New-conservatives, regime crisis and political perspectives in Iran

In the recent presidential elections in Iran, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, an unknown conservative military commander, won. His victory was surprising as many had predicted Hashemi Rafsanjani would become Iran’s next president. Rafsanjani, perhaps the second most powerful man in the Islamic Republic, was supported by a broad coalition of reformists and pragmatist elites. The shock of this surprise victory may partly explain the crude nature of some of the analyses that followed. Even more striking is the failure to address the deeper causes and background to this event, and to analyse its consequences. This article is an effort to address these issues. At the onset a few observations may be helpful:


In the Islamic Republic, elections, including presidential ones, are fundamentally undemocratic, tightly controlled processes. The law deprives many citizens such as women, religious minorities (including non-Shi’ite Muslims) and political opponents of the religious state, etc from standing for president. This is enforced in practice by the unlimited power of the Council of Guardians [1]. This Council has consistently rejected anyone it considers unsuitable for the ruling circles. Therefore, in practice, elections in the Islamic Republic are nothing more than a “beiat” [expression of allegiance] with one of the few, and often the only, person the Council of Guardians has let through its net [2]. In such conditions non-participation in elections, rather than reflecting voter apathy, is one form of expressing “dissent”, a means of protesting against the regime and questioning its legitimacy [3].

Those sections of the state that are up for periodic elections, including the presidency, are in general of secondary importance in the power structure. The system revolves round an unelected  central core, headed by a Supreme Leader, vali-e- faqih, with truly unlimited powers. It is here that all major decisions are made, especially so after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and his replacement with Ayatollah Khamenei’. The presidency and the administration have ultimately an executive responsibility – or as the outgoing President Mohammad Khatami puts it they “play the role of a footman”. Yet because of the faction-ridden nature of the ruling elites, the individual in charge of the executive becomes important since this appointment could effect the distribution of public resources and to some extend the ability of the entire state structure to function. Hence control of elected organs, and the presidency in particular, are also hotly contested, and subject to intense bargaining, among the various factions.

The most important function of elections in the Islamic Republic rests precisely here: namely the redistribution of power among the various ruling factions. This contest is particularly acute at times when the internal crisis of the regime is intensified and when the normal bargaining processes are unable to reach a “consensus”. “Elections” in such conditions become a mechanism for the re-allocation of power, where factions test their respective power against electoral legitimacy. Until the latest election, the normal practice in the Islamic Republic was for all the factions to observe the rules of an in-house democratic game. After the initial weeding process by the Council of Guardians, the power centres did not intervene in favour of one or other candidate outside “the legal framework”, or more accurately, did not undermine too explicitly legal appearances [4].

What at first glance distinguishes the latest election in the Islamic Republic from all its predecessors is that for the first time the rules of the democratic game among the regime’s various factions have been openly flouted. Cheating, in the shape of manufacturing votes has always been a common practice, whether through stuffing ballot boxes, or miscounting this or that voting booth in favour of a candidate. The Council of Guardians has frequently declared null and void votes cast for some candidates. Finally the overall number of votes cast in elections is always massaged. This is, after all, a way to claim greater legitimacy among the voting public for the entire system. This fraud, however, always took place by common consent among the factions, supposedly without damaging the electoral prospects of one or other candidate.

What is totally unprecedented is what took place in June. The world witnessed structural, nation-wide and highly organised deception, led from the apex of the pyramid of power in favour of one candidate that took not just the world, but a large section of the ruling elite of Iran by surprise. The shape and scope of this scheme was such that it would not be an exaggeration to state that Ahmadinejad, a commander in the Revolutionary Guards Corps, took over the presidential palace through a blood-less coup or as revolutionary guard commander Zolqadr said afterwards “in a complex way … and [through] multi-layered planning” [5].

These elections were also held at a time of unprecedented developments in the region. As far as the Middle East is concerned, Iran is in a very strong position, mainly thanks to the military interventions of its long term “foes”, the United States and Britain. To the East, the Taliban regime (with whom it nearly went to war in the late 1990s) is defeated, and many of Iran’s allies are back in power as regional warlords, such as the governor of Herat province in western Afghanistan under the pro-Iran warlord Haji Ismail Khan. However Iran’s main international success has been achieved in Iraq. Without firing a single shot, they have seen not only the removal of Saddam’s secular Ba’thist regime — a neighbour they hated more than Israel and the US — but the coming to power of their protégés, the Shi’a parties and militias of “Islamic Daawa” (the Iraqi occupation Prime Minister’s party) and other major parties in the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), sharing power with the Kurdish PUK and KDP. All are organisations well known for getting military, financial and political support from Iran since the 1980s. This, together with chaos created by military occupation in Iraq is part of the reason why the Islamic regime in Iran felt confident enough to take unprecedented risks in these elections.

