Hooman Majd on Normal Politics in Iran

Hooman Majd had another interesting piece in Foreign Policy.  His article does something that is very necessary, but which we’ve not had an opportunity to do properly over the past couple of weeks — to take on the stream of recent Western commentary arguing that the Islamic Republic is “unraveling under the weight of economic mismanagement, the effect of sanctions, and the lingering discontent over last year’s election results and the aftermath of state-sanctioned violence.”

As Hooman rightly points out, “that’s little more than wishful thinking dressed up as political analysis.”  The public disagreements among various factions and power centers in Iran that have so many Western analysts transfixed is, in reality, “business as usual” — or, as we would argue, it’s normal politics.

Too many Western analysts persist in trying to depict Iranian politics as a binary, almost Manichean conflict between reformists and conservatives (or principlists).  According to Western conventional wisdom, if conservatives gain the upper hand over reformists, that can only be the result of repression.  From a mainstream Western viewpoint, if one notices political disagreements among conservatives — well, that must be a sign that the whole political order is falling apart.  And, in the current context, if the regime is falling apart, many Western observers will happily leap to the conclusion that this must be because of international sanctions.

On these points, Hooman nicely re-injects both history and present-day reality into this discussion:

The tension surrounding Ahmadinejad isn’t a product of international sanctions, at least not primarily, nor does it signify the rebirth of the Green Movement: It’s largely the expression of Iranian conservatives’ discontent with the status quo. . . .  Some of these conservative politicians have even challenged Ahmadinejad at the ballot box: Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament, and Mohammad Qalibaf, mayor of Tehran, both ran for president in 2005.  In 2009, Mohsen Rezaee, former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, threw his hat in the ring against the sitting president.  Their differences range from the rhetorical — many traditional conservatives think Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory grandstanding has hurt Iran’s cause on the world stage — to the bureaucratic — Ahmadinejad has pointedly restricted decision-making on economic policy to all but his most-trusted aides.

Conservative clerical opposition to Ahmadinejad has been a constant throughout his presidency: Early in his first term — in one of his only attempts to reach out to liberal, urban Iranians — Ahmadinejad proclaimed that soccer stadiums should allow women, as well as men, to attend as spectators.  The result was a wave of condemnation by clerics and conservative lay politicians alike.  The major bazaar merchants have also long held the president accountable for what they see as a mismanagement of the economy and his planned economic reforms that would raise taxes on some Iranians, while cutting subsidies on gasoline and certain foodstuffs.

That there’s vocal — albeit limited — opposition to Ahmadinejad shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Islamic Republic. . . .  Khamenei makes a point of accepting advice from anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives. . . .

We would add that, according to our understanding, the Supreme Leader also maintains consultative channels with figures from the reformist camp.  Hooman draws out the implications of his analysis for Iran’s foreign policy and nuclear diplomacy:

By emphasizing unity — something former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, no fan of Ahmadinejad, has also done in recent weeks — Khamenei likely means to project an image of strength, internationally and domestically, at a crucial period in Iran’s history.  The rallying together isn’t a flailing reaction to sanctions; it’s a concerted show of strength in the face of adversity.

The fact is, there is broad consensus on major foreign-policy issues across the political spectrum in Iran — particularly with respect to the nuclear issue.  While U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration claims that the latest and toughest sanctions seem to be working, forcing the Iranians to consider negotiations on the nuclear issue, the Iranian leadership was already in agreement on actual compromises before the sanctions were imposed.  There’s no reason to doubt the good-faith bona fides of the Tehran declaration, which Iran signed together with Turkey and Brazil, and in which it agreed to an exchange of enriched uranium and even suggested further negotiations with the IAEA and the P5+1.  From Iran’s perspective, it was the United States that rejected the deal without any evident consideration.

The suggestion that tensions within the leadership have been aggravated by the sanctions, or that sanctions are responsible for Iran’s apparent willingness to talk, is a misreading of the political scene in Tehran.  At a base level, it ignores the long history of clashes and rivalry between strong personalities in government and among the ayatollahs.  Moreover, history has shown that outside threats tend to create unity rather than divisions among Tehran’s leadership; that unity does not need to be coerced. . . .

Furthermore, it is worth keeping in mind that there will be another presidential election in Iran in 2013 (as Hooman notes) — and Ahmadinejad is term limited.  So politics is going to continue in the Islamic Republic — and Westerners shouldn’t confuse that with system collapse, exacerbated by outside pressure.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 2 September 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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