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Is it Time for Political Change in Iran? Looking for Indicators in Society’s Activism

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Is it Time for Political Change in Iran? Looking for Indicators in Society’s Activism

By Dr. Imad Mansour

Iran is currently experiencing a period of protracted domestic turmoil – which since the summer of 2009 has fluctuated in intensity, but has not ceased. Societal mobility underpins the ongoing political contestation, and it has the potential to have long-lasting implications for the Iranian political system.

There are two questions in particular that we can examine in order to help us understand these unfolding events: What is significant in the current struggle for power in Iran? And what does it mean for the political system as a whole? Given the current state of flux in Iranian domestic politics, I provide tentative observations on these questions, and conclude with a glimpse on where Iran might be heading.

In-House Voices of Discontent

The significance of the current wave of events in Iran rests on two interrelated developments. First, much of the discourse accompanying public activism seems to be critical only of the behaviour of government. This line mainly attacking alleged electoral fraud. However, more serious challenges are surfacing. An important distinction must be made here: critics among the elites have not (at least not yet) contested the legitimacy of the clerical-based political order. Nevertheless, public demonstrations have been using notable anti establishment slogans such as “death to the dictator.” Regardless of who is targeted as the “dictator” – Ahmadinejad or Khamini’i – the use of such terminology against the regime is symbolic. This is the first time the givernment has been the target of such attacks from inside Iran since the mass protests against the Shah more than three decades ago. While protest leaders are still relatively reserved in their discourse, the rhetoric on the street is escalating.

The second development is that prominent Shiite Jurists (Ulama or clerics), especially Ayatollah Montazeri,* a cleric revered for his intellectual and moral authority, are voicing strong critiques of the regime. Since the current regime relies on clerical interpretations of the Shiite theory of Wilayat al-Faqih that gives jurists unprecedented governing powers. While most clerics have avoided direct confrontations with the current Governing Jurist Ayatollah Khamini’i thus far, or attacks on the position itself, that does not undermine their staunch opposition and challenge to regime legitimacy.

Jurists, especially the higher-ranking ones (such as the al-Maraji‘ and the Ayatollahs) carry important political and religious weight in Shiism – and thus in the structure of the Islamic Republic. In the Shiite doctrinal creed, any government  not ruled by the Infallible Imam is illegitimate by definition. This does not mean, however, that Shiite doctrine advocates revolutionary opposition, or withdrawal from the state. Iran’s political system gives the Governing Jurist the right to establish government in the name of the Infallible Imam when he is not present. Furthermore, many classical jurists have also advocated cooperating with illegitimate governments for pragmatic reasons. For this reason the Wilayat al-Faqih theory, which underpins the Iranian political system, is seen by some as diverging from Shiite doctrinal creed.

Moreover, twelver Shiism is based on a hierarchic ordering principle amongst clerics. The status of a cleric reflects his learned abilities, academic accomplishments, and the evaluation of his peers. Therefore, the higher the status of the cleric, the more significant the message of protest. Nevertheless, according to this theory the governing jurist is still, at least officially, considered the community’s political and religious compass and leader.

Debates among high-ranking jurists in Qom (a holy city in Shia Islam) seminaries on the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih are not a recent development. The Ayatollah Montazeri has contested the theory before. His position is particularly important because he wrote what could be considered the most detailed jurisprudential account of Wilayat al-Faqih, after which he became critical of certain aspects of this theory and specifically of the practices of the post-1979 regime. When he was appointed the successor of the first post-Revolution Governing Jurist, Imam Khomeini, Montazeri was put under house arrest, and replaced by Khamini’i.

The process of evaluating the status of a cleric is not well documented, nor is it disclosed by peers. What is frequently referenced, however, is that high ranking clerics have voiced dissatisfaction with Imam Khamini’i’s ascendence to the position of al-Wali al-Faqih. His academic achievements and status have been viewed by many amongst his peers as insufficient to warrant him filling such a high office. Imam Khamini’i’s politically motivated appointment dissatisfied many high-ranking jurists. The fact that Montazeri has continued to voice opposition reflects the seriousness of the pressures on the ruling regime.

The changes in the discourse of prominent jurists is one measure of the domestic position, durability, and legitimacy of the ruling regime. Put simply, the more resistance and challenges are coming from Iranian religious heavyweights both inside and outside the seminaries in Qom, the more likely regime legitimacy will be compromised. Another measure of the regime’s position can be obtained by mapping the positions of the incumbents and their challengers in the domestic power configuration. In other words, we need to trace where their bases of support are, and what mechanisms allow these power configurations to shift. I elaborate on the second measure below.

The Societal Bases of Political Power

Iran’s current political system rests on the integral role of the Shiite Ulama. Since at least the Tobacco Revolt of 1891, the role of the clerical establishment has been critical in shaping national political processes. The power of the Ulama today is derived from the centrality of religion in Iranian society, as well as from the increasing influence clerics have accumulated over the years.

