Reform, Reaction and the Upcoming Elections

These remarks were prepared by Dr. Ansari based on his presentation January 9, 2004. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

This presentation will provide a brief overview of political development in contemporary Iran looking in particular at the forthcoming Majlis elections and their consequences. It will begin by looking at the context for these developments providing in particular, an alternative perspective on the mechanics of political action and emphasising the pluralistic nature of Iranian politics. This pluralism is both a consequence of the contradictions implicit in a multiplicity of contesting state institutions, and crucially, the vigorous intellectual debate which has emerged since the Revolution. The growth in political consciousness which this encouraged ensured the dominance of 'reformism' in Iranian politics from 1997, while institutional complexity has served to obstruct the full implementation of the reform programme for change. As a result, in the run up to the seventh Majlis elections, the reform process appears to all intents and purposes to have come to a standstill, with popular disillusion widespread. The presentation concludes with an assessment of how debates over US-Iran relations may serve re-vitalise the political process.

The Context
Defining Iranian Politics
It is important to recognise that a coalition of forces combined to overthrow the Shah in 1979, and while they were united in opposition, they drew on and represented different views on the political spectrum. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution therefore - an important moment in itself since it taught Iranians that change could be achieved through concerted political action - debates about the precise nature of the successor regime became widespread. Both the charismatic authority of Ayatollah Khomeini and the onset of the Iran-Iraq War, ensured that these debates were deferred but they were to re-emerge in the aftermath of the war into a society that had profoundly affected by the experience of conflict. In short, while Iranians may have entered the war as 'subjects', the war ensured their steady transformation into 'citizens'. In addition to this gradual growth in political consciousness, the total population had now dramatically increased, and migration from war zones had ensured that the balance of the population was now definitively urban as opposed to rural in composition.

The political debates which emerged in this new social environment were confronted with a political settlement which sought to compensate for the absence of Ayatollah Khomeini's charisma by institutionalising many aspects of the authority of the Leader (essentially defining the ambiguities of the Constitution), while developing a patrimonial presidency in alliance with mercantile interests. This tripartite alliance in which a populist president (Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), protected the interests of mercantile capital in collaboration with the imposition of a particularly dogmatic interpretation of authoritarian Islam (providing religious sanction), proved an anathema to many revolutionaries who regarded it as a betrayal of their ideals and the promise of the Revolution. Defining themselves against this settlement, intellectuals, students and journalists mobilised to define a different Islamic Republic which placed greater stress on the 'republican' aspects of the Constitution. Arguing against conservatives who regarded republicanism as a Western invention of no relevance to Iran, reformist ideologues such as Abdolkarim Soroush, vigorously and emphatically made the case that Western political thought was also part of the Iranian inheritance and therefore both valid and authentic (along with Islamic and pre-Islamic thought). Faced with growing dissatisfaction over the mercantile settlement which to all intents and purposes served the interests of the select few, and continuing crises in the economy, these ideas found fertile ground within Iranian society, and led to a succession of political victories, most notably that of the landslide election of the hitherto relatively unknown Mohammad Khatami as President in 1997.

Defining Reform
The definitive victory of Mohammad Khatami in 1997 was followed by a succession of electoral triumphs, most spectacularly the seizure of the 6th Majlis by the Reformists in 2000. It is not surprising that in the triumphalism which characterised the atmosphere in the aftermath of the Majlis elections, that expectations were high among many Iranians. Yet while the process of reform has proved difficult and in many cases disappointing, there is little doubt that it has succeeded in definitively changing the political environment in Iran. People are far more aware and critical of political processes, and hungry for change. But where failures are manifest, is in the ability to institutionalise these changes. Indeed reformist politicians have been criticised for showing a mixture of idealism and naivety in their dealings with the hardline establishment, while some have been accused of falling for the very temptations of power which their election was meant to prevent. As such, some have bought into the mercantile hegemony, seeking a share of the spoils, whilst those with real conviction have found themselves a determined target of the hardline Judiciary and its allies in the Guardian Council. Indeed, many have grown concerned at the ability of the Judicial branch to operate as a state within the state, complete with its own security apparatus.

