Iran: An Alternative Reading

Iran does not just have an authoritarian system of government, it has a totalitarian one.  It is powerful, highly centralised, with sophisticated administrative and control systems, and it applies an ideology that claims to have answers for everything and that seeks to permeate all aspects of life.  Instead of a political party and youth organisations, it relies on mass organisations, such as the Basij, that blend security with ideology and even with the benefit of broad sectors of the populace.  It also depends on a broad and well-organised network of mullahs and on a politicised security agency and Revolutionary Guard.  However, it differs from other totalitarian systems in two definitive ways.

Firstly, no other totalitarian system has incorporated such a high degree constitutionally codified democratic competition in the ruling order and in its ideology.  Political competition is systematised in the form of regularly held elections in which rivals espouse different platforms within the framework of the agreed upon rules of the game, just as do political parties within capitalist frameworks.  The difference between Democrats and Republicans in the US is not much greater than that between reformists and conservatives in Iran.  Of course, these trends in Iran are not actual political parties, but then neither are the Republicans and Democrats, at least not in the conventional European sense.  They are more in the nature of electoral leagues.

The second difference between Iranian totalitarianism and other totalitarian systems is that the official ideology that permeates institutions of government, the public sphere and the educational and other formative systems as the primary definer of identity and shaper of moral and ethical conduct is a real religion embraced by the vast majority of the people.  It is not an atheist or secular religion, such as is officially espoused in communist or fascist systems and which is only believed by a clique of apparatchiks whose faith quickly becomes a form of vested interest and is rarely passed on to their children.  In Iran a religious doctrine is the state ideology, the clerical hierarchy defines and anchors the state hierarchy, and the lower echelons of the clergy are the intermediaries between the people and the ruling ideology.

These important distinctions are what give the Iranian system a dynamism and vitality that did not exist in Europe’s communist or fascist totalitarian systems, even though this system emerged in an “oriental” society that was less technologically advanced than the European ones and coalesced outside the context of European modernism and modernisation that the other systems drew on.

China’s ruling party, even in its most open and relaxed phase, sanctions far less political diversity than we have seen in Iran, not only in the form of systematised political rivalries but also in the form of sometimes brutal criticism of the regime, the president and the government.  Such tolerance of political diversity was also unheard of in the former Soviet Union and in other totalitarian systems.  Looking at Iran from the perspective of its degree of democratic competition, tolerance of criticism and peaceful rotation of authority in accordance with set rules, it is much closer to the pluralistic democracies in the West than to a dictatorial regime.  On the other hand, its imposition of an all encompassing ideology, and its attempt to use this to control all aspects of people’s public and personal lives, sets it radically apart from Western societies where people’s personal lives are regulated through the permeation of market mechanisms into the private individual realm and the permeation of the media into family life.  There is an imposed ideology in the US, often referred to as the “American way of life,” but it leaves broad scope for the private sphere and individual freedoms, including the freedom of religion, even if it strongly influences this sphere through consumer market mechanisms and the media, which sometimes pose challenges to individual freedom.  There is no point here in bringing up the scope of individual or democratic freedoms in Arab authoritarian regimes, dynastic and nepotistic systems incapable of producing either a totalitarian or democratic order, apart from to note the malicious glee some Arabs are displaying in response to events in Iran rather than examining what is happening in their own countries which, one would think, they might suppose more important.

The reformist uprising has arisen within the framework of the Iranian establishment and the accepted rules and principles of the Islamic Republic.  The criticisms levelled at the regime on the part of a broad swath of youth who have joined the reformists, especially those from middle class backgrounds who are more in contact with the rest of the world, are reminiscent of the grievances aired by the young in Eastern Europe, who held that their regimes deprived them of their individual and personal freedoms, the freedom to choose their way of life and the Western consumer lifestyle.  Of course, as usual, some of these claims are true, others are spread by Western media and some stem from general discontent and a search for new meaning in the modes of political expression.

While not dismissing or belittling such criticism, it is important to bear in mind that these people are not the majority of young people but rather the majority of young people from a particular class.  Iran is not a socialist system: there are distinct class gaps, as well as strong intersections between wealth and power, between power and position in the clerical hierarchy, and between wealth and position in the clerical hierarchy (with instances of convergence of power, position and wealth in one and the same person).  Differing intersections work to create diverse political and intellectual trends and moods.  Most of the youth from the poor sectors of society support Ahmadinejad, just as the poor support Chavez in Venezuela.  Remember that Ahmadinejad’s in 2005 was a protest vote, mostly on the part of the young, against corrupt conservatives, not just against the reformists.  Remember, too, that some reformists are people of principle, fighters for their beliefs, whether or not they took part in the revolution, whereas others in the reformist camp are combining their defence of freedoms with the defence of corruption.  (The Arab world abounds in people who combine the defence of economic privileges with the defence of civil liberties.  They make up the class of neo-liberals that is distinguished by being neither liberal nor democratic).

The mood among those who think that their votes carry more weight qualitatively than the numerically greater votes of the poor, and who may actually believe that they represent the majority because they form the majority in their own parts of town even if they are the minority in the country, has an arrogant, classist edge.  Obviously, it is not a very democratic attitude because as sincerely leftist as it may appear, its liberalness is offset by its underlying elitism.  We have met this mood on many occasions.  Out of sympathy for the young involved in protest politics some intellectuals (I refer to myself, here, at least) have softened in their duty towards the young.  Several years ago in a certain Arab capital, tens of thousands of young people took to the streets chanting slogans for democracy and against sectarianism, at which point intellectual gurus lured them into cheering militia leaders, sectarian chiefs and war criminals as though they were cultural heroes because they were “with us” and “against them”.  Soon the kids were swept up into racist outpourings against other sects as they all recoiled into their own sectarian mindsets, in spite of the jeans, the long hair, headbands, and all the other trappings of open-minded progressives that attracted newspapers run by middle aged editors nostalgic for their own student activist days.  The intellectual must keep a critical distance if he is to perform his duty towards the young and encourage them towards critical liberationist outlooks and open their eyes to prejudice, myth, illusion and other reactionary traps.

