Iran between Militarism and Democracy

In the past, to better understand politics in Iran one needed to pay critical attention to its chosen name since the 1979 revolution: The Islamic Republic of Iran.


For decades since the 1979 revolution the primary tension defining politics in Iran had stemmed from the irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of its constitution between its "Islamist" (particularly the concept of velayat-e faqih or rule by the supreme jurisprudence) and its republican ideals; or, if you will, between the will of the ruling clerics and the will of the people. As many commentators have observed, the tension had existed from the outset of the revolution and has expressed itself in the establishment of a parallel or dual form of government that continues to privilege the appointed over the elected institutions and offices of the state.


Over the years, since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s, and especially since the mid-1990s, "reformist" movements and politicians have pressured the regime to strengthen its republican aspects and weaken the tight grip over power by the unrepresentative clerical institutions such as the Guardian Council. Of course, as we all know, the conservative establishment fought back and managed to limit the gains of the reformists, especially during the Khatami years (1997-2005).


This much is broadly acknowledged and is widely known by most Iran observers. But what are less discussed are the emergence and the evolution of a third element in Iranian politics since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. And that is, the increasing militarization of politics and economics in the Islamic Republic.


It was indeed the two-times ex-president Mr. Rafsanjani, the now powerful head of the Expediency Council, reportedly Iran’s richest individual, and supporter of Mousavi candidacy against Ahmadinejad, who as president introduced the regime’s paramilitary forces to the economy in order to reconstruct the latter in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war. This move gave them an ever-increasing stake in the economy. Exact figures are hard to come by, however, it is clear that by now the Revolutionary Guard controls several hundred factories and industrial complexes and were in the recent past awarded lucrative gas and oil pipeline construction and the contract for the expansion or completion of Tehran’s underground metro project.


But it was not until the hyper-militarization of the post-9/11 US policies in the Middle East, the ultimate defeat of the first phase of official reformism under Khatami, and the election of Ahmadinejad to presidency in 2005 that the regime’s para-military organizations made serious inroads into the realm of politics itself. Of note, the macabre George W. Bush-Ahmadinejad dialectic permitted Tehran to embed this particular form of virulent militarism inside the halls of power and justify this momentous shift in familiar terms of the managerial discourses and practices often associated with times of heightened national security concerns. Today there is even a widespread talk of a new game-changing alliance between the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the paramilitary elite whose defining characteristics were forged during the Iran-Iraq war years in the 1980s. An ominous sign of this development was the incorporation of the quintessential paramilitary force known as baseej into the Revolutionary Guard structure last year. The Guards are reportedly represented by upwards of 80 representatives in the parliament, have many of their members appointed to ministerial and provincial governorate positions, and are said to be accountable only to the Supreme Leader himself.


The question of whether the supreme leader needs the Guard more or the reverse is true has been raised in some quarters but was made less poignant so long as Washington and Tel Aviv had persisted in their open belligerency toward Iran, and there were genuine concerns about the possibility of military strikes against Iran. Under these circumstances one could view the ascendancy of a hyper national security state in Iran as a temporary phenomenon, a necessary though undesirable development, and as the preferred regime response to existential military threats to its and indeed the nation’s soverignty.


With the advent of the Obama factor however the macabre dialectic of Washington-Tehran Axis of Military Neoconism was suspended and required further clarification of positions by key players.


Aside from "Islamism," republicanism, and militarism, there is a fourth element that has been under-discussed as well by most commentators on developments in Iran and one without which the unfolding of events do not make much sense. This is the presence and growth of a heterogeneous social movement for democratic change in Iran. It consists of movements by students, teachers, workers, urban youth, women, and, significantly, increasingly important segments of the elite. They are overwhelmingly in favor of non-violent means of bringing about democratic changes in both politics and culture indicating a degree of maturity largely missing in the movements for change in the 1970s against the late Pahlavi state. Examples include the One Million Signature Campaign by women seeking gender equality, the syndicalists associated with the Tehran bus transport workers, and the recently announced Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Human Rights in Iran.


