The New Landscape of Iranian Politics

by Morad Saghafi
published in MER233

After seven turbulent years in which a reformist movement transformed Iran’s political landscape as well as its international image, conservatives recaptured two thirds of the parliament in February 2004. “Victory” for the conservatives was achieved, in large part, by the intervention of the unelected Guardian Council, which succeeded in rejecting the candidacy of 2,400 reformist candidates. The “Tehran spring” -- when Iranians and international observers hoped that reformists could bring about peaceful, democratic transformation of the Islamic Republic -- has faded.

In fact, all indications are that Iran is joining the long list of Middle Eastern single-party or no-party states, where populations are not called to the ballot box except to validate the preordained decisions of leaders who rule as if the country were their private domain.

The unceremonious demise of “the Iranian exception,” however, is only the beginning of the next round in the ongoing tug of war over the shape of Iran’s post-revolutionary polity. The experience of political struggle accumulated by Iranian society over the past seven years can still open horizons that were unthinkable, perhaps, until now. One distinct possibility is the emergence of a democratic front, composed of independent secular and religious forces, in opposition to the monopolistic forces that desire to solve the country’s problems through war and violence.

Sitting In

After a month of scrutiny, the Guardian Council -- the staid clerical body charged to ensure the constitutionality of legislation passed by Parliament, as well as its conformity with Islamic law -- eliminated half of the 8,200 candidates for the Seventh Majles. The rejected candidates included all sitting deputies who belonged to the two most popular reformist parties, the Participation Front, led by the president’s brother Mohammad Reza Khatami, and the Organization of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, headed by Behzad Nabavi. “Lack of respect for Islam” was the reason most consistently cited by the Guardians for these controversial decisions. In protest, the disqualified deputies organized a sit-in at the Majles building. They were joined by about 50 of their colleagues, together turning Parliament into the headquarters of the protest movement and precipitating a constitutional crisis without precedent in the history of the Islamic Republic.

The elimination of candidates, in itself, was not new. After the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, the Guardian Council stepped up this practice dramatically. The wave of disqualifications reached its height in the 1996 parliamentary elections, when 44 percent of the candidates were barred from running. [1] Nor have the Guardians been averse to other kinds of electoral intervention. In the previous Majles elections in 2000, they annulled more than 700,000 ballots in Tehran alone, nearly 20 percent of the votes cast in the capital. [2] But there were three new aspects to the latest round of disqualifications: the sheer number and caliber of the disqualified candidates, the far-right composition of the current that carried out the disqualifications, and, lastly, the question of how the state apparatus was treated in this process.

The mass disqualifications were made official on January 11, 2004, and reformist deputies announced their intention to sit in the next day. Others preferred a more conciliatory approach. President Mohammad Khatami and Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karroubi rushed to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to Khomeini as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, while the National Security Council appointed a panel consisting of the defense minister, the intelligence minister and the head of state radio and television, to advise on the affair’s significance for national security. [3]

Meanwhile, the protesting deputies did not stop at demanding that the Guardian Council reverse its decision. They also began to use the Majles as a pulpit to appeal to “political parties, intellectuals, university and school educators, students and finally to all the educated and enlightened layers of the population to recognize the gravity of the situation and to accept the responsibility that has fallen on their shoulders.” [4] Following the deputies’ call, provincial governors converged on Tehran to issue an ultimatum to the Guardian Council: if the decision were not retracted within ten days, they would resign en masse, effectively nixing any chance that elections could be held. [5] By January 15, the press reported that an honorable solution had been found at a meeting between the members of the Guardian Council and Khamenei. According to these reports, the ayatollah ordered that the Guardians uphold the candidacy of the sitting deputies, except for those cases where “convincing reasons” could be found to disqualify. [6] The Guardians, however, soon announced their own interpretation of the Supreme Leader’s directives, saying that Khamenei had urged them to be more vigilant than ever in safeguarding the revolution. [7] The striking deputies, in any case, rejected the deal proposed by Khamenei, insisting that all disqualified candidates be treated equally.

