Since Iran’s contested presidential elections in mid-June, the world has watched with shock and horror the Iranian regime’s systematic silencing of political dissenters. From the perspective of some Western commentators, the nation’s political turmoil is indicative of an fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democratic governance.1 Subsequently, these observers contend that the experiment that is the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed because its Islamic-ness restricts its capacity to respond to the ‘modern’ social and political yearnings of the nation’s youth. This common interpretation of Islamic governance and the Iranian experiment is deeply flawed, however, due to its reliance on superficial observations influenced and reinforced by a modernity discourse that situates the modern in the West. In fact, recent research persuasively demonstrates that adherence to Islam is not antithetical to representative governance.2 With this information available, the Iranian regime’s current legitimacy crisis must be analyzed at the subjective, rather than objective, level. An examination of the country’s dominant political elite – and their stake in the status quo – will reveal that the Iranian government has long deviated from its official title. That is, the regime presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is neither a republic nor Islamic, but a well-established oligarchy with a vested military elite.

For some Iran-watchers, the suspect victory of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Khamenei’s unwavering support for the declared victor, signaled the country’s shift from religious to military rule. In Spring 2008, distinguished Islamic historian Richard Bulliet even warned a group of Columbia University students and academics that Iran’s recent presidential election could redistribute power from religious authorities to the military establishment. He noted, as others have, that during the mid-1990’s the IRGC methodically seized political and economic power from some of the revolution’s most influential clerics – most notably Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – with the support of the Supreme Leader. The June 2009 election, predicted Bulliet, would determine the IRGC’s future level of participation (or one might say interference) in the nation’s politics. While individuals such as Bulliet correctly identify the IRGC as the nexus of power in Iran, they misplace the group’s emergence on the nation’s political time line. Iran’s political transformation from an incomplete republic to a martial oligarchy commenced the day following death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, when Ayatollah Khamenei, a religiously unqualified but politically adroit individual strongly affiliated with Iran’s security establishment, was appointed to replace the father of the Islamic Revolution.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s collaboration with the security forces began in the early days of the Islamic Republic. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the current Supreme Leader served as Deputy Defense Minister and later as a leader of the IRGC. In both positions, he frequently visited the front to assess the situation and boost morale. In early 1981, Ayatollah Khamenei was wounded by a would-be assassin and, later that year, was elected president following the assassination of his predecessor. The political chaos fomented by internal and external foes impelled the Khamenei administration, under supervision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, to crackdown on opposition groups and implement policies that ensured the security establishment’s loyalty. Initially, it seems unquestionable that the president was dedicated to preserving the gains of the revolution. Yet, at the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict, the Iranian regime was burdened with the task of reintegrating veterans into civilian society. Ayatollah Khamenei, secure in the position of the Supreme Leader, understood both the nation’s indebtedness to the soldiers and the existential dangers of inadequately responding to the needs of an armed, battle-hardened constituency. In a stellar example of selectorate theory, the Khamenei-led government thanked IRGC members by implementing social and economic assistance programs benefiting veterans and their families. The state’s generosity, though, did not stop at the individual level. Iran was not only indebted to the veterans, but the IRGC organization, which planned and performed the bulk of the ‘holy defense’.

As the 1990’s progressed, the Revolutionary Guards emerged as an economic and political powerhouse. With the tacit support of Ayatollah Khamenei, the IRGC and umbrella organizations were awarded no-bid contracts by the state, from benign construction projects to nuclear technology research and development. Eventually, the organization’s growth in economic power translated into political influence. During the middle of the decade, former guardsmen formed political alliances and movements that today dominate Iran’s government at the national and local levels. Tehran’s current mayor, for example, previously spent virtually his entire adult life in the Revolutionary Guards and internal security apparatus. Moreover, in Iran’s 2008 parliamentary elections, just over 40 percent of the candidates had served in the Iran-Iraq war, the vast majority as guardsmen. While the IRGC is more overtly participating in politics – in both democratic and non-democratic capacities – they have dominated decision-making for over a decade. With economic clout and political legitimacy conferred by a Khamenei-led coalition, the group drowned-out the voices of more democratically-minded clerics. The IRGC, with its sizable economic concerns, predictably used its position to preserve the status quo and enhanced its political position over the years. There is even evidence suggesting that the group’s power has exceeded that of the Supreme Leader, whose orders are not infrequently dismissed by Ahmadinejad.3 By brazenly ignoring the concerns of supposed allies, the IRGC has revealed its previousl-veiled leading role in the governing apparatus. When a subordinate actor influences the policies of a excessively responsive superordinate actor, it logically follows that the subordinate will take actions to supplant the superordinate when its privileged position is jeopardized. Such a scenario presumes the entrenched, demanding power of the subordinate. Consequently, the violence following the June election did not signal the inception of a military-heavy regime. It was merely the existing martial oligarchy’s first public exposure.