Tehran fears this movement and found the Axis of Military Neoconism between Ahmadinejad and George W Bush rather convenient for employing its favored managerial discourses and practices to keep this movement at bay. However, the Obama factor, and the partial suspension of this symbiotic relationship combined with the unexpected enthusiasm of people of Iran to use the June 12 presidential election as a means to advance their interests led to a potentially explosive mix pending state decision as to how to proceed in this uncharted terrain.


Indeed June 13 (the day after the election) may turn out to be the most pivotal moment in the entire postrevolutionary period. This is a moment in which the clerical rulers could have chosen to embrace the path to peaceful democratization of politics and culture and away from the exclusionary politics of the past, including the prerevolutionary past of the Pahlavi era. Iran is socio-politically equipped to be a model for democratic development in the entire region of the Middle East. Something that (1) the Arab rulers in most of the region’s countries, who are allied with the US, fear the most, as it empowers prodemocracy forces in their troubled domains, and (2) the hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv also fear as it deprives them of the imperial alibi for their Iran plan unless they are to ignore public opinion at home, an unlikely proposition short of another 9/11-like terrorist event.


The stakes are enormously high for the nature of politics to come in Iran and far beyond. Tehran’s initial response to the election indicates that the regime favors the hyper national security state as status quo rather than as a short-term geopolitical imperative, and confrontation with the movement for democratic change instead of reconciliation. More important than whether there was election fraud is that Tehran seems to see it’s own narrowly defined needs as more important than the needs and the forcefully-expressed interests of the majority of Iranians and that it is not ready as yet to treat the people as citizens with dignity and rights in the public arena of politics and culture.


It is important to note that the regime does not fear the Guardian Council-approved "reformist" or "moderate" Mousavi per se. Instead what it fears is (1) the non-violent heterogeneous movement working to bring about democratic changes in the realms of politics and culture, and (2) a "reformist" president unexpectedly turned into the candidate of this movement and backed enthusiastically by the will of the majority.


The latter fear seems to have a more specific context as well which involves inter-factional rivalries among the key ruling sectors of the regime. Inter-factional rivalries are nothing new in the Islamic Republic. However, their intensity today is remarkable indeed. The entire world was afforded a glimpse of this internal feud during a televised presidentail debate when president Ahmadinejad accused Mr.


Rafsanjani, the powerful clerical head of the Expediency Council, of massive corruption. It is unlikely that such a frontal assault in such a public moment could have been undertaken without a green light from the Supreme Leader himself. The relevant facts here are that Rafsanjani openly and actively supported the candidacy of Mr. Mousavi while it was understood that Khamenei backed Ahmadinejad. However, a victory for Mousavi in the absence of the massive public support he in fact received would not have constituted an intolerable outcome for the Supreme Leader. The determining factor here was the presence of such a public backing. Under these circumstances a Mousavi victory assumed special significance and would have (1) exacerbated the system’s Islamist/republican contradiction (between its arbitrary center of (real) power located in the office of the Supreme leader and the (unintended) power of an elected president with a broad public mandate for change), and (2) strengthened Rafsanjani. It seems Mr.


Khamenei wished to avoid both outcomes.


At any rate, If the clerical leadership does not move away from its ruinous position it is likely that segments of the movement for change may radicalize and re-introduce some of the destructive and rigid mindset of those seeking revolutionary changes during the Pahlavi period in the late 1970s. The regime may be forcing the movements to choose between passivity before a hyper militarized state or open revolt.


Radicalization need not involve ruinous rigidities of discourse and practice. It could mean the expansion and further politicization of demands. It could involve greater contemplation and clarity about the nature and logic of the forces arrayed against democratic changes internally, in the region, and globally. It could include greater openness to engaging the state and the public through forms of civil disobedience. All of these would be welcome developments indeed.


What is certain however is that if the clerical regime does not reverse course there would be a lot of pain and suffering. The times call for boldness and wisdom. The state of in-between "Islamism,"


republicanism, hyper militarism, and intensified reformism, with imperialism in the background, is neither desirable nor stable. Too the path to further militarism at home is ruinous for the people and empowers imperialists to carry out their designs. The regime must choose reconciliation not with the "reformist" rivals of Ahmadinejad per se but with the movements for democratic change before it is too late.

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