Political Essay: Ruling in the Shadows: Machiavellian Influence on Iranian Political Strategy

Ruling in the Shadows: Machiavellian Influence on The Iranian Islamic Republic’s Political Strategy

Machiavelli’s Legacy in Modern Politics and the Case of The Iranian Islamic Republic

Written by: Mohsen Ebrahimizadeh Ghahrood

1- Introduction

2- History in short

3- Machiavelli’s Life and Ideas in short

4- History of Protests in Iran 2009 – 2024

5- Analysis

6- Conclusion

1- Introduction

«There is a certain king today {..} who never stops preaching peace and trust and is actually sworn enemy to both; and if he had ever practiced either he would have lost his authority of his kingdom many times over.»

The situation in Southwest Asia remains dynamic. On 19th May, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ibrahim Raisi, and the foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdolahian both died in a helicopter crash accident near the city of Tabriz. At the time of writing this essay, in the Middle East, a considerable number of events have been taking place. The war in Gaza (considered by many international organizations a genocide taking place), the first-time direct attack on Israel from Iranian soil, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, protests in Georgia against the new law known as a law related to Russian influence on national media, and so on. in Iran everything is even more problematic; The upraising protests targeting the existence of Iranian regime (not just against right-wing parties or the elections) more exactly the supreme leader and the system.

This essay argues that the Iranian government’s strategies towards its people, particularly at the time of the protests, are hugely influenced by Machiavellian principles as written in “The Prince”. By examining recent events and the responses from the Islamic Republic regime, this essay will demonstrate how Machiavelli’s ideas on holding power are reflected in the Islamic Republic’s political tactics.

Interpreting Machiavelli’s ideas from ‘The Prince’ in the context of Iran’s political system presents various challenges due to the unique historical and cultural factors at play. Machiavelli’s principles were formulated in the context of Renaissance Italy, and his advice and suggestions were aimed at solving the problems of that time which the Medici Family had been struggling with. On the other hand, Iran has its unique history and culture, most importantly the fact that it is a religion that significantly influences its political dynamics.

In my essay, I highlight four main strategies that are used by the Iranian government to solidify its grip on power. I show how each strategy can be related to the theoretical work of Machiavelli. The strategies can be summarized as 1) Omnipresence of the regime in the public and media sphere, 2) Elimination of political rivals while maintaining the standard of living of the population, 3) Violent oppression of protest movements, 4) Distraction from failures by scapegoating public figures.

When evaluating the actions and decisions of the Iranian regime, it is crucial to avoid viewing them through the lens of Western democratic logic and instead apply Machiavelli’s perspective on power retention, We should apply Machiavelli’s view regarding rulers holding onto power, and analyze the brutal actions of the Iranian regime through that lens. In the next chapter, I will look at Iranian history in the last century to give the reader a short background of the country’s struggles. Moreover, in the third chapter, I will briefly mention Machiavelli and his life while he was a politician to understand why he thought he needed to write the prince. 

2- History in short

It is difficult to talk about contemporary Iranian history since, in the last century, it experienced a wide range of crucial events such as the invasion of Iran by the British Empire and the Soviet Union in 1941, leading to the abdication of Reza Shah and the ascension of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. This period marked the beginning of significant foreign influence in Iran’s internal affairs which led even the next regime, the Islamic Republic, to always look at its behind while making any decision. The 1953 coup, orchestrated by the CIA and MI6, ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh after he nationalized the oil industry, restoring the Shah’s absolute rule. This event solidified U.S. and British influence in Iran but also sowed seeds of discontent that would later grow into revolutionary fervor.

By the 1970s, widespread dissatisfaction with the Shah’s autocratic rule, his close ties with the West, and the socio-economic inequalities in Iranian society culminated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, transformed Iran into an Islamic Republic, replacing the monarchy with a theocratic regime.

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, leading to the brutal and protracted Iran-Iraq War, which lasted until 1988. The war had devastating effects on Iran’s economy and population but also solidified the regime’s power domestically. The confrontational stance against the West was further bolstered by the supply of weapons from countries like Germany, Great Britain, and the USA. After the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, throughout the decades, the Islamic Republic has faced numerous challenges, including international isolation, economic sanctions, and internal calls for reform and greater freedoms. The country’s history since the invasion in 1941 has been marked by a continuous struggle between different political forces and ideologies, shaping the complex and dynamic nature of contemporary Iran.

