MEI Perspective: The Landscape of Factional Politics In Iran
by Hossein Seifzadeh, August 20, 2002
The Bush Administration's July 12 statement of support for "the Iranian people" and reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere suggests that the White House has given up on the ability of reformist politicians like Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to alter Iran's foreign policy orientation. But before the United States turns away from its attempts to engage Iran, it would do well to learn more about the factions that govern Iranian politics today. A clearer understanding of the domestic balance of power in Iran would prompt more thoughtful US policy, including, when appropriate, a policy of saying nothing at all.
Contrary to the disappointment of the US administration over the pace of reform in Iran, a deeper analysis demonstrates that Iranian society is increasingly becoming modern and diverse. As a result, fundamentalists are on the decline, transitionalists are in search of self-definition, and modernizing forces are becoming increasingly popular. Within such a mixed context of rapid change, it is normal that factionalism has become a basic feature of Iranian politics, easily creating confusion among those who are new to the dynamics of Iranian politics. This essay closely examines the power distribution, the philosophical or ideological teachings and the dynamics of competition between and among political factions in Iran.
Political Factions in Iran
While the electoral process in Iran is still tightly controlled by fundamentalists opposed to reform, there have been important changes in the character of the Islamic Republic since 1979. In fact, the electoral process in Iran has given rise to four unique eras, or Republics: the Liberal-Nationalist Republic, the Fundamentalist Islamic Republic, the Pragmatist Republic, and the Reformist Republic. In all these eras, except that of the Reformists, one social stratum achieved hegemonic status, while others were marginalized. But even the fundamentalists, with their power over the electoral process, have been unable to sustain total control of the Iranian political system at least by now.
Today, for the first time, there is a balance of power between two rival factions: Fundamentalists and Reformists. The former has the structural power within the state, the latter has the power of popular support, and the pragmatists play a balancing role between them. Unfortunately, if the current US policy of sanctions combined with rhetorical support for reform is continued, there is a high probability that reform and the reformers will suffer. They will lose their popularity on two counts: on the one hand, they will be accused of implementing "hostile US policies" in Iran, since the US claims to support them. On the other hand, continuing sanctions will prevent them from improving day-to-day life as they have promised to do. They will thus lose all credibility with the Iranian public that elected them to office.
Because of the US claim of support for the reformist movement, the Council of Guardians is determined to avoid further electoral successes by reformists in the future. To implement this scheme, they plan to disperse their supervising organizations across the country in order to build prior understanding of the ideological orientations of would-be candidates in local districts. Reformist candidates will then face a terrible choice: they will either water down their agendas during the campaign and lose their popularity, or they will be disqualified from running by Council of Guardians.
In addition, the Expediency Council is contriving to expand the supervisory role of the Supreme Leader over all three branches of the government, using the Expediency Council as a tool. If these fundamentalist schemes succeed, the Islamic Republic will turn into a patriarchal Islamic government in the short-term, just as the fundamentalists desire. However, in the longer run, Islamic government can be expected to pave the way for another round of instability in the region, perhaps through a fascist or ultranationalist revolution.
Popularity and Power Distribution among Factions in Iran
In the last presidential election, 78.3% of the vote went to the reformists, including the pragmatist party Kargozarane Sazandegi (Agents for Construction), and 15.9% went to the fundamentalists, including another pragmatist party, E'tedal Va Tose'eh, (Moderation and Development) that was in an implicit coalition with the fundamentalists.
Power distribution in Iran, however, does not reflect the popular vote. Even with 78.3% of the electoral vote, reformists have still limited structural power. Traditional economic and cultural sources of power, plus unelected institutions controlled by the fundamentalists, restrict the reformists' ability to exercise power in the institutions they control: the Majlis (parliament), the presidency, and the city councils. And 70% of the highest official positions in the state bureaucracy are filled by appointment, generally by fundamentalists.
Implicit in the electoral statistics is the disenchantment of a sizeable 33% of the population, those who refused to vote in the 2001 presidential election. Dissatisfaction with the efficiency of reform is considerably on the rise. In a 2001 national survey, 90.5% supported either reform or fundamental change in political processes. This reservoir of popular support for reform and/or fundamental change is a challenge to the fundamentalists, who crave popular acceptance, and far less against the efficiency of the reformists. But the bloc of disenchanted voters threatens to grow larger if the reformists continue to be stymied in their attempts to change domestic policy. The growing number of frustrated voters thus presents a challenge to both of the contending factions, territorial integrity of the nation, and stability of the region.
