Iran, meaning the land of Arians, is the 18th largest country in the world, with nearly 80 million population, with impressive advances in science and technology since the 1979 Revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic. It ranks 8th in arms production in the world, with 11 million trained paramilitary on reserve. It is a country of special geostrategic significance due to its central location in the Middle East and between Europe and Asia. Iran is bordered on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the south by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, on the west by Iraq, northwest by Turkey, on the north by Russia and Kazakhstan, Iran also holds an important position in international energy security and world economy because of its huge reserves of oil and natural gas. Thus, it is utmost particularly important to governments in Europe and United States to understand the Iranian mind and system of government if they desire to have good relations with it.
One of the essential problems toward understanding the nature of the Revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran is the lack of knowledge of the concept "Islamic Republic." The result has been a serious misunderstanding of governing principles, political structure, decision making process, the system of operation, and the bases for foreign relations. For proper understanding of this concept, one has to pay attention first to the structure of Islamic religion and then within this context considering the meaning of the republic and ensuing form of government.
The Islamic religion, unlike Christianity, is devoid of hierarchical structure. For example, under the catholic section of Christianity, there is a strict hierarchical structure. It starts at its summit with the Pope and goes down to cardinals, archbishops, bishops and ends with the parish practices. The total operation of the system is governed quite strictly from the top. The higher we go within the administrative structure of Christianity, the offices become more luxurious and the officeholder's outfits more expensive, more symbolic, more impressive, vary for different occasions, and the number of servants increases. Everything excels to its summit when it reaches the Vatican and the highest officeholder, the Pope.
There is no such religious hierarchy in Islam. Islam is an individualized socialistic oriented religion. Everyone is the master of his own faith and individually follows the teachings of Islam to the degree that he desires. Millions of Iranians, as in the rest of the Muslim world, do not pray five times a day, do not fast, do not believe in full covering of body for women, and do not attend the Friday sermon. Yet, they confidently consider them Muslims. Often, it is forgotten that to be a Muslim, you need only to believe in Allah (God) and Mohammed as his prophet. What extras you believe and follow is totally up to you and between you and your creator. In studying the Islamic Principles and Laws developed at the time of Prophet Mohammad and later, it is obvious that many may have problems in properly understanding of them and need to refer to a man of knowledge in Islam to solve them. These are a few who have devoted many years of their life and their time in studying Islam and its corresponding societal norms,
Each large community, depending on its size, has one or more of these men of knowledge. They are classified based on the level of their knowledge, extensiveness of their studies, and scholarly contributions At the lowest official level of knowledge are those known as "mullah" followed by "hojjatol-Islam" and the "ayatollah" which is the highest scholarly degree bestowed upon an expert on Islamic religion, its principals, laws, history and tradition. To reach this title requires many years of hard studies, several levels of examinations, scholarly writings and a final oral examination before a panel of ayatollahs who are recognized as proven experts. The title of ayatollah in Islamic world is comparable to a Ph.D. degree in the other institutions of higher education, but much more difficult to attain. The student is well into his 40s and 50s when he finally becomes qualified for the title.
Among some 80 millions Iranians, the number of ayatollahs may be around a hundred.
They are residents in large communities except the City of Gum which is the center of Islamic education and many resident Ayatollahs are full time teachers like professors at the universities. Each ayatollah is free to choose his place of residence. Individuals in their area of residence are free to refer to one of them if they encounter certain religious problems, but the majority of Iranians never refer to an ayatollah or follow them. This is a good evidence of the individual nature of the Islamic religion. Islam is the religion that each individual believe in it on his own and not what the ayatollahs prescribe. Millions of Iranians do not follow the principle of official daily prayer or fasting in the month of Ramadan yet they consider themselves a devote Muslim. Mullahs and other less schools select one or more ayatollah to refer to them in resolving their religious questions. They are free in their choice and can change them at will or may refer to more than one.
Ayatollahs pursue, usually, a modest way of life and easily accessible. In general, they are supported by religious donations or by income from properties donated to the local mosques. They are totally independent from one another though some may be considered by others as more knowledgeable. Scholarly reputation of some may extend far beyond their area of residence even into other countries. These are very few and are called grand ayatollah, such as Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq and Shariatmadari and Montezeri in Iran.
Now, if we transfer this social and religious structure to a republican political system, we get a particular and unique form of government which is socialistic and democratic in its own merit. This fundamental democratic nature of the Iranian Islamic society is the main reason that Ayatollah Khomeini when drafting the new Iranian constitution created a supreme leader with absolute political power controlling all powers of the government including the military and judicial. At the political level we have the system governed by so-called experts in Islamic religion who are loyal to the supreme leader who also sustain their previous modest way of life while holding high political positions.
