June 1, 2007


Making Sense of Iran: From the Inside Out (Bob Hamlin and Shreya Maheshwari, Summer 2007, Harvard Political Review)

Even as different ideologies struggle for dominance within Iran's political landscape, the institutional structure grants conservative clerics the power to block democratic initiatives. Iran's constitution attempts to combine secular institutions common to Western democracies with others that emphasize a strict interpretation of Islamic law. For example, all citizens elect representatives to the Majlis, a national assembly, and cast ballots directly for the president. However, Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted in an interview with the HPR that, despite the existence of state organs independent of the Supreme Leader, "unelected constitutional authorities have much more political power than the elected bodies." Specifically, the judicial system — particularly the twelve-member Council of Guardians — holds supreme power over the Majlis. In the name of protecting Islamic Law and the Iranian constitution, the Council of Guardians must approve all acts of Parliament and candidates for election. In addition, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei directly appoints six of the Council's clerics, though he relies on the Majlis to elect another six legal scholars from a pre-approved list of candidates. Although those who challenge clerical power may win elections and enjoy legal protection for their speeches in the Majlis, judicial and supra-legislative bodies prevent critics from gathering any kind of critical mass within the government. Likewise, any candidate rejected by the voters could retain great political influence through political appointment. When Akbar Rafsanjani lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential poll, he criticized the new president from his newly acquired perch atop the powerful Expediency Council, which manages disputes between the Majlis and the Guardian Council.

While political parties exist in Iran's democratically elected organs of government, citizens largely prefer to lobby the government through temporary pressure groups that tend to dissolve following elections. In many cases, it is unclear whether group members agree on any sort of political agenda beyond a single issue. Thus, any systematic analysis of Iranian politics requires classifying key actors into conservative and reformist camps. Traditionally, reformists seek more political freedom for citizens and advocate for greater Iranian engagement with the international community. Clerics and military officers often adhere to a more conservative, even reactionary view, believing that liberalization weakens the state's authority to promote strict adherence to Islam. At the moment, Ahmadinejad draws strong support from the conservative officers of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's elite armed force. Yet according to Dr. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Department at Stanford University, this reformist-conservative dichotomy sometimes misses subtle nuances in strategy and ideology. He noted, "Sometimes the ones who are called conservative are quite radical in their proposals. In other instances, a hardliner might possess a liberal view in some aspect and vice versa." In some instances, pragmatists within the conservative faction fear that hard-line policies will destabilize society and provoke a backlash against political Islam. Still, while limited in precision, these political categories provide a useful sketch of the polarized political climate within which Supreme Leader Khamenei must serve as mediator.

Recent election returns suggest escalating popular dissatisfaction with the president and his policies. In the December 2006 elections, the more pragmatic wing of the conservatives showed strong gains in municipal elections against the hardliners backed by Ahmadinejad. The president had campaigned on a populist platform, promising greater economic equality and an end to corruption. However, even fellow conservatives now regard his domestic policies as a failure, as inflation remains above 15% and widespread unemployment persists throughout the country. Iran's economy is also growing too slowly to successfully incorporate the one million young, and increasingly restless, Iranians who enter the job market each year. Ahmadinejad retains some support among the poor — his core supporters — thanks largely to lavish government subsidies, but the middle class abandoned his candidates in the most recent round of balloting. Adding to the tensions, the National Assembly recently passed a law to hold the presidential election in the same year as the parliamentary poll, which would require Ahmadinejad to run for reelection one year earlier than would otherwise have been the case. Though the law did not make it through the Council of Guardians and awaits resolution in the Council of Expediency, Abbas Miliani says, "Everyone understands that the purpose of the law is to limit his [Ahmadinejad's] time is office. This is a very polite way of reducing the damage that he can do."

Even if it is a rather opaque system, folks should have noticed that Ayatollah Khamenei both intervened to add Reformers to the presidential list, in order to set up a scenario where the election would come down to a genuine reform candidate or his chosen vehicle, Rafsanjani, and that when this failed--because the electorate was more alienated than he understood, after the way Khatami had been constrained, he put Rafsanjani in position to counter Mahmoud. While Khamenei is hardly reformist himself, at least not instinctively, he seems to recognize that the Republic has to be reformed.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2007 10:02 PM

Sounds a bit like the Politburo, circa 1954.

Khruschev stepped away from Stalin in 1956, 3.5 years after his death. The 'Soviet' gang lingered for 35 more years.

Who will walk Iran back from Khomeini? And if Khameini dies before the next election, will Mahmoud seize the day?

Interesting take on the reformist-conservative "nuance". But an imprecise choice of wording for the Grand Ayatollah - he is not the 'moderator', he is the enabler, the perpetuator, as it were.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 1, 2007 11:49 PM

He's consistently undercut the conservatives for a decade now. He understands the problems, even if he hasn't the audacity to deal with them.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2007 12:17 AM

Of course he's going to undercut them - he wants to remain top dog, and he thinks he's been anointed. He's opposed liberals, too. Does that make him a 'steadying influence'?

It's amusing to see the words 'reformer' and 'moderate' tossed around by people who should know better. We already went through this in the 60s, 70s, and 80s with the Soviets and the Chinese. And Europe did the same in the 30s with Germany.

'Reform' involves change and sacrifice, with a loss of power (or cover) for the few, so that many will benefit. I haven't seen any of that in Iran.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 2, 2007 9:13 AM

It's foolish to think Khamanei runs the regime. He's a deal-maker, a political averaging machine over the various regime factions. He can only restrain Ahmadinejad insofar as other powerful regime factions want him to. I think their interest is less in "reform" than in survival, and they don't want Ahmadinejad to provoke the U.S. too strongly. But they seem to be on board with his basic course -- development of nuclear weapons, sponsorship of terrorist networks abroad, tyranny at home, working toward a Middle Eastern empire with various Syria-style client states controlled through their terrorist networks.

Posted by: pj at June 2, 2007 10:43 AM

No one runs it, it's a republic.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2007 1:20 PM

Yes, he's truly conservative. Too conservative.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2007 1:23 PM