The Authoritarian Resurgence: Iran Abroad

By Alex Vatanka | Senior Fellow - Middle East Institute | Apr 30, 2015
The Authoritarian Resurgence: Iran Abroad

The following article was published in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Since its founding in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has dedicated considerable resources to constructing new international norms that reflect the practices, worldview, and aspirations of the ruling authorities in Tehran—all with the goal of enhancing its legitimacy and devaluing its domestic critics. From recasting the conventional principles of human rights and political participation to launching alternative international media and working to reshape and restrict access to the Internet, the Islamic Republic’s quest to forge counternorms is moving ahead unabated. In the course of these efforts, it seeks out global partners that share its agenda. Tehran has found Russia and China, in particular, to be useful role models, facilitators, and collaborators.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, considered the very notion of “democracy” to be an undesirable Western concept. He insisted that “Islam itself is democratic” and set out to define Islam’s provisions for political life. In the infant days of the 1979 revolution, few dared to defy the icon of the anti-shah movement over a single word, allowing Khomeini to prevail in this matter. Iran thus became an “Islamic republic,” leading to an ongoing struggle to define the system’s republican character. Khomeini and his inner circle in the Islamic Republican Party quickly formulated the new polity’s characteristics, which over the years became the regime’s counter to democracy. Those who opposed the new constitutional arrangement, starting with Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan in November 1979, were sidelined or imprisoned. Some, including the Islamic Republic’s first elected president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, even fled.

Although the popular uprising against the monarchical dictatorship of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941–79) had been a rainbow movement with strong prodemocracy leanings, less than two years later Khomeini had installed himself as Iran’s supreme leader and “God’s representative on earth.” The democratic struggle had ironically produced an unabashedly illiberal theocracy that soon proved resourceful in its quest to survive, predatory in its political behavior, and unprincipled in its disposition. Before Ayatollah Khomeini died in June 1989, he cemented this Machiavellian approach by decreeing that the interests of the “Islamic Republic” superseded even the tenets of Islam. Thus the very few who can define the interests of the system, principally the supreme leader himself, were made invincible.

Two constant features have been part and parcel of the political process in Iran ever since: First, there has been a continuing struggle among key regime personalities, factions, and institutions to define, own, and defend the revolution of 1979 and “Iranian national interests.” Second, thanks to intense intraregime competition for influence—most visible in the violent schism that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election—the Islamic Republic has faced a hemorrhaging of support from within its ranks. Accordingly, although the regime has managed to consolidate its institutional grip, the system’s basic legitimacy is no more secure today than it was in 1979.

The regime’s many critics see Iran’s “Islamic democracy” as a façade that allows the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to maximize control while making minimal concessions to a society hungry for genuine political rights. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opportunistically began to challenge Khamenei during Ahmadinejad’s second term in office (2009–13), Khamenei publicly warned that the presidency could be eliminated altogether. The notion of “Islamic democracy” is perhaps the most blatant counternorm conceived by the Islamic Republic, but Ayatollah Khamenei is not stopping there.  

Global Soulmates

Although the regime’s formulation of “Islamic democracy” remains unconvincing inside the country, this has never prevented Tehran from seeking to assert its values on the international stage. It does so on the pretext of defending local non-Western cultural norms. In the course of promoting its substitutes for democratic norms, the regime frequently attacks the accepted standards of human rights—a particular weak spot of the Islamic Republic.

Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of the Iranian judiciary’s Human Rights Council, has been spearheading the defense of the country’s record. In late 2014, for example, Larijani responded to a UN report condemning the lack of civil liberties in Iran by alleging that the Islamic Republic was a target of Western “media and political terrorism.”1 Larijani’s rebuttal as well as his proclamation that Iran should be the “flag bearer of human rights in the world”2 has baffled observers. While many ordinary Iranians considered these comments laughable, Tehran’s desire to challenge global human-rights standards is anything but flippant. After all, if what constitutes democratic practice can be reinterpreted by the Islamic Republic, as it has done since 1979, then so too can the concept of human rights.

