Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Iranian Elections Signal Change--William O. Beeman

Iranian Elections Signal Change

William O. Beeman

Elections in Iran last week are harbingers of change in the Islamic Republic. The rising generation of Iranian youth, along with the increasingly important population of politically active women is making itself felt in a dramatic way. It is this combination—youth and women—who will lead Iran in the near future.

The new political landscape is not yet at full strength—that will occur in about five years as the post-Revolutionary population matures. However, the presence of this new political coalition in last week’s election has already shown the future of Iranian political life. If left to its own devices without foreign interference, Iran undoubtedly be more democratic, more liberal, more secular and more positively disposed toward the West than ever before in the Islamic Republic.

The elections which chose the members of local municipal councils as well as the Assembly of Experts, which monitors the actions of Iran’s Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, resulted in losses for the extreme conservative elements in Iran’s political spectrum, and a resurgence of moderate and reformist candidates.

Many commentators have had difficulty interpreting the election results. However, it becomes easier once the Iranian political landscape has been properly laid out.

The dominant group in Iranian political life are the post-Revolutionary Hard-line Conservatives. This is the group who came to power under the aegis of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The current spiritual leader, Ali Khamene’i and his supporters make up the bulk of this group. They currently dominate the government. However, in the three decades following the Revolution they have become increasingly more pragmatic in their dealings with the United States and other Western nations. Often identified in derogatory fashion as the “mullocracy,” they are no longer dominated by clerics.

Challenging this establishment for power are three groups. First are a number of Moderate Conservatives--individuals and factions who have posts within the conservative establishment who are vying for power. Chief among them is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, former President who ran for a second non-consecutive term against current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in last year’s elections. Hashemi-Rafsanjani currently heads the Expediency Council, which mediates between the Spiritual Leader and the Parliament. Another contender for power is Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, current mayor of Tehran, who also ran for President.

The second group consists of the Reformers, who, under President Mohammad Khatami, the last President, made strong gains in modifying the hard revolutionary line of the Khomeini conservatives. They were voted out of office by a public disgruntled because they could not take their reforms far enough. They were also prevented from seeking election by the conservatives who, under the constitution have the right through a body called the Council of Guardians to remove “unsuitable” candidates from elections. The former Parliament Speaker, Mehdi Karrubi, who came close to being in the Presidential runoff last year, is part of this group.

The third challenger group might be called the Revolutionary Reactionaries, headed by current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This group is disgruntled for many reasons. Many are veterans of the Iran-Iraq war. They have never achieved real power in government, though they maintain a certain control in local politics. They reject the idea of clerical rule and want Iran to return to the ideals of the original Revolution—particularly in the area of economic reform. They view the current conservative rulers as corrupt and venal. President Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric is aimed at energizing this group and attracting new followers to their philosophy. President Ahmadinejad is too weak to effect the religious conservative rollback in laws involving public behavior, or in redistribution of the nation’s wealth—one of the hallmark goals of the original Revolution.

Unfortunately for both the Reformers and the Revolutionary Reactionaries they have very little power. President Khatami and those who represent his political stance are regularly vilified in the press and in public rhetoric. Though President Ahmadinejad has the bully pulpit at his disposal to launch whatever attacks he wishes on Israel, the United States or those who oppose Iran’s nuclear energy program; in fact he has very little actual power. Under Iran’s governmental system the President has no control over the military, foreign policy or Iran’s nuclear program. Therefore his words are empty.

However, Iran does have a real, functioning electoral system, despite denigrating remarks made by the Bush administration. President Ahmadinejad hoped to increase his power by forming a political party and running candidates that would represent his philosophy. The Reformers also ran candidates to challenge the conservatives.

Now that election returns are in, it seems clear that the voters have favored the Reformers, and the Moderate Conservatives in both the local elections and for the Assembly of Experts. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s supporters came in a distant fourth in all aspects of the election. This is certainly a setback for his political ambitions, and it should help Westerners to put his extreme remarks in perspective: clearly Iranians don’t buy them any more than forces in the West.

The trend among Iranian voters is thus in the direction of change away from the conservatism of the past. This has been the general direction of Iranian politics, and it will undoubtedly continue.

The one issue that all Iranians are united on, however, is the right for Iran to develop its nuclear energy capabilities. This is a matter of national pride in Iran where it is seen as an aspect of modernization. There is no evidence whatever that Iran is pursuing a weapons program. The United States is foolish to continue to antagonize the Iranian people by threatening attacks, sanctions and other hostile actions based on this one-note foreign policy.

A policy of talking to Iran, engaging in diplomacy and working toward reasonable mutual solutions to regional issues of mutual concern will pay off in the long run when Iran’s new generation comes to power.

William O. Beeman is Professor of Anthropology and Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association, and author of The “Great Satan” vs. The “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.