On the 35th anniversary of its revolution, Iran has found often novel compromises in blending Islam and modernity-politically, economically and socially. The government and most Iranians today share three goals: honoring the great Persian past and retaining an Islamic identity while also integrating more deeply into a globalizing world. The revolution today is all about synthesis. The struggle is finding the right balance.
Politically, Iran's government borrows heavily from Western concepts, including separation of powers. Each branch has its own turf, to the point that they have the same kind of tensions that Western governments do-and sometimes even harsher. The parallel religious institutions-such as the Guardian Council-weigh in not to run daily government but as a fourth check on secular powers and politicians. Since 1988, Tehran has also added an Expediency Council of both religious and laymen to resolve political conflicts, another reflection of trying to negotiate a balance.
The revolution has brought a wide array of players into the political space over the past 35 years. Iran's spectrum grows with every election, as new factions and faces join the fray. There are now dozens of parties, ranging from reformist to ultra-conservative, who compete passionately against each other. The diversity of opinion is even wider within society, ranging from more leftist to more rightist.
The idea of citizenry has also taken root in among Iran's 80 million people, the majority of which has been born since the revolution and is highly educated. Voters have become more sophisticated in their demands. They are moving beyond passive obedience of either political or religious authority. People also have an impact on decisions, whether through the vote or street protests. So the government, for all its restrictions, has frequently been forced to accept public opinion, including electoral surprises.
But Iranian politics still have a wild side. Politics is controlled by a minority and the rules - or political red lines - shift from one presidency to the next and from one parliament to the next. Iran's elections also involve a strange combination: Freedom to run is very limited-and candidates approved to run in one election can be disqualified when they try to run again. Competition is fierce. Yet results can be unpredictable.
Ironically, Iran has resolved the debate about an "Islamic economy." After a lot of trial and error, Tehran opted to run the economy based largely on modern science and global standards rather than traditional religious practices. Aiding the oppressed is still a revolutionary tenet. But Iran has not become a socialist country. Modern economic principles, including respect for private property, have not been forfeited even as the government has tried to help the poor.