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«The 2009 Elections and Iran’s Changing Political Landscape by Mehran Kamrava Mehran Kamrava is the Interim Dean of Georgetown University’s School ...»

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The 2009 Elections and

Iran’s Changing Political Landscape

by Mehran Kamrava

Mehran Kamrava is the Interim Dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in

Qatar and the Director of the School’s Center for International and Regional Studies. His most

recent books include Iran’s Intellectual Revolution (2008) and The Modern Middle East:

A Political History Since the First World War (2005).

Abstract: Iran’s June 2009 elections set into motion four processes that are central to the operations of the Islamic Republic regime. They include: the growing gap between large sections of Iranian society from the Islamic Republican state; the steady militarization of the political system; the unpre- cedented degree to which the Supreme Leader has become an active partisan in the increasingly bitter political infighting among regime insiders, and—most significantly—the violent disruption of an emerging set of ‘‘rules of the game,’’ that previously served as a safety check against excessive factional infighting.

This last consequence of the election and its aftermath is likely to leave its most enduring imprint on the State. Specifically, the elections have taken Iran from manageable factionalism to the brink of complete political paralysis. As such, given the untenability of the State’s present predicament, far-reaching changes are almost certain to come.

I t is no exaggeration to argue that the June 2009 presidential elections in Iran marked a significant watershed in the political history of the Islamic Republic. Although the elections’ consequences are not fully understood, it is clear that the elections have forever changed the nature of the Islamic Republic’s political system and its relationship with Iranians politically and socially. The personal consequences of the election and its aftermath, no doubt, have been traumatic for countless Iranians, many long supportive of the Islamic Republic, and yet many also victimized by the brutal clampdown that followed the elections. Equally profound are the institutional and ideological consequences of what transpired, following the elections, for the political system itself, having forever changed the internal assumptions that had become its modus operandi since the late 1980s.

In this article, I argue that the June 2009 elections have set into motion four processes that are central to the regime’s operations. Three of them are # 2010 Published by Elsevier Limited on behalf of Foreign Policy Research Institute.

| Summer 2010 400 Iran’s 2009 Elections generally inconsequential to the regime’s overall survivability. They include the unprecedented deepening chasm that separates Iranian society from the Islamic Republican state; the steady militarization of the political system;

and, the degree to which the Supreme Leader, the Vali-ye Faqih, has become an active partisan in the political infighting among regime insiders. None of these developments, I maintain, necessarily undermines the Iranian state’s ability to effectively govern the country, though in the long run none can be helpful to its longue duree. However, a fourth process, unleashed by the election and its aftermath, is likely to have more serious consequences for the State. Up until the elections, the Islamic Republic state relied on a precarious equilibrium whereby the various factions competed but also observed vaguely-defined boundaries that the voluntarily respected. But this implicit gentlemen’s agreement collapsed in the election’s aftermath. And this breakdown in these emerging rules of the game has pushed the political system from manageable levels of factionalism to seemingly untenable political paralysis characterized by bitter infighting. More specifically, what was once factionalism that did not seriously impede governability has now been transformed into a political paralysis that has the potential of bringing the system to a grinding halt. As such, given the untenability of the State’s present predicament, far-reaching, changes to the State are almost certain to come.

This article looks first at the larger political and ideological contexts within which the 2009 elections took place. More specifically, the article examines the reasons for and the processes through which factional alignments changed markedly during President Ahmadinejad’s first term in office.

The president’s confrontational style and polarizing administration brought about both a steady realignment of the factional line-ups and, more ominously, a steady sharpening of their acrimony toward one another. The bitter campaign leading up to the June 2009 elections only fueled the growing animosity, ending in a near-complete rupture soon after the election results were announced. What the future holds for the Islamic Republic state is quite uncertain. What is clear, however, is that its present predicament is unsustainable and is bound to change—a change that is likely to be substantive rather than superficial.

The Political Context

The start of the Ahmadinejad presidency in 2005 coincided with important shifts in the position, resources, and alliances of each of the Islamic Republic’s factions. Prior to Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory and his assumption of power, the country’s political landscape included three main factions.

The most powerful faction appeared to be the Religious Conservatives, who were, ironically, the least institutionally organized of the three. This group | Summer 2010 401 KAMRAVA primarily of senior clerics based in Qom. The group had reached political ascendancy within the first year or two of the revolution, and continued to approach religious and theological precepts through comparatively traditionalist interpretations of jurisprudence (fiqh) and exegesis (ijtihad).

A second group comprised individuals and political figures who were still relatively conservative in their vision of the revolution’s direction and legacy. Yet, at the same time, they were generally pragmatic in considering Iran’s foreign policy objectives and its economic and developmental needs. These Conservative Pragmatists included, most notably, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, along with an expanding crop of professionals and technocrats, the loyalty and managerial competence of some of whom had propelled them to influential positions within the political system. A prime example was the former mayor of Tehran, Gholam Reza Karbaschi, who was later tried on corruption charges most believed to have been trumped up.