In Larijani’s words, “Iran will defend its values” in the realm of human rights. “Today, [the issue of] human rights has become a pressure tool against the Islamic Republic,” he bemoaned, insisting on the need for a strategy to deal with this perceived Western subversion. Yet neither Larijani nor his predecessors have ever really sought to withdraw from the international human-rights bodies that they accuse of partisanship. Instead, they want to use Iran’s membership in such bodies to form alliances with like-minded nations in order to shape the global agenda “at every opportunity,” as Larijani put it.3

While Iran’s Human Rights Council endlessly weighs its “strategic options”4 as part of its campaign to influence the global human-rights agenda, its lobbying efforts are at the very least partially shielding Tehran from international scrutiny. For example, during the October 2014 UN Universal Periodic Review5 of Tehran’s compliance with basic human-rights standards, Iran’s record—including violations of the rights of religious and sexual minorities—was broadly censured. Yet delegations from states such as Russia, China, Syria, and Cuba opted to refrain from any serious probe into the human-rights situation in Iran.6 By now, it has become routine for Tehran to rely on sympathetic states in such forums.

While Khamenei considers the issue of human rights to be a tool that mighty states use to pressure weaker ones, he nonetheless seems to recognize that the issue does carry weight. But he has yet to devise a convincing alternative to the accepted conventions. Back in 1987, before becoming supreme leader, he explained: “We do not believe that Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin and their like had the smallest consideration for human rights in the true sense of the word,” adding that the Allied leaders were insincere “in forming the United Nations and drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”7 But “what is the remedy?” he asked. The solution that he proposed was “return to Islam, and recourse to Divine revelation.”8 Due in part to the Islamic Republic’s limited appeal even among Muslim states, however, its attempts to promote “Islamic human rights” have made little headway. Its unsuccessful approach rests on what human-rights scholar Reza Afshari has called the “mirage of cultural authenticity.”9

Despite its failure to sell its version of human rights, the Islamic Republic still covets support in international forums when its record is under scrutiny. In this context, its efforts have not been entirely in vain. For example, when the UN Human Rights Council voted in March 2014 to renew the special rapporteur’s mandate to investigate Iran’s record, 21 states supported the motion, but nine opposed it. Among the nine that came to Iran’s aid were Russia, China, Cuba, and Venezuela.10 Despite the vote, Iranian authorities continued to ban UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed from visiting the country. Larijani called Shaheed’s appointment “illegal” and asked him to resign. Meanwhile, states such as Belarus and Russia continue to give Iran cover by echoing Tehran’s claim that the UN’s human-rights charges are politically motivated.  

International recognition and legitimacy, if not respectability, have always been a goal of Iran’s leaders, regardless of whether they are hard-liners or moderates. In other words, even as the pendulum has swung from Ahmadinejad’s reckless international populism to current president Hassan Rouhani’s pursuit of global integration and acceptance, certain drivers of Iran’s policy approach have remained constant. Tehran has always sought out similar and sympathetic states to collaborate with—be they China, Syria, and Libya in the 1980s, Cuba and North Korea in the 1990s, or Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua in the 2000s.

In most cases, Iran’s relations with other nondemocratic regimes first developed as a means to fulfill material needs and gain geopolitical support aimed at countering the country’s international isolation. Although these remain key priorities, Iran is now also seeking to form alternative blocs within international forums, and it views like-minded nondemocratic countries as collaborators in this quest.

Tehran’s courting of other illiberal powers such as China and Russia therefore rests on two pillars—economic and diplomatic. First, this approach seeks to meet Iran’s basic economic and trade needs given that its behavior at home and abroad has made democracies wary of dealing with it. One example of such a policy is Iran’s trade relationship with China. Trade between Iran and China increased from US$4 billion in 2003 to $36 billion in 2013, making China Tehran’s biggest trading partner by far. More recently, in the aftermath of Russia’s falling out with the West over the crisis in Ukraine in early 2014, Tehran and Moscow penned an oil-for-goods barter agreement reportedly worth $1.5 billion per month. It was said to be a win-win deal that enabled both countries to circumvent troublesome Western states.

Second, forging ties with other illiberal powers provides Tehran with a diplomatic comfort zone and a claim to international inclusion, even if it fails to convince the West. Tehran has earnestly sought to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a six-member bloc led by Russia and China that touts itself as a counter to the West. Iran currently has observer status in the organization. At the SCO’s September 2014 summit, President Rouhani urged the organization to establish a mechanism to negate Western-led sanctions.

