Iran and Democracy

By Stephanie Elaine Cavanaugh -

Image by Omid Armin

Image by Omid Armin

Iran is a unique state and case study when it comes to definitions of democracy and how states should or shouldn’t be categorized. While Iran is technically defined as a theocracy, there are many elements of democracy at play. For this reason, Iran is argued by some to be partially democratic. Further, Iran might also be placed in a similar vein to the soft authoritarianism of Russia. Donno illustrated that “Since the end of the cold war, dictators around the globe have adapted to the changed international environment by adopting the form—though not necessarily the substance—of democracy” (Donno 2013, 703). These may resemble a democracy on the surface but it’s important to understand that these create only an illusion or mirage of democracy, or soft authoritarianism, and birth a dangerous environment where a false sense of security can color ideas of democratic progress.

Russia and Iran alike maintain certain democratic ideals, like conducting elections. But it is important to remember that elections by themselves don’t constitute a democracy and the elections in both Russia and Iran are far from being free or fairly conducted. Soest spoke of the elections in Russia being compromised when positions of power were deemed at risk or threatened through strategic “election bolstering” (2015, 630). Iran could also be called out for using democratic concepts, such as conducting elections, as a means of political survival and strategy rather than in any real attempt at democratic ideals. It all comes down to regime survival. Iran, like others that fall under soft authoritarianism, use strategically beneficial democratic elements to further their agendas and secure their positions of power and authority, but this should not be confused with any desire for democracy or democratic values; rather, it comes from a solely selfish and self-preserving position.

Contrasting the argument that Iran is in part a democracy, there is also a legitimate argument that Iran is different from democracy in some very important and significant ways. As previously mentioned, Iran is labeled as a theocracy, and while there are elements of democracy at play, the democratic structure is not in Iran’s foundation. As Fukuyama explained, “modern liberal democracies combine three basic institutions: the state, rule of law, and democratic accountability” (2015, 12). This democratic accountability does not exist, for example, in an Iran where theologians are in control of top political positions and where a Supreme Leader holds ultimate authority, power, and control. This Supreme Leader controls Iran’s elected president much like a puppet merely there to provide an illusion of freedom of choice. Additionally, Iran’s judicial branch is Islamized and based on Shari’a law. This means an element of public freedom and participation in policy-making is largely absent. 

Because Iran is ultimately controlled by a non-elected Supreme Leader with unchallenged authority, no checks and balances, and supreme rein, I argue that Iran is not even partially democratic, but rather, any democratic characteristics are illusionary. Presidential elections are not held in a free and fair manner and further, the Iranian president is not at the top of the power chain. Rather, he serves the whims of the Supreme Leader and is more a puppet in nature rather than taking on the characteristics of a legitimate democratic-style presidency. Yes, Iran has a constitution, another democratic ideal, but again, this constitution is directed more at power-sustaining strategies of the clergy and Supreme Leader, rather than democratic ideals. At the end of the day, Iran’s powerful elite do not respect or employ democracy at their core, but use illusions of it to further their ambitions, agendas, and to secure their continued positions of power. They are not concerned with the free will of the people and will continue to crush any attempt at real regime change and popular protests. 

#MiddleEast #MENA #religion #writing #writer #Iran #democracy #softauthoritarianism


Donno, Daniela. 2013. “Elections and Democratization in Authoritarian Regimes.” American Journal of Political Science 57 (3): 703–16.

Fukuyama, Francis. 2015. “Why Is Democracy Performing so Poorly?” Journal of Democracy; Baltimore 26 (1): 11–20.

Soest, Christian von. 2015. “Democracy Prevention: The International Collaboration of Authoritarian Regimes: The International Collaboration of Authoritarian Regimes.” European Journal of Political Research 54 (4): 623–38.

About the Author:


Stephanie Elaine Cavanaugh is a writer, podcaster, artist, and nonprofit operations director. She currently resides in Houston, Texas, where she works to help the local refugee community and the general population navigate the job search arena. She is currently working toward a degree in Middle Eastern studies.

Interests, ever-evolving: photography, painting, art, science, medicine, astronomy, yoga, travel, the world, culture, language, education, politics, women's rights, human rights.