Clerical Oligarchy and the Question of "Democracy" in Iran
By: Saeed Rahnema and Haideh Moghissi, 2001
For more than twenty years the Islamic regime in Iran, along with its extensive repressive apparatuses, has created an impressive array of ideological and economic mechanisms of control to construct an Islamified civil society and build consensus for the establishment of a theocratic state. Through massive propaganda and the manipulation of religious beliefs the Islamic ruling bloc has succeeded in maintaining its monopoly of power against all external and internal odds. Political repression eliminated, jailed, and exiled the progressive secular forces that had initiated the revolution in 1979. Ideological indoctrination maintained a strong following for the clerical regime.
However, faced with social, political, and economic realities, a growing number of Iranians, even those who were once devoted supporters of the Islamic regime, have turned against it. The Islamic Republic is in deep political crisis. The Islamists' economic policies have failed, the per capita income is less than half of what it was before the revolution, and the gap between the rich and the poor has drastically widened. The regime, which assumed power in the name of the dispossessed, is increasingly losing its popularity among the most dispossessed Iranians, and public unrest and dissatisfaction are on the rise. The Islamists' moral crusades have also run out of steam as people increasingly and openly express their disapproval through any means they can. The Islamification policies, primarily targeting women and youth, have produced the opposite of the intended result. Not only has the regime been unable to push women back into the home and reestablish the gender order of bygone days, but its policies have produced an unprecedented increase in gender-awareness and resistance by women. Likewise, the authority of the Islamic rulers faces a formidable challenge from Iranian youth, now over 65 percent of the population. Born and raised under Islamic rule, the youth in Iran have turned their backs on the political and moral regime established by the clerics. "Youth distancing themselves from the revolution and faith" has been a recurring concern of the Islamists. Political suppression, particularly the series of assassinations of prominent intellectuals and nationalist leaders, which came to be known as chain assassinations, have severely discredited the regime. A disgruntled public, which has remembered the unfulfilled promises of the 1979 revolution, grasps every possible opportunity to show it despises what the Islamists stand for. Iranian voters have repeatedly expressed their discontent with the regime by voting against the fundamentalists' favorite candidates in parliamentary and presidential elections. In ternationally, with the exception of the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the regime's early policy of "exporting the revolution" failed to link it to other Islamic movements.
Finally, and perhaps deadlier to the legitimacy of the regime, is the ever-intensifying conflict between different clerical factions after Ayatollah Khomeini's death. The ruling bloc in Iran has not been able to resolve its internal conflicts over economic, social, political, and moral issues by the physical or ideological elimination of one faction by another. Unable to replace the late Ayatollah with an equally charismatic and powerful figure capable of maintaining a balance between contending factions, frictions among clerical factions have turned into seemingly non-negotiable divisions. The two sides-- those who believe that the system cannot survive without political reform, and those who see reform as a serious blow to the very foundation of the system--are confronting each other in every arena, from the mosques and newspapers to the electoral process. Each side blames the other for the regime's growing crisis of legitimacy. The great irony is that both sides are right. If the regime loosens its grip, dissatisfied Iranians fed up with political suppression, social degradation, and economic decline, will become bolder and put forth more radical demands. On the other hand, if the more conservative clergy consolidates power by taking back some of the reforms which emanated from Khatami's landslide victory in the Presidential election of 1997, then people's dissatisfactions may reach an explosive point, challenging the Islamic regime in its totality.
The political developments of the last few years in Iran, and the infighting among the ruling clergy have generated much political speculation and have caused misunderstanding, particularly outside Iran, about the prospects for political change in the country. With reduced expectations of what is achievable in an Islamic society, the Western media and governments, and some observers of Iran's politics, cheer what they see as the Islamic Republic's advance toward democracy and modernity. Others, mostly Iranian expatriates, refuse to take these developments seriously, viewing them as survival ploys by the ruling clerics.
