Post-Election Iran: Continuity Not Change

Dissatisfaction will always trigger change. As it did in Iran. Sixty three percent of the Iranians who voted in the final election round voted for the 48 year old mayor of Tehran. Also a former provincial governor, a former revolutionary guard commander and a doctoral degree holder, Ahmadinejad has been a surprise winner.

He succeeds Khatami whose promise of reform was not fulfilled. A great intellectual and genuinely committed to reforming Iranian politics and society, he was stone-walled by the State. He tried to be the political bridge over which society’s social reforms agenda would travel to influence State power. Instead State institutions and conservative parliamentarians often left him powerless when he needed to proceed with his social reform agenda.

The State institutions ordered closure of many pro-reform newspapers and journals since the late 1990s.Recently through a judicial order another pro-reform paper was shut down. Despite displeasure of many Khatami had allowed much greater space to cinema, arts and writings. Khatami had also called for the visionary initiative of dialogue between cultures but clerics like Yazdi have been on an angry offensive against the West.

Now the Iranian brand of a rigidly guided-democracy has brought Ahmadinejad to power. Ayatollah Khamenai and his chosen clerics lay down strict parameters for the functioning of the Iranian democracy and of the Iranian society. For example from 1000 presidential candidates the 12-member Guardian Council, only cleared eight.

A man of modest means Ahmadinejad was voted in by the religious poor. By all accounts his support base extends to the inner circles of Iran’s State apparatus controlled by unelected religious clerics. He has the support of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Basij. He has powerful links with Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatullah Khamenai and with the leader of the powerful Guardian Council, through their sons.

The relatively young Ahmadinejad won by an impressive lead over his rival, the former two-term President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani was supported by pro-reform parties and by wealthy Iranians looking for freer a more open society.

In his first public comments Iran’s President-elect said he wants to create a "modern, advanced and Islamic" role model for the world. About Iran he said that "We are one nation and one big family. We should help each other to make a great society." To achieve this openness, tolerance and mutual respect must be promoted within society.

However as mayor with the press he has been less than tolerant. His relations with Iran’s former President deteriorated to the extent that he was kept out of cabinet meetings; a privilege usually given to the mayors of Tehran. As mayor he ordered the end of an advertising campaign using David Beckham.

His political opponent Rafsanjani accused him of Taliban mentality. Ahmadinejan’s close political advisors deny that the new president will segregate men and women in elevators, universities and other places.

The election campaign exposed a deep rift in the nation of 67 million.

With lavish use of rhetoric Ahmadinejad message to the world was that “a new Islamic revolution has arisen and the Islamic revolution of 1384 (the current Iranian year) will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world. The era of oppression, hegemonic regimes, tyranny and injustice has reached its end…The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world.” From the other side of the divide this is much like Bush’s message of freedom and justice that Bush sends to the world.

Ahmadinejad’s power base is a section of the Iranian public plus the powerful Iranian State. Iran’s poor and dejected look to him for salvation. An oil rich State currently is steeped in ? unemployment. For its citizens the promise of the revolution has yet to be made good. The president-elect is viewed by his supporters as the legitimate offspring of the Iranian Revolution, one who can deliver make good on the promise of the Revolution.

Ahmadinejad’s victory has provided a political partner to the Iranian State which has been at odds with the outgoing President. On issues of intellectual and social freedoms tensions continued between the State institutions and the elected parliament and the presidency. Now they will function in unity.

Meanwhile on the foreign policy front Ahmadinejad will essentially operating within a pre-set dynamic. Change may come in style not the substance of foreign policy. Relations with Arab neighbors will remain on track. The Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the GCC states have all welcomed his election.

Issues like Iran-US relations, Iran’s nuclear program and Israel are also to a broader context. US’s own policy has also greatly contributed to the prevailing confrontation. Interestingly this point with reference to North Korea was cogently made at Harvard University. At a talk on North Korea by a former US ambassador to South Korea it was none other than the Boston-based South Korean Consul-General who said the difficulty about North Korea engaging with the US in a dialogue is that US has made it clear that it seeks the end of the North Korean regime. In such a situation how can North Korea be expected to make any peace overtures. US has to be the first one. Exactly the same logic applies to the Iran-US situation.

Given the US reaction to Ahmadinejad’s victory Tehran may opt for more aggressive posturing towards the US. Already two of the 51 hostages have identified the new President as on of the men who captured them in the embassy take over. The rest of the 49 have no recall. Still sections of the US media have referred to him as a “terrorist.” For the rabid anti-Iran men in the Bush administration the ‘terrorist card’ prove handy.

Even otherwise in the existing atmosphere the possibility of an Iran-US dialogue appears minimal. The indirect debate between the two however continues: mostly in black and white terms. All communication is framed within a zero-sum equation. One must negate the other, label the other as evil, tyrannical, unjust and even “blood-thirsty.” For those seek compromise between the two for peaceful co-existence who has the moral edge in such a debate, is of no consequence. Puritanical positions do not help.

Nearly three decades on after the Iranian revolution the Iranian State still finds itself in the throes of the paradoxical insecure-control paradigm. The Iranian State has hardly moved away from excessive control over politics and society. Historically all post-revolution States, take decades to let go of controls. And in cases like that of the Soviet Union they become so brittle in their inflexibility that they run the risk of breaking rather than bending.

By contrast the Iranian society has traveled on. It’s intellectual and spiritual journey towards greater sensitivity and consciousness is evident in its art and literature. This is barely reflected in Iran’s politics. In the Iranian State however it is completely missing. The national and global context within which the Iranian State functions best explains the absence of a developed Iranian intellectual and spirit’s influence on the rudimentary State.

Those who control the coercive apparatus of State power are on the front-lines of Iran’s interaction with the outside world. Hence they claim they ‘read’ the adversary best. Accordingly they must deal with it as they best understand. The internal must fall in line with the requirements of the nation’s very survival. The siege psychosis dominates the Iranian State. In turn it will further tighten control over society. All in the name of Islam, identity and national interest.

As with average human beings average States too allow genuine openness, engagement and relations within and with the outside world when they are secure and confident. A ‘threatened State’ will inevitably redraw terms of engagement with society and with the external world. As the State in the United States is doing faced what it views as the terrorism threat. Only while in the US there is an open debate on how far can civil liberties be justifiably curtailed, in Iran even the debate is missing. There the civil society has only very marginally entered the post revolution Iranian political power.

The current logic of the Iranian State is also somewhat reminiscent of how the insecure Pakistani State behaved from the fifties onwards and the impact it had on the evolution of the Pakistani intellect and politics.

Iranian State remains impervious to influences from Iranian society. One, because it upholds a literalist view of Islam. Two largely because of the US-Israeli policies, it views itself under siege.

The fundamental challenge that the Iranian State faces is that of breaking out of this reactive and insecurity-ridden mind set. Whatever the realities of its context, Iran for its own sake needs to function beyond the compulsions of its context. Iran must create a new context which generates more confidence, peace and prosperity for the Iranian nation. Additionally such a move would further reintegrate Iran in the global community. But the first steps will have to be ideological cracks within the Iranian State. Maybe in accusing the new set-up as a talibaan set up the former Iranian President has cast the first stone.