“Guardian Politics in Iran: A Comparative Inquiry into the Dynamics of Regime Survival”

Faculty Committee:

Daniel Brumberg (chair), Marc Morjé Howard, and Steven Heydemann


The Iranian political system has repeatedly demonstrated a singular institutional resiliency that has been absent in other countries where “colored revolutions” have succeeded in overturning incumbents, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova, or where popular uprisings like the current Arab Spring have brought down despots or upended authoritarian political landscapes, including Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and even Syria.  Moreover, it has accomplished this feat without a ruling political party, considered by most scholars to be the key to stable authoritarianism. Why has the Iranian political system proven so durable?  Moreover, can the explanation for such durability advance a more deductive science of authoritarian rule?

My dissertation places Iran within the context of guardian regimes—or hybrid regimes with ideological military, clerical or monarchical institutions steeped in the politics of the state, such as Turkey and Thailand—to explain the durability of unstable polities that should be theoretically prone to collapse. “Hybrid” regimes that combine competitive elections with nondemocratic forms of rule belong to a highly volatile category as their average longevity is significantly shorter than that of other regime types. My study demonstrates how guardian regimes that produce a strong system of checks-and-balances through ideologically buttressed veto players are more adept at surviving as a hybrid political system. Guardian checks-and-balances produce gradual, inclusive and re-distributive institutional transformations that attract multiple stakeholders in the political order while simultaneously preventing the monopolization of power by any one group.

To delineate the mechanisms producing such system resiliency, I undertake a comparative analysis of Iranian strategic policymaking in regards to the state’s economic privatization drive. The findings are thereafter compared to strategic policymaking on privatization in Russia, which has transformed into a full authoritarian system, and that of Turkey, which has undergone democratization.


I undertook two years of fieldwork in Iran between September 2008 and September 2010. In particular, I studied the decision-making interactions between the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Expediency Council on revising Article 44 of the Iranian Constitution to pave the way for economic privatization, and I interviewed key decision-makers in the country’s policymaking apparatus, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Fieldwork also provided me the opportunity to analyze the ideological dynamics of the Islamic Republic and to study firsthand state tactics of mobilization and de-mobilization in the aftermath of the contested 2009 presidential elections.


My dissertation addresses a significant issue of comparative regime studies—the endogenous mechanisms of autocratic institutional change.  More specifically, through the use of veto player theory, it innovatively applies two of Juan Linz’s key regime features, ideology and leadership restraints, to develop a cross-regional theory of hybrid regime resiliency and adaptation. My dissertation, furthermore, integrates Middle Eastern and Iranian political studies within a cross-regional framework of analysis, contributing to a deductive science of nondemocratic governance and political management.