As a result of this election, for the first time in the life of the Islamic Republic, virtually every organ and institution of power, electable or otherwise, has been handed over to the complete control of the conservatives. It would appear on the surface that political power is now homogeneous and concentrated at the apex of the regime, in the hands of its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’. However, there is evidence that the coup d’état that was carried out behind the curtains of elections was not just directed against reformists, or the leading candidate Hashemi Rafsanjani, but against the majority of the existing groupings in the ruling oligarchy [6].

There is no doubt that, Ahmadinejad and his supporters belong to the conservative wing of the ruling bloc. However, among the various conservative circles, Ahmadinejad , in particular belongs to groups that have been named radical new-conservatives. He was one of the founders of the groups called Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran (abadegaran) and Devotees (isar-garan). Over the last few years, encouraged and supported by the Supreme Leader, these groups have been taking root, predominantly in the security-police and military organs. They espouse populist-Islamist and value-based slogans that distinguishes them from the other conservatives. It is also clear that in the pre-election bargaining of the various ultra-conservative factions, Ahmadinejad was not acceptable to all and the conservatives went into the elections with four candidates.

As a result of the June election for the first time in a quarter of a century a military man, rather than a mullah, takes over as head of the executive. This almost completes the trend of military-security control of the main organs of state, which began at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, and gained momentum over the past 8 years. This trend began in the municipal council elections when the abadgaran took control of many towns and cities two years ago and was consolidated when they went on to control the Majles (parliament). The point cannot be overemphasised that this is an entirely new and qualitative change, one that could have a decisive influence on the relation between barracks and mosque in a theocracy.

The open interference by the supreme leadership apparatus [Khamenei’s entourage] in the “elections”, the key role of the military and para-military apparatus in shaping and organising the vote, and ultimately the coming to power of the populist new-conservatives was an act which was contrary to the norms in the present political culture. Not surprisingly it gave rise to an unprecedented wave of protest from among the ruling elites. Such behaviour can undoubtedly upset the line-ups within the regime and place the leadership apparatus, and specifically further isolate Ali Khamenei’. It can weaken his position among the clerical oligarchy, which for nearly three decades has held real power in its hands. It is not beyond the bounds of imagination that the Assembly of Experts [7], despite being controlled by conservatives, will question his suitability to continue as leader. Rafsanjani’s recent proposal to replace the Supreme Leader (Khamenei) with a Council of Leadership could well be taken up seriously with the support of other influential clerics. So, why take such a risk? How can one explain this political purge that took place under the guise of elections? What are its possible consequences?

Why the coup?

The 9th presidential election was a stage where the crisis engulfing the regime and the solutions that could harness these crises were simultaneously played out in the shape of an aggressive struggle for power. It took place at a time when the existence of the regime was seriously threatened from three directions: At home the regime is fast approaching a crisis of control, increasingly isolated and assaulted by a general wave of disaffection and protest. Meanwhile the regional and global noose is tightening in pursuit of Bush’s project of “regime change”. Finally within the regime the factional splits and quarrels have made it impossible for the ruling elites to take decisive decisions and act in a united way.

These crises, of course, have structural causes [8] wedded in the contradictory nature of power in the Islamic Republic. They were born with the regime, and have steadily worsened over the last two decades, in particular after the adoption of neo-liberal policies and the application of the structural adjustment programmes. They have been deepened, more recently by Bush’s post September 11 policies, to the extent that today the regime finds itself faced with real dangers.

Over these years, and in response to the regimes crises, the rulers gradually lined up, gelled into two different politico-ideological camps. Self-styled “reformists” faced conservatives. The former believe that without “reforms” the system cannot survive, although they hold different views as to what “reform” entails. Some limit it to policies and ultimately the conduct of the state in relation to the people, in particular in the social and political arena. Others go as far as institutional reforms in the power-structure. For instance they want a change in the constitution to increase the relative power of elected organs in relation to those that are appointed [9]. They also want to normalise and “reduce tension” in foreign relations, and abide by international norms. This, they believe will guarantee the survival of the system and hence their hold on power.

