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Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation

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This volume provides an unparalleled and timely look at political, social, economic, and ideological dynamics in contemporary Iran. Through chapters on social welfare and privatization, university education, the role and authority of the Supreme Leader, the rule of law, the evolving electoral system, and the intense debate over human rights within and outside the regime, the contributors offer a comprehensive overview of Iranian politics. Their case studies reveal a society whose multiple vectors of contestation, negotiation, and competition are creating possibilities for transformation that are yet to be realized but whose outcome will affect the Islamic Republic, the region, and relations with the United States.

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1 Factionalism, Privatization, and the Political Economy of Regime Transformation

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Factionalism, Privatization, and the Political Economy of Regime Transformation

Payam Mohseni

THE CONTESTED IRANIAN presidential election of 2009—which ignited the most serious challenge to the authority of the Islamic Republic since the revolution—seemed to be a turning point in Iranian politics. The violent repression of the Green Movement by the coercive forces of the state and the timely inauguration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to his second term in the presidency were ominous signs of a closing of the Iranian regime and a turn toward military dictatorship.1 The expanding role of the Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC) in the economic and political realms, the strengthening of the Supreme Leader’s power and position, and the sidelining of the reformists from the ruling elite all pointed to a fundamental change in the nature of the regime. Indeed, that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared Iran to be “morphing into” a dictatorship2 demonstrates the significance of this issue for both contemporary world affairs and domestic Iranian politics, presenting a bleak image of the future evolution of its political system. The specter of Iranian dictatorship thus came to loom prominently in both Western policy and academic circles alike.

 

2 Social Welfare Policies and the Dynamics of Elite and Popular Contention

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Social Welfare Policies and the Dynamics of Elite and Popular Contention

Kevan Harris

TRYING TO UNDERSTAND politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran customarily involves ritual poring over of a bewildering list of names, associations, and factions that make up the country’s elite. Stories about the exercise of power pit one group against another, or more often, one personality against another. The ups and downs of Iran’s politics—its eccentricities, surprises, and impasses—are also said to result from this elite factionalism. Given the paucity of incisive analysis on Iran, this mere recognition of politics is important. Yet there is an obvious problem with such an approach. In developing countries, especially postrevolutionary ones, conflict and rivalry within the political elite is the norm, not an aberration. A full purge of elite competitors in a Stalinist mold costs exorbitant amounts of material and symbolic resources, which is why it occurs so rarely.1

 

3 Education as Public Good or Private Resource: Accommodation and Demobilization in Iran’s University System

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Education as Public Good or Private Resource

Accommodation and Demobilization in Iran’s University System

Shervin Malekzadeh

Pupils have never credited teachers for most of their learning. Bright and dull alike have always relied on rote, reading, and wit to pass their exams, motivated by the stick or by the carrot of a desired career.

—Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

In the play a young man meets the long-awaited Hidden Imam, who informs him that he has been selected to help bring justice and order to the world. The young man balks. He has college entrance exams the next day, he tells the imam. He has studied obsessively, he explains, and cannot afford to miss them. He then turns to the imam and asks: “Can’t we save the world next week?”

—Afshin Molavi, The Soul of Iran: A Nation’s Journey to Freedom

ACTS OF INTIMIDATION and formal warning filled the month of June as authorities in Iran scrambled to contain the unexpected mobilization of millions of young people during the buildup to the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. For weeks, the streets of Tehran and other major cities had been filled with spontaneous but unauthorized rallies by partisans of all political stripes, proclaiming the virtues of their candidates. By June 12, what had been at best a guarded tolerance to these gatherings quickly gave way to force and violent crackdown as Iran tumbled into what would become the largest political and social crisis since the 1979 revolution. With the validity of the elections called into question, millions of Iranians took to the streets to demand, “Where is my vote?”1

 

4 The Office of the Supreme Leader: Epicenter of a Theocracy and Kourosh Rahimkhani

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The Office of the Supreme Leader

