Understanding The Internal Political Dynamics of Iran – Part I
Following the 1979 revolution, two factions struggled over the political future of Iran. On one side was the Republican faction with various ideologies ranging from Secularism and Socialism to Communism, believing in legitimacy of government depending upon popular will. On the other side was the Theocratic faction. They believed legitimacy stands from the divine regulation. The blend of Republicanism with Religious authority forms the core ideology of the Iran.
Iran’s internal state of affairs drew even more complex following the death of the revolutionary supreme leader – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. At first, Ayatollah Montazari was the designated successor to the Khomeini, however since his protests on mass executions during the reign of Khomeini – Montazari was forced to resign from his position. Instead Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became the Iran’s new supreme leader.
The dispute that emerged between Montazari and Khamenei resulted in the division of the clerical elite. Two coalitions emerged from the split. On one side were the Moderate Republicans better known as “Moderates” lead by Montazari. The Moderate believe that the elected institutions and the constitution stand above the religious authority which includes the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts. The Moderates also support economic liberalization and want to interact with the West. However, the Moderates are quite conservative when it comes to social policy and reforms. Some of the most important Moderate leaders include Hassan Rouhani and two former presidents i.e Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. On the other side are the Pragmatic Theocrats or simply known as the “Conservatives” lead by Ayatollah Khamenei. They believe that the religious authorities stand above elected institutions. They support economic liberalization as long as it doesn’t hinder the Muslim social values. They also believe that the clash between Iran and the West is unavoidable. They support social conservative values and have the backing of Revolutionary Guards.
From the Moderates later developed another splinter group known as Radical Republicans or simply “Reformists.” This new faction led by Mir-Hossein Mousavi advocates for a free market economy and wants to fully normalize the relationship with the West. They have liberal views on social values and support full gender equality. These new classes of politicians want rapid reforms to strengthen Republican institutions and pursue a policy of secularism, free press and the release of political prisoners. Their demands were deemed too much by the other factions and some Conservatives. Even the Reformist policies were pursued as a threat to the very foundation of Islamic Republic. Thus, as a counter measure the most radical Conservatives regrouped under the leadership of Mesbah-Yazdi and formed the Radical Theocrats also known as “Hardliners”. The Hardliners are closely aligned with conservatives and believe that the elected institutions contradict Islamic traditions and all citizens must serve the religious authority. They advocate for a decentralized economic policy and are strong supporters of social justice. Furthermore, they promote Islamic social and moral values and believe that the clash between Iran and West is unstoppable and Iran should pursue to form regional hegemony. Misbah Yazdi nominated Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as the presidential candidate for the Hardline coalition who went on to win the elections in 2005. During his presidency Ahmedinejad marginalized Radical Republicans by jailing their most prominent activists, journalists and politicians which led to the protests called as the “Green Movement”- patronized by Mosavi. Mosavi was later accused of inciting unrest and put under house arrest where he remains to this day. Following this, his Republican party was banned from the country. Ahmedinejad’s brutal crackdown lost him many supporter. Since the Hardline Conservatives were deemed too repressive and the Radical Republicans were banned, the only lawful alternative was the Khatami’s Moderate coalition.
Overall the outcome of the elections will not result any immediate change. Instead, economic and social reform will be slow and the new found leverage of the Moderates will not be apparent. Yet the 2016-17 will go down in the history as the beginning of the decline of the Conservative factions in Iran.
Khatami cooperated with Mosavi during the 2009 elections and managed to exploit the losses of the Radical Republicans and the Hardline Conservatives. This became apparent when Rouhani – a close ally of Khatami won the presidential elections in 2013.
