What’s the Matter with Iran?

Thomas Frank opened his What’s the Matter with Kansas with a piercing sentence: “America is always in a state of quasi-civil war: on the one side are the unpretentious millions of authentic Americans; on the other stand the bookish, all-powerful liberals who run the country but are contemptuous of the tastes and beliefs of the people who inhabit it.” Frank recounted how the religious right farmed a mass movement of social discontent that came to political fruition with the Reagan presidency. This movement generated an unlikely passionate alliance between growing numbers of the poor and the working class, Americans of the heartland, and the white middle class of suburbia. With Frank’s account, it should no longer surprise us to see jobless laborers voting against their own wellbeing for conservative politicians who advocate cutting unemployment benefits. Once a political force becomes hegemonic, it gains the power to lead its constituency towards any direction, albeit against their own immediate or long-term interests.

What does Kansas have to do with the Iranian presidential election? On June 24, 2005, Iranians chose Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad by a large margin in a run-off election over Hashemi Rafsanjani as their president. Not only did this election stun the Iranian reformist camp, it also astonished the small coalition that sponsored Ahmadi-Nejad’s campaign. Since the first-term election of President Khatami in 1997, pundits and students of Iranian affairs took for granted that Iranian society was steadily retreating from its earlier Islamic Jacobin revolutionary politics. At the heart of this reform movement, it was believed, lay the easing of social restrictions on gender segregation, and a host of liberal rights such as freedom of expression, movement, and association. Although this reformist agenda remained far from realization, during his two-terms, President Khatami encouraged the expansion of the institutions of civil society and championed the transformation of Iranian political discourse towards a democratic pluralism. He succeeded to transform the political discourse but failed to turn his project into a hegemonic force in society.

Prior to last week’s election, the coalition that brought Khatami to power, known as the Second of Khordad (May 23) Movement, concluded that Khatami lost much of his popular support due to his inability to push social reforms further and stand firm against the Supreme Leader’s obstructionism and an antagonistic Judiciary. The idea of social reform became so entrenched in the Iranian political landscape that every qualified presidential candidate spoke in its terms. Even Mohsen Reza’i, the former head of the Revolutionary Guards, and Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s former Police Chief, wrapped themselves in the cloak of the reformist agenda. Tehran’s Police Chief even went as far as sending his advisers to seek guidance from Tony Blair’s campaign managers on how to target the affluent middle classes of Tehran and repackage himself as a pro-reform candidate. All the presidential candidates, with the exception of the winner, agreed that the one who could successfully situate himself as the voice of social reform (that is, advocating rapprochement with the U.S., lessening the restrictions on women’s mobility and claiming their legal rights, and recognizing “joy,” i.e. dating, entertainment, coed public presence, as a basic right of youth) would win the election. In the morning after, we know that they were wrong.

Democracy, Iranian Style

Most of the American mass media followed the lead of the Bush administration in characterizing the election in Iran as an inconsequential “sham.” For example, in an editorial on June 21, 2005, the New York Times called the election “a race for the mostly meaningless position of the president of Iran.” The Times’ editorial was written after the first round of the election which drew over 63% of eligible voters to the polls. Only if the editors had read the work of their own reporters in Tehran, would they have recognized the enthusiasm that many Iranians demonstrated on the streets of the big cities in the days and nights prior to the election. It is hard to imagine that kind of fervor for a “meaningless” position.

A chorus of Iranian expatriates also called for a boycott of the election. They argued that participating in an election marred by the Guardian Council’s rejection of hundreds of candidates based on politically motivated qualification procedures, would legitimize the existing system. In order to justify their position, proponents of the boycott minimized the differences between the platforms of the opposing candidates and characterized them as variations on the same theme of Islamic totalitarianism. It is hard to imagine how they will reconcile the fact of high turn out of the populace with their criterion for the legitimacy of the regime.

For many Iranian expatriates, Monarchists as well as the old-Left and new-Left cum liberal secularists, the problem of legitimacy does not rest on public participation. Their opposition to the Islamic regime is more ideological than procedural and political. For many expatriates, the problem of the legitimacy of this regime goes back to the 1979 revolution when one group was dethroned and the other lost the struggle over postrevolutionary state power. Although these groups ought to get a hearing in the court of history, they need to transcend their ideological commitments and engage with Iranian realpolitik. With a political strategy that demands regime change as its prerequisite, Iranian exilic communities risk joining their historical counterparts, the White Russians of Paris and the Cubans of Florida.

