Authoritarian populism and the rise of the security state in Iran

By Ali M Ansari, University of St Andrews

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State” workshop held at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, October 10, 2014.


Debate persists as to the accuracy of the term “security state” to the contemporary Islamic Republic. At one extreme some continue to define the state as a functioning “Islamic Republic” albeit frayed at the edges and securitized inasmuch as its needs to respond – as Western states do – to the threats posed by terrorism and regional instability. Others argue that on the contrary, the Islamic Republic has become a militarized state in which the main decisions are now decreed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Perhaps the clearest advocate for the existence of a security or securitized state is President Hassan Rouhani, whose election platform in 2013 was in large part predicated on alleviating the excesses (if not dismantling altogether) of what was widely considered to be a “securitized” state (a term actually used by his mentor former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani).[1] Indeed Rouhani made extensive promises in his campaign to release political prisoners (at one stage caught up in the excitement of a rally he appeared to go further and promise to release all prisoners), as well as improve the position for students, academics, and the press.[2] Accepting its existence, the precise characteristics remain contested in what some regard as political rhetoric intended to damage the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while others see its bases within the fundamental structures and transformation of the Islamic Republic itself. It is perhaps best to see it as a product of a structural transformation of the state, both ideationally and materially, taken to excess by the ideological zeal of the Ahmadinejad presidency. A fundamental distinction of the Iranian security state is the arbitrary exercise of repressive power, reflecting perhaps the political culture from which it has emerged.


The constitution of the Islamic Republic is perhaps unique among modern constitutions in that it seeks to marry two quite different political ideas within one system. This is distinct from a system that seeks to combine different elements into a coherent whole drawing on its separate facets to deal with particular issues (as in, for example, the Roman Republican constitution which allowed for a temporary “dictatorship” in particular circumstances), or one that recognizes a separation of powers in which each constituent part recognizes its own limitations. On the contrary, the constitution of the Islamic Republic contains two contradictory pulls that are in explicit and deliberate tension with each other. We may term these the Islamic (authoritarian) wing centered on the Guardianship of the Jurist and the revolutionary organs of government, and the Republican (democratic) wing centered on the presidency and the orthodox institutions of government. Although the jurist, or Supreme Leader, enjoys constitutional precedence, considerable debate existed on the precise role of the jurist within the system and the balance of power between the two wings. The Iran-Iraq War and the charismatic authority of then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (which was accepted by broad portions of the revolutionary elite whether “Islamic” or “republican”) ensured that this difficult question was deferred, not least because Khomeini saw considerable merit in arbitrating between these tendencies in order to reinforce his own authority and power. After his death in 1989, the balance shifted emphatically toward the Republican wing in large part because of the forceful personality of the standard bearer of the republican side, Rafsanjani, and the weakness of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The high tide of republicanism came under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, when a bold attempt to institutionalize the tendency established by his predecessor was attempted.

Rafsanjani has sought to establish a political settlement on the country in which the republican institutions would enjoy a pre-eminence over the revolutionary structures, which Rafsanjani sought (but failed) to curtail and subsume. A good example was the merger of the Revolutionary Guards within the military hierarchy and structure of the regular military. The intention was to integrate and discipline this hitherto and somewhat wayward force that owed its allegiance to the Supreme Leader and the “revolution” (loosely defined), as opposed to the state. The move was not popular and its limitations were to be revealed when it soon became apparent that for all practical purposes it was the military that was subsumed under the distinct political culture of the IRGC and not the other way around. Similarly, if more dramatically, the pro-Khatami Iranian press revealed in 1999 that “rogue” elements in the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (Etelaat) had been pursuing a policy of assassinating intellectuals in an effort to derail the Reform Movement and the drive toward republicanism. The emerging scandal resulted in the closure of the newspaper involved and a student uprising. Although observers have concentrated on the suppression of that uprising, less attention was paid to the government investigation that followed, which not only exonerated the students, but led to a wholesale purge of the Intelligence Ministry. With the dramatic landslide victory of the Reformists in the 2000 parliamentary elections, it seemed as if the Republican wing had triumphed. It was a triumph that proved to be both Pyrrhic and premature.

Constructing a culture of paranoia

The purging of the Ministry of Intelligence, apparent curbing of the power of the IRGC, along with the restrictions of the power of the Supreme Leader implicit in the institutionalization of the republican organs of government, all effectively conspired to yield a calculated, determined, and highly strategic backlash with the avowed intention of not only reversing the democratic trend but of eliminating it altogether. The strategy involved the provision of a renewed ideological justification for the establishment of an authoritarian security state in which an atmosphere of fear provided both the “problem” to be solved, and the solution. In sum, a culture of paranoia both justified the security state and sustained it.

