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IRAN: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, by Daniel M. Corstange*

Few countries within the ICPP study underwent as drastic a regime change as Iran. The transition from a near-absolutist, secular-leaning, pro-Western monarchy to a highly-politicized, highly-radicalized, anti-Western theocracy can hardly be understated. The original "Continuity and Change" section in Political Parties gave brief synopses of party activity up to 1978: a convenient cutoff point that neatly finishes the Pahlavi period in Iran and inaugurates the revolutionary regime in 1979. But the new, theocratic era can further be broken down into two periods: one under the direction of Khomeini (which lasted until his death in 1989), and a post-Khomeini search for identity.

Pahlavi Absolutism

The monarchy of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was in need of both legitimacy and support in the early 1960s after experiencing the debacle of the National Front era and the humiliation of being restored and propped up by Western powers. The shah dutifully called for majlis (parliament) elections to occur in 1960, which his government promptly and clumsily fixed. After an unexpectedly strong response from the electorate, the shah called for new elections to take place in 1961, which if possible were even more flagrantly rigged than the previous ones. When the populace again reacted poorly, the shah dissolved the majlis and ordered the prime minister to rule by decree in contravention to the constitution.

The shah launched his White Revolution in 1963, seeking a number of economic, social, and political modernizations. As part of the package, he created the New Iran Party to replace the Melliyun Party. He then pitted it against the Mardom Party in an apparent attempt to decree a two-party system for Iran. The resulting 1964 majlis elections were relatively clean -- after pressure from the shah's Western patrons -- and the deputies returned were more independent in action than the shah had expected or wanted, making this his last real experiment with a relatively unspoiled election.

A further move towards absolutist consolidation occurred in the 1970s as the shah disbanded both parties and announced the formation of the Resurgence Party, which was to be the sole party of the state and an agent of popular mobilization for the shah's government. Furthermore, in an attempt to combine the authoritarian benefits of a one-party system with the appearance of legitimate debate in a two-party system, the shah maintained the fiction of two wings within the party, though the leaders of the "progressives" and "liberals" were in fact chosen by the shah himself. Tachau notes: "why the shah moved in the direction of a single party is not clear. To most observers, it hardly mattered, because he would never allow autonomous groups to compete for power. The most likely answer is that he had become so confident of his position at home and abroad that he felt he could orchestrate developments, much like a conductor leading musicians through a musical score" (Tachau, 1994: 137).

As a mobilizing agent, the Resurgence Party was an abysmal failure, attracting support from few others than individuals who wanted jobs in the public sector. Instead, a number of different guerrilla groups -- both secular and religious -- were organizing to challenge Pahlavi rule. In addition, the shah considered the clerical establishment to be hopelessly medieval and backwards. Since the clergy -- excepting those individuals he had co-opted -- opposed his modernization programs, he treated them like political enemies. Meanwhile, he also attempted to buy off the business elite, allowing them to become rich on the condition that they stay out of politics.

By the end of the 1970s, the shah's regime faced a number of challenges which it ultimately could not surmount. The economy was in shambles after a reckless government spending spree following the dramatic increase in oil prices in 1973 followed by a retrenchment and borrowing when the oil glut hit. The Resurgence Party had failed to mobilize a significant segment of the populace behind the shah's rule. Finally, the government in 1978 made the critical mistake of criticizing the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which it had previously exiled. This touched off a wave of popular unrest that never settled, as every conceivable opposition faction within Iran emerged in an anti-shah alliance to bring down the monarchy.

Direction Under Khomeini

In the months preceding the departure of the shah on January 16, 1979, the country experienced a proliferation of parties: the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI), the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), the Devotees of the Masses, the Devotees of Islam, the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), the Muslim People's Republican Party (MPRP), as well as the reemergence of the Tudeh Party and the National Front. The parties acted under the general direction of Khomeini and the clerical establishment, which was perhaps the only autonomous institution left in Iran that had the necessary infrastructure and stature to organize the revolution. Though the various factions disagreed on a number of points and varied wildly in ideology, they pragmatically united under the man who had become the symbol of the revolution.