The IRGC’s preferential treatment from the Supreme Leader displaced the revolution’s old guard, comprised of politically active ‘reformist’ clerics including the aforementioned Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami and laypersons committed to the ideals of the Islamic Republic such as 2009 defeated presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. For many in the West, these figures represent Iran’s ‘Western-liberal’ movement. Yet, as a group the ‘reformers’ promote the Islamic Revolution’s post-modern elements. According to scholar Reinhard Schulze, post-modern Islamic politics is determined by the practitioners of Islam: “Stated simply, Islam is what the Muslim makes of it.”4 While Ayatollah Khomeini certainly embraced a modern, post-colonial notion of Islamic politics that sought to create a utopian Islamic society founded upon religious jurisprudence, he simultaneously endorsed the post-modernist vision. As Khomeini once said, “The measure [of legitimacy] is the people’s vote.” Inspired by this pronouncement, the ‘reformists’ have constructed a counter-revolutionary political platform aiming not to replace the idea of an Islamic system, but to imbue the state with the 1979 revolution’s post-modern ideology. In what seems like an odd pair to those in the West, an alliance between Iran’s clergy – which has traditionally provided moral legitimacy for dissent and facilitated unrest – and the people is forming to combat the IRGC’s usurpation of the Islamic Republic.

By and large, the West has framed Iran’s current political unrest as a predominately secular society revolting against Islamic overlords hellbent on subjecting the nation to tyrannical rule. This interpretation of the events unfolding in Iran, though, is deeply flawed. Ayatollah Khamenei, in his capacity as the nation’s Supreme Leader, elevated the IRGC at the expense of the post-modern revolutionaries, creating economic and, eventually, political schisms that, when exploited by the IRGC resulted in the organization’s political ascension. Iranian resistance to marital-oligarchical rule, though, is deriving political inspiration from Islamic post-modernism, to the chagrin of Western secularists. Protestor’s oft-repeated slogans of “Marg bar diktator” (death to the dictator) and “Allah akbar” (God is great) and their adoption of the color green, which is as much a symbol of allegiance to Islam as it is Mousavi, is a testament to the desire for the post-modern symbiosis of Islam and republicanism. In the end, the protesters’ struggle against the fraudulent result of the June 2009 presidential election has not only bared the licentious role of IRGC in Iranian politics but also – and perhaps more importantly – demonstrated the compatibility of Islam and representative governance.

1See Michael Lind, “Wanted: Freedom from religion,”, 23 June 2009, [] and Martin Amis, “The end of Iran’s Ayatollah’s?” The Guardian, 17 July 2009, [].

2Mark A. Tessler and Ameney Jamal, “Attitudes in the Arab World” Journal of Democracy 19 (2008): 101.

3Muhammad Sahimi, “Showdown between Khamenei and IRGC?” Tehran Bureau, 28 July 2009, [].

4Reinhardt Schulze, “The Ethnization of Islamic Cultures in the Late Twentieth Century or From Political Islam to Post Islamism” in Islam, Motor or Challenge of Modernity ed. by George Stauth (Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 190.