During 1999-2001 the “reformists” attracted the support of a large section of the population and clocked substantial victories in a chain of elections, occupying almost every institution up for election. Yet at the very moment of victory their dream turned to nightmare. It became obvious to all but the most blind that this repressive and reactionary regime is not only immutable, but the institutional power structure is intertwined with the interests of the ruling groups such as to make any reforms impossible. In addition the appalling consequences of the economic policies of the reformists on the daily life of the millions, had not only created major disappointment, but made inevitable the prospect of growing protests.

The international scene fared no better, and September 11 put an abrupt end to Iran’s efforts to normalise foreign relations. Khatami’s “dialogue of civilisations” foundered when Bush placed Iran among rogue states and officially declared a policy of regime change. It then became obvious that, contrary to the hopes raised by Khatami’s inauguration 8 years before, in a changing world political environment his discourse and foreign policies cannot provide the regime with any protection against outside threats. The effect of these setbacks was, on one hand, to weaken the position of the reformist faction within the overall ruling structures, subjecting them to greater pressure from the conservatives. And, on the other hand, destroyed the internal cohesion of the various groupings that made up the “reformist” alliance. The result was repeated schisms and splits.

The conservative bloc has a different strategy to deal with the burgeoning crises: Concentrate power more and more at the top and use naked repression and terror through the military and police apparatus. All the cliques within this bloc oppose any change in the institutional structure of power, especialy if that means reducing the authority of the leadership apparatus [10], which to them assures the “Islamic” foundation of the entire system. They are convinced that any flexibility in “principles and values” will lead to oblivion, and should be ruthlessly resisted. Indeed, they aim to simplify the muddled and contradictory aspects of the regime by doing away with the semi-elected republic in favour of a self-appointed caliphate, with a highly centralised structure [11]. Conservatives also viewed any openness in the political atmosphere or the formation of any form of independent social or political associations as a dangerous threat to their total control of society. Faced with the erosion of politically mobilised social support for the Islamic Republic, they turned to hired military and mercenary forces as their sole instrument of control.

On the international level the conservatives prefer to play the card of Islamic movements, terrorist activities and politico-religious conflicts. They also try to open up whatever breathing space they can by manoeuvring in the gaps and on the competing interests among great powers, in particular looking towards China, Russia and Japan. To achieve this their main weapon is commercial and economic concessions. Notwithstanding such policies, however, they have not flinched from making behind the scene deals and concessions, if it served to consolidate their power, nor to use the nuclear weapons card.

The conservative bloc, particularly since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, had occupied all the key positions of power. These included all the organs that came under the command of the Supreme Leader – the armed forces, the police intelligence apparatus and the judiciary. Moreover control over the Council of Guardians, by drawing red lines that cannot be crossed, permits control over every branch of state, including the state bureaucracy and the executive.

Yet the despotic and intensely reactionary nature of the various cliques within the ultra-conservative bloc severely limits their ability to deal with the emerging crises. Indeed within a few years after the revolution of 1979 they themselves became the main cause of political and social crises, pushing the latter to bursting point. This may be a reason why throughout its entire life this bloc could never extend its support base beyond the military and quasi-military networks and the people under the direct umbrella of the charities run by them. Their track record in dealing with the crisis of legitimacy and the ever-escalating isolation of the regime has been dismal. This can be seen in the proportion of votes for their candidates – never exceeding 25% of the votes cast. They only became electable when the rest had boycotted elections [12]. This fact was one reason why, at least for the last 10 years, they were content to tolerate the rival bloc’s control over the executive machinery and the legislative Majles, while keeping a tight grip on the protective shield of the security forces.

With the failure of the reformists to keep their support base, their inability to act as a safety valve for the entire regime, the failure of their foreign policy to provide to provide a partial shield against US threats, the conservatives faced a new quandary and starkly precarious conditions [13]. They had only two choices: compromise and abandon the ruling political system in a step by step prossess of isolation, or face a deadly confrontation and put up with the consequences. Faced with this Hobson’s choice the conservatives split into various factions: The Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran (abadgaran), Principled Reformist (usul-garane eslah talab) etc.

