Sai’id Hajjarian, a leading theorist of the democratic Islamist new left, is one of President Khatami’s closest political advisers. In 1998 he ran for the Tehran City Council, receiving the second largest number of votes. Hajjarian is also the official permit holder for the daily Sobh-e Emrooz and serves on the central committee of the Participation Front, the main left-wing Islamic democratic party. In the early 1980s he was a vice minister in the Intelligence Ministry, and later headed the political bureau of the president’s Strategic Research Center. This interview was conducted on May 19, 1999 and translated from Persian by Kaveh Ehsani.

Let’s talk about the local councils and the strategy of the democratic Islamist left.

The councils are a stage in the process of the Republic’s consolidation. We have a “primitive” republic that can evolve in two stages: First, by strengthening civil society and developing an ensemble of autonomous institutions that absorb and channel the torrent of social activity. Social needs are articulated and refined before reaching the state as demands. Secondly, through the formation of formal political institutions that compete according to established rules.

The local council elections were an important step in shaping Iranian civil society. Article 7 of the constitution recognizes the councils as one of the pillars of decision making, performing the role of local parliaments and legislatures. Our statesmen and our public have had an historical “agoraphobia,” a dread of the public sphere where citizens participate in decisions. Councils will provide a structure for the populism that has bedeviled us since the revolution. We may undergo intermediate stages of clientelism in the councils, witnessing various forms of patronage between the state, political parties and individuals, which may lead to political mobilization based on patron-client relations. Nevertheless, I think this is still one step ahead of our current, purely populist, situation.

President Khatami promised the establishment of councils during his campaign, which, though included in the constitution, have never been realized. He kept that promise. Councils are essential to the process of democratization; the authoritarian faction will have to pay a very high price for destroying these institutions.

What are the boundaries of the councils’ authority? How much real autonomy will they have vis-a-vis local governors or Friday prayer leaders? Will they have financial autonomy? Since none of these issues were seriously debated during the campaign, these new institutions may create as many problems as they try to solve.

Many neighboring countries have local councils that suffer from institutionalized corruption. Other potential problems include the possibility that the councils may become either mere bureaucratic appendages to the state, or simple instruments of political factions, or such powerful levers of popular demands that they render the state ineffective! For example, the [Islamist] Fazilat Party in Turkey has tried to penetrate every local council. They are good at providing services and the party tries to expand its social base through the councils to resist the generals. The problem is that the agora is not the same as the polity. Services and the public sphere are obviously essential to democratic political life, but let us not conflate the two. We cannot have an infinity of political “firms.” At most it is reasonable to have a few political firms — a polyarchy. The real danger in the politicization of civic institutions lies in the further expansion of the state. Due to its rentier nature, our state was very large to begin with, yet after the revolution the state expanded threefold! Revolutions are by nature the explosive demand of the public for participation in the political sphere.

Parties’ politicization of councils can undermine the necessary relative autonomy required by the state. If the state loses its autonomy and focuses on welfare tasks alone, it forfeits the maneuvering ability necessary for developmental tasks.

You mention political parties, but we do not yet have such institutions. You seem to be saying that participation in the political sphere is good, as long as it remains limited to a number of known political currents and existing factions. But as long as we do not have free and open political parties, it remains unclear whether the existing factions truly represent the 70 percent of society who voted for Khatami and reforms.

Diversity and plurality do exist in our society. Every day you see autonomous institutions emerging. There are hundreds of requests for press permits. Once the commission that issues permits for political parties is wrested from the hands of the conservatives, we shall see a greater pluralism and the proliferation of political parties. This will be confusing initially, until they begin to merge into various political blocs representing different social interests, allowing the political sphere to stabilize.

