Iran’s conservative triumph

Bahram Rajaee Roshanak Ameli-Tehrani Nader Entessar Hamid Zanganeh Abbas Milani Bahman Kalbasi Ramin Jahanbegloo Trita Parsi
27 June 2005

Bahram Rajaee

Uncharted waters

The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of Iran’s presidential contest is an extraordinary political moment. It reflects the fact that Iran’s political system is drifting into uncharted waters, pushed along by deep structural shifts in the social fabric and hardening cleavages among the ruling elite – which together are driving the population and the regime apart.

Iran’s election reflects this underlying dynamic. Since 1999, the most dogmatic and anti-democratic of the ruling Islamists have asserted their control over the system and deflated the Mohammad Khatami-led reformist movement. In this respect, Ahmadinejad’s triumph represents an undeniable tactical success; whether it can contain the pressure for greater pluralism and social freedom over the medium- and long-term remains to be seen.

Bahram Rajaee is director of international and external relations for the American Political Science Association. His writings on Iran have appeared in International Politics, the Middle East Journal, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and www.Iranian.com. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect those of the APSA.

The surreal, temporary return of Hashemi Rafsanjani from public disfavour to a position as the sole obstacle preventing the hardline faction’s victory was only one manifestation of the shift in the balance of power. After his electoral eclipse, the reactionaries control all Iran’s political institutions on their own. This is a dramatic turnaround from 2000, when they lost the presidency, parliament, and local governments and were faced with political extinction as their sanctioning of intimidation and violence came to light.

What happened to produce this reverse? A combination of three things: a lack of unity and discipline within the reform movement, accompanied by an overestimation of their real political power; the single-minded, and underestimated, determination of the reactionaries to keep hold of the state; and the increasing United States pressure on Iran, which reinforced regime loyalists’ sense of vulnerability and enabled them to justify a crackdown on opposition by invoking “national security” concerns.

Thus, even as the gap between the public and the regime is widening, the reactionaries are consolidating their power. Their ability to do so is nurtured by their dominance of the overlapping layers of Iran’s opaque state: the supreme leadership, the Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts, state-run media, the Revolutionary Guards, the basiji, the hezbollahi, the broader security apparatus, and affiliated foundations.

More ominously, Ahmadinejad’s accession means the hardliners no longer depend on political alliances with other factions. They have learned from their mistakes of the past decade not to need a Rafsanjani or a Khatami to survive. The interference by state institutions and militants in the electoral process, unprecedented in post-1979 history, helps contribute to broad suspicions that Ahmadinejad’s final vote is suspect.

Also in openDemocracy on democracy and Iran:

IranScan 1384 – Hossein Derakhshan, Farideh Nicknazar, Laura Rozen, Afshin Molavi and others report and discuss Iran’s democratic process and potential

Iran’s road to democracy – a debate opened by Mohsen Sazegara’s proposal of a referendum on a new constitution for Iran; Mehrangiz Kar, Mansour Farhang, Roya Boroumand, Farideh Farhi, Kaveh Ehsani and others respond

Ardashir Tehrani assesses the reasons for Mahmoud Ahmadinejan’s victory, and the post-election mood in Iran

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A second Rafsanjani presidency would have been no panacea, but his victory would have been the first step in stemming the reactionary tide. The Tehran mayor’s triumph opens the way for untrammeled authoritarian rule in Iran led by an uncompromising minority. It could be a prelude to a worsening environment where resistance to the regime begins to shift outside the system as its legitimacy erodes beyond repair.

Such a development will have disastrous consequences for peaceful democratization in Iran. It raises the spectre of the country descending into an unpredictable spiral of repression, isolation, and instability. Moreover, it will place Iran squarely on the road to crisis with the United States. Some welcome this crisis and its likelihood of a military confrontation that will put an end to the mullahs’ rule. I am not insensitive to this sentiment, but see little prospect of such external intervention doing much to bolster democracy in Iran.

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Hamid Zangeneh, Widener University

Political checkmate

The most important factors behind the dark horse Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s assumption of the top elected job in Iran are the immaturity of Iran’s reformist opposition, the frustration of its young people, and the certitude and conviction of its religious zealots.

First, the reformists are a scattered bunch without a centre of gravity to provide them with either ideological or logistical balance. After many political and personal defeats, they still have not understood what people want, how to communicate and sell their ideals to the people, and that they are not with the people. This disconnect has and will continue to have punishing consequences for the reformists and for Iran – in the short and long run.