These new groupings, which could be called Islamist new-conservatives, carved their place in the political spectrum of the country by being critical of and rejecting all other factions: the reformists (supporters of Mohammad Khatami), pragmatists (supporters of Rafsanjani) [14] and traditional conservatives. In their view all three, had failed in practice, and indeed exacerbated the crisis such that the very existence of the regime was threatened. For the new-conservatives, recourse to an immediate, bold and radical solution seemed unavoidable. And this is what they did – a slow consolidation of power followed by a silent coup.

Over the last few years the new-conservatives had managed to quietly infiltrate many organs, outwitting their rivals to end up controlling many town councils, the Majles and now the presidency.

New-conservative policies

The new-conservative groups, emerging predominantly from within the armed forces and working under the umbrella of the leadership apparatus, aim for a new equilibrium. This is an equilibrium that will reduce the internal and external crises and ensure the survival of the system. The aim is to create a powerful, centralised, principled state, cleansed of corruption, one that can count on renewed support from the lower sections of society, the military and semi-military forces, armed with nuclear weapons, all funded by petro-dollars. With these tools they believe they can confront both internal and external challenges without resorting to any structural changes, while maintaining the ideological-authoritarian nature of the regime.

The difference between the new-conservatives and the more traditional conservatives lies in: First, prioritising destitute masses to win back their support for the regime. Second, on their definition of the state. Theirs will be an interventionist state, a state that will control all the main lifelines of the country, quite unlike the “privatised” variety of the traditional conservatives. Third, on focusing their slogans and discourse on social justice and the welfare of poor rather than on Islamic values and the question of haq va baatel [right and wrong in religious matters]. This grouping, however, is still in the process of development, and their exact policies are somewhat ill defined, indeed in the making. The broad outlines can, however, be deduced from statements and utterances of its spokespersons. There are two central solutions.

a. To centralise power at the apex and embark on a political, organisational and financial purge of the executive body of the state. What they hope to do is to harness internal tensions and to block any effort by opponents to use internal splits to further their aims. These are reflected in such slogans as the fight against bureaucratic corruption, the state aristocracy, and the rentiers.

b. The attempt to form a new political movement in order to rekindle the social base of the regime, in particular among the urban and rural poor – something that had gradually eroded over the last 15 years. In fact they are trying to ride the popular discontent of the victims of the economic policies of the regime. Here they hope to cultivate the right material to help them rebuild the crumbling fortifications of the regime. Moreover, they might well be in need of cannon fodder were the conflict with the US and Israel to escalate. The role of such slogans as social justice, the fight against inequality, the anti-poverty drive, the “taking the oil money back to the people’s table”, the solution to the housing problem, employment and marriage of youth and such like is precisely to serve this purpose.

Some supporters of Ahmadinejad have referred to this as the “third revolution” one that instead of clergy or students has its leadership in the military [15]. This revolution is being born in the barracks rather than mosque or university. Others see this is a rebirth of the idealism of the early revolutionary years and a re-emergence of Islamic populism [16].

It was along such a trajectory that the unannounced alliance between a number of new-conservative groupings under the leadership of Khamenei’s circle were able to lead the recent elections, through a carefully planned and executed plan with “headlights off” until the eve of the second ballot, to go on and occupy the last bastion of the reformists and pragmatists [17]. The ground is now ploughed for the absolute rule of the velayate faqih – something the late Ayatollah Khomeini had called for but failed to implement successfully – foiled by the deep contradiction of his regime [18].

Does this scheme rest on real capabilities, real ground and real potentialities? If successful can it save the regime from the quagmire it is sinking in? Or is this just a moribund attempt with no other outcome but further weakening of the regime, its greater isolation and a speeding up of its implosion and collapse?

Can the new-cons do the impossible?

To answer these questions we will consider the real conditions, potentials and limitations faced by the Islamic Republic today. However it is important to first clarify a few issues:

1. The crisis of the Islamic Republic has structural roots. They are above all the expression of the incompatibility of a religio-ideological ultra-reactionary regime with its material surroundings and historic setting. It is no surprise that the Islamic government has been in continuous crisis since birth, repeatedly surfacing under various guises and at numerous levels. The constant need for political and structural changes has been an inevitable necessity. At best these efforts, which surfaced as political U-turns, have merely shifted the epi-centres of such crises from one area to another – avoiding an explosion without removing the underlying causes. Every time the question was the same: What are the regime’s capacities, where are the U-turns heading and what would be the passing effects of any change in policy? For the mullahs ruling Iran, such crises were the norm. We have therefore witnessed a move from “principles” to “expediency”, from elitism to populism, from decentralisation to the reverse and back again – always in search of stability! [19].