Factions that Support the Idea of an Islamic Government or Islamic Republic
Fundamentalism originated from two different social strata in Iran: modernizing and traditional. Thanks to a very deep education and cultural transformation, the modernizing fundamentalists of the past are the reformists of today. The current ideologically fundamentalist faction in Iran has a traditional social base. Due, however, to the immense social changes in Iran over the past two decades, the traditional fundamentalists have receded and lost their popular support. Nonetheless, they still have sufficient structural power to impede the processes of modernization and democratization being advocated by the reformists.
Fundamentalists support a patriarchal Islamic government, in which popular sovereignty is void. They seek to preserve what they view as a traditional lifestyle, characterized by the politicization of Islamic concepts of law and society, the primacy of the military, and the preservation of the wealth of traditional merchants. Politically, the fundamentalists are organized through the Society of Assertive Clerics (Jame'eh Rohaniyate Mobarez, or JRM) and the Society of Instructors of the Seminaries (Jame'eh Modarresin Hoze Elmieh), which is the core cultural group among fundamentalists. A modified version of their views is reflected in their daily newspaper, Entekhab.
There are two other influential fundamentalist associations as well. The first, which represents the traditionalist merchants of the bazaar, is politically organized in the Board of Islamic Coalition (Heyate Mo'talefeh Eslami, or BIC). The second is the tightly organized Society of Muslim Engineers (Jame'eh Eslami Mohandesin). Each of these two groups publishes a daily newspaper that conducts relentless attacks on reformist figures. Moreover, they try to educate their own forces through new, modern universities that are tightly controlled and free from governmental supervision. Various colleges and universities have been established in the seminaries of the city of Qom and by their representatives in Tehran. The most influential ones are Imam Sadegh University, controlled by JRM, and the Islamic Azad University which is the largest and widespread across the country. Thanks to the unwavering support of the financially and legally strong BIC - the strongest non-clerical fundamentalist group in Iran - the officials of this university do need to abide by academic rules set by Ministry of Higher Education.
In addition to their hegemonic positions in seminaries and the Old Bazaar, fundamentalists benefit from their appointments to high positions at various endowments (bonyads), economic institutions, armed forces, the judiciary and the executive branch. These appointments include six clerical members of Council of Guardians; the clerical members of the Council of Experts; the leaders of Friday prayers; the clerics in the "Propagation Organization," which is responsible for publicizing Islamic values; senior judgeships; the Chamber of Commerce; and other positions appointed by the Supreme Leader.
Fundamentalist Policy Preferences
The domestic politics of fundamentalists are more congruent with totalitarianism, though they are unable to implement its principles within the current political system. In foreign policy, this faction capitalizes on radical approaches towards Israel and relations with the West in general and the United States in particular. For them, closer relations with the West will promote modernizing sectors of society, at their expense. They oppose foreign investment, again since it builds the reformists' power base while damaging the traditional economic interests of fundamentalist allies. In other, less sensitive, sectors of the economy, however, they would like to curtail government interference.
The pragmatists are an elitist authoritarian faction, mainly inspired by the intellectual work of economic professors at Shahid Beheshti University. They believe in economic modernization from above, but have no evident interest in the democratization of politics.
The pragmatists organize themselves in two different parties, both supporting former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani's two daughters are founding members of the two parties. Both parties are made up of technocrats who support bureaucratic authoritarianism, but they differ on cultural issues. Hezbe Kargozaran Sazandegi supports the Reformists' open approach to culture. By contrast, Hezbe E'tedal va Tose'eh's views toward culture are more congruent with the fundamentalists: they believe in at least a partially closed society. Both parties are economically modern and organized politically to fill the centrist gap between the extremes of the reformist and fundamentalist factions. They do not take positions on sensitive issues such as democratization of the society, Iran-US relations or the Arab-Israeli issue, but do favor technical and economic relations with the West, including the United States.
The presiding members of Hezbe Kargozaran Sazandegi include the former mayor of Tehran, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, the governor of Central Bank, Mohsen Nour Bakhsh, the former Minister of Guidance, Atta'ollah Mohajerani, and former vice-president Mohsen Hashemi Taba. Rafsanjani's daughter, brother and nephew also figure prominently in the party.
During the heated electoral debates between seven presidential candidates in 2001, Rafsanjani and the Hezbe Kargozaran Sazandegi tilted towards an alliance with the pro-Khatami reformist platform. Due to the critical stances of some leading reformists against Rafsanjani's non-democratic approach to reform, his second daughter, Fatemeh, alongside with other pragmatists such as Mahmoud Vaezi (the former deputy foreign mimister) and Hossein Kamali (former labor minister), who are loyal to her father, set up the Hezbe E'tedal va Tose'eh.
The reformist camp is the intellectual force in Iranian politics. They support the democratization of Iran and peaceful interaction with the outside world. They split into idealist and realist schools of thought.