3- Machiavelli’s Life and Ideas in short

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italy was suffering from a complicated political crisis between the five states that were in power. At the time, Italy was divided into five different states; the kingdom of Naples, the Papal States, Florence, Venice, and Milan. All these five powers in the peninsula constantly competed for new territories they could conquer. From outside the situation was not any different. Turks had conquered much of Italy’s overseas empire, France was more powerful than before after its unification in the north of Italy and eventually invaded Italy in 1494. Also, the Italian wars (1494-1559) were ongoing conflicts which were involving the most powerful European powers trying to get control over Italian territories. So in short, in this period there is nothing but chaos and instability in the political landscape of Italy. In Florance, from 1434 on, the Medicis – first Cosimo, then Piero, then Lorenzo – had been manipulating the electoral process to be in power or bring up their friends to power. So, although the Florentines still liked to boast that they were free citizens, by the mid-fifteenth century they were living in something very similar to a dictatorship. Machiavelli thus grew up in a society where the distance between how things were run and how they were described as being run could not have been greater.

Machiavelli was a politician who tried his whole life to observe and learn from these conflicts and compare them to the wars and challenges that Italy and other countries were struggling with throughout history. He reflected all his observations and gains in his book “The Prince” in which he discusses the idea of how the reality of politics is rough and how the prince should behave regardless of moral considerations. 

At the time, the church, specifically the Pope, had a strong influence among the public and states all over Italy, even in France. There was a meaningful difference between matters of religion and matters of state. The Pazzi conspiracy had been backed by the Pop, Priests had been involved in the assassination attempt and Lorenzo was excommunicated after it failed. The religious edict was a political tool. Machiavelli saw through these attempts of the pope to use religion as a political tool. It merely served to gain power over the population and impose its political will onto the rulers. Because of all these events taking place and the contradictions existing at the time, he built his philosophy on the division between religion and morality on the one hand, and power on the other hand. He believed that there were many occasions when winning and holding political power was possible only if a leader was ready to act outside the moral codes that applied to ordinary individuals. Public opinion was such, he explained, that, once victory was achieved, nobody was going to put the winner on trial. Political leaders were above the law.

By and large, Machiavelli believed that political life was a power struggle. If he did not want to lose his kingdom, the ruler had no other choice than to act unforgivingly towards his adversaries. The fact that was mentioned above that we should put ourselves in the position of the dictator while trying to analyze their behavior is crucial here. I would argue that all the dictatorships in history considered themselves“The prince“ (as Machiavelli describes the person in charge of the whole country) who has the right to govern their people. They always considered their reactions “legitimate” and in favor of their people and their country. For instance, Mussolini made a pact with Hitler because he thought it was the right choice for his own country to invade other parts of Europe and to bring the so-called “Roman glory “ back to Italy.  «Machiavelli systematizes such behavior and appears to recommend it, if only to those few who are committed to winning and holding political power.»

«These reflections prompt the question: is it better to be loved rather than feared, or vice versa? The answer is that one would prefer to be both but, since they don’t go together easily, if you have to choose, it’s much safer to be feared than loved. […] Fear means fear of punishment, and that’s something people never forget.» 

With regards to the question about the relation between effective political leadership and Christian principles, as Machiavelli describes, some situations would arise where one was bound to choose between two. As mentioned the prince must reject all ethical values outright; the strength, unity, and independence of the people and the state certainly constituted goals worth fighting for «’ I love my country more than my soul’, Machiavelli declared in a letter to fellow historian Francesco Guicciardini». He considered Christian principles admirable, but not applicable to politicians in certain circumstances. 

For Machiavelli ‘virtù’ was any quality of character that enabled the prince to take political power or to hold on to it. The project obliged him to explain that there were many occasions when winning and holding political power was possible only if a leader was ready to act outside the moral codes that applied to ordinary individuals.

«He had no way of keeping the initial believers on board or forcing the skeptical to see the light. But any new ruler bringing in changes will have to deal with huge obstacles and dangers, mostly in the early stages, and must overcome them with his abilities. Once he’s done that and eliminated those who resented his achievements, so that people start to respect and admire him, then he can enjoy his power in safety and will live honored and fulfilled.»

Machiavelli lived during a time of great change that challenged old ideas about politics. He focused on the conflicts in politics that modern thinkers tried to ignore, and he believed that change and conflict were central to human societies. 

