The elections to the ninth Islamic Consultative Assembly (Iran’s national parliament) generated enormous interest in the global media for two reasons. First, the poll was seen as a quest for legitimacy by Iran’s rulers following the disputed presidential elections of June 2009. And for the first time in three decades, Iranian elections appeared to be a reductive contest between conservative groups.
While these observations contain strong grains of truth, much of the analysis has failed to take sufficient account of the deeper consequences of the elections. Last Friday’s election was an important turning point in the 33-year history of the Islamic Republic in so far as they illuminate the likely mid to long term trajectory of Iranian politics.
As Asia Times Online predicted on July 10, 2009, in „A leaner meaner Iranian regime” (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/KG10Ak02.html), the Islamic Republic has spent the past 32 months shedding excess weight and infusing its key institutions and social bases with greater levels of cohesion and unity. Last Friday’s polling was a critical milestone in that process inasmuch as they institutionalize the shift toward maximum regime unity.
This decisive move toward regime unity has two key actual and potential attributes. The first is the actual greater empowerment of the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei and the second is the Islamic Republic’s potential (and likely) adoption of the authoritarian state model.
More than three decades after its founding, the Islamic Republic appears to be eschewing the populist democratic model for the classic authoritarian system marked by minimal popular participation and a dominant state. This significant shift will have profound consequences across a wide range of political and economic factors, in addition to adding greater rigor and robustness to the country’s foreign policy.
A ‘principalist’ affair The mainstream Western media has made a number of false or inaccurate statements on the nature of the elections and the result. While it is true the polling was centered on a contest between two rival conservative groups (or „principalist” as they prefer to be known), the central divide between these blocs was not defined by their support (or lack thereof) of the leader Ayatollah Khamenei or President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Indeed, both the mainstream right wing United Principalist Front (UPF) and the hardcore right Islamic Revolution Steadfastness Front (IRSF) proclaimed virtually unconditional support for Ayatollah Khamenei in his role as the Valiyeh Faqih (ruler jurisconsult).
The real divide between these blocs is the extent to which they prioritize ideology over pragmatism. The mainstream UPF (which is set to dominate the 290-member Majlis) is composed of an assortment of conservative and right-wing groups which are careful to balance ideology with expediency. The IRSF meanwhile is an amalgam of hardcore right-wing groups and high profile ideologues and politicians who appear to eschew any pretensions to pragmatism or expediency.
This sharp divide has given rise to speculation amongst informed Iranian political analysts as to whether the „principalist” term can apply to both blocs. Some prefer to speak of a new divide in Iranian politics; one between „principalists” (UPF) and „idealists” (IRSF).
This contest was never between the supporters of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. There is no such contest in the Islamic Republic. The president has fallen out of favor with the establishment precisely because he appeared to be opposing the will of the leader last April by refusing to reinstate Heydar Moslehi, the intelligence minister who he had sacked.
More broadly, both the UPF and the IRSF have taken a strong stand against the so-called „deviationist current”, a loosely defined cabal of senior politicians who espouse controversial and eccentric views on topics ranging from Velayat-e-Faqih (rule of the jurisconsult – the cornerstone of Iran’s Islamic system) to nationalism. The principalists accuse Ahmadinejad of accommodating this deviationist current at the commanding heights of government.
The Western media was not entirely right to report that the reformists had been excluded from the elections. Strictly speaking, the reformists as an institutional element in Iranian politics largely boycotted the polls. But the first round of voting has already returned more than 30 self-described reformists to parliament.
But these reformists are regarded as sufficiently „safe” by the establishment inasmuch as they are not institutionally tied to the country’s official reform movement. Some of them are remnants of the Khat-e-Imam (Imam’s Line) of the 1980s, and thus diehard leftists. The bulk of the Khat-e-Imam coalition (in concert with broader elements of the Islamic left) undertook a dramatic ideological transformation in the 1990s by metamorphosing into reformists.
The removal of the reformists as an institutional force in parliament will give the principalists and the idealists the opportunity to consolidate the right wing’s hold over the legislature. The most immediate result of this consolidation is likely to center on joint efforts to apply maximum pressure on Ahmadinejad’s government with a view to containing the so-called „deviationist current” and preparing the ground for a principalist takeover of the executive branch of government in the June 2013 presidential elections.
The man at the center of the drive toward maximum regime cohesion is Ayatollah Khamenei, who has held the office of Valiyeh Faqih since June 1989. Over the past 22 years his power has increased steadily to the point that he now appears to be all-powerful.
Multiple forces and factors have elevated this 72-year-old Shi’ite cleric to be the most powerful man in the Middle East. The leader himself set the tone for a new style of politics in the Islamic Republic in his historic Friday Prayer speech of June 19, 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the disputed presidential elections. Tacitly acknowledging the collapse of old factional politics, Khamenei tried (and succeeded) in aligning three critical components underpinning the Islamic Republic’s strength; namely dense institutional arrangement, ideological vigor and a mass base.