The revolutionary government organized a plebiscite for March of 1979 that was to determine the nature of the political system. Despite reservations from some parties -- predominantly the MPRP and PMOI -- the vote was held, and the electorate overwhelmingly demanded the establishment of an Islamic republic. Elections were then held in August for a Council of Experts who were to draw up a new constitution. The MPRP and National Front objected at this point, claiming that the revolutionary government had originally promised to hold more broadly-based and representative elections for a Constituent Assembly. They argued that Khomeini had ordered a much more narrow council because he feared that his supporters could not control the debate. Instead, he had arranged for the candidates to be vetted by his supporters in the IRP. By the time the referendum on the draft constitution was held in December, significant disagreements over participation occurred due to contradictions in the document between provisions for national sovereignty and other provisions for vesting ultimate sovereignty in the faqih (chief jurisconsult).

After the referendum on the constitution passed muster, the first elections for the presidency were dutifully held. The IRP candidate was unexpectedly disqualified on a technicality, paving the way for the election of Abu al-Hasan Bani Sadr without significant opposition. Bani Sadr was a devotee of Khomeini, but was independent of the clerical establishment. The new president grappled for control of the government with the Revolutionary Council for the next year and a half, but became increasingly isolated from any support base and estranged from Khomeini.

The majlis elections of early 1980 returned a legislature controlled by the radical leftists (led by the IRP) which held over half the seats. Indeed, the clerics themselves made a strong showing, taking roughly a quarter of the 360 the seats. The Economist observes: "The excessive representation of the men of religion -- around 80 -- shows how successful these turbaned gentlemen have been in kidnapping a revolution that was started and mostly made by other people" (Economist, 1980: "On and on Iran's clergy come"). As in most cases in post-revolutionary Iran, all labels such as "radical" or "leftist" are subjective and should not be assumed to follow the same definitions as are common in western literature. The majlis majority was "leftist" in an economic sense of land redistribution, nationalization of foreign assets, and a centralized economy. In the social sense, of course, they were considered by westerners to be extremely far right.

After the elections, the PMOI mounted an escalating series of high-profile attacks on pro-Khomeini clerics, accusing them of attempting to monopolize power in the country. The situation came to a fore in the summer of 1981 with the impeachment of Bani Sadr and his subsequent escape from Iran with the assistance of the PMOI leader Mas'ud Rajavi. In addition, PMOI destroyed the headquarters of the IRP and killed a significant percentage of the party's leadership. The IRP responded with a campaign of repression designed to stamp out the other parties. It had to wait until 1983 for an excuse to dissolve the Tudeh Party -- which had to this point been a faithful Khomeini supporter -- but after that the IRP was the sole party of the country. The radical leftists therefore maintained their majority in the 1984 elections, though the body was trimmed from 360 to 270 seats.

In June of 1987, however, Khomeini, on the urging of IRP leaders 'Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and 'Ali Khamenei, dissolved the IRP and banned all political parties. The official government position was that the party had served its revolutionary purpose and was no longer necessary. More likely, however, was that the pro-Khomeini clergy had feared the IRP turning into an autonomous political force that might eventually challenge the power monopoly in the hands of the clerical establishment. The dissolution of the party was met with general indifference; it had in fact been little more effective in rallying public support than had the Resurgence Party during the latter's own era (Tachau, 1994: 139). After that point, the clergy dominated the regime, but without the use of party system infrastructure.

Post-Khomeini Search for Identity

As Khomeini's health deteriorated through 1989, the governing elites began to seriously consider the direction the state would take under new leadership. In the run-up to the faqih's death from cancer in June 1989, Khomeini began distributing power to his subordinates, such as declaring Rafsanjani -- the majlis speaker at that time -- the commander in chief of the armed forces. After his death, a series of reforms went through to streamline and rationalize the workings of the political system. The office of the prime ministry was abolished to eliminate the anomaly of two executives, removing Hussein Musavi from the position he had held since 1981. In addition, "the ministry of interior announced that it would begin to entertain applications for the establishment of political parties. Predictably, however, no political parties, as such, [had] been licensed" (Tachau, 1994: 140). Though a few interest groups were allowed to form, political parties in the sense of diverse interest aggregators did not develop. After Khomeini's death, the Assembly of Experts elected President Khamenei to succeed him. At this point, Speaker Rafsanjani was elected to the presidency and began to advocate some reform in the administration.

