The Iranian Studies Unit of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies held its annual conference from 16-18 August 2021. This year’s conference was on the topic of Institutions and Politics in Iran.

The three-day conference, featuring a selection of scholars specialized in Iran, examined the institutional makeup of the Islamic Republic and the power arrangements that characterize the Iranian political system. Placing the birth and evolution of the Islamic Republic within a broader context of Iranian history, the conference examined the changes and transformations that various Iranian political institutions have undergone since the state was first established more than forty years ago. Specific focus was on changes to the institutions of the presidency, the Revolutionary Guards, the Majles, the judiciary, the office of the Velayat-e Faqih, and the foreign policy establishment.

The conference began with opening remarks by Mehran Kamrava, Head of the Iranian Studies Unit and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar. Kamrava noted that the conference will examine the elected and unelected institutions of the Islamic Republic, including the formal, informal, and semi-formal institutions and networks that create a complex political system.

Shireen Hunter started the first session by presenting her paper on “The Islamic Republic of Iran in Historical and Institutional Perspective: Ruptures and Continuities.” Hunter argued how the establishment of the Islamic Republic was a major rupture in Iranian history and a historic break from the country’s past. She highlighted the importance of religion both before and after the revolution but argued that there had never been a religiously based state in the country prior to 1979. Another significant break occurring in 1979 was Iran’s transformation from a monarchy to a republic.

This was followed by Arang Keshavarzian’s presentation on “Protests, Participation, and Representation in an Improvisational Polity.” Keshavarzian situated protests “as part of foundational qualities of the Islamic Republic and conceptualized them as extra-institutional rather than necessarily anti-regime.” The power of protests stems from their ability to change what constitutes acceptable political behavior, by challenging or stretching the legal boundaries that authorities have drawn. According to Keshavarzian, protests can be better understood as “a response to deeper aspects of a specific crisis of representation.”

Alireza Eshraghi rounded off the first day’s session with his discussion on “The Evolution of the Revolutionary Guards.” Eshraghi highlighted the various functions of the Revolutionary Guards, claiming that it is difficult to pinpoint a sphere of activity in which the institution does not play a direct or indirect role. The Revolutionary Guards have justified their influence and power as a means of safeguarding the revolution’s goals. This has facilitated their rapidly structural and functional expansion in almost every aspect of Iranian politics.

The second day of the conference, on 17 August 2021, began with Wilfried Buchta’s presentation on “An Institution in Permanent Flux: Iran’s Presidency from 1980 to 2021.” Buchta discussed the responsibilities of the presidency, the transformations it has undergone since 1980, and the factors that determine the relationship between the revolutionary leader and the president. According to Buchta, “since the death of Khomeini in 1989, the relationship between the two heads of state, the revolutionary leader, and the president, has been characterized by two poles: cooperation and competition.”

This was followed by Alireza Raisi’s presentation on “The Majles: Role, Composition, and Significance.” Raisi explored the significance of the Majles in the post-Khomeini era and explained the transformation of its role in recent decades. He situated the evolution of the Majles in a broader power struggle over the future of the Islamic Republic. Raisi argued that this struggle is consolidating the power of the hardliner wing of the Iranian ruling elite and gradually undermining the Majles’ constitutional authority over legislation and oversight.

Amir Mahdavi continued the discussion on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) by analyzing their role within Iranian politics. He traced the roots of the IRGC’s current significance through examining the history of its establishment and its evolution. In doing so, Mahdavi highlighted the IRGC’s regional presence and its expansive economic activities. Mahdavi claimed that “this evolving entity is more a product of the interactions of powerful domestic and foreign forces than a deliberate creation by the Islamic Republic state meant to safeguard its position.”

The closing session, on 18 August 2021, began with Abdolrasool Divsallar’s presentation on “Iran’s Foreign Policy Establishments.” Divsallar argued that the “privileged access of elites to resources, legal rights, and information, combined with the country’s constant state of emergency due to its strategic environment, have all influenced the evolution of foreign policy institutions in Iran.” He went on to explain the decision-making processes and the institutions involved in the formulation of Iran’s foreign policy, as well as the manners of their interactions with one another.

Shahram Akbarzadeh and Mahmoud Pargoo discussed “Elections in Iran: Rewards and Risks for Authoritarian Rule.” Akbarzadeh and Pargoo looked at elections in Iran and examined the way the ruling elite seeks to maximize the public relations value of elections to enhance its political legitimacy. Some of the rewards of elections include “providing the regime with domestic and international legitimacy; enabling it to shift the blame of its policy failures on the opposition; and serving as a safety valve by preventing the radicalization of the opposition.” According to the two scholars, elections are a mix of risks and rewards for the regime.

Hamideh Dorzadeh concluded the session by presenting on “Islamic Republic’s Judiciary in Transition.” Dorzadeh examined the structure, evolution, and function of the judiciary since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. She argued that since 1989 the judiciary has been used as a political tool to repress dissent within the system and that the institution has consistently worked to strengthen the position of the Supreme Leader instead. This has come at the expense of safeguarding the rights of the people. Dorzadeh focused on the role of the head of the judiciary and discussed the various reforms and changes sought by insider clerics who have held the position since the Islamic Republic was first established.