Idealists believe in economic interdependence, the coexistence of diverse cultures, and political interactions within a universal global civilization. They therefore root their foreign policy doctrine in the concept of a Dialogue Among Civilizations and look towards a "coalition for peace."
Realist reformists, by contrast, believe in an institutional balance of power in domestic politics and political deterrence in international politics. They perceive important international threats, but distinguish themselves from the fundamentalists by arguing that political rather than military means should be used to fend off these threats. With respect to the Arab-Israeli issue, both groups of reformists advocate a two-state solution supported by the United Nations, and believe that any political settlement must be both just and determined by the Palestinians themselves. They favor a balanced relationship with the United States, based on mutual interests, and far from the patron-client relationship that existed in the past.
Reformists are united in their support for a pluralist, democratic political system, but the idealists emphasize the promotion of civil society in Iran while the realists believe in a balance of power in domestic politics. Generally, they are inspired by the romantic sociology of Ali Sharia'ti and wisdom of modern and post-modern Iranian thinkers, who synthesize Islamic moral concepts with modern Enlightenment political philosophy, and argue that there is no inherent tension between democracy and an Islamic society.
Today, reformist thinkers find a home in the Department of Political Science at Tehran University, in Tarbiat Modarres University, and in the works of such thinkers as Abdol-Karim Soroush and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabastari. Many young clerics are attracted to this reading of Islam, based simultaneously on scientific rationality, philosophical wisdom, and spiritual Gnosticism.
The reformist camp is very diverse. The most liberal amongst them is the Participation Front Party, led institutionally by Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's brother, and intellectually by Sa'eed Hajjarian and his associates. The second-most influential and disciplined party is the Organization of Strivers of the Islamic Revolution (Sazmane Mojahedine Enghelab Eslami). The third non-clerical group is the Solidarity Party (Hezbe Hambastegi), whose major leading figure is Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the leaders in the hostage-taking fiasco. Asgharzadeh now asserts that such action is detrimental to world peace and hence inappropriate in diplomatic relations. Indeed, many leading reformists are now critical of their own radical fundamentalism in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution.
Amongst the reformists, the least modern group is the Association of Assertive Clerics (Majma'e Rohaniyoune Mobarez, not to be confused with the fundamentalist Society of Assertive Clerics). This group is mainly affiliated with Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who has been under house arrest by the regime for the past few years, and Ayatollah Jalal Taheri, whose recent public letter of resignation from the Friday prayer leadership made him the target of harsh attacks by fundamentalists. As a cleric who supports a post-modern perspective on Islam, Iranian President Khatami stands out among this group.
In sum, the reformists support a transition to a democratic pluralist state, pragmatists promote bureaucratic authoritarianism, and fundamentalists favor a more totalitarian approach to politics. Currently, the two extremes are evenly matched, and only the pragmatists' interest in economic development and social modernization keeps them from indulging wholeheartedly in the intensive, scholastic debates over the future of the Islamic Republic. It is this balance of power and the stasis it has induced that are interpreted by some American observers as Khatami's inability to implement reform. The American policy of rhetorical support for reformists and simultaneous maintenance of sanctions is perhaps the most incapacitating factor now affecting the reformist movement. Because the reformists lack structural power, rhetorical support from outside only increases their vulnerability.
The ultimate outcome of this drawn-out factional battle will determine Iranian foreign policy as well as domestic developments. Those interested in understanding the dynamics of Iranian politics would do well to pay attention to the outlines of this factional battle in Iran.
Given the internal balance of power between the three factions, perhaps the best the United States can do right now is take a hands-off attitudes toward domestic factional politics in Iran, and try to capitalize instead on the shared strategic interests of both countries. Iran's pressing strategic interests are something that all the Iranian factions can agree on, and thus present the best hope for constructive US-Iranian dialogue.
But there is also an Iranian form of "constructive engagement" that could shift the internal balance between the popular reformists and the powerful fundamentalists. While there is little American rhetoric can do to change politics in Iran, its leverage is far more meaningful. Iran has applied for consideration to join the World Trade Organization, and its faltering economy is desperate for international investment to help create jobs for its overwhelmingly youthful population. Growing economic ties to the West could create new private wealth in Iran, which would significantly reduce the appeal of xenophobic arguments and the leverage of the fundamentalist parties. Commercial ties to the outside world would also reinforce Iran's increasing social openness. In this way, rather than through declarations of support for the Iranian people, the United States could encourage constructive change in Iranian politics.
Hossein Seifzadeh is a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute and a fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies of Harvard University until September 2002. He is a professor of political science at the University of Tehran.
The views expressed in this document do not necessarily reflect those of the Middle East Institute, which does not take a position on Middle East Issues. "