The 1992 majlis elections brought about a shift. The radical left-wingers that controlled the legislature during Khomeini's tenure were thrown out of the majority by conservatives. Helped by the popularity of Rafsanjani, the conservatives advocated stronger respect for property rights and a less militant line against the West. Rafsanjani's moves to bring the war with Iraq to an end also helped their cause. A contemporary news report declared that the elections had "produced a stunning victory for supporters of reformist President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Hardliners were humiliated, with many of the top names losing their seats and whatever political power they had" (Hepburn, 1992: "Post-Khomeini Iran moves to temper its hardline image").

This electoral shift caused the left-wing camp to reassess its strategies and ideology. Though the conservatives maintained control in the majlis in 1996, they did so only by a slim margin, while the left-wing had by then reinvented itself and was poised to challenge the conservatives for the presidency. They offered Mohammad Khatami in 1997 to stand against the right-wing majlis speaker 'Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri. Khatami won in a landslide, taking nearly 70 percent of the vote and faring especially well with young people and women, who supported his stance to ease the strict social system imposed by the clerical government.

After Khatami's election, the political system began to open up in certain aspects. In May of 1998, the interior ministry allowed leaders of the Servants of Construction -- a de facto interest group that backed Khatami in his 1997 bid -- to officially register their group as a political party, one of the first to appear in Iran since the revolution (BBC News, 1998: "Iran takes step toward multi-party democracy"). The new administration eased some social restrictions acted to build more cordial ties with western countries, with the president traveling to a number of European states. Khatami faced considerable opposition from conservative factions that controlled the majlis, as well as other key state institutions such as the Guardian Council.

It was in this atmosphere of growing tension and paralysis that the 2000 majlis elections took place. Going into the election season, a loose coalition of reformers, under the label of the "Second of Khordad Front" (after the date of Khatami's election), was poised to make a strong showing at the polls. Comprising a "rainbow coalition" of 18 reformist groups and led by Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF leader Mohammad-Reza Khatami -- the president's brother -- it included western-style liberals, Islamic leftists, and nationalists. The pro-Khatami forces set a precedent for overwhelming victory with their success both in Khatami's presidential campaign of 1997 and their success in the municipal elections of 1999, the first in theocratic Iran's history (Theodoulou, 2000: "A chance for the Reformists to take on the Conservatives"). The reformist movement was seemingly the next logical step in Iranian political life: the conservatives that had come to power eight years previously were considered reformists compared to the radical leftists they displaced, and now the reformers were making a bid to replace what was at the time viewed as a hardline faction. The conservative Guardian Council, however, utilized its vetting authority to disqualify a number of leading reformist candidates, most prominently former interior minister Abdollah Nouri, who was expected to mount a strong challenge for the speaker's post. The atmosphere of openness pervaded at seemingly all levels, though: despite there being 1,500 more candidates than in 1996, there were far fewer disqualifications, going from some 44 percent in 1996 to fewer than eight percent in 2000 (Human Rights Watch, 2000: "Parliamentary Elections in Iran").

Despite such roadblocks thrown up by conservative opponents, reformists won a resounding victory in the first round of elections in February, taking 143 of the 185 seats that had been decided outright (IranMania, 2000: "Second round of elections ups reformist vote"). Nonetheless, conservatives struck back after the results were announced in an attempt to control the damage leading into the second round. "Conservatives… boldly reasserted their grip on all levels of power, closing down almost all of the pro-Khatami press, hauling journalists into court or off to prison -- and even reversing some of February's poll results" (IranMania, 2000: "Reformers stagger into vote battered by conservatives"). In addition, the Guardian Council reported widespread fraud in the Tehran municipalities, throwing into doubt the reformist victories there, where they took 29 of the 30 seats. It also overturned victories by a number of reformists.

