Citation for Islamic Republican Party

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Sanasarian, Eliz . "Islamic Republican Party." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 19, 2022. <>.


Sanasarian, Eliz . "Islamic Republican Party." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 19, 2022).

Islamic Republican Party

Founded in February 1979, shortly after the fall of the Iranian monarchy, the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) had the approval of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989), and its key founding members were among his top clerical loyalists. Foremost among them were Muḥammad Bihishtī, ʿAbd al-Karīm Mūsavī Ardabīlī, ʿAlī Khameneʿi, ʿAlī Akbar Hāshimī Rafsanjānī, and Muḥammad Javād Bāhunar. All were also members of the Revolutionary Council. Bihishtī was the secretary general of the IRP and the Revolutionary Council concurrently. The close connection between the two bodies was acknowledged by Rafsanjānī during the first party congress in 1983. The Revolutionary Council, however, had been disbanded in July 1980.

The IRP was not a regular political party. It neither institutionalized a party structure nor encouraged increased membership. Formal membership was never emphasized and did not seem important. From the start, the party served as a mobilizer of some of the traditional and reactionary forces of Iranian society. It formed a united front through a loose coalition of various Islamic groups and organizations, clerics, and nonclerical elements that endorsed Khomeini's version of an Islamic government. A multitude of persons and groups whose interests ran counter to the religious moderates, secularists, liberals, and leftists was utilized by the IRP to undermine these voices. The divided character of the non-IRP groups, their ideological, organizational, and personal conflicts, as well as their inexperience in the intricacies of governance, helped contribute to the IRP success.

Under the shrewd leadership of Bihishtī, the IRP moved swiftly toward monopolizing state power. It became a focal point for unleashing Islamic forces on grassroots organizations and independent groups, and it organized Islamic associations inside the workplace to counter the independent workers’ councils. On university and college campuses, Islamic student groups were encouraged to take matters into their own hands. The IRP organized rallies and demonstrations against other groups, advocated purges of government institutions and the overhaul of the state bureaucracy, pushed for the execution of the officials of the previous regime, and ordered the confiscation of their properties and the takeover of some sectors of the Iranian economy. The IRP also played an important role in the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.

These activities did not always occur under the rubric of the IRP or the person of Ayatollah Khomeini. The presence of autonomous and semiautonomous groups and individuals in the party facilitated a chain of action with the sole purpose of eliminating those perceived as the enemies of the revolution and guaranteeing governance for the Khomeini loyalists. For example, although Sipāh-i Pasdarān-i Inqilāb-i Islāmā (the Revolutionary Guards) and the Ḥizbullāh (the Party of God) adherents were not part of the IRP, they served as its agents. Also, not all pro-Khomeini clerics and groups were supportive of the IRP or of Bihishtī. The most prominent among these nonsupporters were members of the religiously conservative Jamʿīyah-yi Mudarrisīn-i Qom (Theological Teachers’ Association of Qom). The teachers’ group was sharply critical of the idea of a political party, but since such groups could not dominate the political scene or single-handedly eliminate the liberal or left factions, it sided with the IRP. Other groups, such as the Jamʿīyah-yi Rūḥānīyat-i Mubāriz (Association of the Combatant Clerics) never directly joined the IRP but formed a temporary coalition in order to gain a foothold in the 1980 parliamentary elections.

A majority of the elected candidates to the Majlis-i Khabarīgān (Assembly of Experts), a crucial body charged with drafting a new constitution, came from the IRP coalition. Ayatollah Bihishtī became vice chair of the Assembly of Experts and ran most of its public and private meetings. The Revolutionary Council and the IRP vigorously campaigned for the approval of the constitution in the December 1979 referendum.

Abol-Hasan Bani Sadr's election in January 1980 as the first president of postrevolutionary Iran was a significant setback for the IRP. The party had pressed for the postponement of the presidential elections until the last day. Bani Sadr's close connection to Khomeini, his popularity among the anti-IRP groups, and the top clerics’ general ambivalence about the IRP's capability to govern joined to bring about the IRP defeat in January 1980. Yet in February, Bihishtī, maintaining all his previous positions, became the head of the Supreme Court.

Thereafter, the IRP put all of its efforts into gaining a majority in the first parliamentary elections after the revolution, to be held in March 1980. Several developments are of political significance. In mid-February 1980, the Revolutionary Council decided to change the election law. An absolute majority was required in order to win the first round of balloting, failing which the top two candidates had to participate in a runoff election. With the exception of the IRP, most groups and organizations opposed the two rounds of balloting, arguing that it worked to the disadvantage of small parties. The IRP then moved to form a grand coalition of diverse Islamic groups. It also used its connections and clout to change the boundaries of various constituencies to the IRP's advantage. Obstruction of the campaigns of other political parties was systematic. Many small-party candidates were disqualified and demonstrations were disallowed; Friday prayer sermons and religious broadcasts on television and radio were used as campaign forums. On the day of the elections, fraud and irregularities were rampant. The result was an impressive success for the IRP and the independent Islamic elements. About half of those elected in the first round in March and more than half in the second round of elections in May were part of the IRP coalition. Rafsanjānī was elected speaker of the Majlis (parliament) on July 20, 1980.