Lukewarm Reaction

The deputies’ protest barely echoed outside Parliament. Worse still, initial reactions from the student movement were lukewarm at best. The Office for the Consolidation of Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim Vahdat), the largest student organization and the one closest politically to the parliamentary reformers, issued two communiqués on the crisis before finally coming out in support of the protesting deputies. Even the supportive communiqué pointed out that the deputies themselves were primarily to blame for their predicament, as they had failed the 27 million voters who had elevated them to power by having compromised repeatedly with the unelected conservatives. Other student associations were more blunt. The student association of Amir Kabir University, while praising the resistance offered by the deputies, insisted that the real issue at stake was whether existing laws -- by implication, the constitution of the Islamic Republic -- allowed any scope for real change.

Meanwhile, negotiations among top officials continued. The president and the speaker of the Majles visited the Guardian Council hoping to find a way out of the crisis, [8] but the Guardians would not budge. On January 21, the striking deputies called on the Interior Ministry and the president to postpone the elections. The next day, 100 deputy ministers offered their resignations. On January 26, the cabinet spokesman announced that the government refused to organize an election in which there would be no competition. [9] Over the next few days, Khatami seemed to be the only one who still believed in the possibility of a compromise as he, along with his minister of interior, proposed to delay the elections in order to gain further time for negotiations. Behzad Nabavi announced that his party would boycott the elections. Two days later, 124 deputies collectively resigned and proclaimed their refusal to take part in unfree elections, bringing to an end the 26-day occupation of the Majles. Khamenei, meanwhile, publicly rejected Khatami’s proposal to postpone the elections, unambiguously making clear which side he was on. True to form, Khatami then announced that he would obey the Leader’s orders and hold elections as scheduled on February 20.

By occupying Parliament for 22 days, and defending the rights of all citizens to stand for office, the reformist deputies managed to regain some of the respect they had lost over four years of parley with conservatives. Nevertheless, the popular base of the reformist movement largely ignored the call of the protesting deputies. Over the preceding seven years, every time the government or parliamentarians had issued warnings about imminent conservative threats to the reform movement their supporters had rallied, only to witness the struggle abandoned and a deal struck at the top. This time they responded with a weary shrug -- even the students, who had always been at the forefront of the struggle. Perhaps the tepid popular response to the sit-in encouraged Khamenei and the Guardian Council to proceed with their project of completely eliminating the reformers from the political scene. In the end, everything worked out far better than the conservatives had anticipated.

An Impatient Europe

It was not only the Iranian public that had grown tired of the ineffectiveness of the reformist movement. The international community, which had taken a keen interest in the ongoing factional struggles, also began to show signs of impatience. Unlike the United States, which suspended its relations with Iran after the revolution and hostage crisis of 1979-1981, the European Union has maintained a critical dialogue with Tehran, despite several major crises in their rocky relationship.

Initially, the election of Khatami in 1997 seemed to vindicate this policy. Yet seven years later, the EU saw the reformers stuck in endless and seemingly fruitless battles for meaningful changes in civil liberties or the economy. The Europeans seem to have been most frustrated by the lack of transparency as to the limits of different political and judicial authorities, and their inability to find a single interlocutor representing the state as a whole. This European disillusionment might not have proven so critical if Iran had not found itself suddenly bracketed in 2003 by two war-torn and occupied countries, and did not consider itself, more or less justifiably, as the next target for US foreign intervention.

The Iraq experience convinced the Europeans that the US could not be allowed to set the agenda for the Middle East singlehandedly. They resolved to maintain and even expand relations with Iran, at all costs. The Europeans were willing to close their eyes to the anti-democratic practices of the new dominant faction, as long as they could be the single interlocutor Europe has been waiting for, a government capable of delivering on a grand bargain. Perceiving a confluence of favorable international and internal factors, the conservatives seized their chance to deliver a fatal blow to the ailing reform movement, declining to rescind the majority of the candidate disqualifications. The only unknown factor was how Iranians would behave on the day of the election.

Who Voted?

The reformists were convinced that their withdrawal from the elections would lead to a dramatic fall in popular participation. However, despite the conservative coup de force and general resentment of the regime and politicians, the anticipated mass abstention did not take place, according to figures published by the Ministry of the Interior. The numbers were indeed much lower than in previous elections; in the large cities of Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and Tabriz around 32 percent of voters showed up. The shrine city of Mashhad saw a higher turnout of 47 percent; however, in 2000 63 percent had voted there. National figures show an 18 percent drop in voter participation compared to 2000, but nonetheless, overall turnout was above the psychologically important level of 50 percent. On February 20, 2004, more than 24 million Iranians went to the polls.

Though they are a distinct minority, the conservatives are not a negligible force in the country. Even at the height of the reformists’ popularity, the conservatives won between 12-16 percent of the vote. An estimated 2-3 percent cast a protest vote against the reformists to register their disappointment. If, according to official figures, 51 percent of the electorate voted in the first round, and if the conservatives garnered at best 20 percent of the vote, then who were the other 30 percent of the electorate who voted?

The 2004 elections witnessed an exceptionally large number of first-time voters -- around 1.7 million people had reached 16, the age of suffrage in Iran. The total number of first-time voters in legislative elections was even more impressive, at around 7 million. These youth, aged between 16 and 20, tend to lean toward reformists. Ordinarily, they would have been expected to abstain from voting, but many may have chosen not to let this moment of formal passage to adulthood pass them by. But perhaps the key factor is the existing regional disparities, both cultural and economic, within the country.

Confrontation between “reformists” and “conservatives” has shaped, and limited, the terms of debate in all six major elections held since 1997 (excluding the highly controlled elections to the constitutional Assembly of Experts in 1998). Other political and ideological divisions, no matter how fundamental, came to be defined in terms of this misleading binary opposition. In reality, the opposition of reformist and conservative has served to conceal other cleavages. In the poorest provinces, where blood ties tend to matter more than “modern” forms of group solidarity, [10] the duel between reformists and conservatives had left submerged clan conflicts, rivalries between local grandees, or tribal and ethnic divisions. Once the divide between reformers and conservatives disappeared, it was these local rivalries that attracted people to the polls. Indeed, the level of participation in less developed and fringe provinces, where the levels of poverty are highest and literacy the lowest, were very high: 73 percent in Ilam, 62 percent in Bushehr, 75 percent in Charmahal and Bakhtiari, 75 percent in Sistan and Baluchestan, 62 percent in Luristan, 89 percent in Kuhkiluyeh. [11]

If the eradication of the dichotomy between reformers and conservatives has revived “traditional” identities in these least developed provinces, in areas where such identity markers are weaker or non-existent, it has generated a sense of anguish and fear.

Rumors of Something

In Iran, voters are not required to cast their ballots at one preassigned polling place. Rather, officials stamp voters’ identity cards to prevent multiple voting and fraud. Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic, rumors have circulated at election time that non-voters will be subject to coercive surveillance, because certain institutions could decide to check cards for this stamp. Currently, there are rumors among the more affluent classes that non-voters will be prohibited from traveling abroad. Among the lower middle and working classes there is talk that ration coupons -- regulating the distribution of basic food items at subsidized prices -- will be denied to those who abstained from voting. Such rumors also swirled among high school students getting ready for the highly competitive university entrance examinations. Each year, there are 1.7 million applicants for 150,000 admissions slots, and it was said that students who failed to vote would see their application rejected. Students were supposed to send in their applications two days after the voting date. No one seemed to notice that the application form required a photocopy of only the first page of the national identity card, with the picture and name of the applicant, and not the middle page, where the voting records are stamped. [12] Nonetheless, such hearsay is a sign of the Iranian public state of mind.

Iranians have reason to be apprehensive. On the one hand, they are witnessing the puzzling collapse of a large reform movement in which they had placed much hope. On the other hand, there is an ambient sense of encirclement by a belligerent superpower which, as recently as 2002, made many people in the Middle East dream of rapid liberation, but whose actions in Iraq (and to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan) have turned many dreams to nightmares. If high hopes of improvement through the reform movement or of “deliverance” through US intervention have been dashed, the state of the other historical forces of popular mobilization, namely Islam and nationalism, is not any better.