Democracy is an ongoing project that, as Chantal Mouffe once wrote, “always entails drawing a frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ those who belong to the ‘demos’ and those who are outside of it.” Democracy has never been invented and implemented anywhere as a complete system of rights. Rather it always poses a point of contention over the boundaries of the “inside” and the “outside.” Gaining formal rights to run for office, though necessary, does not provide sufficient ground for inclusion into democratic processes. In Iran, the Guardian Council does not recognize the right of all citizens, men and women, Muslim or not, to run for the office of the president. But the electoral process for qualified candidates appears to be competitive and for the most part democratic. In contrast, in the U.S., where no legal body oversees the processes of nomination (except in the cases of age and criminal record), the campaign process is mainly staged and highly undemocratic. Access to media and televised debates is largely restricted as increasingly the corporate boardrooms merge with elected political offices.

Democracy Iranian style allows the Guardian Council to prohibit women and those with allegedly questionable commitments to the Islamic Republic from running for the president. However, as the political orientations of eight qualified candidates showed, the election in Iran did not lack pluralism. We may wonder why, 26 years after the revolution, is there still not a stable, unified regime to speak about in Iran. The answer can be found in the diversity of the revolutionary coalition that overthrew the monarchy in Iran, and how its leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, held this coalition together.

What appears to critics of the postrevolutionary regime as a homogeneous group of “traditionalists,” “fundamentalists,” and a host of other pejorative “ists,” were in fact disparate groups with divergent tendencies. These groups shared neither the same conception of Islamic ideals, nor a unified perception of rules of governance. The intentional ambiguities in Khomeini’s declarations and his mastery of navigating between theological issues and the expediencies of the regime perpetuated the coexistence of these factions, even after his death. Every presidential election in Iran elicits fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of the Islamic Republic. This in turn leads to the carnival atmosphere of the election season that coalesces electoral process with populism of street politics. Unlike western liberal democracies, Iranian style democracy highlights that the president in Iran plays a constitutive role in devising domestic and foreign policies.
Why Is Everybody Chagrined?

Very few organizations and editorials in Tehran dailies endorsed the Tehran Mayor for president. There were three more electable candidates who vied to offer an alternative to President Khatami’s reformism: Mohsen Reza’i, the former Head of the Revolutionary Guards, Baqer Qalibaf, former Police Chief of Tehran, and finally a close ally of the Supreme Leader, Ali Larijani, the former head of his propaganda machine the “Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic.” Each candidate fetched the support of different factions in the powerful seminaries of Qom and Mashad, the Society of Militant Clergy (of the most influential clerical political institutions), and three daily papers, Resalat, Kayhan, and Jomhuri-ye Islami. Judging from the geography of the pre-election endorsements, Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad enjoyed the least support among the anti-Khatami camp. While Ali Larijani appeared to hold the wining ticket for the defeat of the reformists, he came in sixth place and was eliminated in the first round.

The reformists stepped into the race when the Leader overruled the Guardian Council’s disqualification of their main candidate, Mostafa Mo’in. By expanding his coalition to include banned liberal parties and personalities, Mo’in hoped that his campaign would attract the politically disgruntled and those who otherwise had decided to boycott the election. He ran on a platform of expansion of social reform, respect for human rights, civil liberties, unconditional release of all political prisoners (not in the thousands, but by all accounts in double digits), and a series of partly neo-liberal economic reforms for the sake of hopping on the train of globalization. On the day of the election, the Mo’in camp spoke of the possibility of capturing more than 50% of the vote, thereby winning the office without dragging the electorate into a run-off. With less than 14% of the vote, Mo’in came in fifth place and was eliminated.

The other oddball of the race was Mehdi Karrubi, a soft spoken, unassuming cleric who was the Speaker of the reformist dominated Sixth Parliament. No major political or religious institution openly endorsed his candidacy. Only Abdolkarim Soroush, an influential philosopher and lay theologian, lent his support to him by speculating that “since [Karrubi] has no enemies and no friends, he will be situated fittingly to negotiate with all factions productively.” It turned out that Karrubi found many friends among the electorate and came in a close and contested third. He lost his chance to compete in the run-off by a few hundred thousands votes. Karrubi became the victim of the irregularities of the first round: voter intimidation and the massive mobilization of the Basiji Militia on behalf of conservative candidates. He should have pursued his allegations and pushed his way to the second round.

