Friday, December 23, 2005

Reading Iran

Tom Porteous, Prospect:
Over the past decade, Iran's clerical conservatives have defeated their reformist rivals. But the summer election of populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is generating new conflicts among the networks that control the state.
How will this affect Iran's relations with the west? Is liberalisation really dead?

We had arrived at Jamkaran, a holy shrine outside the Iranian city of Qom and site of a water well where the 12th and last imam of Shia Islam, the Mahdi, is said to have disappeared a little over a thousand years ago. Many Iranians believe that the so-called hidden imam, or "imam zaman" (lord of all the ages), will at any moment choose this place to make his return to solve the world's problems. In recent years, the millenarian cult of the well of Jamkaran has become so popular that a hotel has been built nearby and the old mosque is being expanded to accommodate the thousands of pilgrims who flock to the shrine every week. READ MORE

During my latest visit to Iran in November, I decided to visit Jamkaran after reading a report in a newspaper of a speech delivered by the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the occasion of National Saffron Production day. In the speech he had urged Iranians to work hard for the return of the imam zaman, who, according to Shia eschatology, will return at a time of great crisis, defeat the enemies of God and establish an era of universal justice.

On this visit I was struck by two things: the political situation, following the summer's election of Ahmadinejad, was even more finely balanced than usual; and the baffling subject of the imam zaman kept coming up in conversation. It was as if the election had conjured up an element of Shia popular mysticism that had long lurked in the background. There was even a story circulating in Tehran that the new president's cabinet had drawn up a contract with the imam zaman promising to work for the Mahdi's return in exchange for his support. The new minister of Islamic guidance, Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, had been dispatched to Jamkaran, so the story went, to deposit the contract in the well, thus sealing the deal.

I asked a young artist friend, Reza, if he would accompany me to Jamkaran. He agreed and persuaded a girlfriend of his to drive us there in her SUV. We left during the morning rush hour and crawled south out of Tehran along highways clogged with exhaust-spewing traffic. Three portly women clad in black chadors stared at us from the back seat of a battered Paykan, the ubiquitous Iranian-made car modelled on the 1960s Hillman Hunter, which ceased production only in May. The women had daggers in their eyes. Not only was Reza's girlfriend "bad hijab" (insufficiently veiled), smoking, driving and irredeemably upper-middle class, but she had just insulted their driver by swerving out in front of him without warning.

My visit to Jamkaran did not yield any miraculous answers to the tricky conundrums of Iranian politics any more than it yielded a sighting of the imam zaman. The well itself consists of holes in the ground—conveniently there are two, one for men and another for women—covered with metal grilles through which devotees drop their wishes and prayers scribbled on special pieces of paper sold at a nearby kiosk for 50 tomans each (about 3p). Besides several unruly parties of schoolchildren, most of the pilgrims were Iraqis. One of them, Mahmoud, told me he had driven all the way from Sadr City in Baghdad. He and his friends were heading for Mashhad, Iran's second city and the site of the shrine of the imam Reza (the eighth imam of Shia Islam) in northeastern Iran. They had decided to visit Jamkaran on the way, as well as the shrine of Hazrat Masoumeh (imam Reza's sister, who is greatly venerated in her own right) in Qom. Back in Iraq, Mahmoud had already visited the shrine of the imam Hussein (the prophet's grandson) in Karbala, earlier in the year. It seemed he was trying to cover as many of the Shia mystical bases as possible to ensure that his prayers were answered.

"A lot of people think this is complete bullshit," said my friend Reza, the son of a communist and grandson of an ayatollah. The more sophisticated mullahs in neighbouring Qom and elsewhere, while respecting the tradition of the hidden imam, reject the cult of the well of Jamkaran as popular superstition. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, discouraged the cult of the imminent return of the hidden imam, even though his own immense popularity among Iran's poor owed something to the belief of some Iranians that he himself was the Mahdi. Khomeini also outlawed a semi-clandestine group called the Hojjatieh, which emerged during the revolution, and whose members believe that total chaos must be created in order to hasten the return of the Mahdi and the establishment of Islamic rule throughout the world.