Both of these tendencies arise from a naive understanding of the nature of the Islamic regime on one hand, and the complexities and many dimensions of resistance by the Iranian people, on the other. Through a brief analysis of the origins and complexities of the conflicts within the clerical ruling bloc and the country's formal legal structure, we attempt to illuminate major factors that determine the direction of social and political change in Iran. In analyzing the variety and potency of demands for social change, coming from different classes and various sections of the population, we want to demonstrate that the prospects for democracy are to be found in the growing disenchantment of the Iranian people with the clerical rulers, itself the result of irresolvable economic and social contradictions. The growing popular demands, and the imposition of further retreats on the clerical rulers, should increase opportunities for the emergence of a united front of alternative political forces which is a preconditi on for a successful campaign for establishing a democratic state.
Evolution of Factionalism within the Islamic Ruling Bloc
Iranian Shi'i clerics have historically formed a heterogeneous social category. Their members belong to different social classes, including landowners, capitalists, the traditional and new middle classes, low-income spiritual laborers, and paupers. The top clerics have strong ties with bazaar (market place) merchant capital--they benefit from it and defend its interests. At the same time, Sbi'i clerics have a history of advocating for the poor and dispossessed. This contradictory position--respecting and vigorously defending private property while advocating the rights of the dispossessed--continued after the revolution when the clerics assumed political power for the first time in Iranian history and became members of the economically dominant class.
In this context factionalism within the Islamic regime was inevitable and it went through three major phases, each surrounding different issues, and corresponding to major national and international political events. In the first phase, from 1979 to 1980, the clerics did not have the political and administrative capabilities to run the government and had to share power with the lay nationalist liberal Islamists. All the top clerics, mostly Khomeini's former students, formed the Association of the Militant Clergy (Rowhaniat-e Mobarez), and joined the newly established Islamic Republic Party. The guild associations of the bazaar, particularly those closely associated with the remnants of a hard-core Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization of the 1950s Mo'talefeh (Coalition) group, consolidated their control over the bazaar, the Chamber of Commerce, the Ministry of Commerce, and the newly formed Revolutionary Foundations. The Foundations took control of the expropriated holdings of the Shah's family and t hose of the big bourgeoisie of the pre-revolutionary period.
Major issues at hand for the Islamic Regime in this period were the consolidation of Islamic rule, the elimination of the left and secular organizations, the imposition of Islamic gender policies, the suppression of demands for self-determination by national minorities, and finally, determining the direction of the economic policy and foreign policy of the country. With the exception of the last two points, clerics and liberal Islamists were united to varying degrees. The first signs of division emerged when the Provisional Government of Mehdi Bazargan (a lay religious nationalist), in the revolutionary climate of the time, was forced to nationalize major banks and industries. The conservative and pro-bazaar clerics were against increased government intervention, while the populist clerics favored it. Conflicts over foreign policy, particularly relations with the United States, were cut short when the populist clerics led the students' takeover of the American Embassy and the taking of the hostages.
In phase two, spanning the period of the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, all attention shifted to the war economy. The highlights of this period were increased government intervention in all aspects of the economy and its heavy handedness in suppressing the secular opposition, including the Workers' and Employees' Councils (Shoraws), perhaps the most remarkable democratic achievements of the revolution, replacing them with state-sponsored Islamic Councils and Islamic Associations in work places.
The lengthy futile war with Iraq helped clerics consolidate their monopoly of power. At the same time, the clerics tried to simplify as much as they could a political and economic system that they found too complex to manage. They held political and administrative offices, created their own professorial core, and turned the universities into degree-producing factories for their relatives. Differences among ruling clerics on economic issues and social programs continued, particularly after the expulsion of the liberal Islamists from the government and Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr from the Presidency. A split within the Association of the Militant Clergy, led to the creation of the Society of Militant Clerics (Rowhanioon-e Mobarez) which consisted mostly of the populist clerics, and the dissolution of the Islamic Republic Party. These two clerical bodies acted as parties during the successive parliamentary and presidential elections.