Finally, there were the Reformists. Former President Mohammad Khatami, serves as the symbolic head and continues to command respect among the urban middle classes, who were institutionally and organizationally bereft of power. Khatami’s presidency ended on a whimper in 2005, with the popular euphoria of his 1997 election and first term in office steadily turning into disillusionment in the latter years of his second term. The Reformists might have been popular electorally, but politically and institutionally they were too weak to overcome the entrenched resistance of conservative elements spread across most of the sensitive positions within the State who repeatedly blocked and frustrated their policies. The combination of unfulfilled promises, apparent political impotence, and a vastly disillusioned electorate resulted in the Reformist candidate’s abysmal performance in the 2005 presidential elections.

Before discussing the factional realignments that ensued, following the 2005 election of Ahmadinejad, two points must be kept in mind. The first concerns the position of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, during this time. From the time he assumed the office of Valiy-e Faqih, following Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, Khamenei has possessed neither the stature of Khomeini, nor his shrewd sense of political timing. Unlike Khomeini, who rarely intervened in the frequent bickering of his underlings, Khamenei repeatedly has made known his own traditionalist preferences. But even when he expressed his direct displeasure with the president’s policies, he did so indirectly. In many ways, while making his preferences known, from 1997 up until the 2005 election, Khamenei managed to keep the office of the Valiy-e Faqih above the factional fray, therefore preserving a modicum of impartiality as the ultimate arbitrator of the regime’s internal contradictions.

Second, despite the significant differences that characterized their organizational resources, their connections with and popularity among their | 402 Orbis Iran’s 2009 Elections respective audiences, and their access to levers of power, the three primary factions—the Religious Conservatives, the Conservative Pragmatists, and the Reformists—more or less balanced each other out. At one level, no single faction was sufficiently powerful to effectively sideline the others, and each of the factions begrudgingly tolerated the others. The upshot was the beginning of a set of ‘‘rules of the game’’ and a modus vivendi among each of the country’s political factions and actors.

The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005 set into motion steady processes of change along multiple fronts. Apart from a radical change in the tone of politics, away from Khatami’s emphasis on dialogue and inclusion in favor of sloganeering and confrontational rhetoric reminiscent of the revolution’s early days, three specific changes occurred in the country’s political system from 2005 to 2009. The first change took place right before the president took office, when the Conservative Pragmatists and the Reformists formed an alliance, in the second round of the election, to beat Ahmadinejad. This maneuver initiated two parallel processes. On the one hand, it began changing the factional alignments that had taken shape since 1997. Instead of the three factions, discussed above, two larger coalitions began to form. One was made-up of Conservative Pragmatists and Reformists on one side and another comprised of Religious Conservatives and a new group, the so-called Principlists, of whom Ahmadinejad was the most visible representative, on the other side. One of the most significant outcomes of the 2005 election was the redrawing of the factional alignments in Iran. At the same time, the coalitional politics, as well as the groups that emerged out of the election, polarized the political process and gave rise to increasingly bitter verbal exchanges among key regime insiders. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for the explosive rupture that followed immediately after the 2009 election.

A related outgrowth of the 2005 election was the steady political ascendance of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Their increasing political clout was not by design but rather the result of former military commanders, many of them decorated veterans of the war with Iraq, steadily integrating themselves into the civilian apparatus of the State beginning in the early 1990s. Most also enrolled in university graduate programs and, therefore, enhanced their career mobility and their positions within the State. As the 1990s wore on, they became institutionally distanced from the IRGC. Yet they often retained strong emotional and ideological bonds with likeminded cohorts. Provincial governorships and mayoral offices, the Ministries of Intelligence and Interior, and newspapers such as Keyhan and Resalat became especially favorite places of employment for these and other ideological purists who began calling themselves Principlists. Even those Principlists without backgrounds in the IRGC found, in the paramilitary organization, a powerful ideological ally. These purists believed themselves to be the true | Summer 2010 403 KAMRAVA bearers of Ayatollah Khomeini’s mantle and the arbiters of the revolution’s correct path.

This militarization of the political system had actually begun before Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005. Tensions between Iran, the United States, and Israel—and frequent bellicose statements from Washington and Tel Aviv— had elicited increasingly sharp responses from Iranian military commanders following 2001. The possibility of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran from early 2003 onward only helped to enhance the profile and influence of IRGC commanders within the Iranian political system.1 With the Principlists in control of the executive branch after 2005, the ascendancy of the IRGC assumed a new dimension, with an overwhelming majority of the president’s administrative and diplomatic appointments comprised of individuals with connections to the organization. In June 2009, when, following the announcement of election results, mass demonstrations threatened to erode the IRGC’s privileged position in the executive, it placed itself at the forefront of suppressing the demonstrators and ensuring that the Ahmadinejad presidency continued into a second term. Not surprisingly, Ahmadinejad is likely to be even more reliant on—in fact, beholden to—the IRGC during his second term.

A third change following the 2005 election concerns the profile of the office of the Supreme Leader regarding the rest of the political system. As the new president started to implement his populist agendas, seeking to appoint ministers and others who were unknown or on the margins of the state bureaucracy, he faced strong opposition even from within the traditionalist camp, so much so that some groups identifying themselves as Principlists broke off their alliance with him. The acrimony within the Majles—Iran’s parliament—over the president’s cabinet appointments was especially bitter.

Proposed candidates to head the Ministries of Oil, Foreign Affairs, and Interior were subjected to particularly harsh criticism and rejection. Time and again, Khamenei had to step in, to support the president, and involve himself in a level of detail that the Supreme Leader had previously stayed above.

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