Beyond Violence 


get involved forum email petition donate

Iran has become a battleground for many factions of society, from the reformists to students and liberals. Iran's complex political system combines elements of a modern Islamic theocracy with democracy. The whole system operates under a Supreme Leader who is, in theory, appointed by an elected body but is, in practice, answerable to no-one. The president who, in principle, is democratically elected, has many executive powers, but his decisions on Iran's foreign policy, the armed forces, or nuclear policy are ultimately under the control of the Supreme Leader.


► Overview

The key question is how this system develops in the ongoing struggle between reformists and conservatives. It is also a political experiment and its performance is keenly watched by secularists and Islamists elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Over the years, Iran has experienced numerous internal struggles and protests against the establishment, resulting in many instances of violations of basic human rights, abuse and illegitimate use of power and oppression of opposition.

► Key issues

Balance of power

There has been tension between the office of the leader and the office of the president - a reflection of the deeper tensions between religious rule and the aspirations of the constituency that elected President. In fact, the power struggle is not so much about policy as about the personal power of two politicians facing each other across the fault line in the Islamic Republic: the contradiction between theocracy and republicanism. Ahmadinejad’s probable defeat in the 2013 presidential elections may result in a further consolidation of the power of the hard-line clerics surrounding Ayatollah Khamanei and, particularly of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). In addition, there is also an internal division within the dominant conservative strain in the Iranian elite. Hard-line clerics and their supporters in the security services view Ahmadinejad and his protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as dangerously liberal on social issues and in their approach to the US and Israel, and dangerously unorthodox on Islam.

IRGC dominance

After the Iraqi invasion in 1980, the Revolutionary Guard gradually strengthened its position and developed its land, air and sea forces to become a fully-fledged army with enormous influence across the country. It has a powerful presence in other institutions including the ministry of intelligence and the police force, and controls volunteer militias with branches in every town. The IRGC is slowly increasing its role among the elitist group of clerics with Ayatollah Khamenei having less influence over its actions and politics. The IRGC became political opportunists, which allowed them to slowly take a prominent rational role in becoming more powerful.

Human Rights

The Iranian Constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, except when it is deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public”. In practice, however, the Islamic Republic has imposed significant restrictions on these freedoms. In its World Report 2008, Human Rights Watch concluded that the government “systematically suppresses freedom of expression and opinion”. The UN Secretary General’s report to the UN General Assembly on human rights in Iran, published in September 2009, observed that "serious restrictions remain on the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the Islamic Republic of Iran". Those who exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly under the Constitution are liable to arrest and imprisonment. Dissent is suppressed by a variety of means: through the imprisonment of journalists and editors whose reporting the authorities deem critical; by strictly controlling publishing activity including the banning of newspapers and student journals and the forced closure of reformist publications; by restricting access to the internet; and by the harassment, intimidation and detention of academics, teachers, trade unionists and students who advocate reform.

► Key actors

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Holds the highest position of power in Iran. The Leader is chosen by the clerics who make up the Assembly of Experts. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was appointed for life in June 1989, succeeding Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Re-elected as Iran's president in June 2009, amid a bitterly contested poll result which led to the most serious internal unrest seen in the country since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Amid claims of fraud and vote-rigging, opposition supporters took to the streets. Around 20 people were killed and more than 1,000 arrested in the wave of protests that followed.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps

On May 5, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree that established what became known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Initially, the Guard was intended to serve as a ‘people’s army’; they would protect the revolution and assist the Islamic regime in the daily enforcement of its codes of morality and Islam. Given the history of the CIA’s meddling in Iran’s last democracy by engaging in the coup d’état of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, Khomeini had hoped his revolutionary government could prevent a similar occurrence. Therefore, the IRGC was also created as a counterweight to the regular military, and to protect the revolution against a possible coup. The IRGC is made up of various paramilitary arms, including the Basij Resistance Force (People’s militia), the Qods Force, and Bonyads (Charitable foundations) -who run the Iranian economy. Over the years IRGC has strengthened its position and become extremely important factor in Iran’s politics and economy.

► Violence

For the past couple of decades, Iran experienced numerous outbursts of violence and hundreds of casualties on different fronts. In 1999, pro-democracy students at Tehran University demonstrated following the closure of the reformist newspaper 'Salam'. Clashes with security forces lead to six days of rioting and the arrest of more than 1,000 students and over a dozen deaths. In 2003, thousands attended student-led protests in Tehran against clerical establishment, resulted in hundreds people injured and detained. In June 2007 violent protests erupted in the capital after government imposes petrol rationing amid fears of possible UN sanctions. In June 2009 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared to have won a resounding victory in the 12 June presidential election. The rival candidates challenge the result, alleging vote-rigging. Their supporters took to the streets, along with the students and at least 30 people are killed and more than 1,000 arrested in the wave of protests that follow. Five months after, the death of influential dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri triggered further clashes between opposition supporters and security forces. At least 8 people die in what is the worst violence since the contested presidential election.


Although Article 38 of the Iranian constitution explicitly prohibits torture, the penal code does not contain a clear definition of torture as a specific criminal offence. Moreover, in 2002 the Guardian Council refused to commit the country to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment on the basis that it conflicted with Islamic rules and principles. In its 2008 Human Rights Report, the US Department of State says that there have been numerous credible reports that security forces and prison personnel tortured detainees and prisoners. According to the report, common methods of torture in Iranian prisons include prolonged solitary confinement with sensory deprivation, beatings, long confinement in contorted positions, kicking detainees with military boots, hanging detainees by the arms and legs, making threats of execution, burning with cigarettes, sleep deprivation, and severe and repeated beatings with cables or other instruments on the back and on the soles of the feet. The report also states that prisoners have recalled instances of beatings on the ears, including partial or complete deafness, punching the area around the eyes, leading to partial or complete blindness and the use of poison to induce illness.

The treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic grants equal rights to all ethnic minorities and allows for minority languages to be used in the media and in schools. Despite these apparent constitutional safeguards, however, international human rights organisations, Western governments and the United Nations agree that the situation in practice has been markedly different and that ethnic and religious minorities in Iran have been subject to discrimination, harassment and, sometimes, abuse. As the US State Department asserted in its 2008 Human Rights Report, “the government disproportionately targeted minority ethnic groups, including Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, and Baluchis, for arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention and physical abuse”. It added that “these groups also reported political and economic discrimination, particularly in the provision of economic aid, granting of business licences, university admissions, permission to publish books, and housing and land rights”.

► Prospects for non-violent peace transformation

It is extremely difficult to evaluate prospects for non-violence, as one would have to deconstruct many elements of Iranian establishment and take into account all contributing factors. In principle, Iranian population is subject to the rule of the Supreme Leader who holds tight grip on the internal policies of the country, through the IRGC, and is willing to exercise its power in whatever way necessary to remain as the dominant power.

► Further reading