2. In the current domestic and international conditions the Islamic Republic cannot find a solution to survive without totally negating its very existence. The stark choice it faces is either to submit totally to colonial conditions (either keeping the religious appearance or under a secular mask) as have some its neighbours, and to dissolve in Bush’s plan for a “larger Middle East”, or surrender to a progressive participatory and radical democracy. Despite all the outcries and widespread claims to the contrary, there is no third road. No matter how daring the manoeuvres, or how unexpected the changes and shifts in power and policies, this regime will face a fresh deadlock sooner rather than later making its collapse inevitable.

3. The Islamic Republic has come out of the latest election weaker than ever, and will embark on yet another political U-turn, creating an even greater level of instability. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly in order to make to entice the population to participate in the electoral process, it has had to retreat from what was always considered its fundamental principles and values. The rulers were forced to recognise, and even consider some of the political, economic and cultural demands of the people. We saw them apologising for the dismal record of the last 3 decades. Even more astonishing was how all candidates avoided issues relating to “Islam” and “revolution” and directly or indirectly criticise the authoritarian and oppressive nature of their own regime [20].

Moreover, in this election, candidates on both sides of the political spectrum encouraged negative voting. People were asked to vote to reject, rather than to support a particular candidate or slogan. Reformists and pragmatists encouraged people to vote against reaction, despotism and to guard against the danger of fascism (meaning Ahmadinejad). Conservatives asked people to vote against corruption, inequality, poverty, and the plunder of public resources (meaning Rafsanjani) [21].

Yet despite all the departures and all the tricks, and in spite of the usual threats of dire consequences of voting abstention, official sources admit that only 28 of the 48 million eligible were dragged to the polling booths (this figure includes the rigged votes). In circumstances where most of the opposition, the ones who call for an overthrow of the Islamic regime, had asked for a boycott, the absence of 40% of the voters, rather than a sign of disbelief or indifference, is a clear and unambiguous sign of widespread opposition to the very existence of the system [22].

4. In its quest for political homogeneity and unanimity in power, the regime was forced to jettison the ruling alliance that had lasted nearly three decades, an alliance that helped the system maintain stability. Now, for the first time in its entire existence, the Islamic Republic has to be answerable to its various challenges, both domestic and external, without the help of reformists and pragmatists in key positions. At a time when it has little room to manoeuvre, the regime has lost one of the main weapons it has used successfully on so many occasions to sow indecision among its domestic and foreign opponents [23]. From now on it has to face its crises head on, and in doing so to rely on its last resource, the military barracks, to keep its balance.

The country is increasingly in military hands. Significantly, on the road to creating a military state, the special position and stature occupied by the clergy has been uniquely questioned. For the first time in 25 years a non-cleric is president – and a military man to boot. The logic for the central role of velayate faqih – the embodiment of the monopoly of rule by the clergy – and the very basis of Khomeini’s vision of Islamic government – has been abandoned.

5. Moreover, by choosing Mahmood Ahmadinejad, an extremist counter-intelligence officer in the Revolutionary Guards, with a history of involvement in terrorism and murder [24], to head the executive, foreign relations, even attendance at international gatherings will become more problematic than ever before. In particular with the nuclear weapons issue the US and Israel are in a better position to incite international public opinion against the Islamic Republic. Now, any judge or attorney anywhere can try their hand at prosecuting the second person in the Iranian government.

Not yet ready to fall?

Is the regime, then, ready to fall? Notwithstanding the fact that the Islamic Republic has come out of this election weaker and more fragile than before, one cannot necessarily conclude that it is on the threshold of immediate implosion and collapse. It is likely to continue its existence for some time yet. The future of the regime rests on a number of factors and the way they interact. Some of these factors may allow the regime a breathing space while others will do the opposite:

Will Iran’s rulers be able to implement a series of rapid new-conservative reforms to rekindle the support of a significant section of the destitute masses [25]? Can an anti-popular, utterly reactionary, despotic and authoritarian regime, which was once able to use support from the “dishinherited” to maintain power do so again? Can a regime, which in pursuit of exporting its revolution, sent these supporters to clear minefields for eight years, dangling a plastic “key to heaven” round their neck, be capable of regaining their trust? Will the people who had been betrayed once consent to being betrayed again [26]?