According to Democratic Peace Theory, democracies do not go to war with each other. The most ardent and idealistic supporters of the proposition believe that democratic forms of governance cultivate a culture of political civility, promote transparency, responsible rule, and intertwine national economies to an extent that sustains nonviolent relationships between democracies.1 Although the theory is empirically reflective, its proponents are criticized for misidentifying the causes of peace between democracies. Scholars aligned with realist school of international political thought are the most ardent critics of the democratic peace hypothesis. The most common counter-argument advanced by realists attributes peace between democracies to the Cold War division of the world into democratic and communist blocs. To balance against the communist threat, as their argument goes, democracies naturally forged cooperative and amicable relationships. Based on this assessment, the democratic peace is the result of balance of power considerations inherent to anarchical structure of the international system and not the conditions produced by democracy.2 Both realist and democratic peace theorists ascribe the absence of war to supposedly enduring factors of their models: balance of power politics and democracy, respectively. While constructivism initially seems to support both explanations of the peace, it eventually undercuts both arguments by acknowledging the capacity of actors to change their behavior depending on their identity as determined by internal and external conditions.

Leading constructivist Alexander Wendt writes that the behavior of an agent is shaped by its experiences during the process of socialization with alters vis-à-vis institutions of the international system. If, on one hand, state A is perceived as cooperative by state B, then state B is likely to act cooperatively with state A. On the other hand, if state A is perceived as threatening by state B, then state B will not cooperate with state A. The process of socialization is continuously in flux, depending on changes to agents’ identities, alters’ perceptions, and, subsequently, agent interaction.3 At the systemic level, bilateral and multilateral interaction creates a set of social norms determining a system’s general inclination toward conflict or cooperation.

At first, constructivism seems to support the realist understanding of the democratic peace. The posturing of the two superpowers during the Cold War precipitated the division of the globe into two antagonistic blocs. For the most part, the zero-sum game resulting from great power competition compelled states to enter into cooperative a relationship with one of the great powers. The primary concern of the states, according to the realist and possibly the constructivist account, was the predatory inclinations of the two dominant states. The identity of democracies and their cooperation with like governments, then, can be wrapped up in pure power identities concerned with survival, which are not attributable to the social conditions created by democratic regimes. Constructivism ostensibly supports realism’s longue duree perspective of the democratic peace by temporally situating the democratic peace within a dialogical and historical context.

The constructivist approach to international politics, though, allows for a more flexible explanation of the peace than realism’s strict determinism. Some academics criticize realists for dismissing the influence of democracy on the democratic peace, asserting that the realist position cannot account for the continued lack of military confrontations between democracies since the end of the Cold War. Unlike realism, constructivism’s process-driven model offers a cogent response to the democratic peace counterargument. The endurance of democratic-oriented international institutions following the Cold War coupled with the mass identification of states with democracy and the absence of an alternative ideology have contributed to a process of socialization promoting democratic cooperation. State identities and the structural forces of the international system are ever-changing and influence the cooperative or conflictual behavior of state interaction. If the realist claim that realpolitik considerations obliged democratic cooperation, constructivists will respond that the dynamic social realities of international politics render such relations impermanent.

One may also find that constructivism appears to accommodate the idea that the democratic peace is the product of a democratic identity and not the simple balance of power politics explanation. A state’s identity is a product of the internal conditions produced by its internal order and their interaction with outside states. In other words, identity is complexly constructed at the national level when leaders must balance constituent preferences against their interpretation of other state’s intentions and strength. 4Another empirical analysis of democratic cooperation during the Cold War may help elucidate this contention. Within democratic societies, the acceptance of democratic ideas skews their leaders perception toward other democracies as ‘natural’ allies during the Cold War. Democracies generally share similar values and their process of socialization via the institution of the Cold War reinforced this notion. Abstractly, however, this claim is problematic. Forms of governance do not necessarily predicate the nature of interstate relationships. Democracies’, for example, notoriously allied with autocrats during the Cold War to counteract the communist threat due to shared, anti-communist identities. Simply, identity rather than regime type determines states’ capacity for harmonic relationships with others in the system.