«I send you a present that, if it does not correspond to the obligations I have to you, is without doubt the greatest Niccolò Machiavelli has been able to send you. For in it I have expressed as much as I know and have learned through a long practice and a continual reading in wordy things».

4- History of Protests in Iran 2009 – 2024 

During the last fifteen years, Iranians have been experiencing and participating in a wide range of protests, ranging from those against the turnout of the 2009 presidential election to the most recent uprising against the regime. Close analysis of these protests reveals a significant increase in participants and a spread to new cities. 

In the following paragraphs, I will look at the history of these protest movements while mentioning the reasons that triggered each of them to be able to analyze the regime’s reactions toward each of them. 

The most significant protest was the 2009 Green Movement, sparked by election fraud and corruption. It led to at least 100 deaths and over 4,000 detentions. In at least ten major cities up to 3 million peaceful demonstrators came on the streets. Their slogan, “Where is my vote”, symbolized Iran’s long-standing quest for democracy. The movement’s name came from a green sash given to Mir Hossein Mousavi by former President Mohammad Khatami. Over the next six months, the Green Movement evolved from a mass group of angry voters to a nationwide force demanding the democratic rights originally sought in the 1979 revolution, rights that radical clerics hijacked. Every few weeks, protesters took to the streets to challenge the regime and its leadership. But by early 2010, the regime had quashed public displays of opposition. Riot police and Basij paramilitary forces violently suppressed the demonstrations immediately following the election, which attracted more than 40,000 Iranians. Between June 2009 and February 2010, more than 30 protesters were killed and 4,000 were arrested.

Between 2017 and 2023, there were 3 major waves of protests. On December 28, 2017, protests erupted in Mashhad because of economic policies and the prices of essential materials. These protests spread to over 140 cities through social media. Also, the protests expanded by criticizing the involvement of the country in the Middle East and calling for regime change with slogans such as “leave Syria, think about us,” “Khamenei, shame on you, leave the country alone!” and “death to the dictator.” These protests, the largest since 2009 were like the other protests without any leader or organization. After two weeks, 22 protesters were killed, and over 3,700 detained. 

In 2019, on November 15, overnight the price of gas hiked by up to 300 percent. consequently, protests broke out on the same day. By December 2, at least 304 people were killed, and over 7,000 were detained as protests spread to 100 cities. The chants were anti-government and the regime responded with tear gas, water cannons, and live ammunition, shutting down the internet for five days. The State Department estimated over 1,000 deaths, including at least a dozen children, while Iranian officials reported 1,500. 

On January 11, 2020, anti-government protests began after the Revolutionary Guards admitted to mistakenly shooting down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, killing all 176 onboard. First protests spread across the university campuses over the night of the same day, with the slogans “Death to the liars” and “Clerics get lost!” As in previous encounters, the government used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse protesters. By January 16, protests had shut down, with at least 30 people detained and an unknown number killed.

Finally, the biggest protest in Iran, and also the longest one was about the killing of a girl named Mahsa Amini by the morality police on September 16, 2023. In this protest, more than 500 young protesters were killed by the special guards of the Basij and even the Quds military on the streets of Iran. Even the killing of the protesters wasn’t finished by the end of the protests and the regime wasn’t happy even after the protests were shut down so they executed seven as of May 2023 and nearly 20,000 boys and girls were detained. As mentioned the flashpoint of this protest Death in the detention of Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was detained for “improper hijab,” and died in the custody of Iran’s morality police. 

Protests erupted over her death and the regime’s suppression of personal freedoms. Protesters chanted “Woman, Life, Freedom” and “Death to the Dictator,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during nationwide demonstrations that lasted into early 2023. Many women and schoolgirls removed their mandatory headscarves in public in a symbolic show of protest against the government. The demonstrations were the most significant since the 2009 Green Movement. However, security forces were able to maintain control. Most demonstrations included just dozens or hundreds of people, in contrast to the millions who turned out in 2009.

Between 2017 and 2023 there were sporadic economic protests as well. In the past five years, several smaller protests and strikes have concerned poverty and economic mismanagement. Iran’s economy is reliant on the oil industry but the revenues from it have been severely curtailed because of crippling U.S. sanctions, contributing to high levels of inflation, inequality, and unemployment.

5- Analysis

«We must remember that the general public’s mood will swing. It’s easy to convince people of something, but hard to keep them convinced. So when they stop believing in you, you must be in a position to force them to believe. Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus couldn’t have got people to respect their new laws for long if they hadn’t possessed armed force.»

