The Middle East Channel

Real politics in Iran?

Some 10 days after the June 14 election of Hassan Rowhani as president, Iran watchers are still debating what his victory means, and whether Iran’s politics might hold other new and intriguing surprises. The debate is not merely an academic exercise. On the contrary, in a town where analysis, advocacy, and prescription are often tightly ...


Some 10 days after the June 14 election of Hassan Rowhani as president, Iran watchers are still debating what his victory means, and whether Iran’s politics might hold other new and intriguing surprises. The debate is not merely an academic exercise. On the contrary, in a town where analysis, advocacy, and prescription are often tightly bound, it should come as no surprise that that post-election effort to make sense of Iran’s perplexing politics has become an analytical football. One casualty of this situation is the misguided conclusions that are now being drawn in some circles about the supposed link between sanctions, Iranian internal politics, and the prospects for a negotiated solution to conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.

This purported linkage comes on the heels of a familiar pattern. Soon after a particular thesis regarding Iran’s politics takes hold of reporting and analysis on Iran, some big event happens that challenges what was assumed to be the overarching nature of the Iranian political system. Recovering from the surprise, strenuous efforts are then made to "rework" a previous argument so as to retain the desired prescription or conclusion –one that (miraculously!) seems perfectly in tune with the original argument. 

For example: For some years many Iran watchers couldn’t get enough of the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clash as a stand in for the a supposed conflict between the Revolutionary Guard and ruling clerics. The assumption — a veritable Washington "consensus" — was that Iran was moving toward a military dictatorship, one to which the very Office of the Leader was becoming beholden. But not only did the Guard’s support for Ahmadinejad never materialize: his personal challenge also somehow vanished for a rather mundane reason that his allotted two terms for presidency was up.

Then Khamenei being the Ultimate Decider of everything big or small became the next comfortable resting place. Iran was still on the path to total dictatorship, but now with a Supreme Leader whose growing powers had essentially denuded everything republican (small "r") from the Islamic Republic. Thus many argued that the Leader’s presumed favorite candidate was bound to be the next president. But this was not to be: his least favorite prevailed, and everyone — including these two authors — was surprised.

In the wake of this turn of event, letting go of the Supreme Leader as Dictator narrative has proven a challenge. Indeed, in the face of overwhelming evidence that political maneuvering on the part of a whole range of astute players and the last minute decision by voters to participate in the election impacted the outcome, some are now looking for ways to unearth the clever way Khamenei pulled a Rowhani out of the ballot box in order to enhance the legitimacy of his office. In retrospect, some argue, this son of the Revolution, this former secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, is really deeply connected to the security-military establishment. What seemed at first like a surprise turns out to be something close to a hoax!

Well, everything is possible. Still, repeated surprises should force us to reassess cherished assumptions. Reducing politics to the actions of a few people, and even worse just one person or one institution, remains the consistent analytical theme in many circles. While this grim view cannot be excluded, at the very least we must consider the possibility that Rowhani’s election suggests a level of political contestation and uncertainty of outcomes that doesn’t quite accord with the Dictator Thesis — or indeed any similarly one-dimensional vision of a political system whose politics may very well not be denuded of the complexities, contradictions, and multiple-currents that long marked the Islamic Republic.

Where then do these currents reveal themselves? Among other things, we see the mechanics of factional competitions whose evolution is difficult to predict. We also see the vibrancy of the Iranian public sphere with its interesting cultural productions, such as the movie Separation that won an Oscar for best foreign film in 2011 without shying away from laying bare many of the country’s social problems. But somehow when it comes to analyzing the overall frame of Iran’s domestic politics the narratives revert back to the state of mind and actions of one man who seems unmoved by his surroundings. He is either the agent of all change or fortress against any change in the country.

Similar dichotomies are used to approach the "people" of Iran. This complex, multi-vocal entity seems to have only two modes to express itself. Either it moves in unison to protest in the streets or again in unison as it is silenced by the dictates and batons of one man and his cronies.

The diversity of interests and opinions that make up this "people" cannot be grasped by either of these dichotomous caricatures. The 2013 presidential election reveals as much. In fact, if pundits are willing to look, Iran’s diverse politics can even be gleaned right from the polls. Rowhani did not win in all provinces. Being a native son made a difference for candidate Mohsen Rezaei who did better in three southern provinces. Even more fascinating is the fact that in some provinces such as South Khorasan the combined vote of conservative candidates Saeed Jalili and Mohammad Baqher Qalibaf was well higher than Rowhani’s but in the capital Birjand reformists took control of the city council. Voters in some provinces such as Isfahan and Qom proved more conservative than others while other provinces such as Sistan, Baluchestan, and Kordestan voted well above than the national average for Rowhani. These and other results are already being closely studied by Iran specialists who are trying to make better sense of the country’s political diversity and its capacity for expression through the existing political system.

