Originally Published 2005-08-05 13:21:34 Published on Aug 05, 2005
Iranian civilisation is heresy-prone. Heresy is indicative of a questioning mind. Throughout history, individuals and movements have emerged in Iran to invoke the moral imperative and disrupt the status quo. The most recent events sustain this characteristic of the Iranian personality. Paradoxes abound in the vote in the June presidential election: it was anti-establishment, not anti-regime, anti-clerical but affirmative of the principles of the Islamic revolution, anti-reformist but democratic.
A Strange Country by the Name of Iran
Iranian civilisation is heresy-prone. Heresy is indicative of a questioning mind. Throughout history, individuals and movements have emerged in Iran to invoke the moral imperative and disrupt the status quo. The most recent events sustain this characteristic of the Iranian personality. Paradoxes abound in the vote in the June presidential election: it was anti-establishment, not anti-regime, anti-clerical but affirmative of the principles of the Islamic revolution, anti-reformist but democratic.

The Islamic revolution of 1979 threw out a 'tyrant' and changed the strategic balance of the region. It humiliated a super-power, realigned Iran's domestic and foreign policies, fought off an aggression. Gradually, revolutionary passion gave way to revolutionary reason. Rafsanjani's presidency focused on post-war reconstruction and pragmatic readjustment of domestic and external policies. The election of Khatami in 1997 showed that the public had developed an appetite for far reaching political and social reforms. Good intentions on the part of the President, however, did not suffice; his reform agenda was initially hampered and eventually blocked in the Majlis through the instrumentality of the Guardian Council.

Imam Khomeini developed an elaborate political system of checks and balances to accommodate divergent impulses of revolutionary Iran. By grafting the 'Rule of the Jurist' on to a republican system, he kept a lid on the democratic element. An understanding of the paradoxes of the Iranian system, therefore, is essential to a comprehension of its working. It is a republic headed by a jurist qualified to be a Mufti , elected by an electoral college principally of clerics for an indefinite period, on whom is bestowed the plenitude of power in terms of policy, command and appointments. It has a directly elected legislature whose decisions are subject to approval by an un-elected body of twelve lay and clerical jurists who judge the compatibility of legislation with the principles of Islam on the one hand and with the Constitution on the other. It has a directly elected president who heads the executive but is not the chief executive. Yet another institution, the Expediency Council, settles disputes between these organs of the state and advises on public interest. The system thus demands that the theologically legitimate Leader and the democratically legitimate President strike a balance for its smooth functioning, a balance that by definition is tilted in favour of the former.


The election result of June 2005 vividly reflected an urge for change. It did not develop suddenly or in a vacuum. The revolution disrupted traditional social structures and raised expectations. The long war with Iraq demanded sacrifices and imposed sufferings. The post-revolutionary isolation reinforced Iranian nationalism; the war did likewise. A price for it nevertheless had to be paid in terms of denial of Western (principally America) investments, equipment, technology and trading opportunities. Four factors acted as catalysts of a new awareness: a young population resulting from high birth rates, rapid urbanisation, high levels of literacy and the revolution in communications. (It is useful to recall the role of the audio tapes of Khomeini's speeches in the events of 1979). More radical strain also surfaced; Mohsen Sazgara spoke for many when he said: 'We started to rethink the revolution and rethink what we had done, and to talk about ideas like freedom, republicanism, parliament, and justice - and many ideas'. 

Towards the end of the Khatami presidency, it was evident that one generation had power while another had demands. These demands covered a wide spectrum: employment, reduction of disparities of wealth, a crackdown on corruption, social justice, removal of restrictions on freedom of speech, greater respect for human rights, relaxation of social mores, a more open political system and normalising of Iran's relations with the Western world but without overt loss of national dignity. Khatami's intentions were conceded, his capacity to deliver questioned. As a man of the system, and a cleric, he stopped short of a confrontation that would logically lead to questioning the fundamentals of the system. The change in the composition of the Majlis in the election of 2004, engineered in some measure by disqualifying a considerable number of reformist candidates, sealed the fate of his reform package.

The seven candidates in the first round of the election of June 17 focused on different aspects of the list of public grievances and appealed to different constituencies. The consensus of opinion within Iran, and amongst Iran-watchers, was that the choice of the electorate would rest between the advocates of reforms and the advocates of democracy; more precisely, between former president Rafsanjani and the democracy and human rights advocate Mustafa Moin. Virtually every observer took little notice of a straw poll in Tehran university on June 11 that gave the first place in the first round to Ahmadinezhad, the second to Moin, the third to Qalibaf and the last one to Rafsanjani! High profile electioneering, new to the Iranian scene, made observers overlook or underestimate three vital constituencies - the urban poor, the rural voters, and the preference of the organised cadres of the revolution in the shape of the revolutionary guards (IRGC) and the paramilitary basij. The latter became critical in the second round of voting, more so because of Ahmadinezhad's basij background and the long-standing apathy of the IRGC to Rafsanjani whose political acumen frightened many and whose eight year record in office was questioned by many others. The reported preference of the Leader may also have played a part; his son Mujtaba, married to Majlis Speaker Haddad Adel's daughter, was amongst Ahmadinazhad's inner team and Haddad Adel himself made no secret of his joy when the final result was announced.

