Iran: politics of pragmatism & Arab parallels

Since the existence of independent nation states in the Middle East and North Africa, Iran has been one of the major players in the region. This fact was changed surprisingly little by the seismic shifts of 1979 that saw the Pahlavi dynasty crumble to be replaced by an Islamic republic. To draw comparisons between the Shah’s Iran and the Islamic regime which came to replace him leaves many areas that could be looked at, though here the focus is on ideology.

Within both the pre- and post-79 regimes’ ideological pillars were stark contradictions, as well as a shared preference for political pragmatism.

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi became Iran’s ruling authority in September 1941, following in the footsteps of his father who had been forced to abdicate by the occupying British. Like his father, the Shah sought to drastically “modernise” Iran by following a distinctly Western path of social and economic development. This meant a domestic drive towards Western-style cultural “enrichment” situated alongside close diplomatic, military and economic ties with the West.

When considering this preponderance towards close alliances with the US and European powers, we can draw clear comparisons with a great many post-colonial Arab monarchies both past and present.

Indeed, like with the Shah, several of these were effectively installed by the West as part of “decolonisation”. By the 1970s, for a growing number of Iranians, the Pahlavi dynasty not only symbolised a willingness to sell-out Iranian interests, alliances with natural enemies, a disdain for Iranian culture in favour of more decadent Western ways of life, but also a ruthlessness towards political opponents which did not seem to be in-keeping with the state’s supposedly enlightened values. Even the Shah’s unlocking of the Iranian economy resulted in urban unemployment, high rents and extraordinary levels of inequality, which also angered Iranians. These feelings generated a wave of mass discontent which eventually resulted in the Shah’s demise.

In this regard, while comparisons can still be drawn to some extent with various Arab monarchies that crumbled prior to the Shah’s demise (such as in Egypt, Iraq and Libya), we can also draw more significant parallels with the context in which the Arab uprisings occurred in 2011-12. Along with perceived corruption, economic inequality and a spiralling cost of living were crucial driving factors in bringing people out onto the streets in Egypt and Tunisia, especially.


The Shah was replaced after 38 years by Ruhollah Khomeini, a popular exiled Shia cleric who, despite spearheading an eclectic mix of opposition groups, established an Islamic Republic in Iran via a referendum in 1979. On the surface, this regime has been juxtaposed to the Shah: deeply religious, anti-Western and opposed to the Shah’s modernisation, and sought to reverse many of his policies. For a time, despite its distinctly Shia character, Khomeini’s state also became something of a beacon for Islamist movements in various Arab countries.

At first glance, it is harder to attribute an ideology to the Shah than it is for Khomeini and his successor. Indeed, like any monarch, the Shah’s actions were quite evidently geared principally towards self-preservation. However, this does not mean that he ruled without any ideological underpinnings. There is strong scholarship documenting the Shah’s ideological leanings (Lucas, 2009; Alvandi, 2014). It is possible to detect three broad strands within the Shah’s vision for Iran; monarchy, nationalism and a relentless pursuit of “modernisation”.

For the Shah, the former two tenants were intimately interlinked. The institute of a politically autocratic monarchy was absolutely central to how he sought to cultivate Iran’s national identity. At every given opportunity, the Shah placed monarchism and strong leadership at the heart of major cultural events in a bid to tie the past and present glories of Iran.

The Shah frequently asserted the importance of the Iranian nation having a strong (monarchic) leader to guide it towards social and economic development. This desperation to promote the social value of the monarchy was most visible in the numerous attempts he made to orientate major national occasions around the link between himself and previous Persian rulers (Axworthy, 2019).

Meanwhile, the Shah’s rampant pursuit of modernisation was embedded in his White Revolution and the Great Civilisation (Ansari, 2001). This modernisation hinged on an appreciation of Western ideals, rapid urbanisation, economic liberalisation, and massive expansions in infrastructure. While the former three spurred varying problems (such as a perceived “Westoxification”, urban unemployment, high rent costs and bewildering levels of inequality), the Shah’s infrastructural projects did bring some successes that are worthy of acknowledgement. For example, aided by a tenfold increase in gross national product between the mid-60s and mid-70s, the Shah was able to make (often exaggerated) improvements in healthcare and education (Axworthy, 2019: 94). Thus, there are comparables between the Shah’s historic modernisation strategies and those of the United Arab Emirates.