The Tehran results were eventually left to stand, though former president Rafsanjani -- who had angered reformists by standing with the support of conservatives -- was moved up 10 spots from 30th to 20th on the list. Despite the obstructions, reformers won majority control in the majlis for the first time ever, holding some 65 percent of the seats. Since that time, conservatives have used their remaining power to badger and obstruct reformists. Over 20 pro-reform newspapers have been closed down since the first round of the elections due to the restrictive press law. When the new majlis took up debate on opening the regulations on press freedom, Supreme Leader Khamenei even took the step of instructing the deputies to cease discussions of a new law. It remains to be seen how much reformists will actually be able to accomplish in the face of conservative opposition entrenched in many of the key institutions of the state.

Though the reformists are advocate the easing of social restrictions and opening the political system, they are neither united lockstep in ideology, nor are most of them "liberal" in the western sense. As Khatami has repeated said, reformists seek to open the state within the context of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. "It is even argued that reformist clerics need the conservatives to prevent the secularisation of Iranian politics. Conversely, the conservatives need the reformers because they give popular legitimacy to clerical rule. Indeed, it is believed that the shrewder conservatives, among them… Khamenei, see Mr. Khatami as the last best chance for the Islamic Republic" (Theodoulou, 2000: "A chance for the Reformists to take on the Conservatives").

Continuity and Change in Political Parties, 1963-2000

Due to the upheaval of the events of 1978-1979 and the unstable party system of post-revolutionary Iran, defining this category in terms of traditional parties would be somewhat difficult. In addition, due to a lack of detailed literature on Iranian elections, many "parties" would be missed. Due to these problems, parliamentary blocs are described below -- in addition to the old parties -- with specific member parties of the blocs detailed when possible.

Original Parties, from 1950-1962, still continuing to 2000

773 Communist Party (Hezb-e Tudeh -- Tudeh) Though the original edition of Political Parties declared the Tudeh Party to be terminated, the party was revived by the revoution. It played a somewhat surprisingly muted role in the conflict, adhering to the anti-Americanism and pro-masses positions, while offering only lukewarm support to the clerical leadership. Despite this support, the government dissolved the party in March 1983 when the pro-Khomeini Islamic Republican Party (IRP) drove the organization underground after the Soviet Union called for an end to the war with Iraq. Differing accounts of the party's viability are prevalent throughout the literature, with some scholars suggesting that the party is alive and well, and others declaring it shattered and essentially defunct.

774 National Front (NF) The NF, though active in supporting Khomeini in the revolution, soon parted ways with the clerical establishment after objecting to their consolidation of power. The party was suppressed by the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) in the early 1980s in that party's drive for dominance. The NF still exists informally, but lacks legal status.

Post-Revolutionary Blocs

777 Radical Leftists The Radical Leftists came into power after the revolution with the support of Khomeini. This bloc sought land redistribution, the nationalization of foreign assets (as well as those of wealthy royalists), and a centrally-planned economy. The bloc held an extremely militant attitude towards western countries and any states that it viewed as western collaborators, and sought to export the revolution to neighboring countries. It was turned out of power in the majlis in 1992 when conservatives (then considered to be reformers) took control. The following two parties were key players in the bloc, though certainly there are other, less well-documented groups:

Islamic Republican Party (Hezb-e Jomhuri-ye Islami -- IRP) Established on February 18, 1979, the IRP was the political party of the pro-Khomeini clergy. Membership in the IRP was an important (though not mandatory) prerequisite for running for the majlis. The party was originally organized as a means to deny the opportunity to others to mobilize their interests, rather than as a positivist vehicle to for social and political mobilization. The IRP was supported primarily by the urban poor and the petite bourgeoisie. Rhetorically, therefore, redistribution was a key catchword for the IRP, though there existed significant division within party ranks, resulting in repeated attempts at land reform legislation, which were subsequently judged unconstitutional by the Guardian Council. Khomeini dissolved the party on June 1, 1987, after agreeing with party leaders 'Ali Khamanei and 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that the party had outlived its usefulness. Though observers noted that the real reason was probably because of the growing fear that the party could become an autonomous locus of power to compete with the clergy.