Hamid Zangeneh is a professor of economics at Widener University, Pennsylvania, and the editor of the Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis. Among his books are (as editor) Islam, Iran, and world stability and (co-editor with Cyrus Bina) Modern Capitalism and Islamic Ideology in Iran.

The reformists’ idealism and self-centered dogmatism has led them gradually to bury their heads in the sand. They have experienced defeat after defeat without changing their strategies or tactics. Now they have to contend with the election of a person who, at least at first glance, is antithetical to everything they have tried to accomplish in the last decade; far from trying to advance their cause further, they will be obliged to try to protect their achievements, small and tentative as these are.

Second, Iran’s youth are frustrated by the impotence of the reformist leaders and have become disenchanted with the very idea of reform. Some have completely given up hope of a normal life and have resorted to alcohol, drugs, and idleness. Many of these are youngsters who do not have capital to start a business of their own; lack the sorts of connections to the establishment that would allow them to enjoy the privileges of the system; are unable to find jobs; and cannot emigrate to other countries in search of a better livelihood. By some accounts, this describes the majority of Iran’s young people.

Iran’s male-dominated political and social system gives young men more opportunities to benefit than it does to their female counterparts, who have much more to lose. This is something that is likely to be reinforced as the new president forms his cabinet and establishes his priorities for the country.

Third, the basiji (religious brigades) have never hidden their intention of suppressing those who violate Islamic codes or who do not affirm strong belief in the concept of an Islamic Republic with the supreme leader at its helm. These militias have been active, involved, and present everywhere at all times. They shed blood during the devastating eight-year Iran-Iraq war. They have attacked students, universities, and opposition leaders. They have hunted and murdered anti-establishment intellectuals. And they have religiously voted in every election.

The June 2005 election was no exception. The tentativeness of the opposition, the political expediency of Iran’s youth, and the resoluteness of the establishment have together helped the religious zealots grab the final lever of power and checkmate other political forces in Iran.

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Trita Parsi, foreign policy advisor

Time for self-reflection

Two shocks in a row are hard to digest. First, there was Mostafa Moin‘s loss in the initial, 17 June round of the presidential election. This reflected the fact that the reform platform had lost much of its appeal in light of the Iranian people’s more pressing economic needs. The reformists have continuously failed to make bread-and-butter issues central to their message.

Second, there was the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the decisive, 24 June round. This showed that class differences, economic malaise, and contempt for corruption outweighed issues such as political and social freedoms – to the extent that Ahmadinejad was seen as the candidate representing change, and Hashemi Rafsanjani as symbolising the status quo.

Trita Parsi is researching for a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and serving as foreign policy advisor to United States congressman, Bob Ney. He is the co-founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council, a non-profit educational organisation promoting Iranian-American participation in American civic life. He writes in a personal capacity.

“Better safe than sorry” did not apply to the Iranian electorate; its quest for economic progress was so great and its mistrust of the establishment so deep that it preferred the untested Ahmadinejad to the experienced – but verifiably corrupt – Rafsanjani. Those who wished to protect the social freedoms won during Mohammad Khatami’s tenure did not turn out in great enough numbers. Iranian people wanted change alright, but not the sort that many of us had expected – or permitted ourselves to expect.

The signs of the disconnect between the needs of Iran’s general population and existing platforms of political transformation have always been there, but many of us failed to understand their full extent. Perhaps we viewed Iran too much from a self-centred perspective where our own wants and needs shaped our analysis, at the expense of the expressed desires of people from classes we did not identify with as easily.

This certainly does not mean that people do not want social, political, and economic reform, but rather that the economic part of it takes precedence over the other – at least for now.

The elections also showed that, contrary to much western conventional wisdom, the “youth constituency” does not necessarily exist, because class lines seem to be more defining in Iran than demographic ones. The concerns and needs of young people in affluent northern Tehran, to take a clear example, differ markedly from their contemporaries in the villages of Iran’s more undeveloped areas.

In many ways, this vindicates the argument of those who opposed the policy of isolating Iran economically a decade ago. They argued that democracy in Iran will take root when economic development has created a sizeable middle class who will serve as a cushion against the populist demands of the lower classes and the corruption and monopolist tendencies of the ruling class.

The middle class, in this perspective, would become the constituency with a direct, vested interest in Iran’s political liberalisation, to the extent that their political demands would take precedence over their economic concerns.

This middle class has never had a fair chance to develop – mainly due to the mismanagement and corruption of the rulers in Tehran, but also due to Washington’s policy of isolating Iran and preventing it from advancing economically.

