis never again threatens Iran as it did in the 1980s. In retrospect, the United States was simply wrong to support Saddam Hussein in his war with the Iranians. We backed the wrong horse and we have had to pay for it.

Given these facts, the United States should develop diplomatic relations with Iran as soon as possible. We should then discuss our common interests, including the concessions that each side can reliable make. Let us mention a few possibilities: there are many more. We should accept Iran having a major interest in Iraq. In return for curbing the violence of some of the Iraqi actors often said to be aligned with Iran, such as the Mahdi Army, we should accept their role in training and equipping security forces in Iraq, especially in Shi’a areas. We should encourage Iran to accept the existence of a semi-independent Kurdistan, on the understanding that the United States will not support new revolutionary activity among the Iranian Kurds.

The Civilizational Approach: Notes on Iran and Iraq

Posted November 14, 2006 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Afghanistan War, American Foreign Policy, Blogroll, Iran, Iraq War

American foreign policy has seemed to reach a dead end. It no longer serves either the needs of the United States or those of the world. A fundamental problem is that our leaders are no longer clear about the nature, abilities, strengths and weaknesses of the United States and American culture. One reason for reaching this dead end is the unwillingness or inability of persons at the top levels of the Department of State or other foreign ministries to understand the ways in which the countries with which we deal view or would prefer to view the world.

Analysts and politicians in these ministries have recently become fixated on Iran and the challenge that it represents. However, the tendency has been to interpret the “Iranian threat” narrowly as a part of the posited war of the West and Islam. For some Arab commentators, it is seen primarily as a rise in the power and influence of Shi’ism, the so-called Shiite crescent.

It would help if both groups of analysts remembered that for millennia Iranians were dominant in a broad region spreading from Anatolia to Uzbekistan, to India, then back along the Persian Gulf to Iraq and Syria. To historically conscious Iranians, Iraq, for example, as been more often an integral part of their country than a foreign state, while much of Afghanistan and what we call Central Asia has long been a center of Iranian culture, centering on the present-day Uzbek cities of Samarqand and Bokhara. Remember that Iran’s Achaemenid Empire was the successor state to the former Empires of Assyria and Babylonia. The identification of Iran with Mesopotamia was further sealed by the Parthian and Sassanian Empires that strove to emulate the Achaemenid. They placed their capital at Ctesiphon, twenty miles from present-day Baghdad. Some believe this to have been the largest city in the world from 570 to 637 A.D. (Readers who see this recitation as “merely” ancient history should reminded of the territorial memories of modern Jews in Palestine or the Serbian special relationship with 14th century Kosovo.)

After the Arab conquest, dominant cultural influences in Mesopotamia were Persian as much as Arabic during the Abbasid period, 750-1258. An Iranian confederacy ruled directly in Baghdad from 934-1055. After the Mongol cataclysm, the Safavids of Iranian background conquered Iran, as well as large portions of Iraq, imposing Shi’a doctrine on the entire area. Safavid and successors ruled from 1500 to nearly 1800. During this period they often controlled Baghdad. Iran continued to rule or have political influence in parts of modern day Iraq up until the 1920s: it was even suggested to the British that they appoint a Persian prince as monarch in Iraq in the 1920s. For another interpretation of this relationship see Farmanfarmaian.

This summer, the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq announced that Iran is committed to working with Iraqi national and provincials governments on a restoration of the great palace at Ctesiphon. (In dealing with Tehran we are not dealing with the Taliban.)

It is to be hoped that American policy makers and future negotiators remember that a lasting solution in Iraq must take into account Iranian interests, interests that go beyond their mutual Shi’ism and the concerns of the day.