The most well-known candidate, Hashemi Rafsanjani, declared his intention to run after assurances from other factions that they would not engage in a smear campaign for alleged of corruption and nepotism during his previous tenure as the president. Hashemi, as his campaign managers reinvented him, revitalized large groups of youth, men and women, and mobilized them through what they called “club Hashemi.” The “club” organized dance parties and parades with banners and face paint reminiscent of British soccer fans. Women appeared without hijab on the streets under the auspices of Hashemi campaign. Hashemi blurred the boundaries between northern Tehran and Westwood, as the appearance of his supporters became indistinguishable from the fashion-struck Iranians of Los Angeles. Women’s make up and face paint could not cover his past wrongs, and he lost his bid in the run-off with a humiliating 35% of the vote.

Why was everybody so wrong? Mohammad Quchani, a young and brilliant editor of the Tehran daily Sharq, noted that the recent election was the “defeat of reformism by democracy.” Both Khatami and Ahmadi-Nejad were swept into power by a wave of mass support that had been invisible prior to the day of election. For Khatami in 1997, a silent discontent was brewing among the youth and women, who were then ready to step into the theater of electoral politics. And in 2005, another silence among the disinherited burst into demands to end corruption and manifested the good old conflict between the rich and the poor. Why has it been difficult to detect the emergence of these movements? To borrow again from Quchani, “politics in Iran have generally been a-social, political struggles often do not correspond to fundamental social rifts.” The Iranian elite, no matter of which political persuasion, often miscalculates and misinterprets the constituents they allegedly represent. This is why Iranian politics oscillates too often between elitist political conflicts and massive populist outbursts.
What Lessons Do We Learn?

When it comes to elections, conspiracy theories abound. People tend to dismiss their own power and imagine their lives as controlled by an impervious political elite which installs favored candidates into contested elected position. Electoral politics is universally vulnerable to apathy and disenfranchisement. Iranians are newcomers to this game and not yet affected completely by a chronic apathy. A great majority of Iranian electorate genuinely believes that the system rewards their democratic participation. Everyone grappling with the results of this election must appreciate that the most significant lesson of this election was the act of participation. The more people believe in their own agency, the easier it is to engage them in social change and political reform. The further removed they are from political engagement, the stronger looms the opportunities for totalitarianism.

The result of this election is perhaps most astonishing to those who boycotted it, albeit it won’t register in their minds as such. With a large turn out of the electorates (though they might dispute that, too), not only did their strategy fail but also the winner was a candidate who stood for everything they despise, from the aesthetics of his appearance to his rhetoric of Islamic social justice. The boycott camp is left with two options: first, question the validity of the tally and insist that the great majority of the people boycotted the election; second, question the maturity of the voters, condemn the masses for their backwardness.

The reformists had the highest stakes in this election. For the first time since the 1979 revolution, many of the key figures of this camp have lost their footing inside the state apparatus. They should turn this unwanted blessing into a platform for mass mobilization and the expansion of their constituency. While the boycott camp fails to see the significance of political negotiation and the continuing possibility of top-down reform under the existing regime, the reformists neglect the importance of bottom-up pressure and the institutionalization of their agenda. They held the highest office, but failed to become hegemonic. This failure created an atmosphere of mistrust against the Khatami administration­­reflected in the common complaint, why didn’t he deliver on any of his promises? The reformist camp paid dearly for this mistaken identification of the President as the vanguard for social change. Rather than generating it, the President’s proper responsibility was to create the political opportunity for social change. Social change ought to happen bottom-up, through institutionalized movements of rights and justice, but it needs to be recognized top-down.

In the absence of a top-down recognition, bottom-up social change leads to explosive revolutions. Conversely, without bottom-up institutionalization, top-down social changes lead to the alienation of the leaders and the disenfranchisement of the masses. Not only did the elitism of the reformists discredit Khatami, it also blinded them to the growing discontent that was quietly consuming their constituents.

The reformists had their greatest impact on the political discourse of the election. But unfortunately, the same impact brought the political fortunes of everyone who followed it to an abrupt end. From Tehran’s police chief to the former head of the revolutionary guards and from the tsar of cultural repression to the Caesar of corruption, they all packaged themselves as the right candidate for reform. This reform, however, was not the kind of reform that could buy any of these contenders the presidency. What the reformists and their cheap duplicates learned was that the majority of the people did not share their conception of what reform in Iran means.