While people have grown increasingly disillusioned with the politicians behind reform, there is little indication that 'reform' itself, as an idea has failed. If anything, disillusionment has resulted from the fact that increasingly ambitious demands for change have not been met (and some would argue that they were too ambitious for the time period being envisaged). Nevertheless, there is a broad consensus that some sort of managed change needs to be implemented if the Islamic Republic is to survive social discontent.

Fragility & Legitimacy
Continued obstructionism by the conservative elite, associated as they are with a dogmatic interpretation of Islam, has resulted in a growing distance and alienation between state and society, such that Iranian secular nationalism is reforming with a vengeance. Combined with growing political consciousness this has meant that political leaders are having to adjust their policies and rhetoric to account for this change so that their popular legitimacy is not further undermined. Yet the reality is that this change has remained erratic and less than convincing to the majority of Iranians, who see their country being governed by an oligarchy which justifies its continued and exclusive hold on power through the use and abuse of Islamic rhetoric. This growing, and deepening alienation between state and society has resulted in the Iranian state being particularly fragile, a position which some more moderate conservatives regard as problematic.

The consequence of this assessment, reinforced by the national tragedy at Bam, has been a growing realisation among a number of prominent conservatives, including former President Rafsanjani, that some sort of change is preferable to none at all, and that the continuation of the status quo would result in disaster for the Islamic Republic. The old division between 'reformists' and 'conservatives' is therefore being increasingly subsumed in a wider contest between those who espouse change and those who are opposed to it. In electoral terms this will be characterised by the contest which will loom with the Guardian Council to try and make sure that the forthcoming elections are seen to be relatively free and fair. It is a revealing indication of the scale of change in Iranian society that despite the political repression of the past few years, over 8000 hopefuls have registered to stand in the Majlis elections. Similarly, the recent news that the Guardian Council has decided to ban at least 40% of the candidates, including most of the prominent reformist deputies currently sitting in the Majlis, shows that the determination to resist change remains resolute. The absurdity of the Guardian Council's decision is clear to all on both moral and political grounds. It is quite clear that had no action been taken the reformist share of the vote might well have been reduced as a result of a lower voter turnout and general dissatisfaction. Now however, new life has been injected into the electoral process, and if the reformists can show a degree of unity which won them the Majlis in 2000, they may yet force a confrontation with the hardline establishment with welcome results.

Relations with the US
That many of the candidates have been banned for their apparent loyalty to Western (read US) values and ideas, reminds the observer how central the US has in fact been to Iranian politics. Indeed, since President Bush's 'axis of evil' speech in January 2002, the debate over how to deal with the United States has become even more intense with at one stage an outright ban being issued by the head of Tehran Judiciary on any discussions whatsoever, (after some embarrassment, the ban was rescinded). Most reformists and moderate conservatives agree that a dialogue should be started and negotiations begun so that differences can be aired and hopefully resolved. One prominent reformist, who also happened to be a cleric, lambasted hardline opposition to any such talks with the reminder that even Imam Ali had talked with the Umayyad Muawiya, and surely even the United States was not worse than Muawiya!

A persistent lack of consensus on both sides, has determined that little or no progress has been made on the issue of US-Iran relations. Critics on both sides of the divide have ensured that the time has never been opportune. Yet for the first time a consensus may be emerging. In Iran there is a growing awareness that change is essential, and as the Guardian Council have so effectively pointed out, a central facet of such change revolves around the issue of the United States. Resolving tensions with the United States would not only provide a measure of political security but could also give a much needed boost to the economy. At the very least a promise of resolution may galvanise a public which has grown weary with the continued estrangement. On the American side, it is increasingly apparent, if unpalatable, that with interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the importance of Iran has gained immediacy. More crucially, continued US involvement in both manpower and money may result in a local equalisation of relations which will provide the impetus for a more balanced and productive dialogue between the two nations. Much of course will depend on the management of the forthcoming elections, but if the crisis is weathered, neither side should miss the opportunity afforded by circumstance.