The end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, and Khomeini's death, brought the third and the most open period of confrontations within the clerical establishment. During the post-war reconstruction and the two presidencies of Hojattol-Islam Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, a shrewd big capitalist himself, new Islamist forces entered the political arena. These were a younger generation of Islamists, many of them relatives of the powerful clergy, and Islamists who filled the ever-growing technocratic and bureaucratic positions in the government and parastatal organizations such as the Revolutionary Foundations. These new middle-class Islamists formed their own political organization, the Managers of Construction (Kargazaran-e Sazandegi), and came to support the growing Islamist capitalists who found their riches in the lucrative government contracts and Revolutionary Foundations, particularly the Mostaz'afan Foundation (the so-called Foundation of the Dispossessed). Many new capitalists were former pro-dispossessed populists wh o had discovered they did not need to wait to go to heaven to enjoy the promised pleasures. They had found heaven in the posh neighborhoods of Northern Tehran and the country's other large cities. They emphasized economic growth, privatization and free trade, and at the same time they called for the rule of law and weakening of the grip of conservative clerics on major sources of power.
In addition, in the absence of secular and progressive forces, who were jailed, exiled or silenced, a new breed of Muslim intellectuals gradually emerged, calling for political reforms. These were young Muslim activists, some former hostage takers and former members of the repressive apparatuses such as the Islamic Guard Corps, Ministry of Information and secret police, or the regime's ideological apparatuses. Pushed aside by the old guard conservative Islamists, many of these young Islamists went back to school and some were sent abroad to study. Disgruntled with the economic and political situation, and recognizing the growing dissatisfaction and anger of the people, they have become concerned about the future of the Islamic regime if some political reforms continued to be avoided. Many turned to journalism to mobilize support for their cause. Their knowledge of the inner workings of the system and their bold criticism of the conservative leadership made them popular.
With the new players in the political arena, the conflicts intensified between the two major factious now publicly identified as conservatives versus reformers (also called pragmatists). This was particularly the case after the 1997 presidential election, when in a reaction to the favorite candidate of the regime, the people overwhelmingly voted for Hojattal-Islam Mohamad Khatami. Each faction created its own associations for teachers, students, women, and workers, and launched its own newspapers. The pragmatists also formed their own campaign organizations including the Participation Front (Jebh-e Mosharekat). The major controversies and conflicts in this phase focused less on economic issues, and more on democracy, the rule of law, and modernity. The latest showdown between the two Islamic factions took place during the February 2000 parliamentary election, when despite the fact that many of the reformist candidates were not allowed to run, the people overwhelmingly voted out most of the conservative deleg ates who had the majority in the previous parliament.
Recognizing the failure of their ideological and propaganda machine and angered by their electoral defeat, the conservatives intensified their repressive measures and resorted to further violence. They unleashed the Hezbollah thugs to attack students, women, and pragmatist newspapers, and tried to derail the efforts to prosecute officials responsible for the chain assassinations of prominent secular politicians and left intellectuals. In January of this year, in another show of power, the conservative faction tried and convicted a group of pro-Khatami writers, journalists, and Muslim reformers, on their return from a conference in Berlin, in which, ironically, they debated the nature and future of reforms in Iran. Needless to emphasize, the conservatives' political supremacy is maintained because they control the major pillars of the cleverly-designed legal structure. Without understanding this complex mechanism of clerical political control it would be impossible to comprehend why the much needed reform and opening in social and cultural spheres cannot possibly be decided only in the election booths.
