From the political perspective, the main consequence of the Persian Gulf War has been the restoration of the status quo ante. In Iraq and Kuwait, dissidents who had expected the military defeat of Saddam Hussein to usher in a new era of freedom and democracy have been sorely disillusioned. In the sheikhdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, hereditary rulers had feared the US military intervention might bring pressures for political reform, and citizens had hoped Washington might support at least modest democratization efforts. Both now realize that the West is interested in containing, not promoting, political change.

Although the ruling families are thus more confident of US support, they nevertheless retain some apprehension about the future because they are unsure whether they will be able to halt effectively the spread of subversive ideas. One of the potentially most threatening is the notion of representative government cloaked in the mantle of Islam. This ideological threat is based in the region, emanating out of non-Arab Iran.

One recent demonstration of concern about Iran’s propagation of subversive political ideas arose at the end of the Persian Gulf War, when the predominantly Shi‘i population of southern Iraq rebelled against Saddam Hussein’s rule. Although eyewitness accounts confirm that the uprising was a spontaneous event, Gulf rulers saw it as an Iranian-inspired attempt to establish a second Islamic republic in the region. Some Saudi princes accepted Baghdad’s charge that Iran had sent units of its own Revolutionary Guards into Iraq to instigate and coordinate the fighting despite the lack of any credible evidence. For the Saudis, the populist government of republican Iran posed a more serious ideological threat than the repressive Baathist regime of republican Iraq. From their perspective, a militarily weak and humiliated Saddam Hussein in power in Baghdad is preferable to a pro-Iranian regime that would talk about democratic rights and empowering the people. For these reasons, Riyadh did not protest, and probably was relieved, when Iraq’s Republican Guards brutally crushed the rebellion.

Ideological fear of Iran did not originate with the popular uprising in southern Iraq, but dates back to 1979 when the new Islamic Republic, following the overthrow of the Iranian monarchy in a popular revolution, began touting the virtues of representative government and calling for the overthrow of kings and sheikhs. For nearly a decade, its ideological influence in the Gulf, while sometimes needlesome, generally was limited. During the protracted Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), initiated by Saddam Hussein in part to contain the spread of the revolutionary regime’s ideas, the Gulf Arab regimes successfully portrayed Iran as an enemy of the Arabs. When they joined to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, one primary objective was to counter the export of Iran’s revolution to the Arab side of the Gulf.

Negative stereotypes of the Islamic Republic gradually eroded following the end of hostilities between Iran and Iraq. Tehran contributed to this process by energetically pursuing a policy of normalizing strained relations with its Gulf neighbors and dropping its rhetoric about exporting revolution. Although Iran condemned the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait, it remained officially neutral during the war and even reestablished relations with Baghdad in the fall of 1990, but refused to break the embargo. In the spring, although Iraqi allegations that Iran aided the uprising in southern Iraq and continued to send arms clandestinely across the border revived the concerns of Gulf rulers about Iranian intentions, the multiplicity of commercial and diplomatic contacts that have developed during the past three years have helped counter these concerns. Meanwhile, Radio Tehran’s Arabic service, which broadcasts summaries of Majles debates, has inspired disenfranchised Gulf Arabs to pay more attention to Iranian politics. This curiosity has set the stage for Iran’s ideology and practice of Islamic government to influence Gulf Arabs who aspire for greater political participation in their own countries.

Seen from the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, Iran’s government provides a sharp contrast to those of the GCC countries. The most obvious difference is the political ritual of competitive elections. Iranians elect their president, the 270 members of their national legislature or Majles, and representatives to various local government institutions. The Iranian press also appears to be more free of government control than the media in the rest of the Gulf. Tehran’s daily papers, for example, provide a broad diversity of views on domestic and foreign policies, and certain newspapers consistently and harshly criticize the government. For Gulf Arabs dissatisfied with the political status quo in their own countries, neighboring Iran presents a readily observable alternative model of government. They may not accept an official Iranian label of “Islamic democracy,” but they do perceive genuine citizen participation in the governmental process, a popular role which is generally anathema to the ruling families. Despite their discomfort with Iran’s internal politics, the rulers apparently hope that correct government-to-government relations with Tehran can help to contain the external spread of dangerous political ideas.

The Gulf Arab view of Iran as a country with a representative type of government might puzzle many non-Arab political analysts. In North America and Europe, both the mass media and conventional scholarship frequently describe Iran as ruled by “Islamic fundamentalists,” a term almost always used pejoratively and assuming anti-democratic values. Yet many in the Gulf perceive Iran as a force that promotes popular participation in the political process.