Under the monarchy of the 20th century, the Shiite Ulama tried to maintain and expand the political privileges they had gained in the aftermath of 1891. Effectively, the Shah’s blanket repression and the targeting of various national leaders assisted the clerical establishment to augment its relative power over other domestic societal actors. This establishment then used its independent political and economic institutions (especially control over the khums, a religious tax levied on all households) to evade many of the regime’s exclusionary practices. The non-clerical leadership lost significant resources and the ability to mobilize supporters, but more importantly its position was weakened relative to that of the Ulama.

Then came the 1979 Revolution. While the Ulama were at its core, the Revolution would not have been possible without support from a large cross-section of activists and societal actors, made up oforganized interest groups that pool resources and support to advance certain agendas. Not all of these actors had an ideological commitment to an Islamic state; and some did not share the religious zeal of the Ulama. But to overpower the Shah’s security apparatus and exclusion, a gathering of resources was necessary in order to counter his efforts to isolate oponents. The counter-Shah coalition consisted of the Ulama, economic elites (mostly from the Bazaar), and independent civic groups (comprising women organizations, students, and leftist groups). Non-clerical coalition members made significant contributions, particularly in mobilizing human and financial resources, and by organizing public demonstrations and work interruptions. Therefore, the ability of Iran’s Ulama to end the Shah’s rule derived largely from coalitions they formed with key societal actors – not from their own power per se.  In the few months after monarchic rule was ended, the Ulama embarked on a sustained effort to consolidate power at the expense of their co-revolutionaries. Imam Khomeini led these efforts.

The war with Iraq necessitated national unity, and Imam Khomeini capitalized on this event to systematically purge or marginalize, dissenting voices. Furthermore, since 1979 constitutional manipulations, such as creating a multiplicity of institutional veto centers and oversight mechanisms, have concentrated power in the hands of a select group of clerics and ideologues loyal to Khomeini.  This group tightened control over republican institutions, especially in security and foreign policy, and has since dominated the Iranian political system.

Parallel to sidelining fellow revolutionaries, the Khomeini-loyal elites created and incubated a plethora of new societal actors to take over the functions of the excluded ones. New actors helped to mobilize citizens and resources while operating with regime-friendly agendas. Through these actors the regime infiltrated the universities as well as the industrial and non-governmental sectors. Despite its penetration of society, the Khomeini-loyal elite could not completely undermine opposing voices – especially amongst jurists. The intensity of the activism of the opposition has been a function of two interrelated factors: first, the perceptions of the severity of violations by those in power; second, the availability of organized societal actors to back up dissenting elites.

The volume and organization of independent societal actors has flourished since the early 1990s. Their resurgence has been fed by a demographic change favouring youth and an increased role for women. Such actors have demonstrated a desire to see fewer restrictions on freedom of expression, and a better investment by those in power of Iran’s resources. During President Khatami’s tenure, these actors became increasingly visible, a trend which continues to this day and has the potential to play a prominent role in redefining the contours of the political game.

Regime legitimacy and durability, then, rests to a significant degree on a specific configuration of societal actors’ support. Against this backdrop, a rough image of current events becomes discernible. In order to allow me to highlight these interrelated dynamics, I will draw a simplified sketch of Iran as having two main power poles: a regime, and an opposition.

The regime pole is centered around the Governing Jurist, who acts as the constitutionally defined final arbiter in Iranian politics, and President Ahmadinejad. They are supported by key security and military institutions, especially the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), the Basij (paramilitary groups), and various Bonyads (economic organizations which finance many regime operations and are not transparent in their bookkeeping). As a result of these support bases, the regime does not seem to be weak in a military or security sense. However, the centre’s heavy reliance on force to sustain itself is reminiscent of the Shah’s exclusionary practices.

In the midst of street demonstrations of the summer and fall of 2009, Imam Khamini’i sent a variety of messages articulating the insurmountable interests of the Islamic Republic. These signals are hard to read, especially when they are delivered concurrently with the regime’s violent crackdown on opposition protests. Perhaps the purpose of these messages is to keep the options of the Governing Jurist open, thus allowing him to maintain dialogue with opposition figures in case the intensity of violence intensifies, or to strike a political compromise to end a stand-off. Khamini’i’s messages could also be read as a warning to the protestors, as the regime threw around many allegations of treason against demonstrators.

Nevertheless, in the game of domestic balancing and coalition-building, these signals say something about Khamini’i’s position. He seems reluctant to put regime survival fully in the hands of his supporters, and adverse to unduly empowering them. Khamini’i’s role as a figurehead, and with it this balancing role, has taken a serious blow due to his support for the use of force on the streets. In sum, the Governing Jurist has lost important symbolic and moral ground – especially amongst a significant stratum of urban actors. Politically, this might have cost Khamini’i a large degree of flexibility.

