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Just What is Iran?

- June 12, 2009

As Iranians head to the polls today for presidential elections in “apparently huge numbers”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8097617.stm, I wanted to throw out the question of whether political science actually has a good label for the Iranian regime. To greatly (and unfairly) simplify an “enormous literature”:http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~levitsky/researchpapers/SL_democracy-adjectives.pdf, we essentially have three working regime types these days. There are democracies, where leaders are elected in free and fair competitive elections. There are the classic non-democracies, ranging from autocracies to totalitarian states, where elections are either not held or only sham elections (e.g., only one party can compete) are permitted. Then there is the world’s newest, and increasingly popular, regime type, which Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have labeled “competitive authoritarian regimes”:http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~levitsky/researchpapers/SL_elections.pdf. Levitsky and Way define competitive authoritarian regimes by writing that:

bq. In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy. Examples include Croatia under Franjo Tudjman, Serbia under Slobodan Miloševiæ, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Ukraine under Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, Peru under Alberto Fujimori, and post-1995 Haiti, as well as Albania, Armenia, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, and Zambia through much of the 1990s. Although scholars have characterized many of these regimes as partial or “diminished” forms of democracy, we agree with Juan Linz that they may be better described as a (diminished) form of authoritarianism (“p.52”:http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~levitsky/researchpapers/SL_elections.pdf)

Which brings us to Iran. In the New York Times alone, the front page of the paper leads with a headline stating “In Iran, a Real Race, and Talk of a Sea Change”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/12/world/middleeast/12iran.html, while the Op-Ed page has a headline referring to the current election as “Iran’s Travesty”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/12/opinion/12abrams.html. Three points seem especially salient:

1) Supreme executive power in Iran lies in the hands of the appropriately named Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is _not_ popularly elected. However, the powers of the President are non-trivial.

2) The incumbent President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is running for reelection, has the support of Khamenei, plus, according to “UPI”:http://www.upi.com/news/issueoftheday/2009/06/12/Iran-election-may-decide-war-or-peace-for-Middle-East/UPI-26781244817412/, he “and his supporters control the state functions of government, which puts them at a huge advantage”

3) As of the time of this writing, no one knows who is going to win this election, and the campaign has apparently been “very spirited”:https://themonkeycage.org/2009/06/name_those_candidates.html.

So what does this mean for Iran’s regime type? Point 1 suggests a fairly typical non-democratic/authoritarian regime (which is accentuated by the fact the regime also tightly controls who can run for both executive and legislative office as well). Point 2 sounds like a fairly typical competitive authoritarian regime – there is an election, but the authorities have so much power that it is neither free nor fair. But what happens if the opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, wins the election and the authorities respect the results? After all, it has happened before in Iran with the election of “Mohammed Khatami”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammed_Khatami in 1997. What exactly do we call Iran then? Does a simple authoritarian-theocracy capture it? Or does that miss the fact that apparently competitive elections can and do occur in this country, even if they are in many ways limited (but not completely controlled) by the authorities?