Formal-Legal Structure of the Clerical Regime
The major building block of the Islamic regime in Iran and the spirit surrounding its Constitution is an absolutist theocratic political system inspired by Khomeini's controversial notion of the "Absolute Sovereignty of the Jurist" (Velayat-e Moflaqeh Faqih) by which the leading cleric has unquestionable power over society and politics. Yet the senior Shi'i clerics who assumed power as a result of decades of struggle for democracy by the secular nationalist and left intelligentsia could not completely ignore the major demand of the 1979 revolution for the establishment of democratic institutions. Thus the post-revolutionary Constitution incorporated democratic institutions, particularly an elected parliament. However, aware of the dangers of secular and left ideas, the clerics installed many instruments for maintaining their own control over these institutions. At the top of the political hierarchy is the Supreme Leader, who is selected by the Assembly of Experts (mostly clerics) and heads the three branches of the government. He controls the regular armed forces, the police and the Islamic Guards Corps (the Pasdaran), and the state-run radio and television network, as well as determining the direction of foreign policy. He appoints the Supreme Judges, has the power to dismiss the elected President, and selects the jurists of the twelve-member Council of Guardians. The latter is one of the most powerful bodies, which acts as a sort of upper chamber in a formally unicameral political system, and is empowered to accept or reject the legislation passed by the 290-member Parliament. The Council of Guardians is further empowered to reject the non-desirable candidates in presidential or parliamentary elections with no obligation to provide explanation.
From the inception of the Islamic regime, the Council of Guardians has been the stronghold of the most conservative clerics. Its continued confrontations with the Parliament, particularly when the latter had a populist or pragmatist majority, led to the creation of a third body, the Expediency Council, which makes final decisions. The Expediency Council is an unusual legislative institution and consists of selected members of the three branches of the government, including the President of the Republic, select cabinet members, select deputies of the Parliament, all Council of Guardians members, and a few others appointed by the Supreme Leader.
Through these elaborate formal-legal institutional arrangements, the Islamic regime has made sure that if the major elected body, the Parliament, falls under the control of the "outsiders"--the non-conservative Islamists--they would not be able to divert it from the "true Islamic line of Imam Khomeini." Most recently, the Council of Guardians vetoed several laws enacted by the largely pro-reform Parliament, including two bills dealing with gender rights. These included a bill which lifted the ban on single women's travel abroad for graduate education on state scholarships and one which raised the age of marriage for girls from nine to fifteen except with a judge's approval.
Apart from the formal-legal setup, the regime established an incredible array of state apparatuses, which combine the traditional Shi'i structures with modem repressive, ideological, and economic apparatuses of control. In addition to the regular army, police, courts and prisons available to other authoritarian regimes, the Islamic Republic created the elite Islamic Guards Corps (about 100,000 strong), the Islamic Militia (over 300,000), the Islamic Associations in workplaces, different Islamic Patrols, morality squads, and the organized Hezbollah gangs. Mosques (over 50,000), seminary schools, the Friday Prayer gatherings, and the mullahs (about 200,000 and the fastest growing profession in post-revolutionary Iran) combined with state-run radio and television and the numerous state-sponsored newspapers and magazines, have all been busy indoctrinating the public. The top Shi'i clerics also used part of their growing wealth, some of which was gained through donations and endowments, to subsidize their needy f ollowers. The Ayatollah Khomeini's Fund now has more than 1.7 million on its permanent payroll. The extent and intensity of these apparatuses is unparalleled, even in fascist regimes. These institutions have been lubricated financially by gigantic oil revenues, which have given the authorities much room to maneuver. In the early days of the revolution, Khomeim referred to the "invisible aid of Allah" to provide for the needs of the population. This invisible aid conveniently materialized in the form of massive crude oil deposits beneath the sands of the Iranian plateau, which continue to provide the regime with a crucial margin of flexibility even amidst economic crisis. In this context, it is reasonable to argue that the fate of the movement for establishing democracy and social justice in Iran will be decided outside the formal-legal state institutions.