Epicenter of a Theocracy

Mehrzad Boroujerdi and Kourosh Rahimkhani

AS A THEOCRATIC state born through a popular revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has exhibited both democratic and authoritarian features since its inception. The Supreme Leader is considered the epicenter of Iran’s theocratic authority structure and the ultimate arbiter of Iranian politics. Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has managed to mold the Iranian regime to his liking through both his talent and his fortunate institutional position. He has exhibited deft political skills and is the accidental beneficiary of a theocratic system that decided to deal with the challenges of its postcharismatic leader phase, after Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini’s demise, by concentrating more power in individual hands. Whereas Khomeini used his charisma to consolidate the office of the Supreme Leader, Khamenei strengthened this office through bureaucratic aggrandizement, reliance on security forces, and informal politics. Thanks to his long administrative career, hypersecurity outlook, and micromanager disposition, Khamenei has incrementally subdued his political and clerical opponents and amassed a great deal of power in the Office of the Supreme Leader. This position represents a parallel government that is powerful, not transparent, and unaccountable. Any discussion of the political evolution of the Islamic Republic needs to grapple with the hefty position of the Office of the Supreme Leader and the formidable assets at its disposal.

 

5 Electoral Politics, Power, and Prospects for Reform

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Electoral Politics, Power, and Prospects for Reform

Yasmin Alem

IN THE YEAR commemorating its thirtieth anniversary, the Islamic Republic faced its most imperiling political crisis. Elections, often referred to as one of the pillars of the system by its leadership, nearly became the cause of its undoing with the disputed reelection of incumbent president Mahmud Ahmadinejad bringing about eight months of protests. Turmoil on the streets spilled over into the political arena, further exacerbating the level of polarization among an increasingly fractured revolutionary elite. Above all, the inherent contradictions in Iran’s hybrid political system, which blends the democratic notion of popular sovereignty with the Islamic principle of velayat-e faqih—guardianship of the jurisprudent—came to surface during the tumultuous months that followed the disputed 2009 election. Consequently, Iran’s leadership was confronted with two equally unpalatable options: address the electoral demands of a disgruntled segment of the population or pursue a crackdown on dissent. It chose repression and weathered the storm. But the fate of the electoral system was left uncertain. The 2012 parliamentary election, a contest limited to a group of conservative loyalists, suggested that moving forward the exclusionary function of electoral politics in the Islamic Republic would dwarf its ability to serve as a medium to aggregate interests and bring about legitimacy. The surprise election of Hassan Rouhani, an outspoken critic of the status quo, in the 2013 presidential election, however, demonstrated a shift in the opposite direction. Thus, the pendulum continues to swing between diverse functions of elections in a complex system, which itself is in constant flux.

 

6 The Rule of Law and Conflict in the Reform Era and Azadeh Pourzand

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The Rule of Law and Conflict in the Reform Era

Mehrangiz Kar and Azadeh Pourzand

THE INSPIRATION FOR THIS CHAPTER comes from a personal experience with the Iranian judicial system. One of us—Mehrangiz Kar—was arrested in 2000 upon her return to Iran after attending a conference in Berlin on the future of reform in Iran. She was taken to the third branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran. The Islamic Revolutionary Court is a special court that was created shortly after the revolution to render judgment against prerevolutionary officials. It has since found permanent standing and deals with what is identified as crimes against the Islamic revolution. The typical charges include action against national security, disruption of public peace of mind, and slander against the Leader. This court has no constitutional standing. Kar’s interrogation, lasting several hours, was interrupted at times by phone calls to the questioning judge. Each time, a masculine and authoritative voice on the other side of the line could be overheard, giving instructions to her interrogator and judge to speed up the process. And each time the judge would respond by saying, “Yes sir. Absolutely! I will do as you wish. Just let me make the process legal.”