Although organized nationalist forces stood in opposition to the Shah, Iranian nationalism as an ideology was compromised when the Pahlavi dynasty (1926-1979) coopted it to legitimize absolutism. Later, the Islamic state vilified nationalism in name, even while appropriating nationalist themes for its own legitimizing purposes. The Islamist campaign against Iranian nationalism as “secular” and “Western” has subsided somewhat since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, but the ideology is weak today. Ironically, Islam as a traditional identity marker also finds itself in a precarious state. The ability of Islam to mobilize, so strong during the early years of the revolution, has been depleted as the Islamic state has lost its mystique.

Iran is caught between the crumbling legitimacy of formal political authority and the decline of the ideologies that historically have rallied opposition to authority. Coupled with anxiety over internal repression and an external menace, the vague rumors about a secretive center of power poised to punish anyone who has challenged its decrees are a source of solace. It is a frightening power, to be sure, but paradoxically, it is also a power whose omnipresence and omnipotence are reassuring. In the last analysis, the state is all that is left to Iranians -- not just to mitigate economic and social problems, but to protect them from the worst. A glance at neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, not to speak of the Caucasian and Central Asian republics, is enough to convince Iranians to trust in the state. Aside from the bloc that regularly backs the conservatives, the voters in the 2004 elections showed up not to support one candidate over another, but to choose something rather than nothing.

With or Without the State

Capturing the state has been the central focus of all recent parliamentary elections and political activities. It was to keep a foothold within the state’s lawmaking institutions that some reformist supporters participated in the last Majles elections, raising turnout above 50 percent. Only the state, these voters believed, could preserve the country from the fate of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the painful and degrading experience of post-Soviet countries. More or less resigned to their own de facto ejection from power, these reformers held out the hope that an end to the dualistic power struggle in Iran would lead to a coherent state. Even if the conservatives would be the dominant force after the elections, at least their hegemony would allow the state to negotiate effectively with Europe. Thus, it was either the irony of history or a miscalculation on the part of these optimistic reformers that the conservatives chose this moment to deliver a severe blow to the legal structures of the state. The mass disqualifications of candidates and the refusal to maintain even a semblance of competitive elections made a mockery of a political process that has been the basis of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.

The conservatives’ strategy and tactics were as ambitious as they were grotesque, especially in a country where the state, directly or indirectly, manages such a giant portion of the economy and social services. Public health, education, cultural production, industry, commerce and a stunning array of social subsidies are all highly dependent on the state. Under the current circumstances, Iranian society urgently needs an atmosphere of political liberty and a substantive national debate, not to mention a state that enjoys great legitimacy, to avoid either collapse or disruptive and dangerous insurrections.

At the international level, the situation can only get worse if decisions are taken outside formal state channels. It is true that the absence of a unified voice representing the Iranian state has often been a source of irritation to European diplomats of an unaccountable few could ease the burdens of European negotiators. But what gains Europe will reap in the short term, it risks losing in the long run for having dealt with an illegitimate partner.

A quarter of a century after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, it is hard to deny that all the Islamist currents have lost their luster. Of more concern is the rather tragic end of a revolution which failed to muster the capacity or the courage to find a democratic solution to the central question of establishing a state of law (etat de droit), or a working constitutional order, instead of pressing on with authoritarian solutions. Therein lies the main and probably insurmountable obstacle facing the conservative-dominated Iranian regime: in order to plunge the country back into unrelieved authoritarianism, the new leaders will have to silence a society that transformed its disillusionment with the revolution into social, cultural and political vitality.

Some argue that authoritarianism is an easy task for the conservatives, given that the miscues of the reform movement have so sapped the society’s vitality as to leave little but demoralized regret. By closing down the political space through repressive controls, the conservatives can even permit themselves the luxury of tolerating minor liberties in the cultural sphere. After years of repression, the society may rejoice in finding an opening in the cultural domain. The Chinese seem to have succeeded in a similar wager -- why not the Iranians?