Few events exemplified this process at work as well as the serial murders that took place in Kerman in 2002. There had been repeated attacks on what we might term the agents of change for a number of years and students and journalists roved especially vulnerable to the vagaries of the repressive state apparatus. But in the aftermath of the chain murders of 1998-99 the activities of state agents had been curtailed as far as wider society was concerned. Indeed, insofar as a culture of fear was encouraged the hardline state had targeted political opponents; the most obvious and egregious was the assassination attempt on the architect of reform, Saeed Hajarian in 2000 (in the immediate aftermath of the parliamentary election victory). This attack at point blank range that failed to kill Hajarian (but left him as a paraplegic) had a profound effect on Khatami and arguably proved a turning point in his own willingness to pursue dramatic change. But the serial murders in Kerman targeted society in general with the aim of instilling widespread fear. In the aftermath of the chain murders, religious scholars such as the cleric Mohsen Kadivar, had publicly argued that in an Islamic state, assassinations and extra judicial killings authorized through the issue of a fatwa were illegal.[3] It was true that the head of the Ministry of Intelligence was traditionally a cleric able to issue fatwas just for this purpose but it was not intended for the prosecution of political enemies within, only in exceptional cases in which the security of the state may be threatened from without. But these murders only engaged agents of the state in the loosest sense and more worryingly suggested that the state had outsourced its “monopoly” of violence to vigilantes.

The vigilantes in question were members of the local Basij militia who had decided to take to heart the admonishment of a particularly hardline cleric to root out social corruption. Their idea of social corruption was the least broadly defined, and the hapless victims found themselves murdered on the most casual of social infringements. The local authorities, astonished at such behavior, had the Basijis arrested, charged, and convicted. This was tragic, but it was what happened subsequently that stunned the legal profession in Iran and alerted anyone paying attention that some quite astonishing developments had been taking place in the political fabric of the country. The Basijis appealed to the higher court in Tehran in 2007, which overturned the conviction on the basis that the burden of proof lay with the deceased. In other words, the motives of the assailants had been genuine and it was put to the victims to prove they had not been sinful! This judgment caused widespread consternation in the legal community.[4] After further appeals the convictions were eventually restored though the punishment meted out proved light (the payment of modest blood money), but the fact that the higher court in Tehran could issue such a ruling in the first place reflected just how diminished any sense of human security had become.

Authoritarian populism and the rise of the security state apparatus

The author of the original admonishment was reportedly Ayatollah Misbah-Yazdi, the hard-line cleric tasked with providing the ideological framework and justification for the elimination of reformism and the establishment of an authoritarian security state. One of the central pillars of his ideology was to declare all supporters of reformism – and Western ideas in general – to be heretics and therefore beyond the legal protection of Islam. With a wave of the theological wand major sections of Iranian society were deemed beyond the pale and therefore legitimate targets of the most repressive coercion and exercise of state terror. None of this was explicitly stated but just how widespread the sentiment was felt among key sections of the security forces was made clear during the presidential election crisis of 2009, when hitherto conservative Ayatollah Sanei (turned reformist) gave a now famous sermon on the uses and abuses of the term kufr.[5]

The construction of the security state had three dimensions; the first and arguably most important was an ideological framework. This was the task delegated to Misbah-Yazdi and he focused on consolidating the authority of the Supreme Leader as a counterweight to the popularity of reform. The concept of the velayat-i-faqih (the theological basis of the Supreme Leader) was redefined as pillar of the faith, belief in which was mandatory for all “true” Muslims. Moreover the Vali-e Faqih acted on behalf of and indeed in place of the Hidden Imam and enjoyed all the latter’s powers, such that by 2009, and much to the embarrassment of many mainstream commentators in Iran (lay and religious), Misbah-Yazdi could claim that obedience to the Supreme Leader (and whosoever he anointed – in this case the president) was therefore the equivalent of obedience to God.[6] It is a remarkable irony that in a theological innovation many orthodox Muslims would consider blasphemous, Misbah-Yazdi provided the device by which those who did not “believe” could be designated heretics. Belief in the Vali-e Faqih was necessary not only for the defense of Iran but for the wider Islamic world against the depredations of the materialist West (the Great Satan broadly defined) and effectively became a sanctuary against a violent and oppressive world, against which all “true” believers had to remain vigilant. This ideology was extended to a cult of personality around Khamenei in which the latter became not only the shield, but the route to salvation.[7] In simple political terms it allowed those in authority to define those within and those without. Given the suspension of rationality required to believe in such an ideology (and it was often taken to extremes to test that “faith,” the more blind the better), it is not surprising that those considered on the outside emanated in large part from the universities and journalism: those areas where critical thought had been encouraged.