 

7 The Green Movement and Political Change in Iran

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The Green Movement and Political Change in Iran

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo

THE CONTESTED PRESIDENTIAL election of June 2009 unleashed the most serious mass protest movement since the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. The widespread unrest throughout major urban areas gave birth to what came to be known as the Green Movement, whose minimal initial demand was epitomized in the simple but profound slogan, “Where is my vote?” It was a movement born out of the anger of an electorate that felt betrayed by the tampered result of an election they were certain their candidate had won. It also emanated from the frustration caused by the unfulfilled aspirations of years invested in the reform movement during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005). The spontaneous organization of mass rallies lasted for several weeks, threatened the status quo, and brought about the repressive onslaught of the regime.

In this chapter I examine the transformation of the reform movement into the Green Movement after the presidential election of 2009. The Green Movement temporarily delegitimized the regime, but it could not sustain itself because of harsh state crackdown, weak organization, and the movement leaders’ lack of will or ability to forcefully challenge the incumbent conservative elite when mass mobilization from below and the elite-led push for change converged. These challenges made the Green Movement a fragmented coalition of different groups and activists articulating diverse demands and pursuing different and often contradictory goals, a fragmentation that eventually underwrote its disappearance as an active movement. Nevertheless, its power continues to lie in a set of demands and a large enough constituency with the ability to reemerge when political opportunity becomes available. As the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as president showed, the Green Movement may not reveal itself in the same manner as before, but its demands and aspirations remain visible to Iranian leaders and seem still capable of influencing the balance of political forces inside the country.

 

8 “This Government Is Neither Islamic nor a Republic”: Responses to the 2009 Postelection Crackdown

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“This Government Is Neither Islamic nor a Republic”

Responses to the 2009 Postelection Crackdown

Shadi Mokhtari

WHEN FACED WITH a crisis that threatens its survival, an authoritarian government often makes either knee-jerk or calculated decisions about whether heightened repression, “managed reform” according to limited concessions, or some combination of the two is more likely to sustain the life of the regime. In order to contain the considerable challenge they faced from opposition and popular forces following the 2009 presidential elections, Iran’s hard-liners resorted primarily to heightened levels of coercion and repression. The use of such repression by governments is most often discussed in the political science and social movement literature as a constraint on the ability of opposition forces, civil society, or popular movements to challenge authoritarian regimes. Indeed, opposition forces in Iran have been constrained by hard-liners’ turn to heightened repression. Yet there is also a flip side to repression and state violence. Under certain circumstances, repressive means such as the use of torture, imprisonment of political opponents, and crackdowns on media can serve as major catalysts for regime delegitimation, which may spur renewed contention.1

 

Epilogue and Farideh Farhi

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Epilogue

Daniel Brumberg and Farideh Farhi

WHAT DOES A COLLECTIVE assessment of these chapters tell us about the trajectory of Iran’s politics in the coming decade and beyond? Do they portend continued centralization, or prospects for a reopening of the political and social field? These are not, of course, either/or propositions. Centralization and increased competition can unfold simultaneously, along different tracks and at different paces. Such dissonance would not be unusual for Iran’s diffused semiautocracy, which had for decades managed contending political, social, and even ideological currents. Nevertheless, we sense that 2009 was something of a threshold. What came before cannot be fully duplicated, but it can be revived or recast in ways that will create new political and social dynamics. Although their content, nature, and direction cannot be predicted, these dynamics merit careful consideration.

In undertaking this task, our case studies were largely finished before Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election, an event that surprised many of our authors as much as anyone. While we must be careful about drawing definitive conclusions regarding the significance of that election, we are confident that it reflected more than momentary circumstances. Even if—as seems likely—hard-liners try to thwart the cautious bid of Rouhani and his allies to reopen the political, cultural, and economic fields, the deeper structural forces that gave rise to these pluralizing efforts will shape Iran’s politics for many years to come, creating a complex interplay between dynamics of sociopolitical opening and contraction.

 

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