Since Khomeini's death, however, the Hojjatieh has reportedly re-emerged in various sectors of the regime, including the Revolutionary Guard, the elite parallel army that was established to protect the Islamic revolution and that bore the brunt of the fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. There are indications that Ahmadinejad and several of his close associates, mostly veterans of that war, are sympathisers or active members of the group. The new president's key supporter among senior Shia clergy, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Misbah-Yazdi, is also thought to be associated with Hojjatieh. During this summer's presidential election, Misbah-Yazdi is said to have issued a fatwa instructing all 2m members of the paramilitary Basij (the militia that emerged after the revolution as enforcers of Islamist morality) to vote for Ahmadinejad.

In the past decade, at the same time as Hojjatieh re-emerged as a secretive force around the fringes of the regime, the cult of the hidden imam gained in popularity, mostly but not exclusively among Iran's lower classes. So while many Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad because of his programme of wealth redistribution and because he was not a mullah (an important asset in a country where rule by mullahs has badly dented the reputation of the clergy), some also may have been attracted by his millenarian rhetoric. Thus the election saw a conjunction of the ambitions of a small hardline clique and the yearnings and frustrations of the urban proletariat and rural peasantry.

The result was a victory for Ahmadinejad that finally put an end to the efforts of liberal reformers to transform the Islamic Republic from within its formal political structures, put a hardline populist into the president's office, and once again set Iran off on uncharted and potentially turbulent political waters.

A quarter of a century after the Iranian revolution, the politics of Iran remain full of paradoxes and surprises. The unexpected election of Ahmadinejad as post-revolutionary Iran's first lay president has made it even harder to interpret.

One thing is clear, however: what happens in Iran is of crucial importance not only to the region, but to the world, because of the combination of Iran's geostrategic importance, the US and British presence in Iraq and the uncertainty over Iran's nuclear programme. Furthermore, although the ultimate direction of Iranian politics will be determined by internal forces, the policies of the west towards Iran and the region can play an influential role in shaping the future of Iran, for good and ill.

The usual analysis of Iranian politics—favoured by western commentators, journalists and secular Iranian intellectuals alike—follows what one might call the political-science approach, which takes as its starting point the complex constitution and formal institutions of the Iranian power structure. According to this analysis, a hybrid system of governance has evolved since the revolution in which two separate, unequal and irreconcilable forms of government have coexisted. On the one hand there is the quasi-democratic formal state structure based on a western republican model: an elected chief executive, the president, who presides over a cabinet of ministers accountable to an elected parliament. On the other hand there is a theocratic structure commanded by the supreme leader, a post which was bequeathed by Ayatollah Khomeini at his death to the conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader is the ultimate authority and controls powerful unelected decision-making bodies—the expediency council, the guardian council and the supreme national security council—as well as the judiciary and the armed forces.

During the 1990s, after the death of Khomeini and the end of what Iranian officialdom always called the "Iraqi-imposed war," the main story of Iranian politics was the struggle between conservatives seeking to preserve the Islamist ideological legacy of Khomeinism and reformists seeking to use the democratic institutions of the system to promote political and economic liberalisation. By the end of the 1990s, the reformists, backed by much of Iran's educated young population who were fed up with the strident puritanism of the Islamic Republic, appeared to be in the ascendancy. A reformist cleric, Mohammed Khatami, was elected president in 1997 and again in 2001.

At first, Khatami seemed to offer a real prospect of reform and a more open and co-operative approach towards the west. But by the beginning of his second term, disillusion was setting in. It became clear not only that Khatami was unable to deliver significant reforms against the strong opposition of conservative Islamist elements at the centre of the system, but that the system itself was unreformable. This was the conclusion of many secular intellectuals as well as some moderate Islamic philosophers and clerics. As long as Ayatollah Khomeini's overarching principle of velayat-e faqih ("guardianship of the jurist") remained in place, those who claimed to be acting in the name of Islamist ideology, and ultimately in the name of Allah and the holy imams of Shia Islam, would always have the edge over those who claimed to be acting in the name of democracy and the people.

The hardline Islamists had another advantage over the reformists: they controlled the instruments of violence. Throughout the Khatami presidency, whenever the reformists seemed to threaten the hardliners, the latter responded with violence and intimidation. Hence the repression of student demonstrations at Tehran University in 1999, the spate of shootings and assassinations of leading reformists like Saeed Hajjarian (the former intelligence chief turned reformist who survived an assassination attempt in 2000), the arrest and trial of dissidents like Akbar Ganji and Hashem Aghajari, the harassment of reformist journalists and human rights lawyers and the closure of reformist newspapers.