IRP control of the parliament presented an added challenge to Bani Sadr. The IRP and the president clashed over many issues, including the choice of a prime minister and cabinet heads. Muḥammad ʿAlī Rajāʿī, a Majlis deputy from Tehran and an IRP member, was imposed as prime minister on the president, touching off a constitutional crisis and immobilizing state functions. Ignoring the chain of command, Rajāʿī regularly opposed Bani Sadr. These confrontations came to symbolize anticlerical versus clerical rule. Petitions were signed and demonstrations were held asking for the dissolution of the IRP. Grand Ayatollahs ʿAbd Allāh Shīrāzī and Ḥasan Ṭabāṭabāʿī Qummī declared their support for the president. Ayatollah Khomeini interceded, asking all sides to cease their quarrels, but to no avail. The IRP's propaganda and mobilization of street mobs and parliamentary deputies eventually resulted in Bani Sadr's removal by Khomeini on June 22, 1981, and a major crackdown against all anticlerical groups. The Temporary Council of the Presidency was established to oversee the change. Its three members were Bihishtī, Rajāʿī, and Rafsanjānī.

On June 28, 1981, the IRP headquarters in Tehran was destroyed in a major bomb blast. Seventy-four people were killed, including Bihishtī, Majlis deputies, high-ranking government officials, and other party members. Although the government blamed the organization known as the Mujāhidīn-i Khalq, no one claimed responsibility for the blast. This fueled rumors that interclerical rivalry and anti-Bihishtī sentiments were responsible for the bombing.

Muḥammad Javād Bāhunar, the minister of education, became secretary-general of the party; in July elections Rajāʿī was elected president (confirmed by Khomeini on August 2, 1981), and he chose Bāhunar as his prime minister. Mūsavī Ardabīlī replaced Bihishtī as the head of the Supreme Court. On August 30, 1981, both Bāhunar and Rajāʿī were killed in another bomb blast in the premier's office. Again, with impressive speed, the regime moved to fill the gap. Khameneʿi became secretary-general of the IRP and, in October, was elected the third president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He held both positions concurrently until the dissolution of the IRP in 1987.

The goals of the IRP were not spelled out until its first and last party congress in May 1983. Many observers believe that the congress was convened in order to regroup the party and save it from internal fracture. Prior to this date, the IRP had not issued any document on its general ideological outlook. The congress revealed that the goal of the party was to bring together and coordinate dispersed Islamic forces in order to prevent them from neutralizing each other. Difficulties and sharp ideological divisions in the party were acknowledged, yet party members were urged to cooperate with nonparty persons and groups, because they were a valuable asset to the Islamic regime. No statements were made on possible plans to increase membership. Reports indicated that around a thousand members and several nonparty political dignitaries were invited as guests and observers. For the first time, a general plan of action was approved and members were voted on for two councils: the Central Council of the party and the Council of Jurisdiction. The latter's task was to mitigate infighting and to remove factional disputes. Its five members were Khameneʿi, Rafsanjānī, Muḥammad-Mahdī Rabbānī Amlishī, ʿAbbās-Vaʿẓ Ṭabarsī, and Muḥammad ʿAlī Muvaḥḥidī Kirmānī.

The precise ideological orientation of the IRP is more difficult to describe. It was a goal-oriented party whose task, the institutionalization of an Islamic state, had already been accomplished. It is clear, however, that the fall of Bani Sadr and the death of Bihishtī prompted a resurfacing of personal and ideological conflicts among Islamic forces. Bihishtī's death, in particular, marked the beginning of the end for the IRP. His sagacious and farsighted managerial skill and his ability to bring together diverse and hostile forces under the party umbrella were lost forever. The nature of the intra-elite conflict remains obscure owing to its fluid nature, secrecy, and personalism. Personal rivalries were often disguised as ideological disagreements, and individuals shifted their positions and allegiances from one group or issue to another. Adding to the confusion is that certain groups and individual clergy already independent from the IRP still worked with the party on issues of mutual interest. This was acceptable to the party, which did not attempt to coerce any entity into joining the organization; there was no particular reward or punishment for membership. These independent centers of power were both a source of attraction and emulation by inner-party circles.

Observers of elite factionalism have identified various tendencies within the IRP. Although a concise categorization is an impossible task, some conflicting ideological tendencies are identifiable. In 1983, on the eve of the formation of the Assembly of Experts to decide on a successor to Khomeini, a number of ideological clashes resurfaced. The naming of Husein Ali Montazeri (Ḥusayn ʿAlī Muntazirī) as the successor to Khomeini prompted a public display of political and personal rifts. Two prominent camps were referred to as the Maktabī and the Ḥujjatīyah groups. Each embraced several minigroups with clerical adherents from the IRP. The two groups seem to have differed on the type of leadership that they wanted in the post-Khomeini era (individual cleric versus collective leadership), the nature of social and economic reform (strong centralized government versus less government monopoly), the extent of clerical involvement in politics (more active versus a less-visible role), and several other issues. In the summer of 1983, the Ḥujjatīyah group was attacked in the media and accused of being antirevolutionary and in doubt of Khomeini's leadership. Then, public references to the Ḥujjatīyah suddenly ceased, prompting rumors that the group had suspended its activities. Rarely was there any mention of even the Maktabīs after this incident. Public displays seemed to have turned private again.

