In Iran, there is a supreme leader and a guardian council on top of the parliament. Any candidate for parliament must be approved by the supreme leader and the guardian council.

Therefore, this is not the same as the Western form of democracy.

Is Iran considered a democracy by the Western world?

Note: I am not talking about Political Scientific theories, I am talking about real politics.

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    Are you asking about political theory (does the Iranian government meet definitions of democracy) or of real politics (do the governments or people of US/UK/Germany/etc. consider Iran to be a democracy)?
    – divibisan
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 2:31
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    If it helps with future questions, very few theocratic dictatorships are considered democracies.
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 16:21
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    The English WP page for Iran puts it pretty well:"The Government of Iran is an Islamic theocracy which includes elements of a presidential democracy, with the ultimate authority vested in an autocratic "Supreme Leader", a position held by Ali Khamenei since 1989 following Khomeini's death. The Iranian government is widely considered to be authoritarian, and has attracted widespread criticism for its significant constraints and abuses against human rights and civil liberties, including several violent suppressions of mass protests, unfair elections, and limited rights for women and children."
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 20:42
  • 2
    define "considered", define "democracy", define "western world"
    – njzk2
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 21:26
  • This question should be updated specifying what types of answers you are looking for. “Real politics” isn’t very clear so answers will be primarily opinion based. Commented Apr 26, 2021 at 14:27

6 Answers 6


It's difficult to answer this in a comprehensive fashion, but generally I think the answer is (a qualified) 'no'.

E.g. Freedom House:

The Islamic Republic of Iran holds elections regularly, but they fall short of democratic standards due in part to the influence of the hard-line Guardian Council, an unelected body that disqualifies all candidates it deems insufficiently loyal to the clerical establishment. Ultimate power rests in the hands of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the unelected institutions under his control. [...]

Iran is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2021.

Likewise the Democracy-Dictatorship Index (albeit not updated in over a decade, but for Iran it probably doesn't matter) lists Iran as a civilian dictatorship (this scheme doesn't have a coding for a theocratic dictatorship though--only military/civil/royal kinds.)

Some other analyses describe it as a "hybrid regime":

Being a ‘hybrid’ regime, the Islamic Republic combines theocracy with a certain level of representative participation, allowing it to adapt to changing political and social dynamics over time.

On Polity IV, which uses a -10 (full dictatorship) to 10 (for full democracy) scale, Iran was ranked as -7 and labelled an autocracy as of last update, which happened in 2014. To be a labelled a "semi-democracy" on this scale, the score would have to be in between -5 and 5, according to its creators. Iran was ranked in that range from the late 1990s to 2005 though.

As of 2020, V-dem labels Iran an "Electoral Autocracy", on a classification that recognizes four main classes: Liberal Democracy, Electoral Democracy, Electoral Autocracy, and Closed Autocracy. (The scale also entertains "+" and "-" tags/modifiers, but none are given to Iran.)

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    @jamesqf No, it’s a theocratic dictatorship at the top level. Dictatorships are often conflated with autocracy (even Wikipedia does this to some extent), but oligarchic dictatorships are possible to some extent, and Iran is a pretty good example of one (it fits all the standard hallmarks of a dictatorship in terms of who actually holds all the power). Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 14:32
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    @jamesqf Dictatorships don't have to be ruled by a single person, that's the definition of an autocracy (see military juntas for examples of dictatorship by committee). You should get in the habit of looking up the definitions of these things before you say them
    – llama
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 16:55
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    Polity IV lists the United States as scoring a 10 (full democracy) all the way back to 1946 (link), nearly two decades before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This doesn't seem like an unbiased source. Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 18:16
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    @Austin Hemmelgarn: I disagree. I think - though I don't know of any polling &c to support my opinion - that most people do think of Iran as a theology, and distinct from dictatorships such as Iraq under Hussein or Libya under Gaddafi. For Iran, the head of the government would be the President (currently Hassan Rouhani, per Google), but he is at the mercy of the Ayatollah Kahmenei and the Supreme Religious Council.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 3:29
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    @jamesqf The Iranian President is functionally a figurehead, actual power rests pretty much entirely with the Supreme Leader. Per the constitution, he’s the commander in chief, has sole power to declare war or peace, and through a convoluted chain of influence is also largely the final authority on who can run for elected positions, as well as appointing a large majority of the non-elected leadership of the country, and can even completely bypass the normal legislative process and directly amend laws himself. There is heavy theocratic influence, but that does not mean it’s not a dictatorship. Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 11:51

A "managed democracy" is not democracy. At all.

It may maintain an image of a democracy (e.g. run elections) in order to get some kind of international recognition as being more or less democratic, but it completely lacks any of the proposed benefits of a democracy.

