Monday, November 21, 2005

Iran and Lebanon - the saga continues

Recent developments in Lebanon as well as certain blog entries have spurred me to discover what I can of political developments in Iran. I have come to the realization that, more than any other international player other than Israel, Iran has the ability to cause havoc in Lebanon through its armed proxy, Hizballah.

Iran appears more threatening for two reasons though: 1) its proxy controls a major segment of Lebanese society, and consequently has the power to rip Lebanese society apart and 2) Iran appears to be under increasing strain as a result of the pressure exerted by "the international community." Such pressure makes it's leaders much more unpredictable, and more likely to revert to extreme measures that they perceive would defend Iran's interests.

Fellow bloggers Vox Populi and the Caveman Linguist hove both posted entries that elucidate on political developments in Iran. The general consensus is that there are some real fissures within the clerical establishment or between the clerics and the Revolutionary Guards. My own brief research basically lent credence to both of those conclusions. Rather than present my own analysis, I will basically provide you with quotes from the two journal articles I read:

  1. Nasr, Vali, "The Conservative Wave Roles On," Journal of Democracy, October 2005, Volume 16, Number 4
  2. Ward, Steven R., "The Continuing Evolution of Iran's Military Doctrine," The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2005, Volume 59, Number 4

I wil
l start with some quotes from the first article that answer specific questions I pose.

1. So how exactly did Mahmoud Ahmedinejad become president of Iran?

Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was elected President of the Islamic Republic of Iran in June of 2005. Ahmedinejad is a hard-line conservative populist and the first Iranian president since 1981 not to hail from clerical ranks. Here are some facts about the elections that brought him to power:

They were the most intensely contested of the nine presidential elections that the Islamic Republic has held since 1980.

The 2005 vote was also the first to go to a runoff, as the June 17 first round ended with no candidate having surpassed the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright victory.

In the second round, Ahmedinejad was elected president with 62 percent of the vote against former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (the guy on the right).

2. Why the hell did the Iranians elect this guy? Weren't they all for reform? Whatever happened to Khatami and the venerable movement of Reformers that supported him?

Khatami's failure:

  • Despite the enthusiasm surrounding Khatami's election, he actually had little authority and little desire to break with the ruling power structure. The reform movement remained the project of an ineffective presidency tied to the clerical establishment, and as such had little chance of reaching cherished reformist goals.

  • Security forces suppressed student demonstrations in 1999, 2001, and 2003, and in the lead up to the 2005 election the judiciary prosecuted a number of bloggers in order to chill political discussion on the internet.

  • Throughout the Khatami presidency, the courts and the Guardian Council impeached reformist ministers and vetoed 111 of the 297 bills that Khatami backed.

  • In 2004, the Council disqualified some 3,600 reformist legislative candidates in order to ensure conservative dominance of the upcoming legislative elections.

  • This "conservative coup" cast a shadow over the 2005 presidential election and led many reformists to question the utility of elections as a tool for change.

Ahmedinejad's Success:

  • Ahmedinejad reached out to the poor by focusing on Khatami's poor record for socio-economic reform. He also took advantage of popular dissent and fear of US actions in the region (Iran's international insecurity)

  • The 2005 election marked a transition of power to the postrevolutionary and even post-Khomeini generation, a new demographic cohort whose values have begun to define the tenor of Iranian politics. At the same time, the vote seemed to signal a shift of momentum away from the affluent or middle-class part of this cohort (particularly its youth culture, so prominent since 1997), and toward the poorer classes and their discontents. Indeed, it appears that Ahmedinejad owes his presidency to lower-income voters.
3. So, what are the implications of the collapse of the reformist movement and this "conservative coup"?
  • Ahmedenijan's win confirms the conservative consolidation of power.

Rise of Military in Iranian Politics and Economy
  • Through their central role in constricting reformists and facilitating the conservative consolidation, top Revolutionary Guards officers have gained prominence not only in foreign and national-security policy, but also in the economy.

  • In the 2004 legislative elections, Guards veterans won a third of all seats.

  • A year later, three presidential candidates were former commanders - including Ahmedinejad himself, who has also been in the Basij.
Factionalism Among Conservatives

  • The Conservatives in Iran have split into two large groups: hard-line conservatives and pragmatic conservatives. With the marginalization of reformers, the vigilant unity that lay behind conservative consolidation came to an end.... The paradox of the conservative consolidation that took place during Khatami's presidency is that the conservatives, in seeking to limit democratic practices, actually intensified competition within their own ranks.

  • One surprise of the election results was the degree of acrimony that broke out within the clerical leadership over the election's outcome. An especially deep rift opened between Mehdi Karrubi (who came in third place in the first round of the presidential race) and Khamenei, who traded caustic public remarks. After accusing Khamenei and his son of voter manipulations, campaign irregularities, and influence peddling, Karrubi attempted to leave his post as advisor to the supreme leader and member of the Expediency Council, but his resignation was denied.


Vali Nasr said it best when he alluded to the paradox conservative Iranians are facing in their victory over the reformists. Now that they have won, they are divided, and quarreling amongst themselves. If I were to stop here, my spirits would be high. Unfortunately though, I cannot.

For a more sinister development has, and continues to take place, in Iranian politics. Mr. Nasr highlights the rise to prominence of Iran's Revolutionary Guards in internal politics. After such a rise, who is to say that the competing conservative factions will not vie for the support of the Guards to eliminate their conservative rivals? If developments do indeed go in that direction, then the real power broker in Iran will not be Khamenei, but rather, Yahya Rahim Safavi, the Chief of Staff of the Guards.

Vali Nasr ignores this possibility, and concludes his article on an optimistic note. He believes that if the reformists are able to regroup and learn the appropriate lessons from their humiliating defeat in the 2005 presidential race, they can win future elections and may even end up accomplishing more than Khatami. I, on the other hand, believe that the future is most likely bleaker than he predicts.

The reason is that the conservatives effectively signed a deal with the devil when they invited the Guards into political affairs to help defeat the Reformists. And now that the reformists are gone, and the conservatives fractured, it appears that the Guards have come out on top. Moreover, now that they're there (at the apex of Iranian politics), I find it very difficult to imagine how the Guards may be removed! Unlike political parties and factions, military outfits are not affected by opinion polls and are much more cohesive. Could the conservatives have just unwittingly handed control of Iran over to the Revolutionary Guards in a silver platter?

If indeed the answer to that question is "yes," then I predict a more aggressive Iranian foreign policy coupled with future political instability. The conservative clerics will most likely continue to fight amongst themselves and attempt to wrestle power away from the generals. This infighting may ultimately lead to the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself. Unfortunately, I doubt it will go down without a horrendous splash that drenches Lebanon.

(Note: Unable to repeat this process for article #2. I'm too tired, and will do it some other time.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice !