Centrist Politics in Iran

The Emergence of Centrist Politics in Iran

[Posted on Payvand.com, November 13, 2001: http://www.payvand.com/news/01/nov/1033.html ]

There is no question that social developments in Iran will continue to be turbulent for some time to come. The question, rather, is whether these turbulent developments will lead to a cataclysmic social eruption, with unpredictable consequences, or to a gradual moderation through non-violent, though intense, politicking; that is, through institutional or parliamentary-type politics and processes. While some observers view the former type developments as the more likely outcome of the ongoing power struggle, this essay will argue that the latter type outcome is not less likely to evolve.

The essay will further argue that there is a synergetic relationship between the evolving political culture based on electoral representation (vis-à-vis violent or armed confrontations), on the one hand, and the development of capitalism, on the other. Electoral politics and the need for political compromises are major expediencies of an integrated capitalist economy because under such an economic system there would likely be no winners if a political violence seriously disrupts or paralyzes the economy. This imperative of an integrated market economy, which is increasingly characterizing the structure of the Iranian economy, goes some way to explain the emergence of an electoral, compromising, and centrist politics in the country.

While not formally called parties, the two major contending political factions in the continuing power struggle in Iran, the conservatives and the reformists, do function, by and large, like two political parties—the heavy-handed and, sometimes, gangster-type tactics of the extremist elements of the conservative faction notwithstanding. A close scrutiny of the dynamics of the Iranian political scene reveals the emergence of an unmistakably centrist politics of compromise and consensus among the leading (or mainstream) circles of both sides of the country’s power struggle. President Khatami, obviously, represents such politics on the side of the reformist camp. What is less obvious is that Ayotollah Khamenaei, the all-powerful religious leader, also represents similar politics on the side of the conservative camp.

Western media and political pundits tend, in a rather simplistic way, to brand the Ayatollah as political nemesis and ideological arch-rival of the President. A closer examination of the Ayatollah’s politics, however, reveals that he too, like the President, has been trying to play a balancing role; that is, trying to rein in not just the “radical” elements of the reformist camp but also those of the conservative camp.

True, the Ayatollah has supported the closure of a number of the reformist press outlets. True, too, he has endorsed or gone along with the imprisonment of the outspoken journalists and intellectuals. More disappointingly, his notorious decree against the press effectively stopped the reformist parliament from modifying Iran’s restrictive press laws.

But while these infamous measures have offended freedom-lovers in Iran and elsewhere in the world, the Ayatollah has, at the same time, taken a number of countermeasures that go some way to temper such anti-reformation measures, and has likewise disappointed the hard-line elements of the conservative camp. Here are some examples.

(1) Shortly after the infamous ban on the discussion of the press law in the Parliament, the Ayatollah ousted the hard-line commander of the Law Enforcement Forces, Enayatollah Lotfian, who was accused of responsibility for the bloody student unrest in the summer of 1999, and replaced him with the relatively moderate Mohammadbagher Ghalibaf. Many observers viewed the replacement of Lotfian with Ghalibaf as the Ayatollah’s “gift” to the students on the occasion of the anniversary of the bloody unrest. The Ayatollah further hinted that thenceforth the police force should not act independently of the Ministry of the Interior, an indication of his willingness to give President Khatami’s government more control over law enforcement forces.

(2) Not long after the ousting of Lotfian, the Ayatollah also dismissed the hard-line Police intelligence chief, General Gholam-Reza Naghdi, who was an ardent opponent of the reform movement, and whose dismissal had, therefore, been a major demand of the reformist camp. The new chief of police intelligence, General Ramazani, was a moderate, low profile conservative official in the Revolutionary Guards. Some of the observers of these developments view the replacement of Lotfian by Ghalibaf and of Naghdi by Ramazani as indications that moderate conservatives, headed by Ayatollah Khamenei, prefer to have the law enforcement forces managed by “conservative commanders who would be true followers of Ayatollah Khamenei rather than those better linked with arch-conservative forces affiliated to Motalefeh or the Haqani School” (Menas Associates, “Iran Focus,” October 20, 2000).