Like, say, government acceptable for a significant part of the population.

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    A lot of kingdom countries especially in the middle east have international recognition, without even a controlled election. Iran policies however have a clear and visible change after elections, both foreign and domestic, so you can't "it completely lacks any of the proposed benefits of a democracy." Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 15:38
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    @AminKeshavarzian China has also had that feature several times but no one would call it a democracy. Just because a dictatorship wants to change course and does it under the guise of rigged elections doesn't mean anything democratic actually happened.
    – eps
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 16:39
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    I didn't say it is a democracy, in terms of the Western definition of it, I just commented that there are two false statements in your answer. Iran is now and has been under the toughest sanctions possible, so having an election to get international recognition is just absurd. I find Mossi's answer the most accurate one, but not shockingly enough it has gotten a lot of negative votes. Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 16:55
  • I edited the answer regarding the recognition
    – fraxinus
    Commented Apr 26, 2021 at 5:25
  • All democracies have some level of management. Canada prohibits bankrupts and people who don't hold property from holding some offices. Britain excludes titled aristocrats from running for the Commons. In the U.S. there are immense barriers to election without the support of one of the two major parties and former Confederate officers were excluded under the 14th Amd. for a while. Germany has provisions designed to exclude extremists. Until surprisingly recently women had no electoral say and no one who wasn't a Democrat could win office in the U.S. South. All or nothing thinking is flawed.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 26, 2021 at 17:58

There are many analysts who call Iran a dictatorship while many others call it democratic. So when going by experts' opinions it's almost to each their own!

By Western definitions the answer is a clear no. But the current constitution was drafted by the parliament and approved by the citizens with overwhelming support during a referendum. The power wasn't seized by force or military coup. People willfully took to the polls and casted a clear binary vote. So what does that make Iran?

I would encourage to look at non-Western countries with fresh eyes. The ruling system in Iran is a bit complex, with history and logic supporting the structure, and the model doesn't really fit into the typical Western definitions. Putting countries into convenient buckets of Free, Not Free, Dictatorship, Theocratical, and so on takes away from the goal of understanding the truth.

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    In re "many others call it democratic". Some examples would help prove your point. Also people voting for (ultimately) autocratic regimes in referenda isn't unheard of. Pretty much the very first referenda turned out like that: Napoleon III. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1852_French_Second_Empire_referendum Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 21:19
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    @Fizz If you Google "Iran democracy" the first 10 pages all say Iran is not democratic. That doesn't make it true though; it's just Google tapping into most visited websites dished out based on your location. So if you are in the US chances are you'll see stuff from NYT, American think-tank groups, and anti-Iranian gov-backed institutions. I recommend tuning into political outlets like RT, PressTV, Aljazeera, Xinhua, Almayadeen, and others, and hearing their commentators. Unfortunately many are not in English but that's why I suggest taking a deeper dive into the subject.
    – Mossi
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 22:43
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    @user366312 As mentioned "By Western definitions the answer is a clear no".
    – Mossi
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 22:44
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    @Fizz saying Iran is an (ultimately) autocratic regime is as wrong as saying it is a pure democracy. I live there (or here :D) and after elections changes are very obvious and vivid, but I wouldn't call it an ideal democracy of course. Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 17:01
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    @Mossi, Iran is democratic in much the way that pre-Civil War England was democratic: there's a certain amount of electoral influence, but there's also clearly one unelected person at the top who has the final say.
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 25, 2021 at 0:00

Iran is a fascinating study. The answer is "no", but it is a question which deserves more than a binary answer. Western powers for various reasons of self-interest, recent history and regional alliances seek to suppress Iran, so the impression of Iran is biased.

The Western implementation of democracy is an evolving compromise between elites and the masses. It is not perfect, for sure. Also, it is quite different across countries, and it is very different across the decades of the past century. When talking of "western democracy", we have to look for common elements.

It has settled on a few common ideas: one adult, one vote, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the rule of law (that is, equality before the law). The UK offers the supremacy of parliament. Systems with constitutions constrain the power of government, but through a mechanism subject to oversight by election, direct or indirect. Most of these constitutions were imposed by a process very different from the electoral processes the constitutions prescribe, which is an obvious contradiction. In a few cases, they were imposed by an occupying power, which could not be less democratic, you may say. I guess this is the root of the enduring hope that democracy can be spread by the US military.