Morad saghafi, one of Iran's foremost liberal intellectuals, is a political scientist and the publisher of the influential liberal journal Goft-e Gu (Dialogue). He also hosts a small group of like-minded thinkers and professionals, some of them western-educated like Saghafi himself, who meet weekly in a small office in one of the wealthier quarters of north Tehran beneath the snow-capped peaks of the Alborz mountains to discuss the political and social issues of the day over lunch, tea and cigarettes.

"Under Khatami, the spaces for legal political struggle were significantly expanded in parliament, in the press and in civil society," Saghafi told me through a haze of cigarette smoke. "These spaces have now been squeezed and shrunk. First the supreme leader rejected the new press laws proposed by the reformist parliament. Then the conservatives won back power in the legislative elections of 2004. And now we have had Ahmadinejad's victory. The question now is this: where will the real political struggles that exist in the country be played out?"

The answer appears to be that for the time being, the key political struggle has transformed from one ostensibly between "reformists" and "conservatives" into one between pragmatic conservatives and radical millenarian Islamists. Since the election of Ahmadinejad, there are two incompatible centres of power and, according to Saghafi, they are on collision course.

On the one hand, there is the conservative and unelected, though pragmatic, expediency council, with expanded powers under the control of former president and senior cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, a godfather-like figure alleged to have amassed a huge fortune since the revolution, was expected to win the summer's presidential election but lost to Ahmadinejad in the last round. He remains a powerful force in Iran not only because of his role as head of the council but because of his patrimonial network of political support.

On the other hand, there is the newly elected president, a man of humble origins with support among the lower classes and strong links to the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij and probably to extremist cliques such as the Hojjatieh and the Abadgaran ("Developers"). It has become clear since his election that Ahmadinejad represents a close-knit network of factions populated by ideologues with a strong sense of entitlement (in part because of their service in the Iran-Iraq war) and resentment that they have been hitherto marginalised from power. Having grasped the presidency, this network is now seeking to assert itself and expand its power base through a mixture of populist sloganeering, backroom political manoeuvring and stealthy purges of opponents.

While I was in Iran, the power struggle between these two centres of power intensified significantly. Rafsanjani openly accused the president of undermining national unity and elevating incompetent cronies to positions of power. Ahmadinejad hinted that he would seek to bring Rafsanjani and others to trial for corruption. There was also talk of a potential parliamentary vote of no confidence in the new administration. The position of the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei remained enigmatic. Although Ahmadinejad had originally been the supreme leader's protégé, some thought that Khamenei was now realigning himself with Rafsanjani.

In late November there was a further bizarre twist to this power struggle when an Iranian website published a video of what purported to be a private conversation between Ahmadinejad and a senior cleric. In the video, Ahmadinejad claims that when he delivered his speech at the UN general assembly in September he felt himself to be enveloped by a halo of light and sensed the unblinking attention of the world leaders on him. It was not clear whether the video had been leaked in an effort to discredit the president or to inspire his more credulous supporters.

Given the potential gravity of the situation, most of the Iranians I spoke to remained remarkably sanguine and even optimistic about the outcome of this political conflict. The radical populist agenda of Ahmadinejad, I was told, would be blocked by the pragmatic conservative mullahs for the same reason that the reformist liberal agenda of Khatami had been blocked by that same clerical establishment—because it threatened their political and economic power.

Furthermore, I was told by intellectuals like Morad Saghafi, whatever the outcome of the present struggle within the regime, in the longer term the conservative hierarchy would still have to deal with the internal social forces pressing for greater liberalisation, particularly Iran's younger population. The reformist movement of the 1990s may have been defeated politically, but those who supported it remain a lively and active part of Iranian society. Now they are seeking new strategies outside the political system to maintain pressure for liberalisation by the expansion of civil society, in part through the use of the internet, access to which is increasing fast among the pro-reformist urban middle classes. There is even a chance that the conservatives will emerge from their struggle with the new president somewhat weakened and therefore more vulnerable to reformist pressure.

Another way of approaching Iranian politics is to think of Iran as a "shadow state" bearing close resemblance to the post-Soviet central Asian and Caucasian republics, as well as to Russia itself. According to a professor at Tehran University, whom I spoke to over lunch in downtown Tehran, the formal institutions of the Iranian state, whether elected or not, are not what really matter in Iranian politics. These institutions serve as a façade or as tools that are manipulated, subverted and instrumentalised by an oligarchy of competing networks of politicians, mullahs, senior security officers, speculators and bazaaris (merchants) as a means of accumulating and maintaining wealth and power.