The weekly Friday prayer all over the nation is one traditional way of Islamic government keeping in contact with the people. In Tehran, for example, the Friday prayer is held at the University of Tehran grounds where several hundred thousands of people participate and nearly all important government officials, top officials in particular, are present. A top leader, designated by the Supreme Leader, leads the prayer. Historically speaking, Friday prayer has been the foundation of the Islamic governmental structure. It was one of the early steps in the formation of the Islamic state, somehow similar to town meetings in the United States.
It consist of two sermons which must be delivered, The first is religious, glorifying and praising the Lord Allah; the second is political, presenting social, economic and political issues affecting people and daily life. Thus, at least once a week, people have direct contact with their leaders and are made aware of governmental policies and have opportunity to question and communicate with the leadership.
Excluding the office the Supreme Leader, Iran has already developed a two-party system generally known as Moderates and Radicals. Although they are not called political parties, both groups are well organized and quite effective in the electoral process. Iran has a parliamentary legislative body with a total of 290 seats. A positive aspect of this democratic process is that, unlike the US Congress where incumbents have a good chance of getting reelected, in Iran, only around a half of the incumbents running for office are reelected. Democratic process is well alive in the Iranian parliament. Debates are quite open and often very lively. It is not infrequent for some members of one group to vote with another on certain issues of concern. This tension has eliminated a single major rule such as England. There have been times that only one-third of the bills proposed by the government has passed through the Majlis (parliament). It has also revised a higher percentage of nominees for public positions than the United States Senate. These are just some aspects of democracy under the Islamic Republic.
The Concept of Government and the Extent of Limitations on Its Powers
What separates the rationales from the moderates is a deeply directed dispute concerning the role of government in the Islamic society. According to Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, the government is an institution ordained by the Almighty and founded with absolute authority entrusted to the Prophet. It is an entity supplanting secondary statutes of the canonical law in Islam. "The government is a primary rule in Islam taking precedent over praying, fasting, and performing the hajj pilgrimage." "However, it was wrong to assume that nobody should protest whatever we say or do." Instead, criticism and finding faults are among divine gifts for the promotion of human beings, "But he stopped short of giving an exact definition to Islamic government condemning that "under the present sensitive situation," referring to Iran-Iraq war, "he preferred to remain silent."
Since then, the role of government in Islamic society has been the subject of hot debates between the two major groups of moderates and radicals. Radicals favor a highly socialistic agenda of large-scale public investment projects, raising taxes, controlling prices, state control over commerce and reforming land ownership. Moderates are against all of these, some claiming that these measures go beyond the strict limits on government action prescribed in the Koran. Currently, the two major groups are far apart from the theoretical perspective, the only area of agreement relating to foreign affairs where government policies are supported by both groups. They agree that Islamic governments should be promoted through the Islamic world; that Iran should remain free from the foreign ideological influence. Some moderates and most of the radicals consider Western
Ideas as more seductive and therefore more dangerous than communist style ideology.
Social and Economic Developments and General Welfare Programs
Unlike the late Shah's period, though Iran has many wealthy individuals, it does not have an economic elite controlling the wealth, resources, and production. So far, the Islamic Republic has been quite socialistic oriented, as the Islamic religion itself, and the major resources and means production have been under public control. Accordingly, the direction of the operation of the government has not only been for political democracy but also for socio-economic democracy and well being of the society as a whole. Despite some important negative factors such as eight-year Iran-Iraq war, oil price fluctuations, economic embargo against Iran and more importantly the population growth, the socio-economic and technological developments since the revolution have been quite impressive.
Transformation of educational and cultural systems can be considered as the most important developments. Textbooks as well as subjects at all educational levels are changed or modified. Outdated materials were substituted by new materials relating to the latest scientific achievements as well as the Islamic culture. All foreign professors were replaced with Iranians. The educational budget was substantively increased privately, by fifteen fold, in the area of voluntary education, over 140 million elementary and secondary level textbooks are published and distributed each year. Currently, there are some fourteen million students at pre-university level educational institutions, and around 500 thousand at the universities and other institutions of higher education. There are an impressive number of foreign students at the Iranian universities. And all these, except for a few dollars registration fee, are free. Demand for qualified teachers to feed this ambitious educational program has caused the creation of many teacher education centers all over the country
For the purpose of self adequacy, immediately after the end of Iran-Iraq war, 1987-1988, seven new colleges of medicine, dentistry, and pharmacology were established and
the number has been increasing since. Because of demand created by the national health care program, the number of students at these institutions has increased by eight fold. According to projections, by 2020, the goal is to reach the level of one physician for every 300 of the total population.