In the 1990s, during the first decade of his rule, Khamenei appeared to be an embattled ideological leader struggling to contain a wide range of reformist and technocratic political forces in the Islamic republic, led by Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. In the 2000s, Khamenei’s position strengthened considerably as right wing factions staged a comeback and broad swathes of the regime’s considerable mass base turned against the reformists.
Despite persistent reports to the contrary, Khamenei is in relatively good health and is expected to live for at least another decade. It is during this third (and possibly final) decade of his rule that he is likely to exert maximum influence on Iran’s and the region’s destiny.
The reformists complain that Khamenei has failed to act as an impartial arbiter in so far as he has facilitated a set of conditions that has given the Islamic right unassailable advantages over the Islamic left. More radical reformists accuse Khamenei of acting as a dictator and of systematically destroying the democratic features of the Islamic Republic.
Irrespective of the truth or accuracy of these accusations, it is important to point out that they do not reflect majority opinion and feeling in the Islamic Republic. Indeed, irrespective of their factional affiliation, the bulk of Islamic Republic loyalists regard Seyed Ali Khamenei as the saviour of the Islamic Revolution. They praise him for transforming a weak and battle weary state (in 1989) to a dominant regional power, in the space of two decades.
To many Islamic Republic loyalists, Khamenei more than anyone, even more than the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, represents the essence and the will of the Islamic Republic. Of late there has been a concerted effort in some sections of the Iranian media to bestow the title of „Imam” upon Khamenei, meaning that at the very least he is now on a par with the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
As the Islamic Republic inches toward its 40th birthday, it is „Imam” Khamenei who will be the critical link in harnessing the quest for regime cohesion toward the higher goal of consolidating the Islamic Republic’s transformation from a populist to an authoritarian state.
The demise of democracy
Iranian political scientists and analysts readily acknowledge the ideological and systemic tensions between the Islamic Republic’s democratic and theocratic features and components. The point of contention between them centered on which component would eventually emerge on top, with a slim majority betting on democracy.
The faith in democracy was certainly the driving force of the reformist movement which consistently argued that the Islamic Republic possesses the innate capacity to make the transition to a fully-fledged indigenous form of democracy. The right wing, in tandem with the majority of Islamic Republic loyalists, countered that the ultimate destination of reformist aspiration was Western-style liberal democracy, and not some ill-defined indigenous brand of the concept.
As it happens democracy did not end up on top, as evidenced by the eradication of reformists as an institutional force in Iranian politics. This does not mean that democratic and theocratic tensions have been resolved forever, but they have certainly been suspended in favor of the latter.
By any objective standard, the theocratic component is likely to prevail over a long period, and at least as long as the current Valiyeh Faqih (Khamenei) is alive. But looking into the very distant future, the Islamic Republic’s survival will depend on the extent to which it can deliver a durable indigenous form of authoritarian rule.
Until the summer of 2009 the ideological nature of the Iranian regime was tempered by a genuine (albeit embattled) democratic impulse which intermittently produced real opportunities for radical change, in particular in May 1997 (when reformists came to power) and most dramatically in June 2009 when the so-called green movement was born.
As a result of this peculiar set of political impulses and traditions – reflected in the Islamic Republic’s dense institutional set up – post-revolutionary Iran defied the best efforts of the world’s leading political scientists to categorize it within a democracy/autocracy spectrum.
While the path toward full-fledged authoritarianism is now open, the right wingers and the ideologues in control of Iranian politics are likely to face considerable obstacles in this process. Foremost, they will have to overturn three decades of intermittent and embattled democratic experience. Significant sections of the Iranian public – in particular the urban middle class – have got used to influencing the country’s destiny, and they are unlikely to give up this right without a fight.
However, from a strategic standpoint, a wide range of political, geopolitical, economic and demographic factors tip the odds in favor of a successful transition to authoritarianism.
At the political level, if we assume that one of the key divides in Iranian politics is the battle between civil society actors and proponents of a strong state, then the latter have a clear advantage. Indeed, it is widely recognized that the Iranian state is stronger than it has ever been in the past two centuries.
This links to the economic and demographic domains, inasmuch as absent a strong private sector and a diversified economy, Iran’s young population will look to the state to deliver a decent or at least bearable standard of living, especially in the face of crippling international sanctions. From a demographic point of view, it is the same young population – who were not directly exposed to the divisive experience of the Iranian revolution – which can be politically and ideologically manipulated by a resourceful authoritarian state.
Finally, in the geopolitical domain, Iran is now set on a decade of covert – and possibly direct – warfare with Israel and the United States. The tremendous stresses and losses resulting from these conflicts will mobilize all the key dynamics in Iranian politics and society in favor of the authoritarian state.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.