First, the word “prince,” which Machiavelli refers to, denotes anyone who has power over his people. Tim Parks, in his introduction to the translation of “The Prince,” mentions, «Machiavelli’s word ‘prince’ does not mean ‘the son of the king,’ and even less ‘an attractive young suitor.» Machiavelli’s ‘Principe’ refers generically to men of power, men who rule a state. The prince is the erst, or principal, man. So the translator is tempted to use the word ‘king’. At least in the past, a king stood at the apex of a hierarchical system. Taking Park’s explanation about the prince tries to adapt the concept of the prince to our modern world since the forms of government have changed. The concept of the prince, therefore, refers to any (political) authority which exerts influence over a certain populace. 

We can analyze the Iranian government’s actions through Machiavelli’s lens in two general actions, national political, and foreign political. The latter exceeds the scope of this essay due to the Iranian involvement in numerous proxy wars in countries like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. But talking about its national policies, first, we have to consider that the Iranian regime has been struggling with the matter of credibility among the majority of its public, especially these last 5 years. Several protests have been ongoing in all parts of the country, targeting the Iranian regime and, in particular, Ali Khamenei. The demonstrators demand a change of the system, even the death of the supreme leader as well as the dissolution of the elite Quds Force and further Iranian proxies which have driven the country to become internationally isolated and crippled by sanctions.

Regarding our case, Khamenei could be considered as the prince from Machiavelli’s point of view. He is the ultimate decision-maker in Iran, with his image omnipresent across the country—in parliament, schools, gyms, bars, and more. Khamenei’s strategic use of media and public appearances ensures that his presence is constantly felt by the people, an aspect of crucial importance for “The Prince” as it serves to protect and reinforce his power. Moreover, Khamenei’s approach to internal dissatisfactions, reflected in his brutal crackdown on protest movements and the elimination of political rivals, mirrors Machiavelli’s advice on dealing with any kind of threats to his absolute power: «It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.»

When Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic revolution in Iran, took power, he immediately started eliminating elites from the previous regime. He knew that alone he could not make the revolution happen. So he talked with the other parties such as secular liberals, Communists, members of reformist Islamic groups, and other minor parties, which were dissatisfied with the Shah’s policies and dictatorship. He promised to divide power and allow free elections. However, soon after the revolution he began to eliminate his allies as he was scared to experience the same fate as the Shah. He started by executing many individuals associated with the Shah’s regime to not have any fear of a military coup. Beyond that, the regime executed key figures like former Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, General Nematollah Nasiri ( the head of Savak, the Shah’s secret police), and other high-ranking officials. Then he put all the top commanders and the Shah’s courtiers in prison to be able to organize a show for the others who were still in favor of the last king and then execute some of them publicly so others would not try to jeopardize the revolution. He started by executing the commander of the army of the Shah to prevent a military coup. He then imprisoned all the top commanders and the Shah’s courtiers to demonstrate that a counter-revolution would not be allowed to happen. Machiavelli in this regard says:

«{…} In that case, all you have to do is eliminate the family of the previous ruler, and your hold on power is guaranteed. Everything else in the territory can then be left as it was and, given that there are no profound differences in customs, people will accept the situation quietly enough. {…} So a ruler who has taken territories in these circumstances must have two priorities: first, to eliminate the family of the previous rulers; second, to leave all laws and taxes as they were.»

As Park mentioned in another part of his introduction, he also agreed with the fact that Machiavelli’s point of view was not anything about how people love or hate their kings. Parks also notes that Machiavelli’s concern was not about how people felt about their rulers, but about ensuring a strong, independent state.

«{…}It is not that the author is insisting that Borgia’s immoral acts should not be censured, but rather that Machiavelli is just not interested in discussing the moral aspect of the question at all, or not from a Christian point of view. For him, it is a case of shrewd or mistaken choices, not of good or evil. When he proposes Borgia as a model, neither morality nor immorality comes into it, only because this man knew how to win power, hold it, and build a strong state.»