The present dearth of military confrontation between democracies does not presuppose a continuation of the trend. Changes to international institutions or perceptions of international institutions can alter state behavior and intentions. If, hypothetically, the World Trade Organization came to be widely perceived as an exploitative and/or corrupt institution, democracies participating in the institution may revert to autarkic or protectionist economic policies. If Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye’s hypothesis that interdependence between states promotes peaceful interaction is correct, then war between all states – including democracies – is more likely to occur when the economic linkages are severed. 5 Neither is it difficult to imagine that competition over essential and scarce resources like potable water may force democratic states into military conflicts with other democracies. Or, if one accepts Samuel Huntington’s argument, tensions originating from intercultural schisms will be the catalyst for future interstate conflict, regardless of forms of governance. The cultural hostility between the West and Islam, he contends, increases the likelihood of conflict between democracies of each culture.6

In sum, the argument that democracies do not wage war against similar governments is currently empirically substantiated. It is qualitatively difficult, though, to explicate the links between the abstract affects of democracy and tangible product of peace. The realist explanation is too structurally deterministic and rigid, whereas the democratic peace account too idealistically applauds the benefits of democratic governance. In the end, constructivism offers a more refined model for analyzing the causes and endurance of democratic peace. On broad theoretical grounds, constructivism is generally more complementary towards liberal approaches of international relations. In the case of the democratic peace, constructivism exists independently in the space separating the democratic peace and realist positions.

1 David Plotke, Democracy and Boundaries: Themes in Contemporary American Politics, 100-102.

2 James Lee Ray, “Does Democracy Cause Peace,” Annual Review of Political Science 1 (1998): 37-38.

3 Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” International Organization 46 (1992): 405.

4 Robert Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42 (1988): 424.

5 Robert Keohane, “Theory of World Politics,” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986): 197.

6 Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Policy 72 (1993): 32.

In the post-World War II world, the practice of politics increasing emphasized effective administration rather than the participation of citizens in governance. Hannah Arendt responded to this trend in On Revolution, which attempts to explore the central role of politics in facilitating and perpetuating a good life and society. According to her book, these two aims can only be achieved if citizens create an atmosphere of public freedom in which they can engage in political activity and inquiry inspired by an originating revolutionary spirit. Harkening back to the republican ideals of Thomas Jefferson, she asserts, “No one could be called happy without his share of public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power.”[1] However, her vague terminology begs important questions. What is public freedom? What is public happiness? How does public happiness resulting from the practice of public freedom create a good life and society? In this examination, my aim is to address these questions in addition to explaining how the three outcomes of public freedom suggested in Arendt’s text form a good life and society. Then, I will conclude with an exploration on the implications of her arguments on the discipline of political science. But, before continuing, a quick summary of her work is in order.

Essentially, Arendt argues that revolutions – that is political upheavals aimed at securing liberty and, more importantly, freedom – foster a revolutionary spirit that energizes the masses into pursuing a pluralistic system of political deliberation and governance. Here, it is important to note the distinction Arendt makes between liberation and freedom as it is essential to her argument. She writes that liberation is merely the freedom from tyranny whereas freedom refers to participation in public affairs via unfettered speech, thought, association, and assembly. This freedom, imbued with the revolutionary spirit, is then applied in the public sphere; thus allowing for the creation of a society in which individuals are active in political life. As a result of the energized political atmosphere, citizens generate public happiness resulting in a good life in a good society. In other words, On Revolution argues that the establishment of a revolutionary inspired form of governance is the primary means through which a good life and society can be attained. One means of achieving this end is the institutionalization of town hall meetings where the revolutionary spirit can be sustained through deliberation. According to Arendt, a good life and society is not significantly influenced by the successful management of what she labels the “private welfare” of individuals. Rather, these two goals can be achieved only when citizens attain a certain level of public happiness via their activity in political life. Additionally, it is important to note that Arendt’s definition of a good life and society is cyclical; this idealized life is both the facilitator and product of public happiness. In order to make sense of the self-determining nature of these terms, an examination of the beneficial outcomes of public freedom must be undertaken.