There are two possible answers to these questions:

Affirmative: If it makes good use of the opportunities offered, especially those resulting form the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan , the Islamic regime can mobilise some of the poorest in its support and survive the current crisis. These opportunities include the quagmire of Iraq (which could help the Islamic Republic play its Shi’te card), the current buoyant oil market and the way any new crisis in the Middle East might influence oil prices, the significant foreign exchange reserves they have accumulated and the surplus earnings due to the current high oil prices. These could be channelled into immediate improvement in the living conditions for targeted sections of the population and reduce discontent among them.

Then there is the deep crisis among the ranks of the opposition forces whose potential to fill the current political vacuum has shrunk. There is also the weakness and disunity among radical and progressive forces that could have helped activate the existing class divisions and use it to organise and mobilise the independent organisations of workers and toilers. And finally if they successfully use the basij – a nationwide political-military organisation [27] that it controls, and the wide network of mosques and associated charities, as powerful means of communication between the state and the deprived and marginalised masses.

Negative: If the new political cliques in power cannot overcome some of their contradictions the obstacles they face both within and outside the ruling apparatus. These obstacles are:

Creating a new balance between the economic interests of the mafia-like rentiers at the top and the demands of the dispossessed masses [i.e., the core element of the new-conservative’s strategy]:[M3]  Being able to redistribute public resources (especially oil income) to reduce the burdens of life. This will require cutting all or at least some of the tentacles of an insatiable monster. An octopus with one end in the inner circles around Khamenei’ and the numerous institutions under its tutelage, and tentacles in the Revolutionary Guards, the security apparatus, the newly built palaces of the top families, and the offices of their offspring (popularly known as the aghazadeha = sons of clerics). In other word, being able to keep the promise to have the “oil money on the table of the poor” and to create hope.

Neutralising the immediate and savage resistance of capital – both domestic and foreign – which will view the slightest deviation from its model of neo-liberal economy and austerity as anathema: Being able to gain its confidence and to sell them an economic policy full of contradictories and ambiguities. And to prevent domestic and foreign capitalists using their most effective weapon, flight to other places, thereby squeezing the economy and increasing unemployment [28].

Repressing or overcoming the demands of working people, key agents of socio-political change. Given the radicalisation of such demands by the masses, the regime will need to block efforts to organise at various levels; to entice working people to blindly follow yet another “saviour”, it will have to split the ranks of the labour force, and to isolate the more radical sections of the labour movement [29].

Controlling the political context within which the regime operates: That is to say, first of all, to crush the popular movements for social equality, cultural and political freedom, and self-governing. Being able to create an environment of fear such that anti-despotic movements, and in particular women, youth, intelligentsia, and non-Fars nations and ethnic groups are controlled. Being capable of suppressiong the rising waves of cultural and civil disobedience and political protest. In short, producing a schism between the demand for bread and that for freedom.

Stabilising the regime’s relationship with the world most powerful states: In particular, preventing the nuclear weapons issue from becoming explosive, and hence being able to divert petro-dollars as before to the state coffers.

And finally, preventing the crises outside from infecting the corridors of power and fracturing the political and factional homogeneity achieved by the present coup: That is to say, preventing the singularity of decision-making being destroyed, giving way once again to factional squabbles, obstructions and such like, this time between the existing military-economic mafias in the conservative faction.

There is little evidence that new-conservatives in Iran will raise once more the flag of social justice in a “third revolution”. If the “first revolution” was a real tragedy, the “third revolution” will probably be nothing more than a nauseating comedy.

Yet the key to the puzzle of Ahmadinejad is in the hands of the working class. Emergence of a progressive, radical and mass working class movement is the only development that could fill the current ideological and political vacuum within which reactionary populism of Ahmadinejad is trying to act. A class that is the only social force capable of preventing demagogic populism [30].

The crucial issue facing Iran, however, is not the fate of Ahmadinejad. It is the fate of the country. It does not require much imagination to understand that the Islamic Republic has a mortal disease. Ahmadinejad’s remedy is only temporary. Inevitable death awaits this regime, so out of keeping with its era . What Ahmadinejad and the regime are vainly trying to save is already doomed.

But the fate of the country is not inevitable. In the manifold crises facing Iran, will the country face collapse and break-up, invasion or a real liberating future? That choice, and that future, is being made today. And the answer is clearly not preordained nor totally dependent on how, or at the hands of whom, the Islamic regime falls.