The "Balance of Fear" and Prospects for Change
At present, the Islamic government is faced with two serious challenges, from within the regime and from the public at large. After years of serving the regime in various ideological and coercive apparatuses, the younger generation of Islamists is posing a serious challenge from within to the authority of the Supreme Leader and his associates. Well informed about the extent of corruption and the abuse of power by high-ranking clergy, and angry at being turned into the new target of fellow-Islamists' terror, the Islamist reformers have assumed a leading role in demystifying the Islamic regime, its key players, and its horrifying working mechanism. Their writings, exposing the direct involvement of top clergy such as Rafsanjani, represented a heavy blow to the regime and contributed to the defeat of the conservative clergy in the last parliamentary elections. Despite the undeniable aid provided by the Muslim reformers to the movement for democracy, for political and moral pluralism and for state accountability , it is important to bear in mind that they do not question the system in its totality, and do not seek to replace it with a modern democratic and secular political system. They are trying to save it from its ever-deepening crisis by smoothing its rough edges and removing the fundamentalist clergy from political power. Hence the challenge from within, though seriously weakening the regime, by itself will not achieve any meaningful change. The replacement of a more conservative clergy with a moderate one, Khatami in the office of the Presidency, has not and will not break the monopoly of Islamists on Iranian politics and society. In fact, aware of the public's expectations and false hopes, President Khatami recently declared publicly that "after three and a half years as President," he "lacks sufficient powers to implement the constitution" and "the rule of law."
The challenge from outside the regime, the more serious challenge, comes from different sections of the population, particularly the youth, women, and workers. After the revolution the regime purged the universities and only allowed ideologically-tested Muslim students to attend. Yet the crude practices for ideological indoctrination of the youth, as the Islamists themselves have repeatedly lamented, have been a complete failure. The youth has turned against a regime that is unable to provide them with employment, recreation, and any prospects for future advancement and well being. The nationwide student movements in support of the promised reforms are a major destabilizing factor in Iranian politics. Despite the brutal suppression of student activists and the killing and arrests of several hundred students by state-backed thugs, the student uprising of July 1999 has not lost momentum. Frustrated with the lack of tangible gains for the reform movement, the angry students seem to be turning on President Khata mi, criticizing him for "expressing nice thoughts but siding with the Conservatives whenever push comes to shove." The students have repeatedly expressed their anger at what they consider the President's turn-the-other-cheek policy. Undoubtedly, in today's Iran the youth are a major pillar of the struggle for change.
The regime tried its best to impose its archaic gender policy and push women back into the home. But, with the exception of making the veil mandatory it did not succeed. Now, at the forefront of the resistance are women whose defiance of clerically-defined Islamic morality and the domesticated and chaste notion of Muslim womanhood, has remained a nightmare for the Islamists. Women's resistance, widely considered the Achilles heel of the Islamists, has forced the regime to introduce one ruling after another, and to pass one bill after another, in order to regain control over women's social and moral conduct. No other issue could expose with such clarity the wicked and outmoded character of the Islamic regime as its gender politics and the bizarre methods used to reestablish the gender order of bygone centuries. As an outcome of the women's remarkable resistance, and the pressure the Islamists feel to fix their anti-woman reputation, the government has been forced to retreat in some areas of women's rights such as the re-enactment of a new family law, lifting the ban on women's entry into certain fields of education, and more toleration shown towards professional women and the appointment of women in certain managerial positions.
Next to its gender policy the regime's labor policy has remained one of its main preoccupations. The Islamic government brutally suppressed the labor and councils' movements and created its own labor organizations. Yet, the resistance of the workers has been a nagging reality for the regime. The workers' protests against the dramatic decline in real wages and the closure of certain factories, resulting in delayed wages or mass layoffs, have been a persistent reality since the revolution. Given the extreme sensitivity of the Islamic regime to organized mass protest by the workers, the growing waves of workers actions, taking various forms from production slowdowns, assembling in front of the Labor Ministry's offices in Tehran and other major cities, to the blockages of main highways and taking the employer hostage, are a clear manifestation of working class frustration and disillusionment, and the regime's growing loss of legitimacy. The recent strike of Tehran's Alladin gas stove company, demanding four m onths of unpaid wages, the rally of female workers of Jamko company in front of the President's office in protest to their unpaid wages and company's unpaid share of health insurance, and the rally of several thousands of city employees and their families in front of the office of Tehran's City Council are but a few examples.