Despite this evidence of the possible use of 'institutional power', the propensity to read too much in the subjective factors should be resisted. The victor's margin of victory was convincing. 59% of the eligible 47 million voters cast their votes in the second round; Ahmadinezhad received 61.6% and Rafsanjani 35.9%. In absolute terms, however, the winner won the support of 35% of the total electorate. In other words, those who voted for Rafsanjani and other reformists, or for the conservatives who lost in the first round, and those who did not cast their voted (for whatever reasons), still constitute a significant portion of the electorate. As such, this election does not mark a major realignment in Iranian public opinion that remains divided between conservatives and reformists with only a small centrist segment. It remains to be seen what realignments now take place.

Much would depend on the agenda of the new President and on the manner in which the inevitable gap between promise and its realisation is dealt with. His assets are his candour, his track record as an administrator and his articulation of the problems of the deprived sections of the public. Shirin Ebadi, who voted against him, said he was the only one who spoke the truth. Above all his age (49) makes him much closer to the bulk of the Iranian population and marks the transition to the second post-revolution generation. He is by profession an engineer, not a cleric; this too marks a departure and goes down well with the general public.

Ahmadinezhad spoke during the election campaign of reviving the values of the Islamic Revolution. He said he would emulate early revolutionary figures like Behishti and Bahonor. The practical implications of this would need to be assessed. He underlined his personal religious credentials by taking an early opportunity to visit Qom and call on his Marja-e-Taqlid ('source of emulation' that every Shia is required to have for guidance on religious and social questions and to whom religious taxes are paid), Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi. His own services to cause of the Islamic Revolution are impressive. So is his record as an administrator in different capacities. He said on his election as Mayor of Tehran that 'piety, virtue, candour, efficiency and trustworthiness will be the criteria' on which managers would be selected; 'the Mayor's office must be cleansed of corrupt managers and shady monetary and administrative practices'.

The election's impact on the political system has been a unifying one ; it appears to have done away with the fundamental conservative - reformist / pragmatist divide that developed after the Imam's death in 1989 and was accentuated in the Khatami period. A few days after the results were declared, a delegation from the Majlis called on the president-elect and handed over a letter of support signed by 260 members out of a total of 290. Similar pledges of support have been made by the chief of the Iranian armed forces and by the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards and the basij ; this surprising because in terms of the constitution, command of the armed forces and of the Guards is with the Leader, not the President. 

The central message emanating from these gestures is that the principal organs of the state are now in the control of the conservatives. By the same token, the reformist opposition of all shades is now essentially outside the system; this may help it consolidate its ranks and focus on policy issues rather than on day to day tactical adjustments. The conservatives, in turn, need to be scrutinised; apart from a wide social base, Ahmadinezhad and his circle belong to a new and younger generation that is that is better educated and more pragmatic than the conservatives of the first two decades after the revolution. They have a better understanding of the world around them and may not wish to swim against the tide. Their vocabulary relates itself to participatory governance, rule of law, efficiency, accountability, good organisation, good management, eradication of corruption, etc. 

The expectation of a strong presidency is thus evident. What would be its content in terms of economic and social policies? How would external relations be addressed? How, and to what extent, would these policies differ from those of his predecessor?

Given the nature of the election campaign conducted by him, the public would expect early action on unemployment, reduction of income disparities, corruption and social legislation. The president-elect said his government would be 'a government of love and affection, friendship and moderation…all forms of extremism would not only be avoided but would also be seriously dealt with'. His campaign pronouncements shed more light on his thinking:

  • 'If elected, I would implement development projects on the basis of justice and the wishes of the people. Political cultural and economic development is not isolated from each other and at the very core of all of them is justice and public consensus. Among my priorities are removing the problems of the youth related to employment, housing and marriage. My idea of political development is different from its foreign interpretation. We must expand freedom quantitatively and qualitatively, and determine ways in which freedoms could be used. The way we have been dealing with the youth on the streets does not solve anything'.
  • The resolution of the unemployment problem requires financial support of the state, land distribution to farmers, and promotion of small workshops. The state should employ people directly, rather than using contractors, and state employees should receive housing and good wages. One percent of the state budget should be earmarked for creating a Young People's Fund that would, among other things, create jobs.

The prevailing high oil prices give Ahmadinezhad the financial cushion to generate new employment schemes and to take corrective action on prices of essential commodities. It would imply greater state intervention in economic policy. Action on corruption, widespread by all accounts, would earn him quick respect and generate political capital; it would also be resisted by well-entrenched groups. 