Under Khatami, reform became synonymous domestically with a movement for individual rights and civil liberties with a strong emphasis on its gendered dimension. Globally, it came to be understood as better relations with the western world, particularly the United States, and with their global financial institutions, the World Bank and the IMF. Without anybody looking, signing on to the onerous neo-liberal structural adjustments defined the political economy of reform in Iran. Somehow, somewhere in the middle of the road, instead of offering better negotiation power to resist the undemocratic and unjust conditions of the World Bank, individual rights and civil liberties movement became an instrument for making the country more attractive to IMF suitors.

The Iranian government is a colossal welfare state. It offers extensive subsidies for basic means of subsistence, from wheat to gas, public transportation to retirement benefits. Unless one has been reading too many of Tom Friedman’s columns, no one should have any doubts that “joining the rest of the world,” under the existing terms of the main global financial institutions, would have devastating consequences for the majority of the Iranian poor. The idea of encouraging investment and privatization of non-essential industries does not inherently undermine social justice. But the Iranian reformists should learn that liberty is the first victim of economic disparity, and social injustice is the inevitable consequence of repression.

The dogmatist ideologues of the revolution, the Guardian Council, the Supreme Leader, and now the president-elect, on one hand, and their ideological neoconservative counterparts in the White House, on the other, have the biggest lesson to learn. Although Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad won the presidency, he must recognize that the undemocratic and unconstitutional arbitrary supervision of the Guardian Council undermines the legitimacy of his office. The recent election was indeed an indication that the ideological factions of the regime still enjoy popular support and they still pose a viable political alternative in an electoral process. By electing Ahmadi-Nejad, the electorate showed that they rather live in a society in which redistribution rather than accumulation of wealth defines the greatest Islamic virtue. The president-elect and his allies need to know that the commodities of the western culture industry do not mesmerize all Iranians, and indeed many respect and value their religious and cultural particularities. The result of this election shows that even with an open and democratic election, this faction will not disappear from Iranian political landscape. The freer the electoral process in Iran, the stronger the legitimacy of its institutions.

The president-elect also must avoid making the reformists’ mistake and believe he captured the presidency in spite of other political currents in the country. Who wins in an election is partly made possible by those who run against him. Together they legitimize the system. The key to the success of this new president is the expansion of his constituency, speaking to the needs and demands of those who did not vote for him. That might prove to be an untenable position, but the mere fact of the recognition of the integrity and legitimacy of competing factions will make the Ahmadi-Nejad administration domestically and globally more effective.

The American neoconservatives are slow learners. If reality does not match their perceptions, too bad, they declare, for reality. They should concede that the Islamic Republic bears no resemblance with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The more they insist on regime change in Iran, the further they move away from an attainable solution to the conflict between the two countries. President Bush and Dr. Rice ought to listen more carefully to those who know Iranian politics rather than to their usual one-size fit-all ideologues at the American Enterprise Institute and Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. They should not simply ignore the 28 million Iranians who cast their ballots for a president and replay the broken record of “axis of evil” and regime change. Democracy is not good only in cases that its outcome is consistent with American interests. If, despite the unprecedented global unpopularity of President Bush, the rest of the world respects American citizens’ choice for president, it should not be difficult for Bush administration to return the favor and engage the Iranian president as a legitimate counterpart.

Whither Iran?

This election created conflicting emotions for many Iranians. Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad is the president of those who voted for him as well as those who did not. Many Iranians do not share his vision for the country and they fear that he might take the country back to a time that violence was an integrated part of their everyday life. They fear that the new president might commit massive purges and persecutions. They fear that he will not be able to deliver his promises of prosperity and fairness to the Iranian poor. They hope that he will not pursue an antagonistic policy against the western powers, and that he will realize that a strong international position requires just and respectful domestic governance.

The hope is that the president-elect is true to his words when he declared, “today we have only two-degree of the possible 360-degree of freedom.” Iranians will see him next time at the ballot box to assess his degrees of freedom and the extent of prosperity he has mustered for his constituency at the end of his term.

BEHROOZ GHAMARI is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. He can be reached at: socbgt@langate.gsu.edu


















Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi is an Iranian-born American historian, sociologist, and professor.