The Third Form of Totalitarianism: “The Islamic Republic of Iran”

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The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century tried to create a new “religion” to seduce the masses. They developed a dominant ideology based on biological, racial and class prejudices to found a totalitarian regime. In the case of Iran, some Islamist ideologues use the historical religion of Islam as a weapon against the people in the name of the “Islamic nation” (Ummat), the leader (Rahbar) and God (Allah). Therefore, Islamism borrows these and similar elements from the religion of Islam and frames it within a fundamentalist ideology.

Criteria of the new state ideology and rule in “Islamic Republic of Iran”

The following elements are characteristic of the new ideology legitimated with religious and political arguments in the Islamic Republic of Iran:

  • Leader

  • Islamist ideology and propaganda

  • Institutions promoting totalitarian policies

  • Mass movement and mass mobilisation of the nation

  • No-party political system

  • Anti-Semitism in the form of eliminatory anti-Zionism

  • Gender-based persecution of women

  • Anti-Bahá’ísm

  • •Dismantling of the independent labour movements and trade unions


Khomeini legitimised the absolute power of the clergy in his interpretation of revolutionary Islam. According to his vision of supreme leader, the leader shall rule as the successor of the Twelfth/Hidden Imam, until he reappears. This is the pseudo-religious legitimisation of Iran’s state ideology.

Nevertheless, Ayatollah Khomeini installed the mythology of Shi’a Messianism in the state ideology of Iran. Today, when Ahmadinejad speaks of the return of the Twelfth Imam, he refers to Khomeini’s concept of the absolute rule of the leader. It is the state’s responsibility to prepare for the return of the Twelfth Imam. The revolutionary leader is God's representative on earth and has absolute power. Additionally, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who serves as religious mentor to President Ahmadinejad, believes that the leader of the revolution is chosen by God, in other words the group of experts which has the responsibility to “elect” the leader only discovers and acts on God’s will.

Islamist ideology and propaganda: God, Leader and an Islamic nation

God, leader and Islamic nation are the key issues of Khomeini’s Islamist ideology. In Iran, there is no sovereignty of the people. Instead, the concept of Ummat or the “nation of God” is subjected to full obedience to God and his representative personified in the Supreme Leader. This is the construct of an Islamic democracy in Iran. In fact, Khomeini stressed that clerical rule needs not just the support but also the admiration of the people. Those uneducated in Islamic law have to receive Irshad, namely, the right guidance to be a role model for Muslims in the world. Khomeini and the Islamic Republic’s overall goal remains the Islamisation of the totality of the Iranian society: in prisons by torture and capital punishment; in society by force of special military personnel; at institutions, including ministries, the army, universities and schools through special representatives; and in publications and the mass media by strict control through the responsible Ministry. The message is simple: in Iran democracy is defined as the totalitarian and utopian unity of God, Leader and the entire population as an Islamic nation.

Institutions promoting totalitarian policies

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij help secure the military power of the Leader. The increase in the level of violence at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards may be due to the fact that a) power crumbles in a totalitarian dictatorship and therefore, b) the dictatorship secures its power through greater oppression of society.

The Iranian secret service promotes a reign of terror at home and abroad. Civilian-clothed officers are mostly responsible for violence against Iranian citizens, as demonstrated during the 2009 post-election uprising. Not only through the exportation of the revolutionary goals of eliminating the opposition by terror, but by also monitoring and intimidating exiled Iranians, official arms of the Iranian Government seek to extend their powers over those living outside of Iranian borders.

In case of the parliament, it should be noted that the representatives are not democratically elected. The Guardian Council nominates an approved list of candidates who according to their criteria and judgment can get elected. Furthermore, the president has virtually no political power, and even the few strong presidents, like Ahmadinejad, can only act as agents of the Supreme Leader.

Mass movement and Mass mobilisation

Although domestic support for the Islamic Republic may now be dwindling, the Iranian regime came into power on a wave of mass populism. The Islamist mobilisation of the masses grew significantly in the 1960s following Khomeini’s exile, and gradually led to the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. This was mainly achieved by Khomeini who singlehandedly attracted the masses through his talks and sermons taped in exile and distributed by his band of followers on cassettes and videocassettes at Iranian mosques and privately among Bazaaris and other discontented sectors of the population. Following the establishment of the Republic he continued this practice through regular public sermons broadcast mainly from his home in Jamaran.

With his death, however, much of this force was lost. Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khamenei, is not the charismatic and unifying figure that Ayatollah Khomeini was. In fact, after the last presidential elections in the summer of 2009, a segment of the mass protesters marched in the name of Khomeini against Khamenei and appealed for the preservation of the totalitarian Constitution once founded by the charismatic Father of the Islamic Revolution. They marched in opposition to the obvious masses who supported the reformist candidates, Moussavi and Karroubi, and demanded far more rights and liberties than can be realised within the framework of the Islamic constitution defended by their leaders.

The state views the masses as a symbol of its strength and tries to mobilise them on symbolic days such as pseudo-elections, the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the anniversary of the occupation of the U.S. Embassy and Al-Quds Day.