Iran’s step to the right in the presidential elections may further boost the agenda of those in Washington who wish to isolate Iran. This will only serve even more to hamper the country’s ability to create a sustainable democracy from within.

The conclusion can only be that the disconnect of the pro-isolationists from the desires of the Iranian people is even greater than the disconnect of those who granted too much emphasis to their desire for social freedoms.

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Bahman Kalbasi, student

Like a dream that ended so quickly

I have written about the unpredictability of Iranian politics, but I never foresaw something of this order.

That might be because I assumed the unpredictability factor to be something that favours the forces of democracy in Iran.

Like many friends, I had a long night watching the election results come out and wondering why they happened. At the crack of dawn, I was trying to read and analyse these shocking results. I should say that I think the results of the first round were more shocking than the second round. Almost everyone agreed on the possibility of Ahmadinejad winning the second round. Now it has happened. He is the winner.

Bahman Kalbasi was born in 1979. As a member of the Isfahan University student association, he was imprisoned for sixty-three days by the judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran following the student unrest in July 1999. He is now a student at York University, Toronto.

The question is: how could a man with extreme fundamentalist views win the votes of Iranians, who are clearly frustrated with twenty-six years of Islamic rule? How could this nation that overwhelmingly voted for reform candidates with promises of social and political freedom in the last eight years now turn to the complete opposite?

I think one element overrode all others. Many of the poor and less politically educated classes of Iran have lost faith in the promises of the reformists, who told them that only through democracy can sustainable economic growth be delivered. They have witnessed corruption and injustice and seen that they have grown poorer every day; they no longer have patience for small steps toward democracy that might only later lead to economic improvements. A relatively unknown populist figure who projects a simple life and acts like a normal person in his social expressions and talks in simple words understood by ordinary, frustrated, poor Iranians consequently attracts millions of voters who want to express their frustrations via their vote and are hoping for real changes in their material circumstances.

Against him, Rafsanjani is the complete embodiment of wealth and power: not only a major player but an architect of many of the key decisions made in the last twenty-five years. Iran’s diminishing middle class and many intellectuals and democratic forces are warning about who Ahmadinejad really is and how he will take us back in time and pose many internal and external dangers to Iran – but this outcry is hardly heard.

Here we have a simple, everyday guy who speaks in populist slogans and promises, who is at the same time deeply religious, and whose followers and supporters are the worst religious fundamentalists Iran has. When he assumes power he will not be the real decision-maker; the supreme leader and other men in the shadows will make the real decisions for him. Does this all ring a bell? A bit like George W Bush?

I think Iran’s reformist forces, after coming out of shock, must deal with the problem of their disconnection from regular citizens. They must find a way to explain to the people of Iran’s “red states” that right-wing fundamentalism has no solution for the economic crisis in Iran and in fact is the cause of the injustice.

The bad news for the democracy movement in Iran is not just that the right-wingers won this election but also the fact that Ahmadinejad is personally implicated in the murders of dissidents in the late 1990s and his closest allies are among the most repressive former and current officials in the intelligence services. His actions might turn the next few years into such dark days in Iran’s political history that the last eight years of reform will look like a dream that ended all too quickly.

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Ramin Jahanbegloo, political philosopher

Authoritarian populism and Iranian civil society

The sweeping victory of the austere and pious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came as a surprise to most analysts of Iranian politics. Some consider it a sign of the rise of authoritarian populism in Iran. For others, the election of the 49-year-old mayor of Tehran is a replay of the 1979 revolution.

Ahmadinejad’s appeal to the poor and the unemployed and his impeccable revolutionary credentials were the apparent keys to his victory against Rafsanjani, who appeared by contrast a symbol of Iran’s rich and powerful political elite. While Ahmadinejad capitalised on the social schism, reformers did little to convince many of the disenchanted and disillusioned youth to vote for Rafsanjani.

Ramin Jahanbegloo was born in Tehran and studied at the Sorbonne University, Paris. He currently heads the department for contemporary studies at the Cultural Research Bureau, Iran. Before then, he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. Among his twenty books in English, French and Persian are Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (Phoenix, 2000), and (as editor) Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity (Lexington Books, 2004).

We are now witnessing a resurgent authoritarian populism in Iran, caused by political factionalism. However, the pragmatic-technocratic faction led by Rafsanjani still possesses tremendous power in the Expediency Council and in the arena of foreign relations.

The new president faces serious challenges inside and outside Iran. Those who voted for him expect him to solve problems such as inflation, unemployment and corruption. Others who worry about the delicate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme seem to fear an increased tension with Washington and possible United States military intervention.

