The whole world watched this past weekend as Iranian youth, particularly of the urban variety, rioted in protest of rigged voting. There’s a lot of reporting on the current situation over there. I thought I’d share some of my understandings of Iran’s political system, along with some historical perspectives on the Iranian Revolution three decades ago.
On the current Iranian system
Today’s Iranian system is an oddball combination that reflects western governmental structures in conjunction with Islamic theocratic guardianship as laid out in the Koran. While the system of the electorate, presidency, cabinet, judiciary system and armed forces mirror those in the west; the roles of the Supreme Leader, the expediency council, the Guardian Council and the assembly of experts are roles distinctive to the Iranian state.
While the president is open and democratically elected, final outcomes are still monitored and controlled by the Guardian Council. Similarly, the role of the Supreme Leader overshadows that of the president in many respects. The Supreme Leader appoints the head of the judiciary, six of the members of the powerful Guardian Council, the commanders of all the armed forces, Friday prayer leaders and the head of radio and TV. He also confirms the president’s election.
The Supreme Leader is in turn chosen by the clerics who make up the assembly of experts. This assembly also monitors the Supreme Leader’s performance and removes him if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties. The election of experts is vetted by the Guardian Council. The Council consists of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This extremely powerful Council is overwhelmingly conservative, and in recent years has intervened heavily in the parliamentary election process and nomination for the Assembly of Experts.
The Iranian revolution
The Iranian Revolution was one of a kind. Unlike the French or the Russian revolutions, no pre-requisite causes were present prior to 1979. There was no immediate defeat at war, no major financial crisis at hand, no large-scale peasant rebellion, and no disgruntled military questing for more power. For a relatively stable nation on its way to prosperity to unexpectedly overtake a regime heavily protected by the most lavishly funded army and security force in the world, was a historical event. What prompted such unexpected rage and rapid mobilization of forces?
Contrary to popular belief that the Iranian revolution was merely a triumph of Islam over western values, the modern Iranian society is in fact cemented upon an amalgamation of puritanical Islamic utopian socialism.
1) It is anti-traditionalist. Having witnesses the failure of secular reforms in its parent generation, the younger Iranian population rebelled against it, and sought to return to a more homogenous society.
2) It is anti-western. It seeks to de-couple the notion of westernization with modernization, and attempts to create a new social system independent of western enlightenment ideals and its manifestations in the form of institutions and cultural transmission.
3) It adopted certain elements of Third Worldism, which dismissed even further western scientism and rationalism, and the very idea of modern life.
4) It adopted various revolutionary strands including Jacobinism that gave it revolutionary dimensions. It also shared with communism a transnationalism that is cross-border.
5) The ideology also has strong salvationist theme that is compared to the role of Puritans in the English revolution, as well as the utopian visions of the Jacobins.
6) The movement was also highly nationalistic, with its focus on Iran. By incorporating elements of all the above strands, political Islam emerged victorious by successfully balancing to achieve an idealistic purity while leaning heavily on the secular structures that precedes it. It is perhaps this outright rejection of western ideals, values, institutions and its way of life that the US find particularly unpalatable, and may in part explain the hard-line stance taken against Iran by US administration for the past thirty years.
The Iranian Revolution sought to refine the western concept of “modernity”. Contrary to the almost synonymous usages of terms such as modernity, democracy, westernization and secularization, the traditional definition was far from accepted in Iran. During Reza Shah’s rule, state-led industrialization created unmanageable tension since it alienated the ulama, the bazaaris and the landowners. Rapid speed modernization as per the western model created the inevitable wealth gap, and the urban slum – as the previously rural community migrated en masse to the cities.
The previously agrarian social structure disappeared in the newly industrializing nation, and the government was not able to provide a remedy to the population that has found itself in poverty. Additionally, the middle class enjoyed “proto democracy” prior to the installation of the Shah regime by the US, and resented the lack of access to the political arena.
The government was awash in money and became disconnected from its people. It became evident that the modernization scheme pushed by the regime was not conducive to democracy. Thus, this aggregation of internal pressures – increased class division, economic turmoil, political authoritarianism, combined with the external pressures in the form of Western cultural assault, provided fertile ground for resurgence of the ulama class.
The ulama’s re-insurgence was a reaction against the convergence of structure between the Western capitalist system and the traditional Iranian system. It consolidated its power base among not only the urban poor, the rural nostalgic, but the middle class who were not given a voice in the new social order, and the intelligentsia who were disenchanted with the western definition of modernity.
The ulama class was able to utilize the existing secular structure upon which to base its political Islamic society upon. Political Islam eventually became victorious because 1) the existing Iranian structure based on western institutions failed to gain legitimacy due to the heavy-handedness of the Shah, thus liberal democracy was rejected; 2) to the Iranians, cultural identity was more important that class struggles, therefore, although Marxism’s egalitarian ideals appealed to the people, finding an ideology with a solid cultural basis became the more important goal. Thus, the ulama class was able to develop in a parallel fashion by evolving on an ideological level, while appealing to the mass.
In the Iranian system, the genuine desire to create a democratic system within the framework of Shi’ite Islam. The success of the system is questionable given the lack of transparency and the limits placed on the democratic process. Within the narrow confines of two sometimes contradictory political systems, Iran continues seeking for a third way.
picture source: friend-faraway