(3) During the past year or so, Ayatollah Khamenei has had a number of joint meetings with the heads of the three state branches (President Khatami, Majlis Speaker Karroubi, and Judiciary head Shahroudi) and the head of the Expediency Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani, in an effort designed to show unity among the central players of Iran’s political scene. Although not much of what was discussed in these meetings became public, the very little information that was revealed clearly shows that the meetings were designed to rein in the “unruly flock” on both sides of the power struggle. For example, Ayatollah Khamenei was quoted as having said: “Officials, intellectuals, those who care about the country and all those who are dealing with public opinion must prevent ill-wishers from spreading the microbes of division and from chanting dissociating slogans in the mental scope of society” (Entekhab, 17 October, 2000).

In an article devoted to the significance of these meetings, Iran News Analysis, a publication of Atieh Bahar, interpreted Khamenei’s statement in the following way: “It is evident from Khamenei’s words—particularly his addressing of intellectuals—that he has adopted a clear stance against the hard-liners who have recently been more active in implying splits within the state….” The article further added that Rafsanjani’s participation in these meetings “could be an attempt by the leader to attract the Expediency Master more to the Leader-President cadre and thus distance Rafsanjani from the far right.” The article concluded by pointing out that these meetings imply that “major decisions in Iran are made by no one but these five authorities [Khamenei, Khatami, Karroubi, Rafsanjani, and Shahroudi], intending to guarantee the exclusion of hard-liners [on both sides] at such levels of decision making” (November 7, 2000).

(4) There are also indications that, in recent months, Ayatollah Khamenei is increasingly deferring foreign policy initiatives and policies to President Khatami and his government (policies regarding relations with the United States represent clear exceptions).

(5) During the recent presidential elections, as it became clear that President Khatami was going to win another landslide victory, radical conservative circles and the media under their control spread rumors of electoral fraud, hoping “to pave the grounds for the nullification of votes by the Guardian Council. On the day of elections the issue became even more serious when, during several television programs, officials from the Supervisory Board of the Guardian Council gave news of electoral fraud, which hinted at prospects for nullification of some ballots. But it was the Supreme Leader himself who tactfully put the matter to an almost immediate rest, by congratulating Khatami on winning a great race, leaving little room for the Guardian Council to continue with its challenge” (Menas Associates limited: www.menas.co.uk/irfa0012.htm).

These and similar evidence indicate that Ayatollah Khamenei is more of a realist than is generally perceived, or acknowledged. He is, in fact, playing the classic role of an Iranian Bonapart, the role of a national judge or arbiter, who is trying to play a balancing act from the center. As such, not only is he trying to contain the reform movement, largely through President Khatami, but also the hard-line elements of the conservative camp.

Shades of pragmatism in the Ayatollah’s political behavior are probably shaped by an existentialist realization that too much inflexibility might prove politically fatal. He clearly realizes the popular aspirations of the Iranian people for democracy and for the rule of law, and is cognizant of the political virtues of a minimal accommodation of those aspirations.

There are also economic factors behind the Ayatollah’s dual mission, or balancing acts. A primary goal behind his centrist politics—a goal that is shared by moderate elements on both sides of the power struggle—is to bring about political stability in order to woo investors, both domestic and foreign, to invest and do business in Iran. The hope is that this would revive the national economy, establish it in tune with international market imperatives, and end the country’s economic paralysis. Formally, these objectives are pursued by President Khatami’s government.

To be sure, this is not the first time in the post-revolution Iran that a serious attempt at restructuring the country’s economy and reintegrating it into the world markets has been made. A similar, though more systematic, effort was initiated by Hashemi Rafsanjani during his first term as president (1989-93). Rafsanjani ascended to presidency in 1989 with a clear mandate and a clear agenda. The haphazard, fitful, and ad hoc economic and political policies of the previous period, the War and/or revolutionary period, consisted largely of a deconstruction of modern or Western style state and economic structures.

Rafsanjani, by contrast, set out to reconstruct, not deconstruct, such structures. Accordingly, he emphasized the importance of efficiency and expertise in the management of the state and economic affairs—while downplaying the role of Islamic piety and religious credential. He and his government officials did not even shy away from using economic terminology borrowed from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank: structural adjustment programs, economic shock therapy, belt-tightening, privatization, and so on.

And in the first three years of his presidency, he did manage to bring about significant changes. He reopened the stock market, closed since the revolution in 1979, created free-trade zones, replaced many revolutionaries and ideologues with technocrats holding Ph. Ds. from Western universities, and privatized many enterprises and industries nationalized after the revolution. The economic austerity measures his government put into effect also weakened the social welfare programs as they included, for example, cuts in the subsidies for basic food stuffs badly needed by the poor.