Conversely, there is a tendency among a great many observers to see the replacement regime as being ideologically pure and totally committed to the establishment of an Islamic state. Yet, this is another mischaracterisation. Islam was evidently the primary source of reference for Khomeini’s regime. There was a clear and concerted effort to construct a state apparatus along religious lines. In this sense, the regime was far more ambitious in its proposals (both in terms of their content and immediacy) than subsequent post-Arab Spring Islamist regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

The central and distinctly Shia policy of vilayet-i faqih (which sought to place power in the hands of religious jurists), as well as the establishment of the Council of Guardians (superior to the limited powers afforded to the more secular parliament), pointed to an Islamisation of Iranian state and society. Interestingly, the post of supreme leader (especially when occupied by Khomeini up until 1989) was endowed with many Shah-like powers. This unparalleled position of authority may go some way to explaining the reasons for which Khomeini was so much more “successful” than subsequent Sunni examples in nearby Arab countries.

The new Iranian regime also drew inspiration from non-Islamic sources when constructing its overriding ideology. Much of Khomeini’s initial success hinged on nationalist and revolutionary ideas. Yet, to a large extent, this was borne out of necessity and could be seen as a reaction to the context in which Khomeini was able to assume power. Of course, the nationalism of the new Iran differed greatly to that promulgated by the Shah. Whilst the Shah was keen to emphasise Iran’s distinctly Persian character and portray the country as being something of a balance between East and West, the new republic was principally concerned with distancing Iran from the Western cultural influences which had proven so pervasive under the Shah.

This commitment to defending Iran from Westoxification was often couched in religious references, as is often the case with Islamist movements in nearby Arab societies when they engage in nationalist rhetoric. Meanwhile, allusions to the country’s Persian history were thin on the ground under Khomeini. It has only been since the second period of social liberalisation (2000-2004) that Iran’s Persian culture has been allowed to resurface (Osman, 2016: 197-202). Also, while the Shah placed the importance of the monarchy at the heart of Iran’s national image, this was totally removed by the new regime and replaced with an image much more centred around “the people”.


This model of governance has not come without its significant challenges, however. As the political scientist, Sami Zubaida (1997) points out in his landmark research considering the extent to which Iran was truly Islamic and democratic: the dual logic at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s founding can be seen in its constitution. The model of an Islamic Republic stipulated that, whilst state sovereignty lay with God, it had to be balanced with the sovereignty of the people.

Ultimately, one could interpret that Khomeini’s goal was to have a democracy which operated within the confines of Islam. This effectively places Khomeini’s model somewhere in the middle of hard-line groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh (for whom democracy is a Western innovation), as well as groups such as El-Nahda in Tunisia which sought to exist merely within a pluralist political system. This “dual logic” at the heart of Khomeini’s Iran was, to a great extent, borne out of the revolutionary context in which this regime was allowed to assume power.

This has further meant that the Iranian regime has had to try to adhere to the “spirit” of the revolution as well as its theological commitments. Unsurprisingly, this has led to conflict within the state apparatus between actors with radical revolutionary tendencies who had a strong commitment to social justice – more prevalent within early parliaments – and those within the Council of Guardians, who display much more religious-conservative ideas.

This clash between various ideological components was also something that brought far greater trouble to the Shah. In fact, the internal contradictions caused by the incompatibility of different ideological components had a considerable part to play in the Shah’s downfall. For instance, the apparent nationalism adopted by the Shah appeared to conflict with his desire to see a rapid modernisation of the country. On a cultural level, he was seen as promoting the proliferation of “modern” American values at the expense of Iranian traditions (Axworthy, 2019: 80-81).

Meanwhile, the Shah’s “open for business” mentality on the economy, which brought about British monopolisation of Iranian oil through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, ran against the popular nationalist current in the country which wanted to bring the natural resource into public ownership. Further proof of Iranian monarchism having come at the expense of national independence can be seen with the overthrow of the National Front prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, and the subsequent persecution of nationalist activists (Axworthy, 2019: 59).

Again, comparisons can be drawn with the political histories of some Arab countries. For instance, despite his early nationalist credentials, King Idris of Libya was seen as far too eager to sell-out to the West in a bid to attract foreign investment, notably allowing the US and UK to build military bases on Libyan soil. These bases were used during the 1950s and 1960s.


One should also consider that the Shah’s post-1953 model of increasingly autocratic monarchy ran contrary to much of the liberal logic that had been unleashed by many of his modernising policies. In effect, a growing number of Iranians wanted to see more political freedoms. There might be a potential comparison to be drawn with the current situation in Saudi Arabia (the Islamic Republic’s great rival) as the increasingly autocratic kingdom looks to implement some degree of reform as part of Vision 2030. For example, very mild reforms in the area of women’s rights were followed by women’s rights activists becoming more vocal in 2018 and 2019. In many cases, these activists have been met with imprisonment and torture, extremely reminiscent of how the Shah dealt with the threat posed by nationalist activists.