In addition to its diplomatic efforts in international organizations, Iran carries out an active policy in its drive to become a regional power. This includes backing certain forces, especially among Shia populations that either are receptive to or in need of Iranian patronage. As of 2015, thousands of Iranian military advisors, under the leadership of General Qassem Suleimani, who heads Iran’s extraterritorial Qods Force and is answerable only to Ayatollah Khamenei, were propping up Tehran’s allies in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. In each of these countries, the armed component of Iran’s intervention has been complemented by a methodical messaging campaign aimed at the local populations. Traditional and social media are fully utilized as part of Tehran’s campaign to legitimize its agenda. 

Policing Cyberspace

The SCO also looks for ways in which its members can cooperate in cyberspace to confront “the use of information technology aimed at undermining [the] political and economic security” of SCO member states.11 In late 2010, Iran’s largest telecommunications firm purchased a “powerful surveillance system capable of monitoring landline, mobile and internet communications” as part of a $130 million contract with a Chinese company.12 The deal was signed only a few weeks after the EU decided to impose restrictions on the sale of communications equipment to Iran. Supplying technology is not the only way in which China collaborates in Iran’s quest to control the Internet. Iranian authorities also look to China as a model for shaping the discourse in cyberspace.

In April 2003, Iran became the first country to prosecute a blogger. Given that the media environment in Iran is one of the most restricted in the world, it is not surprising that the advent of the Internet age in the mid-1990s resulted in a mushrooming of blogs. Although there is no exact count, there are now tens of thousands of Persian-language blogs—and this number was even higher in the years before the rise of social media.

The staggering popularity of blogs has undoubtedly been the direct product of censorship and the lack of outlets for civil society activists. The administration of reformist president Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005) had loosened some restrictions on civil society. According to official statistics, when he left office there were 6,914 registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Iran. His successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (with the blessing of Khamenei) put NGOs under increasing pressure and many were closed.13 Civil society activists of all stripes therefore turned to cyberspace as an alternative venue for conducting their work.

This did not go unnoticed by the regime, particularly after the popular uprisings that followed the disputed June 2009 presidential election. According to Freedom House, “since June 2009, the authorities have cracked down on online activism through various forms of judicial and extra-legal intimidation,” and “an increasing number of bloggers have been threatened, arrested, tortured” while “others have been formally tried and convicted.”14

The months of unrest in 2009 were broadcast to the world in a way that both surprised and embarrassed the Iranian authorities. The regime intended to prevent any such “Twitter revolutions” from happening again. Thus the state took extraordinary measures to impose its control over all Internet activities. In one famous incident in September 2011, authorities banned a water-gun fight in a public park in Tehran simply because text messaging and social media had been used to organize the event. They objected not to the water-gun fight itself, but to the use of social media as a tool that could enable people to organize without the regime being aware it.

In the post-2009 environment, with the proliferation of opposition activism across a host of social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, identifying and harassing dissidents has become more challenging for Iranian state agencies. The regime has been particularly concerned about the increasing availability of online instructional videos and other materials teaching civil-disobedience tactics, prompting it to intensify efforts to discourage dissent, including meting out harsher punishments. Iranian authorities have also extended their pursuit of dissidents beyond the country’s borders. The regime often digitally tracks activists based abroad. If they return to Iran, they will be punished even for such minor acts as posting comments critical of the regime on social media. In addition, the regime has reportedly put pressure on local relatives of foreign-based activists.    

As Tehran blatantly engages in political repression, Ayatollah Khamenei consistently defends the actions of his regime by invoking the defense of “Islamic democracy.” In November 2009, at the peak of the postelection unrest, he justified the Internet crackdown as a way of repelling a “Western cultural invasion” and a “soft war” against the Islamic Republic. Seemingly under Khamenei’s close direction, the Islamic Republic launched a two-pronged campaign to further restrict Internet access and to fund and promote proregime sites to counter online voices critical of the regime. Following the example of Beijing, which has had considerable success in steering bloggers and online debate toward nationalist themes that complement the stance of the central government, the Iranian regime tasked the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (the armed steward of the regime) and the progovernment Basij paramilitary force with producing a legion of proregime cyber-warriors under such names as the Iranian Cyber Army.