This struggle between various coalitions is more complicated now than it was 1980’s – 90’s. Back then, the coalitions had the extreme opposing ideologies ranging from communists to liberals to clerics but nowadays the differences are harder to determine. In economic terms most of the factions seek some form of liberalization however in social terms the policy of Reformists differ so greatly from the other groups that the Conservatives and the Hardliners can not fathom it and moderates can’t stomach it. Ultimately, Khamenei has to maintain his grip on power by advocating both theocracy and republicanism. The supreme leader can not eliminate Republican ideas considering that many of the Revolutionary Guard leaders adhere to Republicanism but he also can not sanction the transition in that direction.
Rouhani’s electoral win and the uphill task:
The electoral victory of Rouhani is just a latest development in the modern internal political power struggle of Iran.
With the loopholes in securing nuclear deal for Iran and the Conservatives led robust electoral campaign against Rouhani – Rouhani needed the higher voter turnout to win the elections. And, he did it successfully by sparking the cynical Iranians to vote. Rouhani triumphed by giving up the image of bridge between Moderate and Hardline Conservatives by openly siding with the Green Movement (for he needed secular and Reformist vote bank to win) that security forces had suppressed for long – something that could have easily provoked supreme leader. After the first two weeks of the poor show, Rouhani re-energized his campaign by openly attacking corruption at higher levels, involving multi billion dollars scandal in Revolutionary Guards (responsible for their actions only to supreme leader, not to the parliament). He accused Conservative rival of unjustly persecuting the fellow clerics. Rouhani advocated for the political and cultural freedoms and surrounded himself with Reformist activists at his rallies who talked about the fundamentals of reforms and openly criticized security establishment and its human-rights violations. All in all, Iranians wanted two things – economic prosperity and engagement with the world – Rouhani exactly promised them the both.
Now even though the Moderates have gained the upper hand in the parliament, Rouhani’s first task will be the Moderate coalition to remain intact and pursue a collective policy. As there is the trend in the Iranian political landscape of the candidates switching and swinging their sides after winning the elections.
The second task is related to the promises he made during his presidential campaign. The president promised substantial economic growth by ending the full sanctions. These high promises were in circulation for years as a result the majority of ordinary Iranians have huge expectations. The sanctions have ended but so far the economic results have been limited.
Furthermore, Rouhani-administration has been trying to create better foreign investment environment through a $7 billion stimulus plan. Due to resistance from indigenous business lobbies who fear for trade liberalization – an agreement between them and Rouhani administration is hard to achieve resulting in the limited economic growth in 2017 contrary to what Rouhani has promised to his voters.
On social reforms, Rouhani has to take some steps that will appease his Reformist vote bank. However the social reforms will also be hard to achieve as the coalition-of-Moderates is a fragile alliance. Iranian politicians from all political parties may agree on economic and security reforms but do not eye the same on social policies. The Iranian president lacks any support base for any meaningful social reform.
Rouhani’s third task will involve shifting the balance of power in favor of Moderates through the Assembly of Experts and this is not possible without the unity of coalitions. The Assembly-of-Experts consist of 88 members (theologians) and they are tasked with the appointing, electing and supervising the country’s most powerful official – the supreme leader. The ultimate aim of the Moderates is to weaken the power of Supreme Leader by appointing a neutral supreme leader in future.
The long term implications of the Moderate policies will take Iran into entire different direction. The end of the sanctions and the decline of the Conservatives will allow not for the Moderates but for the Reformists to dominate Iranian politics. The thing is – attracting foreign investment is not just a matter of capital and goods – it means the exchange of new information and ideas. It means the total collapse of the information barrier subsequently this is what the supreme leader Khamnei fears the most. As Iran opens up to the world, outside influences will increase and lead to political and social liberalization. Overall the outcome of the elections will not result any immediate change. Instead, economic and social reform will be slow and the new found leverage of the Moderates will not be apparent. Yet the 2016-17 will go down in the history as the beginning of the decline of the Conservative factions in Iran.
Part II of this essay will deal with the Iran’s geopolitical ambitions and her Achilles heel.
Shafa’at Wani is a post graduate student of International Relations at Academy of International Studies, JMI New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position of Oracle Opinions.