Such a scenario will not transpire. The new leaders can muster the force to subjugate the population, but subjugation will be all they manage to accomplish. To go further, to organize the economy, in matters such as international as well as domestic investment, to find solutions for innumerable social problems, to negotiate the plethora of disputes pitting the provinces against Tehran, to appease the increasingly vocal demands of ethnic and religious minorities, [13] to rein in the increasing range of mafias and bandits with political connections, to call to order the “revolutionary foundations” which have turned into a corrupt colossus [14] and last, to negotiate international tensions, Iran needs a legitimate state as well as a functioning legal order.

Brazen Reaction

The current that pushed to eliminate reformists from the political scene consisted primarily of the most brazenly reactionary members of the Guardian Council. This hard-line core gained the near complete support of Khamenei following the local council elections of 2003, when the reformists lost almost all their posts in large cities and many local councils. The extremist conservative current decided to finish off, once and for all, the system that allowed the reformist movement to emerge in the first place. To resolve the paradox of the constitutional order in Iran, simultaneously a republic and a theocracy, the hard-liners would purge the republican elements.

To believe that such a coup de force can succeed, one has to ignore that Iran has seen a quarter-century of popular participation in politics since 1979. The revolution allowed all layers of the Iranian population, not only the urban popular classes, but also farmers and rural peasants flocking to cities in search of work, to play an active role. [15] By taking an autonomous role in the revolutionary process, the popular classes managed not only to elevate their political stature, but also to transform their culture and their political interpretation of Islam. [16] This new popular culture was restrained, but at the same time sharpened, by the experience of the war with Iraq, finding more fertile ground in the course of debates surrounding the country’s post-war reconstruction. Slow at first, and focused on social-cultural issues, it began to take advantage of the quasi-democratic electoral process to find a political voice and coalesce into political currents, both conservative and reformist. By disqualifying nearly all the reformist candidates in the 2004 elections, the conservative current has attempted to put a final end to the long transformation that seemed to be moving inexorably toward a complete democratization of the Iranian political scene. [17]

Although capturing the state has been the central focus of recent elections, it is likely that the attempt by Tehran's new strongmen to short-circuit the trend toward democracy will not last very long. The conservative coup de force in 2004 may have eliminated the symptoms of the underlying tensions plaguing the Islamic Republic’s paradoxical political system, but it has done so by ignoring the underlying social processes pushing toward a restructuring of the state itself. As a result, sooner or later, the controversy over the configuration of the Iranian state will return to the center of national and international attention. Because of the reformist moment of 1997-2004, and the manner in which it ended, the debate over the configuration of the state will not be able to avoid the subject of democratization from now on.

Futures and the Past

In the wake of the conservative coup de force, three clusters of arguments about restructuring the state can be detected. The conservative project, by undermining the constitutional order, and alienating the state bureaucrats, amounts to little more than a “bandit state.” Legal and judicial order has become even more arbitrary, and there is a sense that multiple centers of power -- from the military to organized street thugs, conservative clerics and parliamentary deputies -- are acting ever more capriciously, to expand their own sphere of influence.

Opposition to this premeditated project of a bandit state is gravitating toward two competing formulations of the ideal state, one bureaucratic/authoritarian, and the other democratic/republican. The first project would like to rely on the state bureaucracy left over from the monarchy to impose a developmentalist and authoritarian order. The second would emphasize a republican order and the equal rights of citizenship, in order to ensure that popularly elected bodies have the authority over reconfiguring the state. Who will defend which solution, nationally and internationally? Since consolidation of an Islamic constitutional order -- the agenda of Khatami and his reformist coalition -- has failed, the struggle is between the alternatives vying to replace it.

