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Political Parties in the Islamic Republic of Iran: A Short Review

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Political Parties in the Islamic Republic of Iran:
A Short Review

Dr. Mohamamd Hassan KHANI 
Faculty of Islamic Studies & Political Science, Imam Sadiq University

The Role of Political Parties in the Establishing and Functioning of Democratic Systems

Legitimacy and functioning properly are two main concerns and pre-conditions for the success of any political system in contemporary world. In fact these two are main concerns of all different political ideologies. To achieve these two basic goals there is a need for vast and inclusive political participation of different parts, classes, sections and segments of the society. This participation is necessary for the successful performance of any government. For solving all social, economic and political problems of a society there must be a collective effort by all.

There is no way that a tiny small part of a society can identify the problems and solve the problems by itself. In other words without the collective wisdom there will be no solution to all the problems. Any political system which is unwilling to have the participation of all groups and individuals is in fact depriving itself and the country from the wisdom, knowledge and skill necessary for dealing with the variety of issues in governing a country. Now the next question is how we can have this kind of participation. Under what circumstances and by which mechanism we can make sure that all parts of the society can and will participate in this huge and complicated task of governing a country from economic aspect to social and cultural issues to foreign policy. One safe and tested way to do this is organizing those who are willing to take part in this process through political parties. In this context establishing political parties is not just an option but a necessity. There are many ways by which the political parties can emerge. For understanding the conditions under which strong political parties will develop we can talk about two classes of political parties namely “externally mobilized” and “internally mobilized” parties.

Externally mobilized parties are established by those people who do not occupy positions of power in the existing government and who try to find their way into the political system by mobilizing and organizing their own power-base through their own political party. Many European socialist parties and many Third World nationalist parties fall into this category.

Internally mobilized parties are founded by politicians who are actually in power and are part of the current establishment and yet try to mobilize and organize a more powerful party behind themselves. The leaders of internally mobilized parties undertake such mobilization either because they seek to secure their hold over the government in the face of a challenge by a rival party which can be an externally mobilized party. The major political parties in American history and most conservative and centrist parties in Europe were founded in these circumstances. Interestingly Iranian political party system doesn’t fall in either categories.  Throughout Iranian political parties history a combination of both methods can be seen.

Political Parties in Iranian Constitution

Iranian constitution which came into effect after the victory of Islamic revolution of 1979 does recognize the formation and activity of political parties. According to article 26 of the Constitution and under the general framework of “Freedom of Association” the constitution states that the formation of parties, societies, political or professional associations, as well as religious societies, whether Islamic or pertaining to one of the recognized religious minorities, is permitted provided they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic Republic.  No one may be prevented from participating in the aforementioned groups, or be compelled to participate in them.

Iran went from being a single-party state under the monarchy to having close to 100 political parties in the months immediately following the 1979 Islamic revolution. The emergence of the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (MIRO) can be viewed in this context.

The Role of Political Parties in Post-Revolutionary Iran

In order to help and facilitate the implementation of this article (article 26) of constitution a “Parties Law” was passed in September 1981. The law specifies what a political party is and defines the conditions according to which political parties can be established and operate. First of all political parties need to get a permit from the Interior Ministry. According to Article 10 of the Parties Law a special commission known as “the Article 10 Commission” should be established to do the duties specified in party law and to supervise the performance of the Parties Law. The commission comprises of one Interior Ministry official, two parliamentarians, and two representatives of the judiciary. It has the right to issue party permits and dissolve those parties which act against the law. In 1988 almost thirty organizations applied for permits in the following months and most of them were granted the permission although just very few appeared in the political arena effectively.

The following is a short list of the main entities and groups which see themselves as political parties although they may not fully fit to be recognized as a fully functioning political party:

- Executives of Construction Party
(Kargozaran-e Sazandegi)

It was founded by a number of cabinet members of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani including his brother Mohammad Hashemi-Bahramani. Ten serving cabinet ministers, four vice-presidents, the governor of the Central Bank of Iran, and the mayor of Tehran created the Servants of Construction (Khedmatgozarane Sazandegi) in 1996 to support then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. This reformist/pragmatist party was renamed the Executives of Construction after the cabinet ministers withdrew due to legal prohibitions on executive involvement in parliamentary elections.

- Islamic Coalition Party (ICP)
(Hezb-e Motalefeh-ye Eslami)

This organization which also is Known as the Islamic Coalition Society until January 2004 was formed in 1963 as a coalition of local Islamic clubs, conservative bazaar merchants, and clerics. The ICP reduced its activities after 1979 and many members joined the Islamic Republic Party (IRP). The ICP resumed its activities after the IRP’s dissolution in the late 1980s and now is regarded as a very active and influential political party.

- Islamic Iran Developers’Council
(Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami)

This group, which is not registered as a party, appeared before the February 2003 municipal council elections; and subsequently won control of 14 of the 15 council seats in Tehran. In the February 2004 parliamentary election candidates associated with this group won the majority of the 30 Tehran seats.

-Islamic Iran  Participation Front
(Jebhe-ye Mosharekat-e Iran-e Eslami)

This party was founded by the supporters and allies of former president Mohamamd Khatami including his brother Mohammad Reza Khatami which served as the secretary-general of the party for many years.

The creation of this reformist organization was announced in September 1998 as a partnership between former members of the Executives of Construction, members of the MIRO, and former student activists. It was created to back President Khatami and is regarded to be one of the leading reformist parties. Leading members include Abbas Abdi, Saeed Hajjarian, and Mustafa Tajzadeh. This party was banned in July 2010.