But why not have “full democracy” immediately? Look, democracy can be established even between two people. It will be limited and small, but it is still a democracy. Democracy does not necessarily include all social forces, because there are always exclusionary policies preventing some contenders from really entering the polity. There will be contention and competition within a polity, but there are also outsiders and challengers who struggle to penetrate, to challenge and to expand the polity. What is essential is to establish the polity in the first place, to have at least two “firms” willing to compete with each other. Once that happens, people will not remain indifferent or cynical. They will select one of the existing players as relatively closer to their own positions, and pressure that player to represent their interests more fully. This will sow the seeds of further differentiation, diversity and pluralism. But the whole thing is a process. Currently, we are going through a phase of patrimonialism, where no polity exists yet, and where politics is interpreted as a purely personal matter. Transition to a full participatory democracy will be a multi-stage process.

But we still do not have political parties! A political party articulates a coherent social project or an ensemble of positions about various issues. Its platform is declared publicly and it is open to anyone who agrees. Whoever sincerely believes in this program should be allowed to join — and to be held responsible for helping its realization. Without this institutional form, no coherent policy can emerge from the shifting positions of individuals.

We already have the nuclei of political parties. They may not have billboards yet, but their competition is very real. They are still unstable and have not yet assumed a coherent shape. But this will happen in time, especially as the institutions of civil society continue to take root. If you want to plant the tree of political parties in a “massified” society, you will only get Baathist, Bonapartist and proto-fascist parties. We have a parliament where factionalism is intense. We know that a primary foundation of a political party system is the existence of parliamentary factions. Therefore, all the components of parties exist and will, sooner or later, become a reality.

Is this part of your own program?

That is why we established the Participation Front, to field candidates for local councils. As for forging a coherent political vision and program for social development, it has not been particularly noticeable. It is still a front, rather than a party. At this point the leaders have insisted on a broad platform. They want to avoid rigid discipline in order to create a broad base. Look, we had 20 million people voting for “2 Khordad.” [1] Existing political vessels cannot contain this social movement, so we must define and mold new political institutions which, at least in the initial phases, have to be loose and rather amorphous.

Should the secular forces that are committed to the current constitution, but which have been repressed and excluded from politics until now, be allowed to organize politically and enter the political arena?

At this point we are defending the rights of the “legal opposition,” of the Freedom Movement [the liberal, nationalist and religious party of Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister after the revolution], to have its own organization, newspapers and activities. It is still too early to talk about the secular forces. The trend is in that direction, but for now we are only in the first phase of that process.

How do you assess Karbaschi’s legacy and the performance of his administration?

Karbaschi’s municipal administration, like his mentor Rafsanjani’s general policies and approach, had elitist tendencies and was not particularly concerned with the public and the masses. The citizenry were seen primarily as sources of revenue. It was not a citizen-oriented municipality, but a corporate structure.

Karbaschi created an alliance with speculative capital to advance his projects. The only alternative for the councils would be to increase city taxes, as well as political accountability.

Precisely! This is an essential step toward democratization.

You are one of the few people in a position to directly affect urban politics in Tehran. What are your plans in this regard?

Tehranis will have to see themselves not merely as urban dwellers, but as citizens. There has to be a sense of belonging. Trust will have to be the underlying force, the social capital, of this type of urban politics. People have withdrawn from public arenas into their households and families. The moment you step outside your home, you are confronted with pollution, noise, fear, danger, contention, unpredictability and stress. Historically, we have had forms of social trust based on robust, communal forms of cooperation in urban neighborhoods dealing with security, water provision, etc. We have to modernize these cooperative and communal relations by mobilizing people around contemporary social problems.

We have witnessed a vigorous desire for public participation, and we constantly receive requests from neighborhood youth asking for meeting places, sports fields, etc., and offering to maintain and operate the facilities themselves once they are established. We need to pursue this agora building process seriously.


[1] “2 Khordad” refers not only to the date of President Khatami’s election according to the Iranian calendar, but also to a broad-based social reform movement.

How to cite this article:

"“Existing Political Vessels Cannot Contain the Reform Movement”," Middle East Report 212 (Fall 1999).

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