x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Why Iran is being torn in two

The belief in conspiracy theories is a major characteristic of Iranian politics and society. The politics of elimination is also a long-standing feature of Iranian politics. The reformists and pragmatists are on the verge of being eliminated from legitimate politics in Iran.

Pep Montserrat for The National.
Pep Montserrat for The National.

Let me begin by pointing out my belief that Iran is a short-term society. I once wrote that, up to a century ago, when an Iranian man left home in the morning he would not know whether, by the evening, he would be made a minister or be hanged, drawn and quartered. Obviously this is an exaggeration, but nevertheless close to the Iranian experience throughout the country's long history. Ask an average Iranian what he will be doing in six months' time and you would normally receive the reply: "In six months' time, who is dead and who is alive?"

In the 1970s, many if not most western journalists, analysts and academics used to describe Iran as an island of stability in the Middle East. One western economist even went as far as predicting Iran's gross domestic product in the year 2000. In the late 1970s, however, Iranian society rose against the state and overthrew it. Since then, there have been countless predictions about political developments in Iran, almost all of which have been off the mark.

In 1997, a totally unexpected landslide electoral victory swept the Islamic reformists into power. Many believed that this marked an end to the Islamist regime. Yet eight years later, a fundamentalist was elected president and, although there were some complaints about electoral irregularities, hardly anyone doubted that he had had a large share of the vote. Let us begin with a brief account of the background to the present situation. In 1979, all shades of opinion combined to bring down the state. No social class and no political party stood against the revolutionary movement, and 98 per cent of the electorate voted for the establishment of an Islamic republic.

But, almost at the same time, fundamental differences began to emerge among the revolutionary forces such that, by 1982, all but the Islamists had been eliminated from politics. There were conservative and radical tendencies among the Islamists themselves, but their differences rarely led to conflict and confrontation in the 1980s. This was due in part to the long war with Iraq, but mainly because of the unifying role of Ayatollah Khomeini, who acted as the regime's supreme arbiter.

The end of the war in 1988 and Khomeini's death the following year began a new era. At first the union of the conservative Ayatollah Khamenei as supreme leader and the pragmatist Ali Akbar Rafsanjani as president seemed to work fairly well. But in Rafsanjani's second term, conservatives began to show dissatisfaction with his policies. Two other distinct factions had emerged in the 1990s: the fundamentalists and the reformists. The fundamentalists - mainly representing the traditional lower and lower middle classes - tended to emphasise the Islamist nature of the regime and advocated an anti-western foreign policy. The reformists, on the other hand, displaying an Islamic social-democratic outlook, believed in a more open society and better regional and international relations.

Contrary to all predictions, the 1997 presidential election resulted not in a conservative but a reformist-pragmatist victory, bringing Mohammed Khatami to power. Women and young people certainly played an important role in the reformist campaign but the landslide nature of the victory reflected the aspirations of most of the voters - both religious and secular - for change. Khatami won another landslide victory in 2001. But while he brought about significant changes, he had few allies left in the last two years of his presidency, since the conservatives and fundamentalists used all in their power to limit his options. During an address in November 2004 at a meeting at the University of Tehran, Khatami was booed and heckled, some students shouting: "Khatami, you liar, shame on you." Yet, if only to prove the short-term nature of Iranian society, when he went there again in 2007 - the second year of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency - the crowd were shouting: "Here comes the people's saviour."

Ahmadinejad was a fundamentalist and the candidate of a fundamentalist-conservative coalition. His election once again caught many of the Iran observers in the wings. Posing as a man of the people and promising increased welfare for the poor, he won most of their votes while at the same time attracting the support of powerful conservatives who wanted to be rid of the reformists. That is why while the conservatives generally applauded his reversal of the reformist trends in domestic and foreign politics, they not infrequently displayed their displeasure at his economic policies, his millenarian views and his abrasive personality. In 2009, a leader of a solid conservative group - the Islamic Coalition Party - made this clear when he said that, despite serious reservations, they would back Ahmadinejad's nomination for a second term solely to stop a reformist victory.

Four years of Ahmadinejad rule taught the reformists and the secularists a hard lesson. They stopped criticising Khatami and became nostalgic about his time as president. The majority of them wanted Khatami to stand. Under great pressure, Khatami first came forward but then stepped down in favour of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a radical prime minister of the 1980s. Backed by the pragmatist faction as well, Mousavi's campaign started late and only gathered momentum three weeks before the election day. No one could have predicted the events which have unfolded.

The electoral dispute that followed is now beyond doubt. It was, however, a major turning point: the Islamic Republic had not experienced anything like it since the early 1980s. The factional struggles during the Khatami years were mostly a crisis of authority. But now there was a crisis of legitimacy as well, since the Islamic Republic had split down the middle, with each side claiming legitimacy. This was the first time that the reformist-pragmatist coalition had drawn very large crowds made up of both their own supporters and secularist people. On the other hand, the supreme leader's unequivocal backing for the declared election results, as well as Ahmadinejad himself, changed his usual posture as an arbiter of factional disputes.

As the crisis took hold, the reformist leaders stressed the representative features of the system, whereas the fundamentalists put the emphasis on the authority of the supreme leader as the representative of the Hidden Imam's, and thereby God's, authority. This brought to the surface the unresolved dichotomy between the "republican" and the "Islamic" features of the constitution. Reformists accused the fundamentalist-conservative factions of a coup against the republic, while the latter launched a systematic campaign to describe Mousavi and his supporters as pawns in a western conspiracy to bring about a "velvet revolution" in Iran.

The belief in conspiracy theories is a major characteristic of Iranian politics and society. Western media have generally supported the protest movement, but, however that may be, there is no evidence - notwithstanding the recent show trial confessions and recantations which would not stand up in a proper court of law - that the movement had been organised or owed its existence to foreign conspiracies.

The politics of elimination is also a long-standing feature of Iranian politics. After the 1953 coup d'etat, a dictatorial regime came into existence which eliminated the National Front, the Tudeh party and their supporters from politics. But the regime still maintained a social base, largely consisting of the political and the religious establishment. There was no democracy but there was a certain amount of freedom of expression. But the regime jettisoned its social base in 1963 in the wake of the Shah's White Revolution and the revolt in June that year. Politics was altogether abolished and power became both absolute and arbitrary. That was the basic reason why the state had no social force or political party to defend it during the revolution.

Things are never absolutely the same as before, but by way of a simple analogy, the reformists and pragmatists are on the verge of being eliminated from legitimate politics in Iran. Clearly the protesters are in no position to eliminate their rivals from politics even if they so wished. On the other hand, the fundamentalists would not shy away from the complete political elimination of their opponents. What stand in their way are both the reformist support of a few senior ayatollahs and other religious figures as well as a considerable body of relatively moderate conservatives who would not wish to go that far. Hence the present situation in which scores of leading reformists and pragmatists have been put on trial and given severe punishments - leading even some senior conservatives to cast doubt on the validity of the charges. At the same time, Mousavi and Khatami are still at large and active. Forecasts that promise the imminent fall of the Islamic regime are premature and often based on optimistic sentiments. There is no major external threat to the regime and, as for the domestic forces, the ruling parties have under their command the armed, police and intelligence forces, the parliament and the judiciary. They also have a base in Iranian society.

Things can always happen to Iran and Iranians who are beyond rational expectations. It is not for nothing that Iranians themselves call it "the country of possibilities". Homa Katouzian teaches at St Antony's College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. He is the author of the recently released The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran (Yale University Press)