State Fragility in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Written by Ariana Habibi

When considering fragile states, there is an assumption that countries who have yet to industrialize or otherwise conform to modernity must consequently be flirting with the prospect of failure. While this generalization proves true in some circumstances, it is not all-encompassing: a state may simultaneously be developed and be fragile. In spite of being a major Middle Eastern power (Barzegar, 2018), the Islamic Republic of Iran is currently ranked 52 on the Fund For Peace Fragile States Index (The Fund for Peace, 2018). Although Iran’s ranking continues to improve year-to-year, therefore being indicative of a consistent progression of improvement, the country has yet to be alleviated from its “high warning” status. Thus, the feature of fragility is inextricably linked to the modern Iranian state—the system is so profoundly compromised the primary causation of instability is both indeterminable and, to some extent, even irresolvable.

The modern state is the ideal form of territorial sovereignty. In order for a geopolitical entity to gain the title, it must exhibit aspects of welfare, representation, and security (Millikin & Krause, 2003). Regarding welfare, the state must provide a stable framework for capital accumulation and investment. While such frameworks exist within Iran, they have been rendered incredibly vulnerable by inflation caused by external economic pressure, namely sanctions. Regarding representation, the Iranian government operates under the guise of democracy, but is heavily influenced by authoritarian tendencies; the system promotes elections that are open enough for the government to be perceived as legitimate, but restrictive enough to avoid risk of substantive change (Fisher, 2017). As such, the government fails to embody the symbolic identity of its subjects; the oscillating degree of democracy is not significant enough to overcome the power of an unelected theocracy that rules with almost absolute power. Regarding security, the state must fulfill Weber’s principal definition of statehood and maintain a monopoly of violence over its governed territory (Weber, 1972). Without this, the state loses its greatest mechanism to keep the populace safe from external forces, as well as safe from itself.

State forms range from representative to authoritarian to predatory, though the nature of the Iranian state is ostensibly authoritarian. Gertchewski’s “triangle of power” enumerates the three pillars by which the regime maintains dominance over Iran: cooptation, repression, and legitimation (Gerschewski, 2013). As with most regimes, Iran places various degrees of emphasis on each pillar, but all play a role in the functioning of the state. In some respects, the triangle of power is a conceptual complement to Milliken & Krause’s aspects of statehood: the pillar of repression is related to the aspect of representation, the pillar of cooptation is related to the aspect of welfare. Rather than continue the parallelism through acting as analogs to each other, legitimation and security exist as the amalgamated products of the other entities within each respective category.

The relationship between repression and representation is acutely apparent in the dynamic between the state and civil society. From the late-20th into the 21st century, Iran’s civil society has mirrored the state’s political context: the ascendance of organized civil groups has coupled periods of governmental decline. Today, the state has either absorbed or outlawed most civic organizations, but this is more indicative of the authoritarian demobilization of civil society, than it is of civil society’s absence altogether. Despite the immense consequences looming over dissidents, Iranian civil society remains vibrant and among the most developed of the Middle East. The ideas expressed evoke sentiments of fighting for what is just in the face of oppression, leaving lasting impacts on the spirit of the greater populace (Panah, 2017). Nevertheless, the Iranian government is notorious for its use of torture, public execution, and state-sanctioned violence against those who threaten the established order—specifically civil society groups (Panah, 2017). This exemplifies the pillar of repression: the government deliberately intimidates and seeks to incapacitate the political will of the people. By stifling the expression of thought and criticism on such an entrenched level, the government negates the possibility of development and democratization. Combined with human rights abuses (an inevitable consequence of severe repression), this yields a state structure that is neither conducive to nor representative of the needs of the people. In other terms, the presence of repression and absence of representation have constructed Iran to be prone to instability and intrinsic fragility.

When considering the influence of cooptation and welfare, it is critical to understand the system’s factionalized and clientelistic nature, and its emphasis of personal relationships above political ideas. Moreover, the Iranian political system is dominated by loose political and economic groups trapped in a perpetual power struggle, creating social dissonance sure to culminate in socio-political cleavage. This tendency to cooptation largely originates from the state’s economic condition, which is reflective of dilemmas caused by authoritarianism and late modernization, the latter of which made the state more suspect to fallacies regarding economic dependency (O’Neil, Fields, & Share, 2018). It is further indicative of innate weakness embedded within the Iranian system, as the state cannot organically operate with the consent of the people.

Unlike other states classified under a “high warning” of fragility, such as Venezuela and Lebanon (The Fund for Peace, 2018), Iran is not impeded by the enduring impacts of colonialism (Sokoloff & Engerman, 2000). Rather, the country was gifted with the valuable opportunity to carve out its own path, and has avoided the shackles of historical exploitation. Nevertheless, Iran has incurred a significant economic challenge in recent history: the resource curse. Although oil reserves may commonly be perceived as being a source of economic salvation—providing the state with resources to develop infrastructure and emerge as a veritable competitor on the global scale—they are frequently harbingers of political and economic peril. For instance, higher levels of oil wealth are known to make autocratic regimes more stable, (Ross, 2015) thereby decreasing the likelihood of successful transitions to democracy, and can also undermine the existing functions of state stability (Karl, 2007). Not only has oil aided the current Iranian regime to consolidate and mainten, but it has also contributed to periods of economic stagnation, as contentious relations between Iran and the West has resulted in limited investment in production and extraction. Likewise, it is important to acknowledge that although Iran is estimated to have the fourth-largest access to oil globally, the resource itself is, by definition, finite. So, independent of how profitable or lucrative oil may be, it is not a resource upon which sustainable economic development can be built.

The entities of legitimation and security exist within the aforementioned pillars and aspects. Iran’s legitimation is rooted in illiberalism; popular elections and other displays of democracy are more associated with theatricality than practicality, for they lack political power as the candidates (and potentially the victor) are preemptively selected by the theocratic Supreme Council (O’Neil et al. 2018). In spite of this relatively illegitimate legitimation, Iran does maintain a monopoly of violence over the state, and thereby possesses a degree of security. However, though paradoxical, there is instability associated with this security: the repressive tactics of the state have long-since forced the populace into acquiescence, which in effect has exacerbated agitation and craving of reform from both within and outside Iran itself.

Subliminal tensions between the institutional and functional underpinnings of state fragility permeate the identity of the Iranian state. Thus, while the state supports physical institutions necessary to the functioning of a state, it is incapable of executing the necessary facets of statehood. Ultimately, it is crucial that the existing facets of fragility be resolved, for if proper functionality is not restored, the Iranian state risks falling into irreversible failure.


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