Our democracies nearly always have means to suppress the direct will of the people, most obviously by delegation of authority to elected representatives which is a process subject to manipulation, but also through mechanisms like long terms of office for Sentators which delay rapid response to voter concerns, difficult processes to change the constitution, and rights which protect minorities, and voting systems which are often designed to filter out the diversity of voters (including providing small groups of voters with outsized representation, as happens in the Senates of the US and Australia). But despite that, Western systems can mostly claim that all power ultimately rests with the voters, even if the execution of this power is coralled though a maze set up by an older or external power structure.

So overall, it's pretty hard to use "western democracy" as a benchmark. And by today's standards, our systems of just 100 years ago looked pretty bad, and that's forgetting that most Western democracies are quite young: in 1940 there were only a few remaining. The "new world" countries are called "Western" due to their historical connections to Western Europe rather than their actual location, but they are actually much more mature democracies, and perhaps much better at it, than nearly all the countries of Western Europe. Of those still-standing democracies in 1940, Western Europe could muster only one important member. So historically, "Western Democracy" should be taken with a grain of salt. The legitimacy of today's "Western Democracy" comes from outside of Western Europe, except for the UK.

However, the Iranian system fails so many of the broad tests, it is not really a question of subtle differences. It is clearly in a different league. The state enforces brutal suppression of opponents, it limits candidates, it limits free speech and so on.

But this is also not the end of the discussion, I think. From the beginning of the theocratic takeover of a very brutal and old-fashioned oil-funded dictatorship (propped-up by the western powers), the religious institution has definitely sought legitimacy via elections. It is quite interesting. While claiming overall authority, from the beginning, the religious leaders recognised an important role for secular institutions. Of course eventually this caused conflicts and challenges to the constraints, and the secular institutions become a threat, and so far the institutional power of the elite, which has vast economic interests, not just Ayatollahs, is winning.

Iran has the kernel of a representative democracy. The right to vote is as I understand it wide-spread, and the theocratic regime has significantly improved literacy. It seems that at times, Iranian voters have felt like they were participating in a legitimate process. Also, it is not just at the national level: there are elections down to municipal level, which indicates a depth to the concept of elected representation. These proto-democratic institutions are certainly perceived as a threat by the entrenched elite, which is a sign that they have some independent life. There is definitely widespread political opposition to the regime. The regime has never succeeded in eliminating this opposition, there must be either be leadership dissent or some other limits on the type of brutality required to do this.

Iran is not so far away from producing a nuclear weapon. The "bomb" of democracy may not be so far either. Sometimes the "West" embarks on ridiculously futile campaigns, such as the attempt to establish democratic institutions in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Iran seems like a much more likely prospect in many ways. It is not democratic, but there is a democratic Iran not too far away if things go well.


In any geography textbook Iran is classified as a Theocracy.

It is a state where the religion is more important than the secularity in the executive/legislative, administrative and judiciary systems.

They are actually a democracy, they have elections, but the thing is that the Ayatollah, the religious leader, have more power than the democratically elected leaders. IT is quite like the Catholic church in the middle ages.


While the ways of policing the country might be different, there is not too much difference to be seen between the streets of Teheran and the streets of Amsterdam. Cars are driving on a western-based infrastructure, trains are rolling, an underground railway transports passengers, yes indeed an entire western-based transportation system helps the people. There is a western-based medicine, western-based schools and universities, western fire brigades, a western-based army, western-based agriculture, movies are shown in western based cinemas (though what is shown can be problematic), there are family parks, supermarkets, swimming pools, a nuclear powerplant, radio, and tv (though what is heard or seen can be problematic), there is a football team. It has a space agency (ISA) and satellites, people have computers and telephones (though what you hear, see can be problematic). Even the symbol for the judging system is the same as the western symbol (the scale of judgement), though in the judging itself more religion is involved, obviously. But the prison system is western (I can't tell the circumstance of the inmates though). Oil is won by means of western technology. And the list goes on and on.
This doesn't answer the question if Iran is considered to be a western democracy, but it gives a very short image of how the people live over there. And that's more important I guess.

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    Doesn't this comparison hold for most metropolises anywhere in the world? I think it says very little about life in the broader country, let alone its system of government.
    – JJJ
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 20:25
  • @JJJ Yes indeed. That is exactly what I wanted to say. Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 20:28
  • Women have to dress somewhat differently from most women in western countries, though. And another difference is that my western country does not have images of the current and previous head of state everywhere, but other western countries may be different (my country did have such images everywhere when it still was dictatorship)
    – Jan
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 22:27
  • @Jan It can't be denied that Iran has a high "Big Brother" ingredient. And big brother isn't watching only... In western societies, it is not religion that reigns supreme, but the sciences. Western thought is almost synonymous with scientific thought. Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 22:35
  • China is probably even more "Western" if we judge by how cities look. Commented Apr 25, 2021 at 12:29

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