27 June 2009

Reflections on events in Iran

In Iranian election: a tragedy in the making I suggested that Friday 12 June, the day of the Iranian Presidential election, would come to be seen as a watershed in the nation’s history. Two weeks on, it is clearer still that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i has made a strategic error in his explicit and uncompromising support for current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

From its foundation in the events of 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran has run a pretty tightly controlled democracy. The country is run by a complex system in which the higher clerics between them have the real power. To understand contemporary events, however, it is worth remembering that by no means everyone who participated in the tumultuous events that led to the downfall of the Shah and the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Iran meant it to be that way; this is just the way things turned out.

The Iranian revolution of early 1979 combined a very disparate group of forces who were united in their dislike of the Shah’s despotic and increasingly repressive regime, and his massive expenditure on the armed forces at the cost of economic and social development at home.

Apart from the clerical forces involved, there were strong secular elements. The first post-revolution Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, was a true democrat. There was a liberal movement led by the National Front, which had strong support among the middle class. There was a radical left that attracted university students. The Communist Party, the Tudeh, had a long history of struggle against the monarchy, and there were senior traditionalist clerics who felt that mullahs should refrain from involvement in politics.

Unfortunately there was a second Iranian revolution in 1979, in which Ayatollah Khomeini seized the opportunity created by the occupation of the United States Embassy to break loose from the messiness of coalition politics and establish his vision of an Islamic society. Khomeini exploited the hostages as a means of radicalising the electorate; he claimed that the revolution was in danger from the United States and its accomplices within Iranian society, and was able to reframe the political contest as one between the theocracy-led revolution and the depredations of the external enemy. In this charged atmosphere, Iran held elections for the Parliament and for the Assembly of Experts, which was to evaluate the draft constitution, and Islamist forces were able achieve dominance of both.

The new constitution embodied Khomeini’s grand political innovation, the unprecedented theory of velayat-e faqih, under which a religious leader overseas all national affairs. The Supreme Leader was empowered to control the armed forces and the newly created Revolutionary Guards, to dismiss any elected official, to countermand parliamentary legislation, and to declare war and peace. The Supreme Leader would be subject neither to elections nor the scrutiny of the elected institutions. A Guardian Council composed mainly of clerics would vet all legislation to ensure its conformity with Islamic law, and Islamic law would displace all existing legal codes, thus circumscribing individual rights and prerogatives.

This anti-democratic constitution was ratified by the public on 3 December 1979, with the anti-American hostage crisis in full swing.

This left Iranians with a very circumscribed form of democracy, but the events of the last two weeks have demonstrated that the urban populace at least considers the amount of say that they are supposed to have as being worth fighting for. They have also demonstrated to my mind that Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i would have been well advised to leave well enough alone – to accept whatever verdict the people made within the confines of the choice they were presented with.

The process of vetting the candidates left the public with a choice of four establishment figures. Apart from the incumbent Ahmadinejad, there was a wartime Prime Minister (Mir-Hossein Mousavi), a former Speaker of the Majlis (Parliament), Mehdi Karroubi, and a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaei. None of these was a revolutionary figure, but each of them, and Mousavi in particular, held out the prospect of desirable evolution of the system – a freer information environment, equal treatment for women, and control of the law enforcement agencies by the elected President. And he hearkened back to the liberalizing purposes of 1979. The goal of the 1979 revolution was freedom

We wanted to become free and progressive in the world, not faced with backward ideas and notions today.

In his concern to prevent evolution of the system, by ensuring the victory of his preferred candidate (who might well have won anyway), Ayatollah Khamene’I has ensured that sooner or later the system will break. He has demonstrated to the political elites and the educated middle classes that the election system cannot be relied upon, even after the vetting of the candidates, and hence compromised acceptance of the “victor”; in an election process in which everyone had confidence most people would have accepted the outcome as being the electorate’s choice, but now they do not need to do so. There is a rival claimant to the throne, and nothing can put that genie back in the bottle.

What Khamene’I has achieved by manipulation he will be required to sustain by force. For that he will probably have to rely increasingly on the basij militias, whose ranks are overwhelmingly drawn from the poor and uneducated. With the regular military there will be too much danger that their sons and daughters will be participating in the demonstrations, and that there are Mousavi supporters within their ranks. This does not sound like a recipe for long-term durability of the regime, but of course it is not on the threshold of collapse or anything like it.

All of this comes at a cost to the rest of us. United States President Obama has from the outset of his Administration signaled a wish to normalise relations with Iran and resolve outstanding issues. This was quite saleable and achievable, even with a re-elected Ahmadinejad, but with a regime whose legitimacy is being contested within its own society, it is both a much harder “sell” to the United States public, and of more dubious value.

Definitely events that continue to bear watching.

Click the Iran label for 22 previous posts on Iran.

Principal source for the 1979 background: Ray Takeyh, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, Henry Holt & Company, 2006


Jim Belshaw said...

I found this a remarkably informative post Paul. My thanks.

Kanani said...

Excellent post! Thanks for the insight.

angryparsnip said...

Thank You, this is a big help in understanding what is going on over there and why.