For the time being, the issues atop Ahmadinejad’s agenda are economic justice and redistribution of wealth. At the same time, we can expect a significant turning back of civil society’s important gains of the last several years, paving the way eventually for a full-spectrum Islamic society based on sharia law. One way or another, the last word will be in the hands of Iranian civil society, which has thus far survived Iran’s political factionalism.

A cloud of uncertainty has been cast over the fate of civil liberties in Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Yet opportunities abound among Iran’s young population. Future prospects for political change in Iranian civil society are therefore undeniable, since despite the homogenising power of the regime, Iranians continue to hold dissenting views on matters related to political freedoms, women’s rights, press and the role of religious ideology in politics.

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Abbas Milani, Iran Democracy Project

Cracks in the monolith of power

A New York Times editorial of 21 June 2005, midway between the two rounds of Iran’s presidential election, commented that “whatever the results of Friday’s runoff, hopes for real reform in Iran are bleak.” Many Iranian observers and media, both inside and outside, would concur.

Many too would accept the premise that democracy and “real reform” in Iran can only come after an end to the increasingly personal despotism of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If that is the case, then Iran’s election can be seen as a small step towards limiting that power, and beginning the much-delayed and long-awaited transition to democracy.

In authoritarian societies like Iran, a transition to democracy requires, amongst other things, a rift in the ranks of ruling despots. The two rounds of the 2005 presidential elections have created and exposed cracks in the monolith of power; they have shown a system riven with structural fissures at the bottom and factionalism at the top.

Abbas Milani is co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution and director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. His books include Tales of Two Cities: a Persian memoir (1996), The Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the riddle of the Iranian Revolution (2000), and Lost Wisdom: rethinking modernity in Iran (2004).

In the days before the first round on 17 June, Hashemi Rafsanjani, while reinventing himself as an “outsider” running against the status quo, published parts of his daily journals. They went back to the days of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, and covered the selection of Khamenei as the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The journal entries give no credence to the myth, promulgated in the past by the regime (and by Rafsanjani himself), that Khamenei had been the choice of the dying Ayatollah Khomeini; instead, they indicate that the mullahs who gathered to choose Khomeini’s successor were inclined towards a collective leadership.

Moreover, in the period between the two rounds of the election, three of the four top candidates defied Khamenei’s orders and talked openly about what they called the flawed (if not in practical terms rigged) election. One of the three candidates was brave enough to name Khamenei’s own son as a culprit. There are increasing signs that a de facto “United Front Against Fascism” is forming in Iran and it might well have in its ranks some of the erstwhile pillars of power in the regime.

These events are part of a pattern that reveals a fractured elite, ruling over a system beset by chronic political stalemate, economic corruption and stagnation, and a deeply disgruntled citizenry (most of whom are young). More than ever it is clear that democracy is the only solution to Iran’s myriad problems.

The attempt by the right-wing cabal that masterminded the Ahmadinejad victory to solve Iran’s serious economic problems by reverting to old and tired populism is sure to fail. It will eventually deprive this group even of its small base of support amongst the poor in the city and countryside, whose piety and deprivation has made them dependent on the state. Bereft of this base, it will have only the military and security forces left to it, and that is hardly enough to maintain power in Iran today.

This presidential election has created room for cautious optimism, and for doubting the stalwarts of despotism who think they have successfully killed the democratic and reform movement in Iran.

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Nader Entessar, Spring Hill College

Iran’s political tsunami

The landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s presidential election surprised not only Iran-watchers abroad but also caught political specialists inside the country off-guard. Although Ahmadinejad had served as the mayor of Tehran for two years and had held a number of other positions, he was relatively unknown to many of Iran’s voters and political analysts, several of whom had assumed that he would finish near the bottom of the seven-man slate of candidates.

Most predictions about Ahmadinejad’s chances of victory and the entire election process proved to be wrong. How did this happen?

It is too early to pass a definitive judgment on the causes and consequences of Ahmadinejad’s stunning victory. However, some cautionary assessments can be made. Ahmadinejad’s victory exposes the weakness of the much-ballyhooed reform movement in Iran. It appears that the reformists have ostensibly forgotten why people brought them to power in the first place.

Nader Entessar is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and Law at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. He is the author of Kurdish Ethnonationalism (1992) and the co-editor of Reconstruction and Regional Diplomacy in the Persian Gulf (Routledge, 1992) and Iran and the Arab world (St Martin Press, 1993)

The socio-political and cultural gulf between the reformist establishment and the majority of the people has never been bridged in the past eight years. The reformists were unable to extend their base beyond educated middle- and upper-class city-dwellers. As a result, more of them began to look to the west for salvation, and thus distanced themselves further from the Iranian public. Many of the prominent members of the reform movement became preoccupied with getting speaking engagements from western universities or think-tanks, winning awards from this foundation or that association, and writing commentaries in American or European newspapers.

