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Deciphering Iran's Political Paradox

Iran is not a Western-style democracy. Most analysts say it is a society riddled with problems -- an Islamic theocracy challenged by rising discontent. Its complex political system has little room for reform and moderation.

Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 after the monarchy was overthrown and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced into exile. Since then, the country has been run by a complicated set of elective and unelective institutions with overlapping authority.

Iran has an unelected head of state -- a religious scholar referred to as the Supreme Leader. It has an elected president and parliament. But the unelected Council of Guardians of the Revolution can veto proposed laws and disqualify candidates from the ballot.

“If they decide that someone does not have Islamic credentials to stand for elections, then they will not allow that person to stand for election,” says Steve Yetiv, a political scientist at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

“Iran has a system where men and women go to vote and that’s nice to see. But who gets to stand for elections in the first place is decided by the regime and that is obviously a violation of what we consider to be democracy,” adds Yetiv.

Until a few years ago, some analysts say, politics in Iran was rife with disputes between elective and unelective institutions as a reformist president -- and, at times, parliament -- tried to challenge the conservative Islamic establishment.

But Professor Yetiv says that since hardliners regained control of the parliament in 2004 and the presidency in 2005, conservatives have dominated government institutions. He argues that Iran’s political system has little room for reform and moderation.

“Even if the reformists gain influence and become somewhat of a power base, they don’t have the constitutional levers of power. It makes it hard to change the system in Iran. You almost need some type of a coup [d’etat] or counter-revolutionary movement or external force,” says Yetiv.

Rising Discontent

There is growing discontent among Iranians, especially with the economy. Iran has among the largest oil reserves in the world and its exports this year are estimated to be at least $60 billion. But many Iranians feel they are not benefiting from the country’s wealth, says Abbas Amanat, an Iran expert at Yale University.

“They are not happy with the economic turn that was downward ever since the [Islamic] Revolution. Even compared to ten years ago, the Iranian economy does not seem to be doing that well. There is a distinct sense of resentment toward the policies of the government,” notes Amanat.

James Phillips with The Heritage Foundation here in Washington, agrees. “There is rising opposition and disenchantment with the Iranian regime especially because of the rising inflation, high unemployment and housing shortages. And for those reasons, I think that the Iranian regime is on shaky foundations.”

Some economists say the most disaffected are young, well-educated Iranians. A recent International Monetary Fund study shows that more than a 150-thousand of Iran’s best young minds are leaving every year.

Many Iranians are increasingly concerned about human rights in their country. In recent months, a wave of arrests has targeted activists, ranging from women’s-rights advocates to student leaders, trade unionists and journalists. And earlier this year, four Iranian-American scholars were jailed for what Teheran claimed were ties to U.S. intelligence services.

Support for Nuclear Energy

Many Iranians are also troubled with their country’s strained relations with the West over Teheran’s nuclear ambitions and disagree with some of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s defiant rhetoric on the issue.

But Yale University’s Abbas Amanat says most Iranians support their country’s peaceful atomic program.

“They may be rather confused about what the [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad government is doing. I don’t think that the majority of Iranian people are in favor of any kind of international adventures," says Amanat. "However, that does not mean that they are not supportive of some of the key policies of the Iranian regime, including the question of nuclear energy.”

Amanat adds that on that issue, Iranians tend to rally around their leaders. “When it comes to an issue of a foreign power criticizing Iran, I think one can say that the majority of the population is behind the regime because they see it as a point of national pride, rather than a criticism of the Iranian regime. On those particular issues, the regime gains rather than loses.”

But other experts, including James Phillips of The Heritage Foundation, contend that the clerics are not being truthful about their nuclear intentions. “Many Iranians support the development of peaceful nuclear power, but they don’t understand that what their government is doing is something different. It is using the civilian nuclear power program as a fig leaf to mask Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons,” says Phillips.

Unease Over Tensions With the West

A recent public opinion survey found that most Iranians view their country’s nuclear program as a bargaining chip. According to a poll conducted by the Washington-based organization Terror Free Tomorrow, a majority of Iranians believe that their country would be safer if it possessed atomic arms. But an overwhelming majority would be willing to forgo nuclear weapons in exchange for economic incentives. A majority of Iranians also say Iran should abandon any atomic weapons in order to normalize relations with the United States.

Political scientist Stephen Yetiv at Old Dominion University says there are many pro-Western Iranians. “After 9/11 [i.e., September 11,2001], Iran was one of two countries in the Middle East where the people actually went to the streets in support of the U.S. So, ironically, Iran’s public is one of the few publics that tend to have a better view of the U.S., while the regime does not and the opposite is the case in many Arab countries,” says Yetiv.

According to most experts, many Iranians don’t want a confrontation with the West over nuclear weapons development and would like their government to reform its economics and politics.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.