"Did you know that academics are strictly forbidden from researching the kinship ties of the key political and economic families which make up the Iranian elite?" the professor said. "They don't want us to know about these ties because this is where the real power lies. It is within these family-linked networks that the real decisions are taken—often at funerals, weddings and other private functions."

At stake in this political faction-fighting is not the survival or demise of the Islamist revolution, but the economic spoils of political power in Iran. Not only is the formal economy worth about $500bn a year, but there is also a vast informal economy, much of which is actively encouraged by the political system and "managed" by religious foundations (bonyads) and other networks that link the bazaar with different parts of the power structure. In spite of the upheavals of the revolution, US sanctions and the war with Iraq, Iran has experienced rapid economic development in recent years. This has been fuelled by oil, trade, construction and speculation. The main beneficiaries have been the competing elite political and business factions linked to the ruling mullahs. These factions have in turn used their wealth and influence to engage in speculation on the stock market and in real estate, and to reinforce their political power by expanding their networks of patronage.

Since the election of Ahmadinejad, however, the economic situation has deteriorated: foreign investors have fled to the Arab emirates, the stock exchange has plummeted, decision-making has been paralysed in the energy sector because of the failure of the president to get his nominations for the post of oil minister accepted by the parliament, and confidence in the banking system has weakened. Most of this comes down to the erratic signals given by the populist new administration, packed with little-known allies of the president. The poor handling of the economy is one of the most compelling reasons for the oligarchs of Iran to want to rein in Ahmadinejad.

The new president's ideological leanings could also be a liability for Iran's conservative establishment. According to the "shadow state" theory, Islamist ideology is useful so long as it can serve the purpose of maintaining the status quo. But if ideology begins to get in the way of this purpose, it is quickly toned down. This explains why, even as the conservative centrists have maintained and consolidated their power in the past five years, they have not reversed the Khatami-era relaxation of social and dress codes introduced in the late 1990s.

Young women still get away with wearing minimalist and colourful hijabs, body-hugging thigh-length rupushes, make-up and nail varnish. The fashion for young men is longish hair parted in the middle and swept back with the help of copious handfuls of gel, a style that is designed to irritate the fundamentalists. Neckties too are back in fashion, precisely because they are frowned upon by the Islamists. Tehran's parks are crowded with unchaperoned and unmarried couples. Vodka may not be available by the glass, but it is sold on the black market by the litre. Taxi drivers are more likely to make their passengers listen to rock music or slushy Iranian pop than the Koran. Even Tehran slang has been reshaped to reflect the general contempt for the backwardness of the Islamist regime.

Ahmadinejad's new team have indicated that they want to reverse all this and return to the Islamic strictures of the 1980s. But the pragmatist conservatives in the regime know that there is no point exacerbating Islamism's unpopularity by reimposing tedious rules on an unwilling and rebellious youth.

Precisely because it has had its Islamic revolution and been subject to Islamist rule, Iranian society is now more secular than other Muslim states, especially in the Arab world. There is little of the popular Islamist (and anti-western) fervour that seethes in the Arabian peninsula, the Levant and north Africa. Mosques are not well attended. As far as I know, there are no Iranian "terror suspects" held in US secret prisons. After 25 years of Islamist government, Iranians want less Islam, not more.

The optimism of intellectuals like Saghafi is reassuring, their arguments convincing. If Iran were left to its own devices, it would stand a good chance of emerging from its current crisis, ridding itself of the proto-fascist flotsam of the revolution and setting out, in good time, on the path of genuine political reform. However, like so many Iranian conversations about Iran, these are self-centred arguments that fail to take into account the unstable regional and international context.

For a glimpse of the legacy of Iran's last violent conflict with the outside world, you can take line one on Tehran's crowded but efficient Chinese-built metro from Imam Khomeini station to Haram-e Motahar. Haram-e Motahar—the "shrine of the pure one"—is the terminus of the line and is named after the gigantic mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini to which it leads. Extra trains are scheduled on Fridays to accommodate the crowds who make the journey. But they do not come here to visit the mausoleum of the leader of the Islamic revolution, which feels neglected even before construction has been completed. Instead, the crowds flock to the adjacent Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran's southern cemetery, where tens of thousands of those whom the "pure one" sent to their deaths in the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988 are laid to rest.

