“Iran has a ‘deep state’ where the real power lies and a ‘shallow state’ where politics happens”, writes Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest. “While voters understand very well where the real power lies, they still choose to participate in the political process. The Supreme Leader may be less worried that his pet candidates did poorly in the election than he is pleased to have an electoral process that lets voters blow off steam while the deep state rolls on”, he adds.
Mead’s comment points to the complexity of power in Iran. However, one can argue that Iranian political culture as well is not far less complex. I believe the same sort of structure can be attributed to Iranian civil society. It consists of at least a ‘shallow opposition’ which pragmatically argued for taking part in the 2013 presidential election despite the persisting traumatic memory of the post-2009 election that killed in many any optimism for reforming the regime, as opposed to a ‘deep opposition’ that argued full-heartedly for boycotting the elections.
Elections in Iran are those very exceptional moments when many groups and individuals can step out of their apolitical everyday life and find themselves as participants in an imperfect but still significantly meaningful dialogue with others. Internet has of course added a new dimension to this. I was deeply engaged in many debates that happened between these two tiers of Iranian civil society in the social media space before the election. Each side could hardly convince the other one about their electoral position. Many reasons were raised in favour and against participation. The shallow opposition argued for a more pragmatic approach to politics where the “moral principles must be suspended in favour of a possible practical outcome.” It was argued that at least symbolically, “our right to vote for which we have been struggling over a century would be exercised and preserved.”
On the other side, the deep opposition argued, “voting within the authoritarian framework of the regime is nothing but endorsing its legitimacy.” But, “the regime can still manage to set up the stage for an internationally acceptable turnout,” the shallow opposition argued. “Yes, but the international community is not blind or stupid,” the deep opposition responded. “There is no alternative to this broken ballot box at the moment” and “we cannot ignore the very limited chance the regime had to give us,” a senior academic uttered in Rouhani’s TV ad.
There are certainly alternative ways of influencing change; “Iran needs an Iranian Spring not just another period of illusive reform.” “Iranians like their Turkish counterparts should occupy public spaces,” the deep opposition stated. “Election is a public space to be occupied” and “an Iranian Spring can lead us to a failed horrible Syrian-like winter”, since “the power structure in Iran is more similar to the Syrian power structure, than the Egyptian or the Tunisian one.”
Initially the ‘deep opposition’ gained momentum and became even stronger when Rafsanjani was ousted from running for the race. The deep opposition did not see Rafsanjani as a favourite candidate. However, the rejection of Rafsanjani’s candidature left no doubt about the lack of willingness in the regime for even the minimalist change that a pragmatist-conservative like him could have brought about. The pre-election polls expected a poor turnout. This relaxed the hardliners and conservatives; rigging the election and therefore paying a huge social and political cost for the second time appeared to be a less viable option. Since the turnout seemed to be low, the conservatives found less incentives to sort out their internal divisions and work out an alliance against the only moderate rival. Besides, Hassan Rouhani did not appear to be a serious challenge to them. The initial rise of the boycott movement also convinced the leaders of the necessity of repairing state legitimacy.
The conservatives predicted that even the worst-case scenario would be a second round in the election process, where they could then plan to defeat Rouhani by getting united behind the more likely winner, and at the same time secure a legitimate victory. This miscalculation was the result of the ‘deep opposition’ (boycott movement) and the unpredictability of the electoral behaviour of a vast number of ordinary voters in regional areas with no identifiable ideological loyalties.
In the previous election (2009), the real (unofficial) numbers were not too different on both sides, and the supporters of Mousavi (the reformist candidate) were mostly young urban middle class. This gave confidence to the regime about its ability to handle any opposition in reaction to the fabrication of election results. It is interesting to know that Rouhani did not receive strong support from the urban middle class (especially in Tehran with the lowest turnout, where he only received 48% of vote according to the official data). He however had the support of 4-6 million traditional voters, and obtained higher percentages of votes in marginalized provinces like Iran’s Baluchestan (73%), Kurdistan (71%), and Western Azerbaijan (67%) (see: http://iran2013.org/). Interestingly, these same provinces voted for Ahmadinejad in two previous elections. Therefore, quite opposite to what the liberal shallow opposition suggests, Rouhani’s legitimacy will mostly depend on his ability to effectively and directly deal with the demands of many in the marginalized sectors of society (instead of urban middle class demands).
Antonio Gramsci once said: “I am a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” It seems that without the role that the deep-opposition’s pessimism of the intellect played, the shallow opposition’s optimism of the will could never have claimed victory. Though not very visible, the ‘deep opposition’ will certainly keep playing its role in the coming years and it may finally push the shallow opposition to adopt a different relationship with power. The first signs of disillusionment among Iranian civil society activists are already emerging in response to Rouhani’s list of cabinet members, formally proposed to the parliament this week. The list mostly consists of neoliberal figures who are known for their past contributions to the so-called ‘structural adjustments’ during Rafsanjani’s era. The list consists of a mixture of moderate conservatives and neoliberal technocrats. It is now clear that Rouhani’s ‘moderation’ rhetoric has a rather repulsive dimension, i.e. the return of old elite to executive power. The new administration is expected to push for further economic liberalization, but this time in a more ‘moderately engineered’ way compared to the last eight years of reckless, chaotic, contradictory liberalizations mixed with populist rhetoric inside the anti-capitalist extravaganza concocted by Ahmadinejad!
However, the new government may not even be able to pursue such moderate reforms for some very obvious reasons: (1) further economic liberalization in the context of the existing harsh economic sanctions, falling foreign investment, and international isolation is practically impossible unless Iran’s deep state radically changes its nuclear programme; (2) Iran’s economy is structured around a rentier capitalist system mostly dominated by the military and religious-financial institutions only responsible to the supreme leader. Therefore, further economic liberalization in this context means further monopolization (as has already been the case) which in turn strengthens the deep state; (3) Dealing with a double-digit unemployment, a relentlessly growing inflation rate, and a historically unprecedented inequality requires measures such as substantial investments in infrastructures and participatory planning which are in contradiction with the very basics of Rouhani’s economic doctrine.
Rouhani is somehow in a situation comparable to Egypt’s Morsi after his election. Like Morsi, Rouhani has only the support of no more than 35 percent of Iranian population; he too has to effectively deal with a wrecked economy and respond to his constituency’s urgent economic demands; his team seems to have no plan to implement any alternative but aims to follow the same neoliberal agenda that initially gave rise to the anti-democratic military-monetary mafia in the 1990s; and finally, like Mr. Morsi, he is under pressure to compromise with the deep state, including the military and the conservative forces.
One year from now, if he fails to realize his economic promises, Rouhani may face vast social disappointment or even a strong deep opposition while being blamed by the deep state for the failure.