Iran, when compared to its Arab neighbors, does appear to have some political characteristics typical of democratic governments. If we understand democracy to mean a type of government that protects the basic civil liberties of all citizens, particularly those who openly dissent from the majority consensus on major issues, then Iran is not a democracy. The tolerable limits of dissent in Iran are fairly narrowly defined, especially with respect to social and political issues, and an important government responsibility is to punish, rather than protect, those who publicly challenge these limits. Iranians who refrain from transgressing the limits of acceptable behavior have considerable opportunities to participate in political activities. They may vote, work in political campaigns, run for elective office, serve on boards and commissions that regulate the distribution of government services and utilities, petition local and national officials for redress of grievances, and criticize government policies.

Iranian politics tend to have a populist orientation. Politicians habitually declare their commitment to defending the rights of the mostazafin (literally the oppressed, but in post-revolutionary Iran the term connotes the poor urban and rural masses who comprise a majority of the population). These are the people who support the dominant political ideology, namely that ultimate authority is vested in the most pious and knowledgeable religious scholar/jurist (faqih) of the time. The government is in fact a theocracy, in which members of the Shi‘i Islamic clergy occupy key decision-making positions in the executive, legislature and judiciary. Iranians who oppose the principle of rule by the clergy, or velayat-e faqih, are excluded from participation in politics. Those who openly advocate changing the system of government risk virtually certain imprisonment and trial on charges of treason. Opponents of the system include monarchists, anti-clerical secularists, Kurdish guerrilla groups and Shi‘a who reject the idea that the clergy have any special spiritual or secular role. Although the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization and the Kurds still have some clandestine cells, for the most part there is no effectively organized opposition to the government.

In Iran’s version of populist politics, the concept of a loyal opposition does not exist. The government tolerates rather severe criticisms of its policies in the Majles, but critical deputies generally understand the boundaries that separate acceptable from unacceptable criticism. Majles sessions are televised and provide viewers with instructive lessons on representative government as deputies debate, amend and compromise their differences over proposed legislation. Majles committees also summon ministers to interrogate them in public about policies that have become controversial. Iranians who regularly follow Majles proceedings identify most deputies as being affiliated with one of the three political factions that constitute the overall clerical consensus.

The virtual absence of political organizations independent of clerical supervision is a notable characteristic of Iran’s political system. For example, political parties are legal, but in the past four years no license requests have been approved, apparently to prevent the reorganization of parties like the Liberation Movement of Iran, which played a prominent role in the 1978-1979 revolution. Its leader, Mehdi Bazargan, has been a fearless critic of government policies for more than a decade, refusing to be cowed by intimidation tactics, including the arrest last year of his son and a score of long-time political associates. Some clergy, mindful of the disaffection among the middle and upper classes, fear a party led by Bazargan could develop into a major opposition movement.

The complexity of Iran’s political system is not fully appreciated in the Persian Gulf war, there disenfranchised Arabs are fascinated with the average Iranian’s political rights and are unaware of the significance of the political restrictions. Iranian politics are even less well understood in the West, where the fascination is with restrictions — not the political restrictions as much as the social ones. Typical analyses of the Islamic Republic focus on its legislation designed to control standards of social behavior, particularly of women, and imply — or even state boldly — that such laws are the inevitable consequence of Islamic government, which is inherently authoritarian. Iran’s personal behavior legislation does restrict individual freedom of choice. A significant minority of Iranians, primarily middle- and upper-class professionals living in Tehran and other large cities, resent these laws as infringements of their personal liberties. The most controversial of these laws is hejab, the dress code for women. Yet these laws are not Islamic; in actuality, they are codifications of the conservative cultural values — and prejudices — of the country’s male-dominated bazaar and small town society. A majority of Iranians, comprising the urban and rural lower class, tend to share similar values and probably do not consider most of these laws objectionable.

The issue of hejab and other personal behavior legislation bothers Westerners but does not offend Gulf Arabs. On the contrary, many people in these culturally conservative countries believe that the Iranian experience demonstrates the compatibility of representative government with cherished traditional values. Ironically, the Western preoccupation with hejab tends to ignore the fact that Iranian society generally is more open and more liberal than its counterparts across the Gulf. The contrast with Saudi Arabia is most stark. Iran, for instance, does not restrict women from driving cars or working in offices and factories with men.

The Gulf Arabs’ perception that social norms are similar to their own serves to heighten their interest in the political differences between the Islamic Republic and the GCC countries. Iran’s advocacy and practice of representative government seems very much a part of an international trend. The political changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as in Arab countries such as Algeria, Jordan and Yemen, appear to have sparked interest throughout the Persian Gulf in greater participation in government. This is troubling for hereditary ruling families who view demands for democracy as threats to their privileged status. In Kuwait, where pressures for political reform are greatest, there are widespread doubts that the ruling Al Sabah family will permit any genuine form of participation in the Majles elections promised for October 1992. Disenfranchised Arabs see in the Islamic government of Iran what appears to be a good example of democracy within an Islamic context. As long as the rulers of the Persian Gulf states continue to resist demands for political reform, dissatisfied citizens will be tempted to see Iran as an attractive alternative.

How to cite this article:

Eric Hooglund "Iranian Populism and Political Change in the Gulf," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

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