Nonetheless, none of these challenges, or the persisting economic crisis, will necessarily threaten the present political system. Neither the internal opposition of the Muslim reformers, nor the sporadic, spontaneous responses of the people, courageous as they are, can have a lasting and cumulative effect without a strong, united, and organized secular opposition. Without such an opposition, political change in favor of establishing a democratic system and separating religion from politics is not conceivable. It is the case, however, that the vast and diversified Iranian secular opposition, particularly the left, has remained divided and weak.
The Iranian left more or less continues along the same two lines that it chose during the revolution, one accommodating and seeking collaboration with the pragmatist faction of the clerical regime, and the other seeking rapid and radical overthrow of the regime for the establishment of a socialist system. Two circumstances will have to change before the left in Iran can have a more deciding influence on the direction of political change and the reform movement First, it must leave behind unrealistic and illusory theoretical and political ideas, reassess its own weaknesses and strengths, and design a new and realistic strategy for achieving its goals. This requires that the left abandon its organizational sectarianism and political divisions in order to be able to form a wide coalition of all left organizations and prominent intellectuals. This will enable the left to join forces with other pro-democracy, anti-clerical groups in support of a strong united secular opposition with close links with the spont aneous movements against the theocratic regime. Second, the climate which has made political participation the monopoly of the Islamists has to change, allowing the secular left, workers, feminists, nationalists, and the grass-roots movements to be effective in the political arena and have a chance to represent their own views and their agendas to the society. For the workers' movement in particular, nothing is more crucial than an opportunity to form independent trade union organizations, and this cannot be achieved without weakening the power of the present autocratic clerical regime.
Such developments will create real possibilities for the century-old movements for democracy, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, respect for minority rights, women's rights, economic development, and social justice to succeed. Such objective circumstances favoring action by the secular left will almost inevitably arise, if the existing equilibrium, or "the balance of fear"--a popular term used to define the hesitation of various factions within the ruling bloc to strike the final blow--continues. This impasse within the Islamic reform movement will undoubtedly intensify the push for radical change and will give the secular opposition a chance to actively participate in the struggle for establishing--as a first step--a secular democratic state in place of the existing clerical oligarchy.
Resalat Daily, Tehran, February 8, 1999.
For Councils see, Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran, (Zed Books, 1987.) For a different perspective, see Saeed Rahnema "Work Councils in Iran: The Illusion of Workers Control" in Economic and Industrial Democracy, 13/1 (1992).
Iran Times, Washington D.C. No. 37, November 24, 2000.
Iran Times, November 24, 2000.
Sepidar, Toronto, No. 36, November 10, 2000.
See, Haideh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, (Zed Press, 1999, Oxford University Press, 1999). Ch. 6, and Haleh Afshar, Islam and Feminism, (MacMillan, 1999,) ch.1.
For details see, Haideh Moghissi and Saeed Rahnema, "The Working Class and the Islamic State in Iran," Socialist Register, No. 37, 2001.
Iran Times, November 24, 2000.
Sepidar Toronto, No. 39, December 1, 2000; Shahrvand, Toronto, December 1, 2000.
The accommodating left organizations include the remnants of the Tudeh Party, the Fedayeen Axariat (Majority), the Peoples' Democratic Party of Iran, and the surviving individuals of the Organization of the Peoples' Fedayeen. The radicals seeking, to different degrees, the immediate establishment of a socialist system include, Left Workers Unity (an umbrella organization of the Workers' Path and several others), The Union of Peoples' Fedayeen, Fedayeen Aghaliat (Minority), the Communist Party of Iran (mostly Kurdish),and The Workers' Communist Party of Iran (a splinter of the Communist Party).