If you want to criticise the electoral system in Iran you should look first at the Guardian Council and the numerous conditions it insists candidates must meet in order to ensure their commitment to the principles of the Islamic Republic.  You should also consider the constitutional amendments of 1989 which abolished the position of prime minister and gave his powers to the president, only to transfer presidential powers to the supreme guide, who thus combined temporal powers with spiritual and juridical authority, a metamorphosis of the concept of clerical rule.  Now that is a subject to submit to the critical lens and it merits criticism.  But this is not where the candidates were coming from.  All the political parties, leaders and forces that entered the elections accepted, or claimed to accept, the ground rules.  And it is foolish to leap from criticising the ground rules to claiming that the last elections were rigged, unlike the nine presidential elections that preceded it.

Since the 2005 elections the Iranian reform movement has grown weaker and more fragmented, not stronger.  The results it obtained came as a surprise to those who know Iran.  How could it have resurfaced from the ashes so powerfully after its disintegration in the Khatami era and the repression of its remnants in the universities and elsewhere afterwards?  Certainly the recent elections put it back on the map, though not as it once stood, but rather as an ally of a broad spectrum of conservatives.  The expectations regarding the power of the reform trend were not founded upon public opinion polls, they were created by the Western and non-Western media opposed to Ahmadinejad, who has ruffled so many feathers at international conferences and diplomatic salons.  Ahmadinejad’s populist rhetoric has come as a boon to racist Western policies towards the Arabs, Muslims and easterners in general.  The certificate of exoneration he has handed Europe for the holocaust is catastrophic in every sense.  But Ahmadinejad has also shocked the West with a set of correct principles that challenge the colonialist legacy and that are rarely uttered now that everyone has been tamed to the axioms of Western racist arrogance.

Ahmadinejad is less a representative of Iranian conservatives than a rebel against them from within their own establishment.  He has lashed out against them, including corrupt clergy, using the principles of the Islamic revolution as his weapons.  He is a conservative of the fundamentalist stripe and wants to restore the revolution to its youthful vigour and gleam.  He probably reminds Mousavi of his own youth.  This is why his populist rhetoric is more powerful than the reformists’ rhetoric.  He harks back to Khomeini, and his personal austerity appeals to the broad masses of the poor.  He distributes oil revenues among the poor and reaches out to them as a way to compensate for the failure of his economic policies, and his personal probity makes up for his failure to seriously fight corruption.  His foreign policies succeeded in reviving national pride by making Iran a central player in the international arena after Iran’s international weight had taken a plunge when Khatami (a true reformist) had begun to soften towards the West.

There were no supporters of any Arab regime or any fundamentalist movement in the Arab world among the protesters who took to the streets in Tehran.  Therefore, the thrill that overcame some of our Arab brothers had less to do with political ideology than with a kind of malicious glee.  The possible alternatives in Iran are:

  • A financially corrupt ruling elite, epitomised by Rafsanjani, that is more pragmatic in international affairs and against which Ahmadinejad rebelled in the last elections.
  • A reformist-conservative alliance within the framework of the ruling establishment under which corrupt conservatives would rely on such figures as Mousavi and Khatami in order to regain popularity and weaken the hold of the supreme guide.  This alliance would be more pragmatic in its foreign relations, head towards dialogue with the new US administration, and strike up an accommodation with the West in exchange for international recognition of the Islamic Republic and its regional role.  (Incidentally, for the purpose of the alliance, the conservatives would concede to some of the reformists’ demands, but as is the rule in the storm-tossed seas of transitional periods in revolutionary orders, this will prove an ephemeral phase after which the reformists will once again lose the initiative).
  • The third alternative I will call metaphorically the “Western” one.  The overthrow of the entire order, along the lines of what happened in Eastern Europe, is what broad segments of the illegal opposition inside Iran and abroad are praying for.  For the young men and women from well-to-do north Tehran this alternative has been packaged as liberal civil rights, consumerist lifestyle, freedom in how to act and dress, and other such notions that attract young people, that even attracted the sons and daughters of the apparatchiks in Russia and Eastern Europe.  The majority of middle and upper class youth did not so much vote for Mousavi as they voted against Ahmadinejad.  Still, in Iran, this third alternative will have to pass through the second one first.  Unlike the communist regimes the regime in Iran will not collapse in one go.

The Iranian regime will survive the current crisis using the instruments mentioned earlier.  However, it will have to address an important question.  Will it heed the lessons from this experience, seize the reform banners from the corrupt and ally with the reformist left against the pseudo reformist right?  Or will it rely on repression alone, justifying this on the grounds of Western meddling?  The last option is a recipe for future and, perhaps, more intense and tragic turmoil.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian holding an Israeli citizenship.  Former Knesset member, he was compelled to leave Israel due to political persecution.  He is still the leader of Balad.  This article was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly No. 953 (25 June – 1 July 2009); it is reproduced here for educational purposes.  Read it in Arabic: ملاحظات عن إيران  See, also, Azmi Bishara, “Iran: The Game of Nations.”