The bureaucratic/authoritarian project will be defended by forces that prefer to settle the issue from the top down. Their hope is that such an outcome will meet with the approval of the international community, which clearly wants to see a stable Iranian government that can deal directly with Europe and the US. Rising oil prices and the impatience of American neo-conservatives to implement their grand plans for the Middle East boost the optimism of those who believe in this solution. Partisans of this idea are likely to come from the Islamic nouveau riche eager to legalize and secure their wealth through capturing state power, many state managers, functionaries and technocrats, but also from among the entrepreneurial Iranian diaspora, for whom the revolution and the subsequent 25 years have been a nightmare they would just as soon forget. In short, the idea would be a return to the authoritarian and “modern” bureaucratic regime that was overthrown by the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Granted, the political network that allowed the economic rise of the entrepreneurs in the diaspora was annihilated during the collapse of the monarchy, and most of them had to flee the country. The post-revolutionary Islamic political networks were built on the ruins of the Shah’s regime when, by and large, they used the confiscated wealth of those who had fled as the primary source of accumulation of capital for themselves. Nevertheless, globalization and the aggressive US project of reshaping the Middle East have created the potential for an entente.

An alternative cluster of arguments has been forming around a project of democratizing the state. The failure of successive attempts to institutionalize popular participation in the polity, from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911 to the present, has become the focus of serious self-questioning for a range of political forces. As a result, a consensus seems to be emerging that the only viable strategy to ensure active, serious popular and citizen participation in reconstructing the state is a sustained struggle for its democratization. This democratic agenda is now focused on advocating an ever more competitive and open political field, and a struggle for eliminating the structures within the Iranian political system that make second-class citizens out of women, religious minorities and secularists.

Again, the religious-secular divisions are of secondary interest. The defenders of the democratic project are democratic and lay activists, but also the Islamist activists who were the cadres and rank and file of the reform movement. The failure of the reform movement to construct an Islamic constitutional order through winning elections has led many of these activists to gravitate toward calling for a strategy of secularizing the state. A large segment of the Iranian left has also joined the call for a democratic state, following the collapse of communism and the experience of having lived under an ideological regime in Iran.

Nevertheless, here also the historical past imposes separation, often severe, among the different factions of this ensemble. We should not forget that these three groups, which today are unified by a common democratic project, lived through radically different experiences during the initial years of the Iranian Revolution. Motivated by their radical differences, these groups often fought bloody battles for power. In these pitched battles, the Islamists used the state apparatus to imprison and kill their rivals. Unlike the seekers of a bureaucratic/authoritarian state, the adherents of the democratic project can count on neither the integration of the economy into global networks nor the good will of the international community. They can count on no resources but their own determination and experience, as well as the experience of other countries that have made the transition to a democratic polity by embracing a politics of national reconciliation and mutual forgiveness. This will be difficult, but the institutionalization of democracy in Iran depends on it more than ever.

—Translated from French by Kaveh Ehsani


[1] See Morad Saghafi, “La cinquiéme election legislative en Iran: la vote d'une republique mal aimée,” Cahiers d’Etudes sur la Meditéranée Orientale et le Monde Turco-Iranien 22 (1996).
[2] See Siavash Ghazi, “Analyses des elections legislatives” and Bernard Hourcade and Nicolas Schwaller, “La revolution lente: entre concensus et rupture,” both in Cahiers de l’Orient60 (2000).
[3] Sharq, January 12, 2004.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Sharq, January 15, 2004.
[6] Sharq, January 16, 2004.
[7] Hamshahri, January 17, 2004.
[8] Sharq, January 18, 2004.
[9] Sharq, January 27, 2004.
[10] Maurice Duvignaud, La solidarité: des solidarités du sang aux solidarités modernes (Paris : Fayard, 1986).
[11] Detailed data, by electoral district, are posted at the website of the Ministry of Interior, This is the first time the ministry has made such detailed figures publicly available.
[12] Similarly, no one has checked whether permission to travel abroad or access to food ration coupons has been denied to the roughly 35 percent of Iranians who have never voted under the Islamic Republic.
[13] See Goft-o-Gu 40 (Spring 2004) on Kurdistan and Goft-o-Gu 33 (Summer 2002) on Azerbaijan. [Persian]
[14] See Goft-o-Gu 39 (Winter 2004) on parastatal foundations and the state. [Persian]
[15] On urban classes, see Asef Bayat, Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). On rural migrants, see Eric Hooglund, Land and Revolution in Iran (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986).
[16] Paul Vieille and Farhad Khosrokhavar, Le discours populaire de la revolution Iranienne (Paris : Contemporaneité, 1990).
[17] Mehdi Moslem, Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002).

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