Meanwhile, the way Rowhani and others ran their campaign, as well as the campaign commercials and slogans reveals that electoral politics still remains relevant to Iran’s citizens. Rowhani did not run as an outsider but he did run on a platform of significant change of policy direction from what has happened in the past eight years. He did promise more competent economic management of the country and a more conciliatory foreign policy. But his most important call in the campaign was the need to "de-securitize" the country.

The language is significant as it gives clues regarding the extent and nature of policy options being debated in Iran. Rowhani — agreeing with the arguments made by former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami since 2009 — argued that a security-oriented approach to political differences and cultural diversity in the country is not only ethically wrong but, more importantly, for the sake of the Islamic Republic, counter-productive and a political mistake. Crushing of dissent opens the way for bad decision-making and corruption. This he said in an environment in which many former officials of the Islamic Republic are incarcerated and many others are routinely accused of sedition and treason. 

The point is not that Rowhani’s view is right and won in this election. Rather, the critical point is that that the Iranian political class continues to be engaged in a conversation about how to govern and address the myriad of challenges facing the country, including external threats. This dynamic cannot and should not be equated with some kind of transition to pluralist democracy. But if the examples of other developing countries that have witnessed real political change provide a useful guide, the lesson is clear: absent a collapse of a regime, even small openings that allow for a reintegration of estranged elites and processes of negotiation might over time yield surprising outcomes. There have been similar complex dynamics in Poland, Brazil, South Africa, and even Mexico (where a ruling party used the ballot to secure what some Mexican called an "endless transition"). Similar dynamics are now being played out in the Arab world, where revolts are just the beginning of a prolonged struggle, a point that Egypt’s agony makes clear.

There is no gainsaying that a protracted process of change in Iran will prove difficult. Iran’s leaders are dedicated to an ideological cause and any perceived threat to it magnifies their perception that even a modest opening could be a slippery slide to regime collapse. Indeed, those who hold this perception — and the security-oriented approach that goes with it — still wield tremendous power. But Rowhani’s election and political energy it has galvanized suggests that the advocates of a security state have not yet prevailed. Iran’s political system is not totally open, but it is far from politically closed or totally resistant to a slow internal transformation.

Western powers can do little to advance this dynamic but can do much to harm prospects of those struggling for feasible change. Iran’s hardliners have always thrived in a context of conflict with the United States. Indeed, the Revolutionary Guard’s increasing power can be traced back to the eight year Iran-Iraq war, during which a good part of the infrastructure of statist economic and security policy was created. Subsequent events, not least of which was the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the "Axising of Evil" of Iran, and the escalating conflict of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, have all played nicely into the hands of those Iranian leaders most determined to squash political reform. Their arguments find sustenance in a polarized international arena replete with periodic warnings of possible military strikes against Iran or regular celebrations of the so-called success of "crippling" sanctions. Iranian hardliners surely have a paranoid view of the world. But their discourse remains popular within the ruling elite — and within certain segments of society — because it is fanned by a regional and global conflict.

This discourse will not evaporate and will surely find active expression in many arenas –such as Syria — where some of Iran’s leaders view an existential threat to the state’s very survival (particularly since some politicians and pundits in the United States talk about the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad as desired precisely because it might open the path for regime change in Iran). Indeed, in the wake of Rowhani’s election, the advocates of a security state approach will be watching to see if the new politics promised by Rowhani’s campaign will be implemented and the extent to which it will undermine their interests. They will also accuse the new president of being naïve as well as engaged in futile appeasement of hostile enemies if he can’t improve the country’s sense of security and if threats and pressures are not reduced.

If there is any proof that the "Rowhani as Hidden Force of the Revolutionary Guard" (or Supreme Leader) thesis is misguided, it is to be found in the president elect’s extreme caution, and his clear determination not to been seen relinquishing Iranian negotiating positions that he was once accused of compromising. But his rhetoric is far more than a risk-averse exercise in political survival or — much less — a huge political ruse. It reflects a political system that is not yet respectful of its citizens’ basic civil rights, but which retains arenas of interactive, improvised, and even unpredictable politics, underwritten by battered but multiple centers of power. These complex dynamics must be taken seriously and respected in U.S. interactions with Iran, and in the efforts to transcend an over 30 year Cold (and sometimes hot) War that has only strengthened those Iranian leaders who fear change the most.

Daniel Brumberg is co-director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University and senior advisor to the United States Institute of Peace. The above remarks reflect the authors’ personal views and not those of any institution. Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. 

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