A second important aspect was the expansion and entrenchment of the security apparatus. The purge in 2000 had resulted in many operatives simply moving to other institutions such that within a few years the Ministry of Intelligence became the least harmful of all the security establishments (Iranians joked that at least it had remain [technically] accountable). Many rogue elements went to work in a new intelligence wing of the hardline judiciary, still more went into the security services of the IRGC, and it was this organization that basically took over the running and oversight of the various intelligence and security organizations (as it had effectively taken over the running of the armed forces). These agencies were ultimately accountable to Khamenei who was in turn only accountable to God.

The final and perhaps most difficult and controversial element came with the desire to popularize this transformation and eradicate the social roots of reformism once and for all by providing for a popular authoritarian who would weaken the republican institutions of government. This was achieved by Ahmadinejad, a hitherto unknown political aspirant with a popular touch, well connected with the Basij militia (itself long since drawn under the wing of the IRGC), and a devotee of Misbah-Yazdi. Ahmadinejad’s function – the limitations of which he never fully appreciated – was to effectively replace Khatami and the reform movement in the hearts of the people. While he had limited success in this regard in large part because of his lack of empathy or sympathy with the very target groups (students and journalists) that Khatami had cultivated, the hardline press, and the Supreme Leader spared no effort in eulogizing the popularity of the new president as a man with the popular touch with “real” Iranians (a narrative seized upon and endorsed by sections of the Western media). Indeed as an extension of Misbah-Yazdi’s theological distinction between true believers and heretics, Ahmadinejad developed a notion of us and them, identifying “them” as rabble, societal rubbish, and ultimately in 2009 as seditionists (fitne-gar) an identifier that neatly combined the secular with the theological. Ahmadinejad’s main device in this period however was the near complete subjection of the republican organs of government to the revolutionary or shadow government identified with the Supreme Leader. Economic interests were effectively wholesale transferred to the IRGC while the mechanisms of accountability were diminished or removed. As with the army and the IRGC, a movement in one direction had effectively reversed into a consolidation of the Supreme Leader’s authority justified on the basis of an ever present threat that needed heightened security.


All these strands effectively came to a head during the presidential election crisis of 2009. A reformist reaction through the ballot box was effectively and ruthlessly crushed on the basis that reformists were at least Western fifth columnists determined to diminish of, not eradicate altogether, the office of the Supreme Leader, and at worst heretics. Faced with the prospect of a populace losing its fear of the authorities a determined strategy of terrorization was implemented by which arbitrary killings took place combined with abductions and tales of torture (along with threats to family members) and in the last measure, a narrative of impending anarchy if the protesters were left unchecked. The authorities constructed a complex paranoid narrative about the roots of seditions, which extended into the universities, and the entire world view of reformist or Western ideas, that needed to be ruthlessly uprooted. Show trials in the summer of 2009 went so far as to try the long dead German sociologist Max Weber for sedition![8] The tragic irony of all this was it was the very development of the securitized state through the first decade of the 21st century that generated the very existential reaction the authorities all feared: a culture of paranoia that has proved dangerously self defeating and that the election of Rouhani in 2013 has done little, as yet, to ameliorate.

Ali M Ansari is a professor in the School of History at the University of St Andrews.

[1] See for example Shaul Bakhash, “Election: What Rouhani Victory means for Iran,” USIP, Iran Primer, June 15, 2013

[2] See for example,;;;

[3] Kadivar M Baha’ye Azadi: defa’at Mohsen Kadivar (The Price of Freedom: the defence of Mohsen Kadivar) Ghazal, Tehran, 1378, p 188.

[4] Nehmat Ahmadi,‘Negahibehparvandeh-yeghatl-hayemahfeli-ekermanazaghaztakonoon’(A look at the file of Kerman serial murders from the beginning to the present), Etemad, 29 Farvardon 1386 / April 18, 2007.

[5] See

[6] “Misbah Yazdi: eta’at az rais jomhur, eta’at az khodast!” [Misbah Yazdi: obedi- ence to the President is obedience to God], Tabnak, August 13, 2009 www.tabnak. com/nbody.php?id=8792

[7] See

[8] For the full indictment against the Islamic Iran Participation Front, see “Matn kamel keifar khast aleye ozaye mosharekat va mojahedin enqelab” [The complete transcript of the indictment against the members of the Participation Front and the Islamic Mojahedeen], August 25, 2009.

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