Looking at the reaction of the Islamic regime in domestic matters, especially during the protests of the last two decades, gives us an interesting use case to analyze Machiavelli’s famous quote. The Islamic regime’s reaction to domestic protests illustrates Machiavelli’s advice on maintaining power. Machiavelli wrote that a prince must be loved by his people, but if necessary, he should act outside moral codes to retain power. Accordingly, the Islamic regime decided to attack its people on the streets, curb the protests, and silence any dissatisfaction expressed by the Iranian people. Over time, this led to the realization of the public that voting does not result in any meaningful change. The slogans from “Where is my vote” transformed into much more radical slogans such as “death to dictatorship“ (referring to Khamenei) and “ we want a referendum”.

Moreover, participation in recent elections – regardless of the sector of these elections – has significantly decreased, reflecting the public’s disillusionment with the regime. For example, in the 2009 election, official reports claimed 85% participation, but by the 2021 election, this had dropped to 48.8%. The newest presidential election turnout was only 40%. In the 2009 election, the participation – reported by officials was around 85 percent of the people eligible to vote. However during the elections in 2013 and 2017,  73 percent was reported and in the last election, only 48.8 percent was reported. The crucial fact is that there was a huge discussion regarding the altering of the number of people participating in the election by several news agencies. Comparing the election in the period we are focusing on, between 2009 and 2021, the decrease in the number of people who decided not to vote was about 37 percent. It is worth mentioning that in this year’s election (2021), 14.07 percent of the votes were blank votes or invalid votes. Even in the parliament election based on the official reports, only 40 percent participated which is the lowest participation in the whole life of the Islamic Republic. More interestingly the capital, Tehran, had the lowest participation of the eligible voters among all the provinces in Iran with a turnout of only 26.24 percent. It is important to mention that because of the censorship it has never been possible for non-governmental agencies to evaluate the numbers or even have access to the data of the votes.

«If he doesn’t go out of his way to get himself hated, it’s reasonable to suppose his people will wish him well.» Khamenei for a long time has noticed that he is not popular anymore and his words aren’t worth to the majority of the people anymore. Machiavelli narrates Borgia’s decision at the time that he realized he had a big problem with his people and Borgia decided to deflect people’s hatred away from himself  by putting the blame for all atrocities on his minister and then doing away with him: 

«He had de Orco beheaded and his corpse put on display one morning in the piazza in Cesena with a wooden block and a bloody knife beside, The ferocity of  the spectacle left people both gratified and shocked» 

Khamenei acted in the same way on several occasions. On November 14, 2018, the government executed Vahid Mazlomi referring to him in the public news as “the king of gold coins”. The execution came after a hike in gold and dollar prices in Iran. The regime and the current government at the time weren’t able to control the prices so they decided to use Borgia’s strategy to blame someone to calm down the public’s dissatisfaction. Mazlomi was displayed on TV and subjected to an interrogation in which he publicly declared that he had exploited the price hikes for his gains. On the night of the execution of Vahid Mazlomi the prize of each gold coin in Iran was 39,400,000 rials and today the price is 420,745,000 rials which means more than a tenfold increase. Vahid Mazlomi was therefore executed by the regime to cover up its failings and incompetence in governing. That is why Machiavelli argues that a policy that works well in one moment is a disaster the next.

6- Conclusion

As mentioned in the first part of this essay, it is necessary to analyze any political action from different angles and through different lenses. The Islamic regime uses cruelty to maintain its power to be able to maintain national security and order. A dictatorship as an Islamic state believes that they have the right to have power over the people living in Iran, it never accepted any dissatisfaction among the people, any requests by Iranian people to have a free election and a referendum to be able to vote and decide for the system which they are living in that. I have been referring to this system as a regime because they always referred to the previous dictatorship as a regime, which they rebelled against with the promises of having a free life and the basic human rights that have been denied to the people since the beginning of the creation of the regime. One of the good examples of it is the fact that there have been many times argued by many different politicians that forcing women to wear the mandatory hijab is not a justifiable law and is an action to suppress just part of the people regardless of their choice. Over the last few years, people have been killed on the streets just to protest against it but the regime always declared that Hejab is one of the foundations of the system and if they accept to put it as a poll for people to choose if they want it or not, the public will start to go further and want more and more. 

In the end, Machiavelli raises a point regarding the cruelty and inhumanity of Agathocles, who achieved a lot in his life, without having any backers o benefactors and survived all kinds of hardships and danger, but he mentioned that it is not all that a leader would be remembered as highly as the most outstanding military leaders. He concludes that «because of his brutality, cruelty, and inhumanity, together with the endless crimes he committed, he has no place among the men we most admire.» 

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