This future is once again in the hands of the organised working class of Iran. Will the working class be able to tie its strategic potential to the energy and creativity of the social movements? Would it be capable of giving birth to a real agent for social change through combining organisation and organisational ability? If the answers to these questions are positive, then not only the swamp the Ahmadinejads of Iran want to use to create another ultra-conservative and reactionary movement will dry up, but the country will avoid the threat of collapse, break-up or invasion. “Otherwise there will be silence, and silence is our sin!” [31]

The experience of the last eight years has proved that a heavy penalty awaits those that are unable to use the opportunities facing them to create something new and surrender to the idea of reconciliation with reality. With the advent of the ultra-reactionary new-conservatism, those movements who fail to take up the occasion provided today to move to a better life, and to a different world, are without doubt going to face a more savage penalty. 

Ardeshir Mehrdad, Mehdi Kia

July 2005

[email protected] 

[email protected]


1. An all-powerful 12-man committee appointed by the Supreme Leader and given veto rights on elections and laws that in their view are incompatible with “Islam”. In the latest election only 8 of over 2000 candidates passed its veto and were allowed to go on the ballot paper – and even here the two reformist candidates, Mostafa Moin (Minister of Higher Education in the outgoing government) and Mehralizadeh were only reinstated after serious protest.

2. See Iran: Majles election boycott. What next? iran bulletin – Middle East Forum series II no 1 p 2

3. This is a fundamental difference between elections in the Islamic Republic and normal parliamentary democracies. The Iranian electors are highly politicised and have shown their ability to use the ballot box very adroitly to play the political field in highly undemocratic conditions pertaining to the country. See for example Presidential elections: What if the magic fails. iran bulletin 1993 no 2 p6; Majles elections iran-bulletin nos 25-26; Iran: Majles election boycott. What next? iran bulletin – Middle East Forum series II no 1 p 2

4. What some western analysts have called “democracy Iranian-Islamic style”

5. There is evidence that a coup-like plan, kept carefully “blacked-out” until 24 hours before the second round of elections, was put into motion. Ahmadinejad , who had been trailing in the first round of elections until counting was well underway suddenly emerges as the challenger to Hashemi Rafsanjani to the open protest of the other runner up, former Speaker of Majles, Mehdi Karrubi. Ahmadinejad ’s campaign distributed 5 million copies of a CD, almost exclusively in the poorer districts of the country, which showed Rafsanjani and his family living in luxury while Ahmadinejad was portrayed living a simple life and giving away most of his salary to the poor. Then in the second round the Basij (militia) troops put into effect a “headlights off” plan in which each of the 1.5 million strong Basij had to bring 10 persons to vote. See Shargh news paper (Farsi) 14 July 2005. Chief of Revolutionary Guards Corps, Zolqadr addressing in a large meeting of the Basij: “in the complex political situation when foreign powers and extremist currents inside have for some time been determined, and planned, to change the result of the elections in their favour and to prevent the emergence of an efficient and principled government, we had to act in a complex way and the principled forces, thanks be to Allah, through correct and multi-layered planning, were able to get the support of the majority of the people in a tight and real competition…” Sharq, Teheran July 2005 (in Farsi).

6. There were eight candidates. Moin and to a lesser extent Mehralizadeh represented the reformists. The pragmatist Rafsanjani was very much a compromise candidate who came in at the last minute and was expected by all commentators to win. Others were Karrubi who represented the Society of Militant Clergy – with some links to the reformists. The rest belonged to various conservative factions. These were former police chief Gjalibaf, Ali Larijani the Supreme Leader’s representative on the National Security Council and of course Ahmadinejad .

7. The Assembly of Experts is elected by the voters every 8 years from among senior clergy (defined as those with “knowledge and wisdom”). Among their role is to elect the velayate faqih – the supreme leader to the Islamic Republic who in turn has absolute power over the entire civil and political society.

8. See Ardeshir Mehrdad. The road to a terminal decline: alternatives split society at one end even as it is united in another. iran bulletin 1995, nos11-12 p6

9. The velayate faqih appoints most influential posts. In additional to the Council of Guardians, he appoints the heads of the arm forces, the judiciary, and has “representatives of the velayate faqih” in virtually every organ.

