Current Situation in Iran

An Uncomfortable Mix of Religion and Politics

Iran—with a population approaching 84 million and buttressed by ample oil reserves—is one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East. Its resurgence in the first decade of the 21st century was one of the many unintended outcomes of US military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Suddenly rid of two hostile regimes on its borders—the Taliban and Saddam Hussein—Iran extended its power into the Arab Middle East, cementing its growing power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

International Isolation and Sanctions

In its current situation, Iran remains a deeply troubled country as it struggles to come up from underneath recently lifted international sanctions that were placed upon it by Western countries—specifically the P5+1 countries—due to Iran's nuclear-related activities. Those sanctions squeezed Iran’s oil exports and access to global financial markets, resulting in soaring inflation and plummeting foreign currency reserves. From 2015, when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was implemented, until May 2018, when the United States abruptly withdrew from it, Iran was free to do business with the world, trade delegations and regional and European actors sought to do business with Iran.

President Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA was accompanied by the reestablishment of sanctions on Iran's oil and banking industries. Since that time, tensions between Iran and the United States have steadily risen, particularly in December of 2019 and January 2020, when the two countries traded attacks. In January, President Donald Trump ordered a drone attack to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force. Iran announced they would pull out of the JCPOA completely. For a few days in January 2020, Iran and the U.S. were brought to the brink of war before cautiously edging back.

Most Iranians are more concerned with stagnant living standards rather than foreign policy. The economy can’t flourish in a constant state of confrontation with the outside world, which hit new heights under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013). President Hassan Rouhani, in office since 2013, now presides over a country mired in financial crises with a chaotic banking sector. In mid-November 2019, an abrupt raise in gasoline prices led to public anti-government demonstrations, which were brutally suppressed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard: between 180 and 450 people were killed in four days of intense violence. 

Domestic Politics: Conservative Domination

The 1979 Islamic Revolution brought to power radical Islamists led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who created a unique and peculiar political system mixing theocratic and republican institutions. It is a complex system of competing institutions, parliamentary factions, powerful families and military-business lobbies.

Today, the system is dominated by hard-line conservative groups backed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful politician in Iran. The conservatives have managed to sideline both the right-wing populists backed by former President Ahmadinejad and reformists calling for a more open political system. Civil society and pro-democracy groups have been suppressed.

Many Iranians believe the system is corrupt and rigged in favor of powerful groups that care about money more than ideology and who deliberately perpetuate tensions with the West to distract the public from domestic problems. No political group has yet been able to challenge Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Freedom of Expression

Dissent, freedom of the press and freedom of expression remain highly restricted in the country. Journalists and bloggers are continuously arrested by the Intelligence Unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for "colluding with the foreign media" and sentenced to prison. Hundreds of websites remain blocked, and—depending on the province—police and the judiciary arrest performers at musical concerts, particularly those featuring female vocalists and musicians.

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Moderate Wins Presidential Re-election

Hassan Rouhani

 Mojtaba Salimi

Moderate Reformist Hassan Rouhani won re-election in the 2017 presidential elections by a very wide margin when he defeated his conservative challenger, Ebrahim Raisi. His landslide victory was seen as a mandate to "continue his quest to expand personal freedoms and open Iran’s ailing economy to global investors." The victory is a strong signal that everyday Iranian citizens want to engage with the outside world in spite of the restrictions placed on them by their supreme leader.

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Who's Who in Iran's Realm of Power

Ahmadinejad and Khamenei
khamenei.ir
  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: The highest office in the Iranian system is reserved for clerics. The supreme leader is the ultimate spiritual and political authority who supervises other state institutions, making Khamenei the most powerful politician in Iran (in power since 1989).
  • President Hassan Rouhani: A popularly elected institution, the president of the republic is nominally second to the supreme leader. In reality, the president has to contend with a vibrant parliament, clerical institutions and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
  • The Council of Guardians: The clerical body has the power to vet candidates for public offices or reject legislation deemed incompatible with Islamic law, or Sharia.
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Iranian Opposition

Maryam Rajav
Maryam Rajavi, a leader of Iranian opposition in exile, visits the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, November 25, 2008. Sean Gallup / Getty Images
  • Reformists: The Reformist faction of the regime functions as the de facto opposition to the conservative groups backed by Supreme Leader Khamenei. The Reform movement, however, has been criticized as "too divided to establish its own political authority, too naive about the tenacity of the authoritarian elite around Khamenei, and too inflexible to circumvent the ban on political parties in Iran by creating and sustaining alternative forms of mobilization."
  • Green Movement: The Green Movement is a coalition of various pro-democracy groups that are allied with the Reformist faction of the regime but advocate for deeper changes to the system, particularly with regard to the power of religious institutions. It was born out of the mass protests in 2009 against alleged fraud during Ahmadinejad’s re-election as president.
  • People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI): Powerful among Iranian exiles, but with very limited influence inside Iran, the PMOI was founded in 1965 by leftist Muslim college students and sidelined by Khomeini’s faction during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Denounced in Iran as a terrorist group, the PMOI renounced violence in 2001. Today, it is the "main component organization of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an 'umbrella coalition' calling itself the 'parliament-in-exile dedicated to a democratic, secular and coalition government in Iran.'"