If Iran’s 2009 protests served as a wake-up call for the regime, alerting it to the potential dangers of technology, the avalanche of unrest in the Arab world that began in 2011 drove home the point. By March 2012, Khamenei had issued a directive creating the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), which would serve as the hub for managing Iran’s Internet policies. Like the Guardian Council, which filters out undesirable political candidates and legislation, the SCC is supposed to black out online materials that the regime finds unpalatable. Given the vastness of cyberspace, the SCC has called upon the general public for help in identifying and filtering out objectionable websites. Thousands of sites have since been blacklisted.

Despite having developed sophisticated censoring processes, Iranian authorities are still grappling with the increasing availability of antifilter technologies. Thus Tehran has looked abroad—especially to China—for ideas, and it has now set out to create a closed national Internet that is separate from the World Wide Web.15 (Other nondemocracies such as Burma, Cuba, and North Korea have already established parallel Internet systems.) To justify this move to the public, Khamenei in a March 2014 speech again made reference to the uniqueness of the Islamic Republic and warned against open communications with the world: “Today’s youth are exposed to all these harmful propaganda tools. They are exposed to the Internet, through which the enemies are trying hard to make our youth deviate from the right path.”16

Within the ranks of the regime, there are voices that question the feasibility of such a hidebound approach. In September 2014, President Rouhani said in a speech that “some people think by building walls problems will be solved.” He added: “When you make [Internet] filters, they will make filter-breakers.”17 Still, in the Islamic Republic it is the unelected supreme leader who has the final word on all matters of state.

International Broadcasting

If Iran shares with China and other illiberal regimes a common interest in regulating cyberspace as a purportedly defensive strategy, it also shares with them an equally strong desire to go on the offensive in the realm of international broadcasting. Tehran has long considered this arena worthy of investment in order to counter the influence of Western broadcasters such as the BBC and Voice of America.

The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) has been airing in a number of foreign languages since 1979. Then, in early 2003, Tehran launched the Al Alam Arabic-language television network to rival Qatar’s Al Jazeera Arabic, which had been on the air since 1996, and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya (which also made its debut in 2003). But it was with the launch of the 24-hour English-language Press TV in 2007 that Tehran really sought to become a significant player in international broadcasting. Both China and Russia had already set up English-language news services: China’s CCTV News in 2000, and Russia’s RT (formerly Russia Today) in 2005. Qatar launched Al Jazeera English in November 2006. The timing of Press TV’s launch was not coincidental; it sent a clear message that Tehran was expanding its ambitions from the regional level to the global one.

Al Alam and Press TV target regional and international audiences in Arabic and English, respectively, with overtly politicized content. Their modus operandi is simple: They defend Iran’s policies and those of its allies, while criticizing Western policies. The programming on both stations includes a pervasive questioning of the basic international norms of political and human rights.

As Iran’s international isolation over its nuclear program has tightened, Tehran has upped the ante in the race to influence global public opinion. In 2012, it launched Hispan TV with the aim of reaching the Spanish-speaking world at a time when Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez were jointly endorsing a rejection of the established global order. In 2005, Chávez had launched Telesur, a station broadcasting messages similar to those that would later be adopted by Press TV. Although the launch of Hispan TV may appear to have been tied to Ahmadinejad’s rejectionist worldview, in reality the Islamic Republic’s efforts to challenge conventional standards through international broadcasting pre-dated Ahmadinejad and have continued without interruption since he left office in August 2013. Regardless of the likely return on its investments, Tehran is committed to stay in this race.

Beside the financial burden, Tehran’s involvement in foreign-language broadcasting has also had diplomatic costs, from Press TV being fined by the British in 2012 for breaching broadcasting codes, to Al Alam’s offices in Egypt coming under physical attack, to authorities in Bahrain accusing Iranian media of inciting sectarianism. Yet the regime has clearly concluded that Iran has no choice but to stay in this game, broadcasting its alternative values and defending itself against the “soft war” that it claims its adversaries are waging on the airways.