10. The present vali faqih: Seyyed Ali Khamanei’.

11. The dual structure of the Islamic Republic rests of two pyramids. One the religious-political pyramid at the apex of which sits the Supreme Leader – Ali Khamenei’. The other the executive presidency based on a parliament and presidency elected through tightly regulated and controlled electoral procedures. See Ardeshir Mehrdad. Will Iran’ political system absorb civil society or be overcome by it. iran bulletin 1998 no 19-20 p10

12. As happened in the last elections to the Majles and the municipal councils. See iran bulletin-Middle East Forum Series II no 2 p

13. Key elements in this quandary were the failure of the project to “reform civil society” and the increasing poverty and failure of the economic privation programme.

14. Known in Iran as Kargozaran Sazandegi = agents of construction

15. Khomeini called the occupation of the US embassy in 1981 the “second revolution”.

16. Kaveh Afrasiabi. The Ayatollah’s Reign, June28, 2005

17. See ibid footnote 5.

18. See Ardeshir Mehrdad. Velayate Faqih – a system on its deathbed. iran bulletin 1998 nos 17 p6

19. For example when the clashes became paralysing Khomeini created a new organ to stand above all other organs: the Assembly for Expediency. See Where does the Assembly for Expediency fit. iran bulletin 1998 nos 17 p9

20. Unlike previous occasions there was little effort to use religious orthodoxy as a powerful weapon to get voters into the booths. Instead each candidate tried to distance themselves as much as possible from the past and to absolve themselves from any responsibility towards it. This was most obvious with Ahmadinejad who, as a relatively unknown figure, made greater use of this ruse with benefit. Moreover such influential bodies as the Society of Teachers at the Qom Seminary, the Teheran Society of Militant Clergy, the Assembly of Militant Clergy, the Islamic Coalition Party (Hey’at-haa-ye Mo’talefe), who had played such crucial roles in previous elections, their support being critical for getting the vote, were sidelined and few candidates were happy to be officially linked with any of them.

21. A negative vote is not always a protest vote, or even a boycott. It can also be a vote to prevent things worsening: a choice between bad and worse.

22. This is exactly the opposite to what Ali Khamenei’ tried to imply, and some opposition forces echoed. Presence in voting booths cannot be automatically put to the account of the legitimacy of the regime. A negative vote to the record of the regime is not necessarily a positive vote for its existence.

23. Right up to the recent election many opposition forces had used the presence of the reformists within the regime as a chance for a peaceful transition to a post-Islamic Republic era. The same hopes had been used by, among others, the EU.

24: See for example Enghelabe Islami for details of Ahmadinejad ’s involvement in the murder of Kurdistan Democratic Party leaders in Vienna (in Farsi). See also for other references

25. The experience of the Iran-Iraq war is useful here. Then it used this weapon to break the siege of domestic opponents, while putting up an effective resistance to foreign invasion. It now hopes to use the same weapon to reduce the capacity of domestic opponents to manoeuvre and to prevent foreign powers, and specifically the USA, to try a direct overthrow – whether by a velvet revolution, or a limited or unlimited invasion.

26. Can political Islam, as a mass-populist movement, reconstruct itself in Iran after suffering a serious defeat, especially in the framework of a system that is the institutionalised expression of this defeat? It might be better to answer this question in a separate article.

27. A “barrack-based party”, as Mohammad-Reza Khatami put it in an interview with HOMA TV, a Satelight channel.

28. A day after the election of Ahmadinejad the Teheran Bourse lost 5% of its share value. The decline has continued since and has not been reversed by the end of July. Iranian State TV, Jaam-e jam, interview with head of the Iranian Bourse. July 28, 2005.

29. There is no doubt that the populist slogans of Ahmadinejad have found an echo in some of the poorest sections of society. This has been pointed out by the international media, and corroborated by independent sources. What is forgotten, however, is that while most of the middle layers turned out to vote for Rafsanjani, the majority of the 20 million who did not vote belonged to these destitute strata. This signifies that Ahmadinejad ’s influence among the layers he has specifically targeted remains weak. This does not bode well for the central strategy of the new-conservatives.

30. In 2000 at least, 20-23% of the urban and rural households lived under the absolute poverty line. See Nili et al, “Barrasi-e tahavolaat-e faghr, tozi’e daramad, va refaah-e ejtemaa’ei; Sazeman-e modiriyat va barnaameh-rizi-e keshvar; 1379 (Teheran, in Farsi). The official rate of unemployment in Iran is 16 percent (Central Bank) and unofficial estimates are about 30 %

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