- Islamic Iran Solidarity Party
(Hezb-e Hambastegi-ye Iran-e Eslami)

This party was established in 2000 by  Ebrahim Asqarzadeh who was a formerly  among the Followers of Imam's Line Students and served as the secretary-general of the party and backed by Rasht parliamentary representative Elias Hazrati and Khavaf & Rashtkhar parliamentary representative Gholam Heidar Ebrahim Bay-Salami.

- Islamic Labour Party
(Hezb-e Eslami-ye Kar)

This party can be viewed as a political branch of another entity called the Workers’ House (Khaneh-ye Kargar) which was a very influential left wing group. It was established by Ali-Reza Mahjoub the head of the Workers’ House. This reformist party was created in February 1999 by individuals who were part of the Workers’ House (Khaneh-ye Kargar) that had supported Khatami’s presidential bid. Its initial platform was protecting workers’ rights. Parliamentarian Soheila Jelodarzadeh, a founding member, is an advocate of women’s issues. Other prominent members are former Labor Ministers Abol-Qasem Sarhadi-Zadeh, and Hussein Kamali.

- Combatant Clerics Association (MRM)
(Majma-ye Ruhaniyun-e Mobarez)

This is a clerical group broke away from the original Tehran Militant Clergy Association in 1988, and it is now considered the left-leaning, pro-reform clergy association. It was established by Mahdi Karrubi and his friends.

- Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (MIRO)
(Sazeman-e Mojahedin Enqelab-e Eslami)

This party is regarded as a rather old professional reformist group emerged shortly after the Islamic revolution when several underground anti-monarchy organizations merged. It dissolved in the early 1980s but reemerged in the late 1990s and continued its activity until 2010 when it was banned from activity.

- Party of Moderation and Development
(Hezb-e Etedal va Toseh)

This party is somehow a newly arrived party in the Iranian Political arena. Mohammad Baqer Nobakht is one of its key figures and its secretary-general. More than 30 of the parliamentarians elected in February 2000 were identified as members of this centre-right party. It has had good relations with both Khatami’s reform program, and the  Expediency Council chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

- Tehran Combatant Clergy Association (JRM)
(Jameh-ye Ruhaniyat-e Mobarez-e Tehran)

This is perhaps the oldest and the most important and the best organized political entity in Iranian Political system and its origin goes back to pre-revolutionary era.

Its chairman is Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, a very close friend of Iranian supreme leader and also the chairman of Experts Assembly. Although its power and influence goes far beyond an ordinary political party, yet its founders prefer to emphasize on its popular and no-partisan nature.  Its members are seen as those who favour a market economy, and very principalist culturally. Prominent members include Ayatollahs Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Ahmad Jannati, as well as Hassan Rohani.

- National Trust Party
(Hezeb-e Etemaad-e Melli)

This party whose English name is also known as National Confidence Party was established in 2005 by the former speaker of Majlis Mahdi Karrroubi. It is regarded at the reformist and populist party with liberal views. The party had a newspaper with the same name (Etemaade Melli Newspaper) and both were banned in  2009.

Pathology of Political Parties and Their Future Role in Iranian Political System

To conclude this article it is worth to take a look at the prospect for the success or failure of the political parties in Iran and Iranian political system. Looking back to the past three decades it is easy to realize that political party system has failed in Iran and didn’t work properly in spite of the fact that the Iranian Constitutional Law has paved the way for this system in theory. So the big question here is that why both pre and post-revolutionary Iranian experiences of political party system had been a failure in practice. The following reasons are among the most important ones in this regard:

• Generally speaking there is a pessimism and skepticism among many Iranians including elites when it comes to the necessity and relevance of Political parties in Iran. This may stems from this cultural belief that Iranians are better off when they act individually. That belief makes any collective effort very hard including political action in form of establishing a political party where a vast variety of views and tastes should be harmonized and coordinated.

• The historical background of political parties’ performance contributed to this present failure to some extent. In the past, the political parties including their leaders and members have been accused of being an agent of foreign powers whose main concern is not the independence and interests of the nation. This mentality dramatically affects the prospect for political parties to gain the trust of the people and government alike.

• In the Iranian mentality partisan-politics is seen as a means to harm the national unity and hence dividing the nation into small and weak factions which will lead to the decline of national power.

• The lack of grassroots network of popular support for political parties is another factor contributing to the failure of political parties in Iran.

Iranian political parties lack an institutionalized and constant funding mechanism something that they badly need in order to bring them a viable financial status and to survive. This fact makes political parties very weak and vulnerable.

• Political parties occur in the Iranian political scene as a seasonal fast-      growing and fast-diminishing phenomena. It means that just a few months to the election time a huge number of political parties appear and most of them disappear right after the elections.

Despite all above mentioned weaknesses and challenges that political parties are facing in Iran, yet comparing to many of its neighboring countries and also many other developing countries Iran is far ahead in terms of its record and performance when it comes to political parties. The fact that theoretical base for establishment and performance of political parties is available in Iranian political structure, and bearing in mind the learned experiences during the past decades, it seems that Iran is now moving in the right direction and is getting more mature to adopt a fully functioning political party system in coming years.

Some Sources for Further Reading on this Subject:

To read that full text of the Iranian constitution including article 26 please see this link: http://www.servat.unibe.ch/icl/ir00000_.html

Szajkowski, Bogdan, (2005),  Political Parties of the World, London: John Harper Publishing.

Shefter, Martin, (1994), Political Parties and the State, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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