From On Revolution, I have identified three ends that follow from the existence of political freedom in a society: public equality, public accountability, and a sphere in which private happiness can be attained. Consequently, these products of public freedom are the means though which a society can attain public happiness. The foundational elements of public happiness and public equality are, for Arendt, linked to the social capacity of all individuals to participate in public life. Arendt suggests that pubic equality can overcome the social divisions existing due to the differing socioeconomic conditions private welfare creates among individuals. Referencing the meaning of the term freedom in ancient Greece, she discusses the issue of no-rule, or isonomy, which describes a republic in which there is no distinction between the ruler and the ruled. This component of public happiness is vital to the formulation of her argument. It supposes that citizens are equal self-governing agents that are mutually responsible for the actions of government. Arendt labels this alliance of people for rule by the people the “mutual contract.”[2] Second, the capacity of the public to hold the government accountable for its decisions is crucial to the production of public happiness. While it is commonly assumed that public accountability refers to “representatives,” the Arendtian view of “public” – strongly influenced by the idea of isonomy – is more expansive. Arendt contends: “Corruption of the people themselves – as distinguished from the corruption of their representatives or a ruling class – is possible only under a government that has granted them a share of the public power.”[3] Or, to put it differently, an isonomic society, which promotes the active use of public freedoms, must ensure that the people themselves do not become corrupted by the power inherent in practice of public freedom. The absence of public accountability in the Arendtian sense undermines the evaluative democratic function that citizens perform when participating in the various activities of public life, including political deliberation and the electoral process. Public apathy among citizens produces a space in which certain individuals can utilize the public interest to pursue private means. The remedy to this looming specter, she argues, is the practice of public freedoms. Hence, a dearth of public accountability is indicative of a society that lacks the ability to utilize its public freedom and, as a result, is unable to fulfill the fundamental precepts of public happiness.

While Arendt expresses her suspicion of the threats posed by private interests to the sanctity of the public realm, she concedes that after the people have gained liberty and freedom private interests play an important role in preserving the revolutionary spirit. Hence, the final benefit of public freedom is its ability of citizens to pursue private happiness unimpeded. Even though she writes that “under no conditions can [economic factors] either lead into freedom or constitute a proof of its existence,” Arendt juxtaposes this statement with a contradictory argument.[4] To explain this occurrence, she believes private happiness should never be considered above public happiness, as public happiness is the foundation upon which all other goods are pursued. But, as she puts it, “Wealth and economic well-being are the fruits of freedom” – albeit ones that are subordinate to the real benefits of public freedom.[5] As noted previously, private interests can corrupt the isonomic order. This disruption of no-rule presents an opportunity for freedom to be lost or, in the worst case scenario, the return of tyranny. Yet, a certain level of private contentment must be produced by public freedom to ensure that the revolutionary spirit is maintained. As noted by Arendt, a lack of private happiness invariably introduces the “social question” which asks how to provide for the private welfare of citizens into public discourse. In handling this concern, the importance of public freedom in constructing a good society is marginalized due to the need of administrative functions to produce acceptable private welfare. A further examination of the tensions existing between the advantages and disadvantages posed by private happiness to the achievement of public happiness will be addressed later.

Despite explicating the intricacies of Arendt’s argument, On Revolution fails to submit claims that are empirically assessable or defensible in light of critical observation. Even when attempting to explore her line of reasoning regarding the influence of the three products of public freedom on public happiness, the explanations end with a process of cyclical self-justification. These shortcomings ultimately minimize the applicability of her to work to the discipline of political science.

To begin, Arendt’s use of hazily-defined terms and concepts necessitates some standardization of understanding and, thus, a framework of understanding needs to be formulated. To illustrate, if it were quantifiably possible to rate public happiness on a scale of one to ten, with ten being ultimate public happiness, would a rating of seven or above equate to the presence of a good life and society? Even more, there is the problem as to how the appropriate level of public happiness is determined. In other words, what method would be utilized to measure the abstract level of public happiness or its constituent parts? Arendt’s inferences, while logically valid and beneficial to the study of political science, rely solely on a philosophical understanding of the issues surrounding public freedom, which, unfortunately for interested political scientists, renders empirical testing almost impossible. To borrow Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba’s observations in Designing Social Inquiry, “[Social scientists] should choose observable, rather than unobservable, concepts wherever possible. Abstract, unobserved concepts such as utility, culture, intentions, motivations, identification, intelligence, or the national interest are often used in social science theories. They can play a useful role in theory formulation; but they can be a hindrance to empirical evaluation of theories and hypotheses unless they can be defined in a way such that they, or at least their implications, can be observed and measured.”[6] Instead of providing political science with inferences that are testable, On Revolution forces individuals into a logic-based determination of the practicability of attaining public happiness. Of course, this can only be achieved by examining public freedom via a subjective examination of its ill-defined parts.