They mistakenly thought such activities would guarantee their hold on power. In fact, a cottage industry developed around the reformist movement, whose overriding goal was to bolster the individual careers of its members.

The reformists could never muster enough enthusiasm among the people. Their mystique began to wane well before the ninth presidential election. In the campaign, their candidates failed adequately to address the crucial issues of economic disparity, corruption among the ruling elites, and the country’s perceived “moral decay”.

Ahmadinejad, by contrast, successfully campaigned as the ultimate outsider; he used the theme of social and economic injustice masterfully to appeal not only to the poor but also to disenfranchised and alienated middle-class voters. His humble origins, pious background and simple lifestyle contrasted with the image of his major opponent in the race – the much-maligned Hashemi Rafsanjani, the ultimate insider.

How did the reformists react to their defeat in the first round of the presidential election? They cried foul, coalesced around Rafsanjani – the most visible symbol of political and economic corruption in Iran – and launched a campaign of personal attacks against Ahmadinejad. They called him a baboon and engaged in a desperate campaign of character assassination. Needless to say, all of these tactics backfired.

What is to be done now? We must recognise that we have witnessed the most hotly contested and vigorous election in post-revolutionary Iran. The results clearly demonstrate that there is a dire need for pro-democracy elements to organise real political parties that are capable of interest-aggregation and interest-articulation at the grassroots level. The practice of qahr (sulking) that may lead to political withdrawal must be resisted at all costs. The losing parties can learn from the winning coalition about how to mobilise their constituencies. Apathy is not an option.

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Roshanak Ameli-Tehrani, Peyvand Institute

Finding a common narrative

The unexpected and decisive victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s presidential elections has left many people stunned. How and why did it happen? Was the sweep of the conservatives due to people’s loss of faith in the reformist movement? The desperation of the extreme right to hold on to power in the face of what many view as the last vestiges of their reign? Iran’s economic crisis? Or a backlash against messages from Washington?

All of these factors contributed. But what next? What are the components that reformists and moderates must focus on to strengthen Iran’s social fabric and to reconnect with the population?

The essential component is Iran’s civil society.

In any modern sustainable democracy, three broad categories of institutions exist: the state, the private sector, and civil society. The most successful of the societies that have traversed the often long and winding road of “habituating” democracy are those with the most actively participatory civil societies.

Roshanak Ameli-Tehrani is founder and president of the Peyvand Institute, a non-profit organisation supporting civil-society development in Iran.

Iran’s modern path toward democracy, a path that can be traced back to the constitutional revolution (1905-09), has been largely engineered and led by elites. Only since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 has civil society truly begun to take shape in Iran within the broader populace.

For reformists and moderates to regain trust and prominence, they must cast wider nets of inclusion and find a common narrative – one based on socio-economic goals that are inclusive of and relevant to the Iranian majority. During the coming period of regrouping, civil society will be vital to the creation of this narrative. A strong civil society encourages participation, creates synergy and allows access to resources – especially for the lower economic strata. Reformists and moderates should unite their energies in supporting such an invigorating process.

The private sector and the upper class in Iran must also support such efforts. These groups have access to resources desperately needed for civil-society development. The class schism in Iran is a major contributor to the election results. As the middle class rapidly shrinks under economic hardship, the rift between the wealthy minority and the poor majority expands. Civil society is pivotal in rebuilding Iran’s middle class.

The elections also signal a call for action to the Iranian diaspora. Depending on the source, the size of the Iranian diaspora ranges from 2-6 million, with the vast majority living in developed nations amongst the upper socio-economic strata. It is time for the diaspora to shift its dialogue away from political divides to a shared narrative – one based on actively promoting and preserving a viable civil society in Iran. The diaspora can no longer assume itself separate from the 69 million Iranians living in Iran and wait for the reformists to bring about change.

There is no panacea for democratisation. It is by nature a messy and arduous path. And yet there are proven components necessary for success. Much of the progress made on civil liberties since the 1978-79 revolution is a result of civil society. Today, grassroots-driven social-change initiatives can be found throughout Iran, most of which have been launched by an enterprising youth with virtually no resources other than human capital. Supporting these efforts and building broader civil-society structures are worth the focus of all those interested in a stable and democratic Iran.

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