No-party political system

All secular movements were eliminated at the outset of the Islamic Revolution. The first wave of this process of purging reached its height in 1981 when royalists, secular nationalists and the most leftist organisations were outlawed. In May 1983 the Communist Party was also banned. Khomeini even banned the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) just prior to his death. His rationale was that there were too many discussions within the Party that could have been manipulated by the “enemies of Iran”. These steps imply that Iran’s totalitarian rule differs from the other totalitarian dictatorships in the twentieth century. Therefore, the third form of totalitarian rule has a no-party system. The Islamist factions are not comparable with political parties and their democratic nature.

In this light, the case of Nehzat-e Azadi (Liberation Movement), a religious-nationalist party, is of particular importance. It was never allowed to build a government as a party. In the 1990s, the movement was banned, though members were allowed to remain politically active as individuals. The party had always been under assault from the regime, including the first post-revolutionary Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, who was a member of the party. Even Ayatollah Khomeini was attacked for supporting the party, viewed allegedly as a form of “American Islam”.

The current absence of political parties in Iran has led to confusion for political activists inside Iran and political observers outside its borders. Many members of the banned Islamic Republican Party have re-aligned themselves with reformists and hard-line Islamic organisations, resulting in an illusion that a democratic process exists and that influence is possible through empowering the reformists. However, the presidency of Mohammed Khatami demonstrated that such a process is, in fact, impeded by institutional safeguards, and that the regime continues to shut down the opposition. In April 2010 two important reformist organisations, Mosharekat and Mojahedin of Islam, were banned, providing further evidence of the totalitarian motives of the regime and the impossibility of a truly democratic process under the Islamic Republic.

Anti-Semitism in the form of eliminatory anti-Zionism

In reality, Khomeini’s brand of anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. The ideological defamation and the call for the complete destruction of the Jewish state of Israel, coupled with the use of traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes and Holocaust denial, can only be defined as eliminatory anti-Zionism. This ideology is associated with similar ideologies responsible for the establishment of new fundamentalist Islamic states. In such cases, religious communities, namely those of Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, are recognised as legal, but according to Islamic law, though protected, are not given equal rights. The believers of the new Bahá’í faith are entitled to no rights.

The origins of Khomeini’s anti-Semitism dates back to the early 1960s. Khomeini wrote, “I ask the Islamic governments why they are arguing about oil? Palestine has fallen into disfavour. Throw the Jews out of Palestine. You are useless.” Khomeini also accused those who were not aggressive enough in their opposition to Israel of being “in an alliance with the Jews and the Shah.”[1]

Prior to Khomeini’s rise, Iranian fundamentalists were under the influence of the Fadaiyan-e Islam movement, which remained in communication and collaboration with the Egyptian fundamentalist Qutb. In 1948, Navab Safavi and Ayatollah Kashani, leading figures of the Fadaiyan organised anti-Jewish demonstrations in Tehran.

Historical Discourse: The Iranian Women’s movement and Tahirih

Some 150 years ago Tahirih, a renowned scholar, poetess and the first woman to accept the new-found religion that was sweeping across Persia (known today as the Bahá’í faith) dared to remove her veil (hijab) at a public gathering of men, signalling a new age of the right to life, equality of sexes and belief. Tahirih is one of the most symbolic figures of the Iranian women's movement: a heroine who had to pay for her courage with her life. What is significant about Tahirih, as a symbol of Iranian women’s struggle for equality, is that she embodies major challenges to the current regime. Through her writings and efforts, Tahirih highlighted the importance of women’s empowerment, as a fundamental means of social progress and prosperity. The Iranian government of the time and its auxiliary arm of power-seeking clerics could not stand the woman who dared to introduce such concepts or entered into scholarly exchanges with learned men, often proving their views and assumption as faulty or dated. She was subjected to intense persecution while she grew in popularity. Finally, when Tahirih was detained and imprisoned at the house of a Qajar official, it is known that she refused the promises of fame and fortune in exchange for recanting her beliefs by saying: “You can kill me as soon as you want, but you can not stop the emancipation of women.” To this day, Tahirih’s writings influence the masses and help breathe life into a movement aimed at achieving equal rights for all Iranian citizens, regardless of limitations based on gender or other social constructs.

Suppressing the emancipation of women

Khomeini spoke out against equal rights of women as far back as the 1960s. He believed modern women were influenced by Zionist and imperialist ambitions. From the moment he came into power, Khomeini took steps to restrict the rights of women. Here are a few examples:

  • On 26.2.1979 Khomeini abolished the Family Protection Act established in 1967.

  • On 3.3.1979 Khomeini declared that women can no longer work as judges.

  • On 6.3.1979 Khomeini declared that women must observe Islamic hijab laws.

  • On 8.3.1979 Iranian women who demonstrated against the Islamic laws of hijab were met with violence.

  • On 29.3.1979 Khomeini declared that men and women are not allowed to walk together on beaches and in sports arenas. A new system of gender segregation was soon introduced.

  • In December 1979 the new (totalitarian) Islamic constitution was formulated.

  • Women were regularly harassed when full hijab laws were not observed.