Rafsanjani’s reforms, however, soon backfired. The purging of radicals from positions of decision making, the encroachment on social welfare programs, hence the alienation of the poor and working classes, the dubious and/or illicit privatization of national enterprises, and, most importantly, the challenging of the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei, created powerful opposition forces. Not only did Rafsanjani’s reforms alienate and antagonize powerful social forces, they also failed in terms of what they had promised: economic recovery. The hasty (and often questionable) privatization practices in the face of workers’ resistance, coupled with tight monetary and fiscal policies, often recommended by the International Monetary Fund and/or the World Bank, created such a severe credit crunch that led many giant manufacturing units to either shut down altogether or operate only at a fraction of their capacity. Rafsanjani’s free trade policy, flooding the Iranian markets with massive imports of consumer products, quickly accumulated about thirty billion dollars of foreign debt in the early 1990s.

The resulting combination of economic paralysis and social tension proved a potent blow to Rafsanjani’s so-called “structural adjustment program.” Starting with 1993, the conservative-dominated parliament, headed at the time by Nateq-Nouri and backed by both Ayatollah Khamenei and the “security forces,” effectively put an end to Rafsanjani’s reform program.

Some of the objectives of President Khatami’s reforms—the revival of Iranian capitalism, for example—are the same as those pursued by Rafsanjani during his first four-year term as president. Some of the major obstacles Khatami is facing are also similar to those Rafsanjani faced. These similarities, however, do not necessarily mean that Khatami’s reform agenda is just as doomed to failure as that of Rafsanjani’s. Despite the similarities and parallels between the two, there are also a number of differences.

For one thing, Khatami seems to have learned from some of Rafsanjani’s “economic restructuring” missteps. As noted, Rafsanjani was quite open about the fact that his economic restructuring agenda was essentially based on the generic prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Again, as noted, his economic advisors even used these institutions’ terminology (such as “downsizing, economic shock therapy,” and the like) to describe his economic agenda. President Khatami and his economic team, by contrast, seem to shy away from using such unpopular terminology despite the fact that the ultimate goal of their economic agenda is not very different from that of Rafsanjani and his administration. In practice, too, Khatami has chosen a gradualist approach to economic restructuring by focusing primarily on cultural, political, and democratic issues, and placing the more divisive, and potentially explosive, issues of an economic nature on the backburner of his reform agenda.

Second, the considerable improvement in government’s budget as a result of oil price increases in recent years has proven quite helpful to President Khatami’s gradualist, middle-of-the-road policies. The strong budget can accommodate both the needs of economic restructuring, in tune with global market imperatives, and the needs of social safety net programs. Such accommodation of (usually) conflicting needs can go some way to pacify (a) the impatient proponents of economic restructuring; and (b) the multi-million poor and working class Iranians who depend on government spending, either through employment or welfare programs, thereby blunting the attacks of hard-line conservatives who, often demagogically, appeal to the economic fears of theses classes in order to advance their own objectives. Under Rafsanjani, by contrast, the government budget was very tight, because oil prices were then very low, and, as a result, the projected austerity measures in pursuit of economic restructuring were more threatening to the poor and working classes.

Third, President Khatami seems to have a much better working relation with Ayatollah Khamenei than did Rafsanjani as president. This does not necessarily mean that the fundamental disagreements between the President and the Ayatollah are now less severe than they were then. But that Khatami’s modest and deferential (versus Rafsanjani’s pompous and flamboyant) attitude toward the Ayatollah makes such disagreements appear less severe, and compromises possible.

Fourth, despite its meek and disappointing start, the Sixth Majlis (Parliament) is now dominated by the reform minded deputies whereas during Rafsanjani’s presidency the conservatives dominated this body.

Fifth, democratic aspirations of the Iranian people and their desire for openness now seem to be much more widespread than they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Rafsanjani embarked on his reform agenda. Not only is the reform movement now more widespread, it is also bolder, more seasoned, more mature, and, therefore, more resilient. On the other hand, the conservatives’ divisive and diversionary tactics—such as bedeviling and demonizing the impact of videotapes or satellite dishes on public mores—seem to have lost much of their credibility and appeal.