It is not certain which clerical elite belonged to which faction. Both Khameneʿi and Rafsanjānī were rumored to belong to either group. Bihishtī, Bāhunar, and Muḥammad Riẓ̇ā Mahdavī-Kānī were identified with the Ḥujjatīyah. Prime Minister Mīr Ḥusayn Mūsavī, Mūsavī Ardabīlī, Muḥammad Mūsavī, Khūʿīnīha (the leader of the Students of the Imam's Line—the group that took over the American embassy in November 1979), and ʿAlī Mashkīnī (chair of the Assembly of Experts) were rumored to be Maktabīs.

Throughout 1984, 1985, and 1986, elite factionalism in the party's top leadership intensified. Khameneʿi and Rafsanjānī were rumored to be heading opposing factions of the party. In public, however, they acknowledged the presence of factionalism but exhibited camaraderie toward each other. Some observers believe that the nature of the conflict was in terms of left versus right; the leftists were understood to be more militant on foreign policy and favored a state monopoly of principal economic assets, and the rightists were believed to be dominated by the rich bāzārīs and to favor less central control and the toning down of anti-imperialist rhetoric. The two factions were unable to reach an agreement or to compromise.

Another dimension of this conflict is the dubious role played by small associations, individual cliques, and sympathizers. The followers of one faction who worked in semiautonomous institutions and government offices and ministries could easily undermine any coherent action by the opposite side. Smaller groups were splitting into several subfactions.

In an environment of much less diversity and of clerical domination, war with Iraq, popular discontent, and elite factionalism, the second parliamentary elections were held in 1984. Voters were told that they had options other than the Islamic Republican Party and the clerics. The IRP list of candidates appeared along with other groups and associations’ lists. Almost two-thirds of the candidates appeared on most lists, yet beneath the surface, there was fierce competition between the two dominant party factions. The election resulted in the IRP being the only political party and holding a little less than half of the parliamentary seats.

In October 1985, Khameneʿi became president for a second term. Factionalism remained and rivalries were exposed in the presidential campaign, as well as in the nomination of Prime Minister Mūsavī. A significant feature of this presidential election was the way in which groups and individuals were trying to disassociate themselves from the party. For instance, Sayyid Maḥmūd Kāshānī, who was an IRP member, ran against Khameneʿi, claiming that he was not a member of the party. Meanwhile, both Khomeini and Montazeri made repeated appeals to various factions to stop their infighting.

Public exposure of the secret negotiations with the United States and the Reagan administration in the Iran-Contra affair further worsened the inner-party struggle. A major meeting of the party elite failed to bring about a peaceful resolution. The Central Council of the IRP discussed the viability of different options, including maintaining the party, dissolving it, or dividing it into several parties. Arguments raised at the inception of the IRP were raised again with more vigor. Ḥizbullāh, for example, unhappy with the title of “party” for anyone but the Party of God, now raised its objections again to the idea of continuing the IRP. Worsening conflict penetrated provincial and city levels, hindering party activity. In many parts of the country, party headquarters were either closed or operated part-time.

It is unclear which faction originally recommended the end of the IRP. It was rumored that the right wing favored the continuation of the party. Officially, however, Khameneʿi and Rafsanjānī, in a letter to Khomeini, explained that under the circumstances there was no need for a political party and that the two opposing camps might hurt national unity. By order of Ayatollah Khomeini, on June 2, 1987, the Islamic Republican Party was officially dissolved.



  • Akhavi, Shahrough. “Elite Factionalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”Middle East Journal41 (Spring 1987): 181–201. Outstanding analysis of the nature of intra-elite conflict and its impact on public policy.
  • Bakhash, Shaul. The Reign of the Ayatollahs. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Insightful account of developments leading to the clerical takeover of the state apparatus.
  • Bayat, Assef. “Labor and Democracy in Post-Revolutionary Iran.” In Post-Revolutionary Iran, edited by Hooshang Amirahmadi and Manoucher Parvin, pp. 41–55. Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1988. Excellent analysis of the relationship between the independent workers’ councils and Islamic forces, including the Islamic Republican Party.
  • Hiro, Dilip. The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies. New York: Nation Books, 2005.
  • Martin, Vanessa. Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran. London: I. B. Tauris, 2003.
  • Menashri, David. Iran: A Decade of War and Revolution. New York and London: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1990. Extremely useful interpretive survey of developments in Iran based on more than a dozen newspapers and periodicals and an array of reports from news agencies, radio stations, and monitoring services.
  • Schahgaldian, Nikola B.The Clerical Establishment in Iran. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corp., 1989. Useful analysis of the evolution of Shīʿī clerical rule, including various Islamic associations and groups.
  • Takeyh, Ray. Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007.

Scholarship devoted exclusively to the Islamic Republican Party is scarce. Information for the above article was obtained from primary sources and the following works:

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