  • In 1983, the Iranian Parliament adopted the Islamic penal code, under which women who fail to observe hijab laws face punishment such as public lashing.

The oppression of women is pursued systematically by the Iranian state. Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president under Khomeini, urged women to give up Western patterns of consumption. In June 1981 Zahra Rahnavard (wife of the 2009 presidential elections candidate, Mir Hossein Moussavi) along with a few others founded the Women's Society of Islamic Revolution. They defined the "true role" of the Muslim woman. Today Zahra Rahnavard speaks up for Muslim women who demand more rights within the existing constitution, while legal experts such as Shirin Ebadi and Shadi Sadr state that only a full reform and structural change of the constitution allows a democratisation of Iran based on equal rights for women and men. In fact, Iranian exiled lawyers have drafted a new constitution dismissing the position of the totalitarian institutions of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the Revolutionary Guards and the Shari’a.


The imprisonment of the seven Iranian Bahá’í leaders is symptomatic of the regime’s policy towards the adherents of this particular faith as well as Iranians following other belief systems. Since Spring of 2008, Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezaie, Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm have remained in custody. The seven Bahá’ís have been charged with the crimes of espionage, propaganda against the regime, and spreading "corruption on earth," among others. In the summer of 2010 these prisoners of conscience were sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment (now reduced to 10) and transferred to one of the most dangerous and violent Iranian prisons, a move comparable with capital punishment. Currently, there are close to 50 Iranian Bahá’ís in prison and countless others are deprived of a range of rights such as employment, education or even freedom to bury their dead. Since 1979, more than 200 Bahá’ís have been executed. Thousands have been arbitrarily imprisoned. Many innocent prisoners have to place exorbitant amounts for bails ranging between US$ 100,000 to 300,000. According to the laws of the land, Bahá’ís are also deprived of inheritance rights.

The systematic and pre-meditated persecution of the Bahá’ís is a clear case of genocide, because as Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states: "genocide" means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;

  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”[2]

Although international support for the Bahá’ís is on the rise, nevertheless, world players remain silent about this genocide-in-progress. Perhaps one day soon democracies around the globe will stand up against the systematic persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran, which is a prime example of the totalitarian rule in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Dismantling of the independent labour movement and trade unions

It is an historical fact that leftist organisations and social democratic trade union movements were destroyed at the outset of the Islamic Revolution. The leftist movement was, in fact, a vital soldier in the struggle against the Pahlavi regime. Nevertheless, leftist intellectuals were forced to flee the country or face elimination. Their organisations, which are in most cases dogmatic, went underground. Over the past few years, a massive crackdown on independent labour activists has gone largely unchecked. Many leading figures and activists, most notably Mansour Osanloo, remain either in prison or face continuous harassment including routine interrogation and expulsion.


The Iranian Constitution and criminal law are among the "normative" issues and factors of the new totalitarianism. In addition, there is the fact that Islamist government policies prevail beyond the laws and stabilise the totalitarian dictatorship by even banning the reform-Islamists. Over the past two centuries, Iranian society has been fighting to overcome outdated traditional laws and introduce a modern and parliamentary democracy. So far, they have failed to achieve their goals.

In new Islamist totalitarianism, politics are religionised and religion is politicised. The clerical interpretation of religion prevents the democratic aim of separation of church (or in this case mosque) and state. The monopolists of power in Iran claim to represent a divine message. The totalitarian claim of the system rests on an exclusive claim to truth, which legitimises the rule of totalitarian institutions. Such alleged legitimacy is based on an absolute will, which all fundamentalist ideologies have in common. But there are differences between fundamentalist secular power and a fundamentalist church, for example. Fundamentalist groups and institutions in a constitutional democracy may be a source of danger but they can be controlled. A fundamentalist church, however, demands absolute obedience. If the state develops the same will to rule, it becomes a totalitarian dictatorship.

This totalitarian claim is visible through its dogmatic absolutism. The command of the revolutionary leader forces not only the debate on which is a right or wrong interpretation of religion to follow. The command of the revolutionary leader is presented as the absolute truth, which the oppressed citizens have to follow. The totalitarian ideology of Islamism entirely rejects democratic human rights standards and idealises the past. The new Islamist totalitarian utopia is not forward looking. It wants to revive the past in the future. Such arbitrary interpretation of religion and its place in the world forces change on society through violence.

With the power of the new totalitarian dictatorship and the utopian ideology of the dictatorship society is left with political homogeneity. The result is the creation of ideologically defined conformist Muslims and loyal citizens. Here, the alleged enemies are demonised and constitutional states based on human rights and democracy become the enemy.

The twentieth century witnessed two false gods, namely, German National Socialism and Stalinism. In the twenty-first century Islamism is the third false god. As totalitarian will and rule contradict human nature and the human desire to be free, totalitarian dictatorships never fully realise their anti-historical will to rule. Social change and transformation of values are universal processes that are evident in the reality of Iranian society, and continue to act as a catalyst for the advancement of freedom and human rights.

[1] Ayatollah Khomeini, 1964. Sahifeh-e Nour, Vol. 1, p. 94. Available on-line at: [Accessed 10 September 2010]

[2] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

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