Mehran Kamrava
Shireen Hunter
Arang Keshavarzian
Alireza Eshraghi

The Iranian Studies Unit of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies launched its conference on “Institutions and Politics in Iran” in Doha on Monday, 16 August 2021. The three-day conference features individual presentations delivered by scholars of Iran on the transformation of several institutions since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Given the ongoing pandemic, the conference was held over the Zoom video conference platform.

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 conference’s second day, on 17 August, will feature more analysis on the political role of the Revolutionary Guards, as well as the institutions of the presidency and the parliament. This will be followed on 18 August by additional presentations on changes in Iran’s foreign policy establishment and the judiciary, as well as the role and significance of elections in Iranian politics.