Iran's evolution and Islam’s Berlusconi

Fred Halliday
9 June 2009

The boisterous weeks of meetings, regional tours, demonstrations, and TV debates make for an impressive spectacle. But as the first round of voting in Iran's presidential election on 12 June 2009 nears, they offer no definitive clue on the outcome.

Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. Among his many books are The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005). His critical analysis of the Shah's regime, Iran: Dictatorship and Development (Penguin, November 1978) was subsequently translated into nine languages

Among Fred Halliday's many columns in openDemocracy:

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

"The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

"The mysteries of the US empire" (30 November 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

"1968: the global legacy" (11 June 2008)

"The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

"Armenia's mixed messages" (13 October 2008)

"The futures of Iraq" (4 December 2008)

"The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

"Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

"Iraq in the balance" (26 March 2009)

"The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts" (23 April 2009)

The incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - backed by much of the state apparatus, controlling the media and playing the nationalist and populist cards - is still on balance the favourite to re-elected for another four years. Ahmadinejad's campaign has continued to display the penchant for demagogy that makes him resemble a sort of Islamic variant of the Italian clown, Silvio Berlusconi. In each case, their behaviour - whether it is flirting with young women or insulting the wife of a rival candidate - finds an echo across wide swathes of society.

There is a possibility that the strength of at least one of the opposition candidates will at least force the vote to a second round; in that case Ahmadinejad's most likely rival will be the reformist (and former prime minister) Mir-Hossein Moussavi. He is generating great enthusiasm among young people especially, in a campaign noted for the active role of his partner Zahra Rahnavard (a spirited woman whose educational credentials Ahmadinejad crudely questioned in a TV debate). The other two candidates - Mehdi Karroubi (former speaker of the majlis [parliament] and the conservative Mohsen Rezaei (ex-head of the Revolutionary Guards) - have a lesser chance of coming second.

The timing of this event is dictated by the Iranian constitutional calendar, but it comes at a crucial moment in the country's international profile and relationships. Barack Obama, the United States president has offered to participate in a clear (if time-limited) process of dialogue with Tehran; destabilising wars rage in three neighbouring states (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan); ,the price of oil lies well below what Iran needs to sustain its economy; and the unresolved issue of Iran's nuclear plans means that Tehran faces the open-ended danger of an Israeli attack.

These large issues mean that the election result is only one factor in how Iran faces the strategic, political and economic difficulties of the coming years. 

The leadership factor

The ground for anticipating a continuation of Iran's leadership style in domestic and foreign policy is evident enough. The institutional reality of Iran's system is that the ultimate power-centre is not the president or the fractious and ineffective majlis (parliament) but the faqih (supreme leader). The current occupant is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, himself a former president who took the leadership role on the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Khamenei has indefinite tenure: indeed the call for his position to be subject to periodic review and election is one of the most explosive in contemporary Iran.

He is, moreover, surrounded by a group of officials - some clergy, some from the militias - who are hardened veterans of the war with Iraq of 1980-88. This experience, even more than the months of revolution itself in 1978-79, formed and tempered the Iranian state.

It is consistent with this environment that Khamenei has in general been identified with hardline positions, and he has indeed blocked proposals to normalise relations with the United States. There are reasons of calculation as well as ideology behind this stance: the supreme leader and his associates know that any relaxation of external tensions would prejudice their power - and the access to state revenues which these associates and their relatives and cronies enjoy.

But Khamenei's political and personal character also reveals in some areas a certain flexibility. An example is his management of the fervent public outcry provoked by the killing of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan in 1998; he skilfully guided policy towards a more cautious response, thus averting what could have become a military incursion into Iran's eastern neighbour. 

It is generally assumed that Khamenei supported the stealthy nomination and election of Ahmadinejad in June 2005 (an operation described by one of its organisers as "driving a convoy of trucks by night without lights"); but there have been moments of tension, and the faqih has made clear that he does not endorse all the more extreme statements of his protégé.

Moreover, Khamenei has kept lines of communication open to the more reformist camps. He is said to be on good personal terms with former president Khatami, and one of his daughters is married to a prominent reformist diplomat. He has also been taking private lessons to improve his English; an intriguing move for a leader of Azeri origin, reflecting the fact that - for all the religious importance of Arabic and the enduring national pride in the Persian language - English has in practice become the universal language of Muslims, of the umma

The strategic factor

There are in addition three developments that - whatever the outcome of the election - may have important longer-term effects. First, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's populist economic and social policies have - like those of his friend and populist counterpart in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez - run into difficulties. This is in part because of the fall in the price of oil, the mainstay of both economies; but equally of the inefficiency, rashness and sheer lack of administrative application with which they are run. 

Second, Iran is changing in the direction of a growing sense of nationalist, rather than religious, pride in the country. This is something Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has tried to use to his own ends; every campaign speech is replete with phrases about the "great nation". This trend is combined with strong public support for a relaxation of international tensions, which is often related to the impact of sanctions on the economy and the prolonged uncertainty that accompanies them.

Third, Ahmadinejad and his regime have shown a modicum of caution in recent months. The release of detained foreign journalists (such as Roxana Saberi) and domestic critics suggests that Iran is concerned to some degree to maintain a positive image abroad. In regard to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has - without proclaiming it as such - sought to play a constructive role, consistent with its interests.

Where Iraq is concerned, Tehran has in effect aligned itself alongside Washington in backing the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad. It caused surprise in December 2008 by giving support to the status-of-forces agreement (Sofa) signed between Iraq and the United States. This is all the more significant as earlier examples of such agreements have - perhaps more than any issue - aroused visceral nationalist sentiments in Iran and other middle-eastern states (and helped to trigger the political careers of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Hassan al-Banna [in 1928] and Ayatollah Khomeini [in 1963]).

In the case of Afghanistan, Tehran has backed the Hamid Karzai government while also effectively annexing the three adjacent provinces of Afghanistan. Yet Iranian influence has declined in the country as a whole, and there are constraints on what can be achieved to reverse this. 

This greater caution is also evident in the content of Lebanon. Iran has backed the recent compromise in the political system there - which contributed to the peaceful election of 7 June 2009 that resulted in the victory of the March 14 coalition. It  also wants to avoid new confrontations with Israel. There are deeper currents here, reflected for example in a study released by the Israeli defence ministry after the war of July-August 2006; this showed that, despite Iran's close support for the Hizbollah group in Lebanon, which fired over 4,000 missiles into Israel, did not use ones manufactured in Iran. 

The state factor

Many analyses of Iran tend to start from misleading analytic and historical premises: for example, that Iran's nuclear programme can be understood in terms of a concept of "proliferation" (when it should be understood as part of of Iran's search for regional influence), or that Iran is a "rogue" state (when other states have done far more harm to regional stability - by reckless funding of extreme Islamist groups, or by selling nuclear technology to anyone willing to pay). Iranians themselves can add to the confusion by explaining modern events by reference to ancient imperial times, which cast no light on the Islamic Republic of today.

Iran, rather, needs to be understood as a revolutionary state: approaching middle age to be sure, but with several decades of life still in prospect. This state of many different opinions and power-centres will continue to speak with two voices: those of diplomacy and of revolution.

This is the legacy the spirited and long-suffering people of Iran (and thus their neighbours and the world beyond) will have to continue to live with.   The presidential election will come and go, but - with or without "Islam's Berlusconi" - there is fuel in this engine yet.


Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005) 

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005) 

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006) 

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)  

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007) 

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007) 

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007) 

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007) 

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007) 

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008) 

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)  

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009) 

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: a blind leap of faith" (2 June 2009)

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