Finally, on both sides of the power struggle centripetal forces interested in the politics of compromise and consensus are now stronger than they were during Rafsanjani’s experiment with economic restructuring. On the side of reformists, this tendency toward a centrist politics is epitomized not only by President Khatami’s policy of “patience” and gradualism but also by the policies of many of the reformist deputies in the parliament. During last year’s parliamentary elections, most of these deputies ran for office on quite radical agendas of reformation. Once in office, however, they have turned soft and become adept in the art of politicking and compromising. On the conservative camp, as noted earlier, Ayatollah Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Expediency Council, and their co-thinkers head the forces of pragmatism and moderation.

A logical question here is: what are some of the major driving forces behind the tendency of these political figures toward a centrist politics? At one level, the answer to this question is simple: managing national affairs and preserving their privileged social status requires social cohesion and political stability, which, in turn, requires compromising and moderation. At a somewhat submerged level, one can detect more subtle forces behind this tendency toward the center: a convergence of interests based on a desire of propertied classes for economic “normalization,” market stability, and investment security. A bit of clarification of this relationship is in order.

The 1979 revolution in Iran has, among other things, given rise to a new class of property owners. They are called nouveau riche (new rich), or aghazadeh, literally meaning the off-springs of well-connected or well-established authorities or families, who quickly became rich by virtue of their privileged positions within the socio-political hierarchy of the country. The notorious “economic mafias” hail from this social stratum. They are so called because they owe their often ill-begotten fortunes, directly or indirectly, to various centers of power within the ruling circles—often in the form of protection from imports, lucrative business contracts, easy credit, concessional foreign exchange rates, and a whole host of other illicit deals.

Most members of this class of the new rich are also former “revolutionaries” who participated in the overthrow of the Shah’s regime and contributed to the establishment of the current regime. Many of them are either directly involved in the top decision making circles of the government, or are supporters, allies, and advisors of various sorts to the leading political figures in the country.

As noted, the new rich have achieved material self-enrichment largely through a subversion of market rules. But as segments of this class have successfully enriched themselves in the shadow of protection and by virtue of political favoritism, and have become giant capitalists in their own right, such segments now seem to be willing to do business “as usual,” that is, according to market rules. While a revolutionary atmosphere and political protection were crucial for the accumulation of the fortunes of these strata, political turbulence is now considered inimical to the peaceful and productive investment of the fortunes they have managed to accumulate. Political stability and economic “normalization” now seems to be more in the interests of these groups than the continuation of a revolutionary atmosphere.

To be sure, there are still powerful monopolistic, mafia-type economic interests who continue to benefit from trade protection, special deals, and preferential treatments, and are thus opposed to market rules. But their ranks seems to be shrinking, and the number of economic interests favoring “normalization” of the market and politico-economic stability, on the other hand, seems to be on the rise.

The tendency of the mainstream political leaders, including the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei, toward a moderate, centrist politics is, in a sense, a reflection of this differentiation of economic interests of Iran’s capitalist class, and the convergence of major interests on market mechanism. That is, just as Iran’s business community, with the exception of monopolistic economic mafias—whose ranks are slowly shrinking—is increasingly viewing “normal” economic conditions and market mechanism as remedies for the country’s economic ills, so do the mainstream political leaders view a centrist politics and political stability as conducive to both national economic revival and personal advancement.

In short, as capitalism is increasingly becoming the dominant feature of Iran’s economic structure, the contending ruling circles of the nation are also increasingly invoking political solutions to their disagreements rather than violent confrontations. This synergetic development of capitalism and the respective political culture stems from a major imperative of an integrated market economy: Under such an economic system, the economic or class interests of the major contending ruling factions become integrated into and dependent on the relative health of the system as a whole. Any serious disruption or catastrophic damage to the system will threaten all the interests dependent on it.

This apparently simple property of a capitalist economic system (in terms of its political imperatives) helps explain a number of important socio-historical developments. It helps explain, for example, why countries that enjoy relatively advanced market economies also enjoy relative political stability. By the same token, it helps explain why in countries where capitalism is not well developed and markets are not well integrated (or more starkly, under pre-capitalist social formations), power struggle often means (or meant) armed struggle or other violent forms of struggle. As a recent and vivid illustration of this point, let us take the example of last year’s presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush in the United States. It is perhaps safe to say that nothing short of a violent confrontation, perhaps a civil war, with catastrophic consequences, would have resolved such a contest had it taken place under a pre- or semi-capitalist social structure—remember “Gone with the Wind”?