Power and Society in Iran

Article Summary
Since the Iranian revolution, the country has witnessed drastic shifts in the relationship between the public and the ruling administration.

The years 1978-79 witnessed one of the most remarkable revolutions of the 20th century, after the Russian and Chinese revolutions — namely, the Iranian revolution. Many political, Islamic, liberal and Marxist movements — in addition to the political forces of Kurdish, Arab and Azeri minorities — participated in this revolution against the Shah’s regime that had become, as of the mid-1970s, a condescending political structure with weak social foundations. Its international cover was lifted, while Washington forbade the army and the imperial guards from launching a military coup. Consequently, the regime immediately collapsed.

During the first half of the 1980s, the social base of the new Iranian regime started to erode gradually with Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini’s inclination to dissolve all political movements that helped the Islamic party in the revolution. He finally disbanded the movement of his appointed successor, Ayatollah [Hossein Ali] Montazeri, on June 4, 1989, shortly before his death. Consequently, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had to conclude a deal to distribute power between the “murshed” (supreme leader) and the president of the republic, in order to complete the establishment of the new order in the post-Khomeini era. Moreover, the position of prime minister was done away with after it was  occupied by Hashemi Rafsanjani. The latter had represented the bazaar forces and the moderate trend, which received support among the middle class in the large cities and among young men and women.

During Rafsanjani’s era (until 1997), the president of the republic and the Supreme Leader Khamenei ruled in harmony. When former President Mohammad Khatami (whose conservative competitor was publicly supported by the supreme leader) was elected, the extent of social division became apparent. The regime was split between two trends: a reformist one that saw the victory of its representative in the presidential elections, and a conservative one inciting extremism in domestic and foreign politics. As a result, the institutions were split between the supreme leader, who was backed by the Revolutionary Guards and the radical clerics, and the president, who was backed by social forces (mainly from the middle class), the bazaar, and young men and women.

Khatami tried to escape his inability to implement his internal political program by focusing on foreign politics through establishing close ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and attempting to open a new dialogue with Washington. The latter had announced that “the change project in Iraq will not oppose Iranian interests and Iranians will be partners in Iraq.” This was a statement that breached the policy of “dual containment” adopted by the Clinton administration in 1993 toward Baghdad and Tehran, and opposed the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which was put in place by Congress against global companies dealing with Iran. When Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded in 2001 and 2003 respectively, the Iranian alliance with America on both occasions did not lead to strengthening Khatami, who was re-elected in 2001 with 77% of votes. Instead, the alliance benefited his conservative adversaries whose pragmatism pushed them — months after the fall of Baghdad — to sign the Tehran Declaration (2003) with the West and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna to suspend enrichment activities of Iranian uranium.

It seems that the agreement aimed to circumvent the nuclear program’s impediment to the Iranian assimilation of Tehran’s new gains in Iraq, which couldn’t have happened without an Iranian-American alliance in the invaded and occupied Iraq. After the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections, in the wake of Khatami’s failure, the conservatives proceeded with the uranium enrichment program a few days after Ahmadinejad took office on Aug. 3, 2005. They also entered into a regional confrontation with Washington that extended from Kabul to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, reaching the Yemeni Saada governorate in the south. This happened after Tehran felt that the US did not achieve what it wanted in the region due to its failure in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, Tehran got the opportunity to confront the US, starting from its new regional acquisitions, to impose on Washington the recognition of Iran as “the great Iranian nation,” according to Gen. Rahim Safavi, former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Tehran’s regional gains did not benefit Iranian citizens. Instead, the people’s economic difficulties were exacerbated by international sanctions that have been issued along with international resolutions since 2006. In the Iranian presidential elections in June 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was competing against Ahmadinejad, adopted a new line of thought, stating, “Iran comes in first,” and proposing that reconciliation with America and Europe in the West and with the neighboring region is the way to overcome the economic and subsistence difficulties that Iranian citizens are experiencing. Moreover, [Mousavi held] that confrontations with Washington and the neighboring countries were behind the rough economic years and the internal stringency regarding political, social and cultural freedoms in Ahmadinejad’s days.

According to official figures, Mousavi received 33.86% of the votes, while 85% of eligible voters participated. Moreover, he received the support of the majority in large cities and among citizens from the upper class, the middle class, the youth and the educated. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad won the votes of the poor and the people in villages, cities and small towns. The protests following the elections, which encompassed a million people and were aimed at objecting to Ahmadinejad’s victory, reflected the deep social division in Iran regarding internal and foreign politics and the wide gap between the rulers and the decision-makers in the government on the one hand, and large sections of society on the other.

In the post-Khomeini era, it seemed that there was harmonious communication between society and the government through both sides of power represented by Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rafsanjani. This communication was broken in 1997 with the election of Khatami — a president who represented a huge social power that voted for him in both electoral rounds. Thus, the relationship between the ruling power and society became negative and repulsive. On the other hand, Ahmadinejad’s era was characterized by social division, which reached its peak against the rulers in summer 2009. The victory of the government on the security level over the street protests only deepened political repression, which was amplified by internal economic difficulties, as opposed to the successes of Iranian foreign policy in the region.

Moderate reformist Hassan Rouhani was elected as the new president of Iran on June 14, 2013. His victory came in the first round, gaining 50.71% of votes against five conservative and radical candidates who were backed by the supreme guide or the Revolutionary Guards. This victory reflected the extent of social division in Iran, and above all, the distance between the social majority and the ruling power — a power that people voted against in the quest for new options in both internal and foreign politics.

In this framework, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev’s presence in the Kremlin from 1953-1964 showed the crisis of the Soviet regime in the post-Stalin era. This was before the party establishment — in alliance with the military and the bureaucracy — isolated him and maintained the internal status quo while making an attempt to achieve success in foreign policy. When Soviet foreign policy failed due to its collision with the international imbalance in favor of Washington during the first half of the 1980s, the internal situation in the country escalated at the same time, thus paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union internationally, regionally and internally.

In China, on June 3, 1989, Chinese tanks oppressed student protests in Tiananmen Square. Afterward, the party establishment — in cooperation with the army — dismissed General Secretary of the Communist Party Zhao Ziyang from his position after he collaborated with the students to implement political reforms that threatened the unity of the communist party. Following the Tiananmen incidents, the chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, mixed economic reform and openness to the new American unipolar world order with internal political radicalism. Deng’s strategy succeeded in protecting China from Gorbachev’s Soviet experience.

Between Khamenei and Rouhani, what will Tehran’s fate be? Will it be similar to that of Moscow or Beijing, or is there a third option that is yet unknown?

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