In the areas of general welfare and social development programs, despite the economic consequences of eight years war, fluctuations in oil prices and economic sanctions, there has been impressive progress. Today, all aged Iranians who do not have adequate means of subsistence, are paid a month relief benefit. In addition to national health care program, a national insurance program covers all natural and other damages sustained by every Iranian including unpredictable natural disasters affecting agricultural crops. It also covers those widows who are not able to sustain themselves. Family of prisoners are extensively protected by the law. Those who can not earn enough to sustain them are provided with adequate means of subsidiation during the whole prison term of the head of the family.
In the area of transportation, since the revolution, about 180,000 kilometers of roads have been constructed amounting to 128 percent of all readings constructed prior to the Revolution. Special attention has been given to rural areas by constructing over 55,000 kilometers of rural roads by the Reconstruction Crusade organizations.
A pisciculture project was transported out to meet protein requirements of the country and increase the peasants income. The project started in 1982 in the forests and cities with emphasis on fishery through creating artificial ponds. It produces tens of millions of fish each year.
In the area of communication, there has been a substantial expansion of telephone network. From about 70 cities at the time of Revolution, it has expanded to all large and middle size cities and some 89 percent of villages. Currently, cell phones are also widely used.
In economic and technological areas, an enormous amount of money has been spent on a variety of development plans including irrigation systems, agricultural developments, and telecommunication services, and very impressive mining explorations. Beside gold and uranium basic reserves of gas have been discovered. Expert estimates indicate that these resources of gas, if continued to be used at the present level, will last for 1,200 more years. The useful life of the Iranian oil reserves, under its present 2.5 million barrels per day quota of production, is estimated to extend for 60 years.
From a single product country, previously oil, Iran has been gradually transferred to an industrialized and agricultural nation. Since the Revolution, the value of the Iranian non-oil exports has been increasing by an average of 25 percent per year. Eight oil refineries, Arak Petrochemical Complex, Shahid RajajI and Gharb power stations, Steel Complex of Mubarakeh, casting industry, which cast diesel engines and various parts of vehicles and machineries, are just among some major achievements.
The increase in agricultural products have been substantively particularly since 1986. Agricultural development has been of primary concern to the government. The Agricultural Bank was created for this purpose and has granted billions of dollars in affordable loans to farmers each year. The government has been keenly interested in mechanization of agriculture and the use of modern techniques, different sets of machinery, nearly all manufactured in Iran and sold to farmers with affordable terms. Improvement of seeds and the domestic development of more productive seeds related to crops, such as wheat, rice, cotton, have caused remarkable increase in yield. Among some 300,000 university students with 68,000 at graduate level and 22,000 at the doctor in applied sciences, a substantial number are in different fields of agriculture. Once graduated, they play a dominant role in the future of agriculture.
In the pharmaceutical field, for over 20 years Iran has been exporting some of the various medicines it produces. The Iran-Iraq war in addition to embargoes against the country, Pressured Iran, as a matter of survival, to find ways to produce needed supplies of goods and services domestically. This was a tremendous force behind most of developments in the county. From this view point, the war combined with economic embargo was some kind of blessing which caused the nation to advance in scientific, economic, technological and industrial areas. To attend to its tens of thousands of wounded soldiers and civilians, by the end of war, 1987, Iran produced 86.6 percent of its pharmaceutical needs. Pharmaceutical factories were built one after another and continued after the war to the extent that today Iran is over 90 percent self-sufficient and produces substantively more to export.
The Iranian modern military industry is about 80 years old. However up to the Revolution, 1979, even one single type of ammunition was not produced in quantities to satisfies the demand under war conditions. Billions each year were spent in purchase of modern armament by the Shah. After the Revolution, all foreign consultants and experts associated with the military production were dismissed and replaced with Iranian experienced experts. Rapid developments caused about 80 percent of all kinds of ammunitions used in war be produced domestically. The total Iranian arm industry has developed many folds since then. Today, Iran produces its own tanks, armored personnel carriers, guided missiles, submarines, military ships and armored speed boats, helicopters, radar systems, grenades, various kinds of detonators, heavy bombs up to 4,400 pounds, rocket launchers, a variety of unmanned arial vehicles (drones), short and middle range surface to surface missiles, ballistic missiles, anti-tank TOW missiles, all kinds of weapons and ammunition, and fighter-bomber planes.
There has been an impressive advancement in the field of electronics. Simulators used with all sorts of weapons and various radar and communication devices, electronic devices deviating guided missiles, and missile guidance systems are just some examples. The Iran-Iraq war which obligated Iran to place primary emphasis on military industry, has raised Iran to rank eighth in the world among arms producing countries.