Above the Shah’s other ideological commitments was a strong tendency towards pragmatism. Of course, he had initially (albeit begrudgingly) agreed to have his powers curbed by the parliament and the prime minister. In the aftermath of the 1953 coup d’état, the Shah did not demonstrate any reservations to taking on the role of absolute monarch with the US’ political and financial backing – however, this preference wavered when faced with the reality of mounting mass-unrest across Iran. The final months of his reign were littered with often unmentioned concessions. For instance, he pledged free elections, a freer press, gifted the prime minister post to a member of the National Front and even made concessions to the clergy (Lucas, 2009).

One could go beyond the drawing of parallels to openly argue that this tendency to place pragmatism over ideology has been even clearer in the case of the Islamic Republic. Of course, political pragmatism can be seen in almost every Islamist movement across the MENA region. In certain political circumstances, the commitment to Islamisation or other important principles is bound to bend. After years of proclaiming its desire to see Lebanon become an Islamic state, Hezbollah (a close ally or perhaps even a proxy of Iran) has in more recent times softened its stance and moved towards accepting the pluralistic character of Lebanon.


In the case of Iran itself, this tendency is most starkly apparent in instances where the regime has had to ease its Islamist instincts in favour of more peripheral aspects of its ideology, namely the revolutionary, social justice tendency as seen with the 1980s land reforms. After a political impasse between radicals in the parliament and conservatives in the Council of Guardians over land reforms which would have seriously breached the sanctity of private property within Islam, Khomeini came down on the side of the radicals, proclaiming that the shariah could be supposedly abrogated in instances where it is to the overall benefit of the people.

This pragmatic approach of knowing when exactly to give way to the revolutionary spirit that was very present in the first decade or so of the new republic sets Khomeini apart from other Islamist rulers who have subsequently risen to power. The most notable example probably comes with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The revolutionary, social justice-oriented fervour, which brought an end to the reign of Hosni Mubarak, was very similar to that which brought an end to the Shah’s rule of Iran. However, while Khomeini proved himself capable of riding the social justice wave that was so prevalent in Iran at the time, such an act proved to be far beyond the capacity of Mohammed Morsi.

Morsi’s pragmatism took him very much in the opposite direction by readily accepting stringent structural adjustment programmes in return for funding from the IMF. This move ultimately brought yet more hardship upon many Egyptians.

A pragmatic approach can also be shown by the way in which Khomeini tackled family law, where many of the Shah’s liberal reforms were left untouched despite numerous complaints from the clergy during the Shah’s exile. Again, the revolutionary climate was perhaps a factor. As Zubaida (1997) notes, the revolution brought about the empowerment of women in certain areas, which meant that their subjugation in others became difficult to reconcile. Therefore, one might regard this as a calculated attempt to not overly disenfranchise a female population who had already seen the wearing of the headscarf become mandatory.

So, while one could say the ideologies of the two regimes differed greatly – even in areas of supposed overlap (such as nationalism) – there were also glimmers of continuity between the Shah and Khomeini. In each case, ruling ideologies were riddled with internal tensions and contradictions, such as between the Shah’s autocratic monarchism and his pursuit of modernisation or between the Islamic Republic’s Islamism and its commitment to revolutionary values. Contrarily, both regimes proved themselves, on numerous occasions, to be willing to “bend” on their stated principles when faced with difficult, pragmatic realities.



Alvandi, R., (2014). Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War. UK: Oxford University Press.

Ansari, A., M. (2001). “The Myth of the White Revolution: Mohammad Reza Shah, ‘Modernization’ and the Consolidation of Power”, Middle Eastern Studies, 37(3), Pp.1-24.

Axworthy, M. (2019). Revolutionary Iran: Second Edition. Milton Keynes: Penguin Books.

Lucas, I. (2009). “Revisiting the Decline and Fall of the Shah of Iran”. In Asian Affairs. 40(3), Pp. 418-424.

Osman, T. (2016). Islamism: A History of Political Islam from the Fall of the Ottoman Empire to the Rise of ISIS. US: Yale University Press.

Zubaida, S., (1997) “Is Iran an Islamic Democracy?” In Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report, Edited by: Beinin, J., and Stork, J., London and New York: I. B. Tauris Publishers in cooperation with Middle East Research and Information Project. Pp.103-119.

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