Expediency versus Democracy

The Islamic Republic was born of a popular movement that was in many ways democratic in its aspirations. But the faction that prevailed in the 1979 revolution—the Islamists who are today led by Ayatollah Khamenei—has spent the last 36 years violating democratic practices at every possible turn. Whether in the manipulation of electoral processes, the defining of free speech in ways that serve the regime, or the stifling of debate both in print and online, the Islamic Republic has not refrained from acting in predatory and unprincipled ways. Ultimately, the regime’s sole concern is hanging on to power, and all its policies are designed to serve this simple objective.

It is this unprincipled approach that has led the Islamic Republic to collaborate with other illiberal states such as China, Russia, and faraway Venezuela. It is why the Iranian regime—an Islamist regime that claims to be carrying out Allah’s wishes on earth and preparing the ground for the coming of the Mahdi—counts among its most treasured foreign partners an atheist China and a Russia led by a self-declared champion of Christianity. It is not a common set of values that brings them together, but rather the desire to preserve their own power and to limit their sense of isolation in the international arena. If there is a succinct way in which to describe the goal of such alliances, it is what has been aptly called the doctrine of “democracy containment.”18 This approach has already brought Russia and China to Iran’s aid in UN human-rights forums, and Tehran is eagerly pursuing membership in the SCO, an organization whose outlook on political and human rights mirrors that of the Islamic Republic.

Joining forces with the SCO and with states such as Russia and China at least offers Ayatollah Khamenei’s system (nezam) a means of avoiding global ostracism. Given the dissimilarities that exist among Iran and its international partners, few in Tehran presumably expect a real partnership to emerge from their country’s cooperation with its illiberal allies. Yet a common bond has arguably been in the making, as these countries jointly question standard international norms, exchange technologies and techniques for repressing free speech online, and employ global broadcasting to promote and defend their illiberal worldviews. The Islamic Republic and its authoritarian allies will likely double down on this approach in the years to come.


1. “Iran’s Larjani Slams West’s ‘Bias’ on Human Rights,” Euro News, 7 November 2014.

2. Javad Larijani, “Iran Has to Be the Flag Bearer of Human Rights in the World,” Islamic Republic News Agency, 12 August 2014.

3. Larijani, “Iran Has to be the Flag Bearer of Human Rights in the World.”

4. High Council for Human Rights, “An Opportunity for the Development of International Human Rights and the Promotion of the Islamic Republic,” available in Persian at

5. According to the website of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Universal Periodic Review “is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. . . . It is a cooperative process which, by October 2011, has reviewed the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States.”

6. “A Look at the Second Review of Iran’s Human Rights Record,” BBC Persian, 13 November 2014,

7. Ayatollah Khamenei, “Human Rights in Islam,” delivered at the 5th Islamic Thought Conference, 29–31 January 1987, 4, available at

8. Khamenei, “Human Rights in Islam,” 6.

9. Reza Afshari, Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 3–8.

10. International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “Iran’s Human Rights Showing Little Progress, UN Votes to Renew Special Mandate,” 28 March 2014,

11. “Sanctions Against Iran ‘Unacceptable’—Russia, China, Other SCO Nations,” RT, 13 September 2013,

12. Steve Stecklow, “Special Report: Chinese Firm Help Iran Spy on Citizens,” Reuters, 22 March 2012,

13. See Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, “Attack on Civil Society in Iran,” Arseh Sevom Report 2005–2010,

14. Laurent Giacobino et al., “Whither Blogestan: Evaluating Shifts in Persian Cyberspace,” Iran Media Program, Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania, March 2014.

15. Christopher Rhoads and Farnaz Fassihi, “Iran Vows to Unplug Internet,” Wall Street Journal, 28 May 2011.

16. “Supreme Leader’s Speech in Meeting with Members of Assembly of Experts,” 6 March 2014, Center for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei,

17. “Rouhani’s Strong Criticism of Internet Supervision and Gender Segregation,” 8 September 2014, available in Persian at 

18. Christopher Walker, “Authoritarian Regimes Are Changing How the World Defines Democracy,” Washington Post, 13 June 2014.