A few words need to be said about Iran's military and military policies. During Iran-Iraq war the Iranian military strength at its peak was estimated at two million nearly all volunteers. Currently, there are two distinct military forces: the regular armed forces and the Revolutionary Guard forces. Together, they total 545,000 active troops and 350,000 reserve. In addition, Iran has well trained volunteer militia force called Basij including some 90,000 ful time, active duty uniformed members. About eleven million men and women are members of the Basij who could be called for service at any time if needed. It is estimated that Iran can mobilize up to one million men at the time of emergency which is considered among the kargest troop mobilization in the world. Iran has a sustained military policy historically proven. It has not invaded any country for over two centuries. Its military policy is based on deterrence. If it seeks atomic weapons, based on this long standing policy will also be for deterrence against countries which possess such weapons in the region. Considering strong nationalistic feelings of Iranians in the case of invasion by foreign forces, near Basij members, millions of well trained Iranians who will volunteer to join the military. This was evident during Iran-Iraq war where many volunteers were well over 60 years old. They volunteered to run over mine fields installed by Iraqi forces to clear the way for the advancing Iranian forces.
As all the facts presented here about the economic and social developments show the continuous efforts of the Islamic Republic from the date of its inception to advance the well being of its people and advancing the nation to stand on its own feet despite all adversities the government faced from the outside. It compels a great majority of Iranians to support the system. People are satisfied the way the system operates for their benefits and are not sure the situation will be the same if the system changes. There is also satisfaction with the term of Islamic Republic since some over 90 percent of Iranians are Muslim. However, this support of the system does not mean that they are happy with the leadership. Definitely, the majority are not satisfied. Historically, for thousands of years Iranians have lived with democratic values in their local communities. They have never sustained a dictatorial rule in power for long, The story of late Shah is a good example, After American government overthrow the democratic reign of Prime Minister Dr. Musaddegh and brought the Shah back, it took near 18 years of opposition that finally people got rid of him. But they again were betrayed by Ayatollah Khomeini who systematically eliminated the democratic minded leaders, including the first elected president Bakhtiar, and formulated a theocratic dictatorship, through drafting a constitution and forcing its approval upon the people that Iran suffers again under such a statute. Majority of Iranians want to get rid of these dictatorial elements at the top. These include the abolition of the office the Supreme Leader who has absolute power over every action of government: political, economic or social; abolition of the Council of Guardians which has veto power over the acts of parliament and has to approve candidates running for political offices. But the problem is not so easy. The constitution must be modified. Iranians want to keep the Islamic Republic but do not want to be ruled by the cleric with absolute dictatorial powers. If we know Iranians and history of Iran we can assume that they will succeed this time as well regardless how much time it may take.
One more point. No government Iranians defest more than the American while they like American people and many aspects of American life and ideas. Iran with its very important strategic position in the Middle East, 80 million educated and conscious population, scientifically, technologically and industrially far advanced than any other country in the region, except perhaps Israel, commanding position in the Persian Gulf, a source of aspiration for many Muslim nations in the region and beyond, and close association with Russia and China, is of vital importance to the Western powers all of which desire stability in the region and free flow of its petroleum and its derivatives to their countries. Iran is the most valuable geostrategy country in the region. Whoever becomes ally with Iran would have first call on its vast oil and gas resources and a strong voice in the future of the Middle East, The United States may in the long run establish normal relationship with Iran, but it will not be easy to turn it into a friendly relationship.
Anti-Americanism has become a part of national feeling which will live on for quite a long period of time. It goes back for four generations, starting with the overthrow of a democratic government which Iranians had achieved after a long struggle, bringing back Mohammad Reza Shah, helping him to inflict a brutal dictatorship during which thousands last their lives, many under torture in prisons until they were able to organize a general strike in 1978 which forced him to flee. The new government was formed by democratic minded leaders from the 1950s but soon taken over by the clergy under command of Ayatollah Khomeini which established also a harsh dictatorship. When it was invaded by Iraq in 1980, the United States sided with Iraq, by which 500,000 Iranians lost their lives and twice as much were wounded and maimed, and because of the US economic embargo Iran could not get vital supplies needed for continuation of war . Iranians can not easily forget such a destruction of human life and destruction of their cities and thousands of civil tragedies all aided by the United States. They also consider their present dictatorial rule the consequential of the previous US miscon and selfish policies.
Finally, the Islamic Republic, through its eight years of single handed struggle against Iraq which was supported and aided by the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, its persistent resistance, and ending the war without any territorial loss, emerging stronger than ever . This success gives the system prestige among Muslim people in many countries. Today, Iran's resistance against the United States supported by other major nations, in exercising its right to do research and experimentation in the area of atomic energy is supported by Muslims in many countries though their government may not like it, and the Islamic Republic is agreed because of its humanistic policies in regard to its people, such as health care, education, anti-poverty measures, and its authoritative achievements in science, technology and industrialization.
Dr. Reza Rezazadeh