The martyrs section of Behesht-e Zahra must rank among the most moving war cemeteries in the world. Many graves are marked not only by a tombstone, often strewn with fresh broken flowers, but also by a small aluminium and glass cabinet on stilts showing photographs and other souvenirs of the deceased. On any day of the week, but especially on Fridays, the cemetery still echoes to the cries of mourning mothers, wives, fathers, siblings and friends.

The photographs on the graves of the martyrs in Behesht-e Zahra are faded now by two decades of summers. But the Iran-Iraq war still matters in Iran, and not just for the hundreds of thousands of families who still mourn their dead. A whole generation of Islamist cadres developed their political outlook, plotted their futures and cemented their relationships in the cauldron of the Iraq war front. These cadres include Ahmadinejad and his circle, who are now grasping for control of the state in part because they feel their role in the war entitles them to it.

The Iran-Iraq war also has important legacies in Iran's foreign policy. If Iran, as the US and others suspect, is seeking nuclear weapons, this is not because it wants to "wipe Israel off the map" but because of the experience of the war with Iraq, when Iran's armed forces were relentlessly attacked by Iraq's armoury of non-conventional weapons. In the intervening 20 years, the deterioration and depletion of Iran's conventional arsenals combined with the military consolidation of the US in the region make the argument for a defensive nuclear capability even more compelling. Iraq is no longer a threat, of course, but the US occupation and persistent threats of military action against Iran present a new strategic challenge for Tehran to which a nuclear weapon might seem to offer an easy answer.

Another consequence of the war with Saddam was that it made a generation of Islamist ideologues like Ahmadinejad, who was a commander in that war, acutely conscious of the hostility to Iran not only of Ba'athist Iraq, but of all the Sunni-ruled Arab states. It was Arab and western governments that armed Saddam and helped him produce his poison gas.

Today the hostility and suspicion between the Iranian state and the west continues (even though the people of Iran are, according to some polls, better disposed to the US than are the people of any Arab country). Hostility between Iran and the Sunni Arab states also smoulders on, fanned by the Sunni Arab fears of Iranian influence among Iraq's majority Shias. And Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions alarm the west, whose leaders are obsessed with the potential conjunction of WMD, terrorism and "rogue states."

This is a highly volatile and unpredictable situation whose escalation can only help the most extreme elements in Iranian politics—those who have recently emerged around the president. Ahmadinejad's recent moves on the international and regional fronts, including his hostile statements on Israel, have been interpreted by some as signs of incompetence and inexperience. But they may in fact be part of a plan to provoke an escalation of the regional conflict in order to strengthen his precarious domestic position.

It is impossible to make predictions about Iran. Too many people have got it wrong too many times, often with far-reaching consequences. And there are too many wild cards, including the vagaries of US middle east policy and the hidden hand of the imam zaman. However there are three lessons from Iran's recent experience that are worth noting.

First, the planners of the invasion of Iraq should have paid more attention to its impact on Iran. As it turned out, the removal of Saddam and the occupation of Iraq have directly or indirectly done the following: strengthened Iran's regional influence, increased Iran's incentive to pursue nuclear weapons in order to deter threats that have emerged from the new regional politics, and limited the west's ability to put pressure on Iran. The Iraq war may also have set back, in the short term, the prospects of political reform in Iran—where the religious right has made effective use of the American occupation of Iraq and the accompanying threats of military action against Iran.

Second, a comparison between Iran and Arab states demonstrates the dilemma for those who would like to see more political freedom in the middle east. Iran is certainly closer to achieving real political liberalisation than any other Muslim state in the region, apart from Turkey. But this is partly because it has already had its Islamic revolution. The route to political freedom in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Syria may well lie through the same dangerous terrain. But Iran's political struggles show that emerging from this terrain is an arduous task that can take more than 25 years to accomplish. The alternative in the Arab world is probably more of the same brand of Arab dictatorship that has done so much to nurture Islamist militancy.

Third, the tendency of western politicians and media to focus on ideology in the middle east at the expense of political analysis results in a banal and incomplete picture of what is going on. The ideologies may be real enough, but they are also nurtured and manipulated as political tools by competing elites and states as a means of attaining and holding power. It was always so, and the US and Britain should know this, for they are as much responsible for nurturing and manipulating ideologies in the middle east as anyone else in the past half-century.
A lengthy but valuable read.