Muslim People's Republican Party (Hezb-e Jomhuri-ye Khalq-e Musalman-e Iran -- MPRP) The MPRP was founded in 1979 by supporters of Ayatollah Mohammad Kazemi Shari'atmadari and attempted to act as a counterweight to the pro-Khomeini Islamic Republican Party (IRP). The MPR supported the establishment of an Islamic Republic, it opposed Khomeini's doctrine of the faqih. The party was dissolved in 1980 by the government, and Shari'atmadari was placed under de facto house arrest. He later was stripped of his religious authority, dying in 1986 while still in detention.

778 Radical Conservatives The Radical Conservatives are supported by both traditionalist clerics and the bazaaris -- the traditional merchant class of Iran that had been a driving force behind the revolution. The Conservatives advocate a more open, capitalist/market economy, in opposition to the planned system of the Radical Leftists. The Conservatives came to power in the Majlis in 1992 on Rafsanjani's coattails. At the time, they were considered moderate reformers, advocating eased social restrictions and better ties with the west so as to address Iran's economic isolation. The bloc held a slim majority in the 1996 elections, and began to face a relentless onslaught from the left-wing, which had retooled itself as a reformist faction. By the 2000 elections, the bloc was essentially referred to as "hardline," the label given to the Radical Leftists in 1992 when the Conservatives had ousted them. It lost control of the majlis in a landslide victory for the reformists.

779 Reformists The Reformist bloc is essentially a retooling of the Radical Leftist bloc toward a more moderate ideology which stresses the rule of law, personal freedoms, and better ties with the west. Led by President Mohammad Khatami, the bloc took the presidency in 1997 in an election over the Conservative speaker of the majlis, won Iran's first municipal elections in 1999, and took control of the majlis in 2000 in a landslide. In addition to a number of other factions, the Reformists are represented in part by the following:

Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF) Led by Mohammad-Reza Khatami, brother of the president, the IIPF composed the left-wing trend of the reformist Second of Khordad Front and led the loose coalition in the 2000 majlis elections. It is the faction considered closest to the president himself. The IIPF holds that, in order to ensure economic development, a more open political atmophere must be cultivated in the country. In its election manifesto, it therefore promised new legislation to ease censorship on publications and filsm, as well as to extend the rule of law through jury trials, etc.

Liberation Movement of Iran (Nehzat-e Azadi-ye Iran -- LMI) Sometimes called the Freedom Movement of Iran, the LMI was established in 1960 by two Mossadegh supporters, Mehdi Bazargan and Sayyid (later Ayatollah) Mahmud Taleqani. Bazargan and Taleqani imparted a more prominent religious character to the party, which distinguished it from its peer opposition organizations (the Iran Party, the National Party, and the Society of Iranian Socialists) in the second National Front. Because of internal conflicts, however, the second National Front split when the Iran Party went its own way, leaving the LMI and the remaining two groups to form the third National Front. The LMI leadership was mostly under arrest or in exile up until the revolution, at which point it became a major actor. Bazargan helped mobilize the oil workers on behalf of Khomeini, and was in February of 1979 appointed as the first prime minister of the revolutionary regime. He came into increased conflict with the Revolutionary Council, and when Iranian students overran the US embassy in November, he and his government resigned. The LMI at that point fought a losing battle with the clerical establishment, eventually being suppressed. During the period of one-party rule by the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), the LMI was the only opposition faction permitted to function openly in Iran. Under the direction of Dr. Ibrahim Yazdi, the party has experienced an informal resurgence of activity in the 1990s and is a leading reformist voice.