The opposition pole is harder to describe as it is still developing. It is not yet fully united, and its members have somewhat incompatible preferences. This pole comprises former President Rafsanjani, who has ties to the trade elite which flourished under his presidency, and former Speaker Karroubi, who has significant links to grassroots and popular organizations. Neither of these groupings appears to have much influence in shaping the political scene today. The more intriguing dynamic, however, is that involving other members: former President Khatami and former Prime Minister Mousawi, due to two notable developments. Firstly, there appears to be a leadership transfer from Khatami, who led a broad reformist societal-clerical coalition in the 1990s and had since remained a prominent opposition voice, and to Mousawi,  who is trying to make a comeback into political life through his leadership of anti-government protests. Secondly, Mousawi is not a cleric, and his premiership in the 1980s catered to the then leftist-leaning majority in the Iranian Parliament. This came at a time when many of the leftist independent elites had been driven out of the political sphere during Imam Khomeini’s consolidation years. By rallying behind Mousawi now, it is perhaps reflective of a symbolic shift in the undertones of Iranian society towards one that favours leadership by non-clerics. This seems to be especially the case amongst a youth cohort that is not intimately tied to the Islamic principles of the Revolution. The dynamics of the opposition pole will be interesting to trace in the coming months, as the concrete implications of the “reformist” momentum will depend the key members’ abilities to unite its ranks.

Where To From Here?

After the dust settles, we should monitor the rise of a new equilibrium, paying particular attention to which groups gain status, and what kind of coalitions they choose to strike. Many Ulama and societal actors are not going to go back on the positions they took during the demonstrations, especially after they publicly called for reforms to the political system. While they might have overlapping interests in countering the regime, opposition groups still need to overcome divergant preferences.

An instructive example is the broad coalition that converged in order to elect President Khatami in 1997. Nevertheless after their election, the coalition faced obstacles to collective action, and Khatami, its center of gravity, was not able to satisfy the preferences of all its members. Meanwhile, the Khomeini-loyal clerical elite weathered two tenures, and resurfaced under President Ahmadinejad with a rejuvenated nationalist discourse.

Today, non-clerical groups and critical Ulama do not seem to have enough power, especially in terms of societal momentum, to be able to seriously pressure the regime if they act independently. As such, we have to look for the formation of potential coalitions between clerical and non-clerical opposing factions in the oppostion, particularly between the groups led by Mousawi and Montazeri. Nevertheless, even if they do not form a united and robust front, opposition parties can still use a pressure tactics to draw concessions from the Governing Jurist.

If Khameini’i continues to exclude the significant constellation of opposition voices by not allowing them to have meaningful input into issues of national concern, he will be forced to rely increasingly on the Pasdaran, Basij, and loyal Bonyads. Such a configuration of allies will limit both the space he will have to manoeuvre domestically. More importantly, continued exclusion of the opposition will narrow the regime’s support base and estrange it from a wide cross-section of society. Iranian youth have always been politically active, and their resistance to the regime is a gap which Khamini’i has done little to fill. Therefore, it might be politically unsustainable for the Governing Jurist not to engage the opposition. Imam Khamini’i has a lot of fences to mend if the position of the Governing Jurist as an institution is to retain to its centrality in Iran’s political life.

An interesting move by President Ahmadinejad was his peculiar choice of cabinet members, the majority of whom are non-clerics and fairly young. Counterintuitively, it is the conservatives, the rural sectors and the poor who make up the President’s power base; as a result, these are the social groups which have benefited the most from the regime’s support and subsidies.  It is therefore difficult to gauge exactly why such a move was orchestrated by Ahmadinejad loyalists – beyond symbolism. It might also be a move by the President to stack the cards in his favour and to dilute the influence of other regime figures.

Iran’s independent societal actors, particularly the urban youth are important factors to consider in order to maintain a stable regime – but they could play an equally pivotal role in toppling it. The governing pole, therefore, seems to be facing an uphill challenge. Even if no radical regime change occurs in the immediate future, the mobilization of youth, students, women, leftists, and various schools of non-clerics and intellectuals underlines the very real potential in Iranian society to force an opening in the regime’s exclusionary practices.

Calculated political inclusion, in the form of minimal concessions to opposing groups and elites, might allow the Governing Jurist to fine-tune government behaviour in the immediate future, and thus to delay a rethinking of Wilayet al-Faqih. Such band-aid measures risk morphing domestic politics into a protracted and debilitating confrontation that has potential for violence. If the Governing Jurist is to salvage the Islamic Republic, he must concede more power to the opposition. However, as a result, he will have incurred the displeasure of his current allies. Either way, a smooth transition does not seem to be in the cards for Iran in the near future.

An important dimension that has not been addressed in this paper is the external one. Iran’s regional and international relations are currently more precarious than its internal struggle for power. Iran’s regime can “rally round the flag” in the face of external threats. It might tactically concede on the nuclear file, and use it to exalt the adroitness of its governance in order to contend with claims put forward by the opposition. The fact remains, however, that the opposition is not going to go away.  Domestic management will demand a serious investment of resources and attention, all of which will have to be diverted from Iran’s foreign policy engagements.  In the end, Iran’s options could be drastically reduced. n

*This article was written before the death of Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri on December 10, 2009.


Written by mcgillfar

February 2, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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