Not only are Arendt’s positions almost impossible to test quantitatively or qualitatively, her view of human nature is arguably idealistic. A major criticism of On Revolution addresses her assumption that a great majority of individual citizens will embrace the foundational spirit of public freedom and actively participate in the deliberative processes that are central to her position on public happiness and a good life. This belief is difficult to justify on two accounts. First, its contention that all citizens share the same interests and values is unsubstantiated. Often, individuals such as artists and the devoutly pious derive immense satisfaction when pursuing a life that includes little participation in the public sphere. While some political scientists have attempted to methodologically determine the validity of the claim that value plurality is subservient in the presence of public freedoms, Arendt’s text poorly supports this point. Second, implicit in this reasoning is the belief that the invisible hand of the revolutionary spirit will guide individuals away from pursuing private welfare in order to secure public happiness. Again, Arendt produces little evidence to justify these claims. Rather, in both of these cases she returns to a cyclical style of argumentation, asserting that the participatory elements of public freedom generate a good life and vice versa. Stemming from this vein of analysis, she fails to fully address the reasons why individuals should spurn private interests in deference to public freedom. In fact, an argument can be made supporting the belief that a certain level of private welfare and participation in public freedoms are connected. If, for example, an individual finds it difficult to secure their basic means of existence it is naïve to assume that their priority would be political participation. Conversely, individual’s whose private welfare has achieved a certain level of satisfactoriness and consistency can entertain a plurality of concerns, including public activity. Ultimately, the Arendtian counterpoint that public freedom will provide a sphere in which private welfare concerns can be addressed is too utopian. Individuals will always be in a position in where they must find a suitable equilibrium between activity in the public and private spheres.

In light of the individual’s natural struggle between the pursuit private and public happiness, Arendt’s insistence that the existence of public spheres, such as town halls or soviets, where the people can continue to cultivate the revolutionary spirit in an environment promoting and protecting isonomy in order to achieved public happiness is undermined. Despite recognizing that all individuals are publicly equal, the differences in public welfare among individuals produce inequalities regarding the ability of some citizens to gain access to these public spheres. Without the active participation of all elements of society in the public sphere, public accountability through a deliberative processes imbued by the revolutionary spirit is absent. Consequently, this provides privately privileged individuals with an opportunity to circumvent the isonomic order by pursuing private interests within the public sphere.

As a work of political philosophy, On Revolution attempts to promote the idea that the study of politics is a tool through which public freedom can be achieved because the idea concerns the well being of the community. However, it fails as a work that can be used within the constructs of social science for two grounds. First, Arendt’s use of cyclical argumentation to substantiate concepts that lack any viable method of examination via the standards of the social sciences renders any of application of her ideas impossible. Second, further examination of Arendt’s work becomes difficult due to her idealist interpretation of 18th Century revolutionary history to actual patterns of individual decision-making. For these reasons, it becomes difficult for political scientists to verify her theory through the observation of replicable data. Instead, in many cases it is more likely that any empirical attempt to verify her claims would undermine Arendt’s thesis. This is not to insinuate that On Revolution is without any value to the study of politics. While its ambitious aim of directing the discipline of political science towards molding a more perfect society through the recognition of public participation as life’s central good does not succeed, the book is still a philosophical text that students of politics can explore to build future theories. In sum, On Revolution is simply a text that stimulates political inquiry within the profession.

[1] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 225.

[2] Arendt, 170.

[3] Arendt, 252.

[4] Arendt, 217.

[5] Arendt, 217.

[6] Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 109.