People's Majahedin Organization of Iran (Sazman-e Mojahedin-e Khalq-e Iran -- PMOI) The PMOI was founded in 1965 by leftist university students as a more militant offshoot of the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI). PMOI interpreted Shi'ism as a revolutionary ideology to be utilized by mobilizing the impoverished masses against internal "feudalism" and Western imperialism, with many of the views of the organization being similar to those of the well-known Iranian ideologue 'Ali Shari'ati. The party split in 1975 between communist and non-communist groups; both retained the PMOI label, though the former added "Marxist-Leninist Branch" to the title, and the latter became popularly known as the Muslim Mojahedin, which is the branch with continuity. The PMOI initially supported Khomeini in the revolution, but boycotted the plebiscite on the constitution on the grounds that it made no provisions for land redistribution, nationalization of foreign assets, or the rights of nationalities. Party leader Mas'ud Rajavi ran against Bani Sadr in 1980 and lost badly. The PMOI contested the elections to the majlis in the same year, and had wide support in a number of locations. The party won no seats, however, after the government resorted to coercion and electoral rigging. The PMOI moved into opposition, and carried out a campaign of high-profile assassinations, targeting especially key figures in the Islamic Republican Party (IRP). The government responded with a reign of terror, scattering most of the membership. The PMOI then began to station guerrilla bases in Iraq for cross-border attacks. The party has tried to convince Western policymakers that it represents a democratic alternative to clerical rule.

Servants of Construction (SC) The SC organized at the time of the 1996 majlis election by supporters of former president 'Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and supported President Khatami in his 1997 bid for the presidency. The interior minister then granted permission for its leaders -- most prominently, Tehran mayor Gholam-Hussein Karbaschi, central bank governor Mohsen Nurbakhsh, and Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of Ranfsanjani -- to register it as an official political party. The group favors market economic reforms, a relatively liberal cultural policy, and improvements in relations with western countries in order to break Iran's economic isolation. It represented the centrist trend in the reformist Second of Khordad Front in the 2000 elections. It stressed that priority be given to economic construction over political reforms.


Associated Press, May 10, 1988. "Iran militants trying for majority Vote result could determine path of Islamic revolution" (Toronto: Toronto Star).

Associated Press, May 10, 1980. "Islamic Party Leads election: Parliament May Convene in Two Weeks" (Associated Press).

BBC News, February 23, 2000. "Can the reformists hold together?"

BBC News, February 22, 2000. "Iranian politics: A family affair."

BBC News, February 10, 1999. "Iran prepares for first-ever local elections."

BBC News, February 21, 2000. "Iran's hardliners at crossroads."

BBC News, May 20, 1998. "Iran takes step towards multi-party democracy."

BBC News, February 26, 2000. "Rafsanjani scrapes in."

Blanche, Ed, May 19, 1988. "Radicals Gain in Parliament, Indicating More Anti-West Militancy" (Associated Press).

Blanche, Ed, May 19, 1988. "Rafsanjani Re-Elected Parliament Speaker, Tightens Grip on Power" (Associated Press).

"Factions on a par as Iranian parliament opens a fifth term" (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, June 1, 1996).

Hepburn, Bob, June 1, 1992. "Post-Khomeini Iran moves to temper its hardline image" ( Toronto: Toronto Star).

Human Rights Watch, 2000. "Parliamentary Elections in Iran" (Human Rights Watch: http//

IranMania, 2000. "Iran Elections" (IranMania:

IranMania, May 4, 2000. "Reformers stagger into vote battered by conservatives" (IranMania:

IranMania, May 6, 2000. "Reformers win big at polls again, say reform 'irreversible'" (IranMania:

IranMania, May 6, 2000. "Second round of elections ups reformist vote" (IranMania:

"On and on Iran's clergy come" (Economist, May 31, 1980).

"Political Factions Inside Iran Today" (Eurasia Research Center:

Tachau, Frank, ed., 1994. Political Parties in the Middle East and North Africa (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press).

Theodoulou, Michael, February 1, 2000. "A chance for the Reformists to take on the Conservatives" (IranMania:

UPI, May 19, 1988. "New shift in Iranian parliament may bring leadership changes" (United Press International).

*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-August, 2000