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An Iranian Perestroika?

President Hassan Rouhani has emboldened his bid to bring Iran out of theocracy and isolation and move closer, economically and politically, to the West. He reiterated his call for more openness at home and closer ties to the international community by presenting “important economic, social and cultural issues to a direct referendum instead of to the Parliament.” Note well that he deftly avoided saying the referendum would challenge the Supreme Leader’s power, even though it clearly will.

Iran’s constitution and public discourse offer at least the semblance of democracy. There is a modicum of upward articulation of public opinion and reasonably functioning party structures, though ultimate power rests with the Supreme Leader, as the title more than implies. This semblance of democracy may give Rouhani the leverage to achieve a measure of liberalization. A combination of pragmatism and geopolitics could help him.

Urban middle classes

Iran boasts of its modernity relative to the region’s. Its economy is diversifying from that of an exporter of hydrocarbons and this offers the possibility of becoming a more valued business partner in the global economy in years to come. It also offers the possibility of greater political stability at home and a decided edge over hidebound Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, with whom they are engaged in a deadly rivalry amid the worst sectarian tensions in centuries.

A modern economy can be initiated by oil revenues; educated middle classes are essential to sustaining and expanding it. Weary of theocratic strictures on everyday things from dancing to the Internet, and angered by the fraud and repression of the 2009 elections, Iranian middle classes are unenthused with their country and open to emigrating, if they can. Without reform, Iran faces an unpromising effort to find a place in the modern world economy and vie with its numerous enemies.

Nation-building

Iran is not an ethnically unified state. The Persian majority predominates over a dozen or more peoples of varying size and language, some of whom resent their inferior status. A Kurdish population in the northwest wages a low-level insurgency and sends fighters off to Syria and Iraq to help fellow Kurds and hone their fighting skills. They will return one day.

In the southeast, Baloch insurgents also resist Persian dominance. They have received support from Saudi Arabia and use bases in Pakistan, though Iran has pressed Pakistan to end its help. Greater political participation will have limited, mollifying effects. Greater revenue from eased sanctions and improved trade will allow Tehran to treat more generously with aggrieved peoples.

Democracy may have both unifying and disintegrating effects. Bringing Kurds, Balochs, and others into a liberalizing political process may lead to a helpful dialog and greater integration. An observer less attuned to democracy’s ideology and more mindful of recent events might hold an opposing view: a free political process will lead to greater demands for autonomy and even to separatism.

Opposition Among Elites  

Rouhani faces powerful hardliners, religious and military. The mullahs’ vision of proper government places divine law, as found in sacred writings and interpreted by them, above man-made ones. Religious authorities are akin to legal scholars, debating the precise meaning of words and phrases, then issuing authoritative findings. The will of the people and majority votes must never, in their view, take precedent.

The military is another opponent of reform. This is especially so of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which views itself as the firm hand guiding, the nation as much as the mullahs do. Charged with national security, presiding over business interests well outside any reasonable understanding of the military (eg, eye surgery clinics), the IRGC has only limited interest in reform.

Opposition to reform isn’t based solely on institutional prejudices. Democratic forces have as often as not led to the rise of Sunni extremism, political turmoil, and national disintegration. The view may be found in both Tehran and Washington.

Support Among Elites  

Neither the mullahs nor the generals are a unified bloc and parts of both may support reform. Many mullahs have long supported reform, including former President Mohammad Khatami. A few see the idea of democracy inhering in Koranic passages on the shura (“consultation”) and thus see building democracy as a religious duty.

Generals could benefit from more openness. Marginalized peoples make for poor soldiers, as recent events in Iraq have shown. Western technology and capital would be a boon for Iranian defense industries. An uncompetitive economy produces suboptimal weaponry, as the Soviet generals realized in the mid-1980s, as Napoleon knew when he broke down state monopolies and aristocratic privileges.

Better ties with the world’s democracies, some elites may realize, will enhance Iran’s security. It will reduce the likelihood of an Israeli strike, especially if rapprochement included the US. The West would provide diplomatic help in stabilizing the region and countering Sunni extremism and efforts of the Gulf monarchies to quash Iran.

Paradoxically, Iran could badly weaken the Sunni monarchies endangering it by showing Saudi, Kuwaiti, Emirati, and Bahraini subjects that democracy in the region is possible. The subjects – Sunni and Shia alike – will see their rulers as aged reactionaries trying to shore up a crumbling order, even more than they already do.

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

©2015 Brian M Downing