The question of social controls would pose multiple dilemmas. The youth of Iran are restive; they also voted Ahmadinezhad to power. In sociological terms, they are not a monolith and their demands on social controls would therefore be differentiated. We would, in all likelihood, witness the unfolding of a new chapter in the old debate on ' gharb-zadagi ' - modernisation versus westernisation. Given the freedom witnessed during the election campaign, a roll back may not be easy or popular. A gesture of reconciliation in typically Iranian terms was made a day after the elections when groups of his supporters from south Tehran visited the more affluent northern parts of the city and distributed flowers to youngsters there! In policy terms, he may signal some relaxation while attempting a re-definition of Islamic modernity

Apart from unemployment and high inflation, the critical issues of economic policy relate to interest rates, subsidies, privatisation and foreign investments. In recent years, the Tehran stock exchange has witnessed a boom, with the TSE index going up by 80% in the last five years. The changes in the direct foreign investments laws have produced some modest results; the U.S. policies constitute the major hurdle. It is unclear what changes the president-elect may wish to introduce in this area. The impact of any new policies on the bazaar would be of crucial significance: 'If he interferes in our affairs', said a merchant, 'then he would go faster than he has come'.


Given Iran's centrality in the west and central Asian regions, attention of the world is riveted on the foreign policy approach of the president-elect. Here again, the structural constraints of the system are relevant to an understanding of the president's foreign policy powers. Six clauses in the Constitution prescribe the general principles. It is the Leader, not the President, who is empowered to supervise general policies and their implementation, as also to decide all questions pertaining to war and peace and the mobilisation of the armed forces. Another section of the Constitution empowers the National Security Council, presided over by the President, to determine the defence and national security policies 'within the framework of policies determined by the Leader' and subject to his confirmation. The process, in the view of Iranians themselves, is complex and lengthy and in need of refinement.

Despite the revolutionary rhetoric, the actual conduct of foreign policy has been for years characterised by pragmatism, caution and a sharp focus on Iran's direct interests. This approach produced results, reduced Iran's isolation and is therefore unlikely to change under Ahmadinezhad. His unfamiliarity with foreign affairs is said to be a handicap. He did, however, dwell on the subject in his campaign pronouncements and the nuances therein need to be noted:

  • The expansion of relations with all countries is on the agenda. These have to be balanced relationships, based on mutual respect and observance of each others' rights. A few countries fall outside the scope of this on account of their 'blind approach' to Iran.
  • Priority would be given to relations with immediate neighbours, 'then with countries that once fell within the zone of Iran's civilisation', then with Muslim states, and finally with all the countries not hostile to Iran. ( The Persian Gulf, he told a press conference on June 26, 'is the gulf of friendship and peace'). 
  • 'We desire an expansion of relations with regional states and the establishment of extensive public contacts. We believe that visa quotas should be lifted and people should visit anywhere they wish freely. People should have freedom in their pilgrimage and tours'.
  • 'Iran does not need imposed ties with the United States. The U.S. severed its ties with the Islamic Republic to harm the Iranian nation and so do those who favour resumption of ties with the U.S.'.
  • 'The UN structure is one sided, stacked against the world of Islam. The Muslim world, with a population of 1.5 billion, should be allowed a chance in the UN Security Council 'where certain groups now possess the right to veto'.
  • 'Iran's present status in the field of nuclear energy is indigenous and it has been gained without reliance on foreigners…The technology is at the disposal of the Iranian nation. Certain powers do not want to believe this…I believe the problem can be solved with prudence and wisdom, by utilising the opportunity and relying on the endless power of the Iranian nation, through our self confidence. The ongoing artificial mood is political sleigh of hand. The mood aims to influence the Islamic Republic's domestic developments. One cannot impede scientific progress'. (In a press conference after his victory, he said he will continue the talks with the EU3 and 'neither change the course nor Iranian delegation members'.)
  • Threats to Iran are not of recent origin. Iran today is a powerful nation and enemies cannot strike a blow to it. Iranians have a world-wide influence. 'The presence of an Iranian elite, outstanding figures in many parts of the world, is a precious asset of the Iranian nation.'

This framework, and the institutional structure that controls policy making, suggests that difficult problems would continue to relate to U.S. - Iran relations and to the related question of the nuclear dialogue with the EU3.

In July 2004 a Special Taskforce of the Council for Foreign Relations, New York, proposed that 'it is in the interest of the United States to engage selectively with Iran to promote regional stability, dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, preserve reliable energy supplies, reduce the threat of terror, and address the democracy deficit" that pervades the Middle East as a whole'. Such a political dialogue 'should not be deferred until such a time as the deep differences over Iranian nuclear ambitions and its invidious involvement with regional conflicts has been resolved. Rather, the process of selective engagement itself represents a potentially effective path for addressing those differences…Washington should approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests, while continuing to contest objectionable policies'.

The recommendation made no impact on official policy. Pronouncements emanating form the Bush Administration - before and after the June elections - do not signal a willingness to reassess policy options. At the same time, American rhetoric on Iran seem to have no made no dent on the perceptions of the Iranian voters who consciously appears to have rejected the candidate that advocated a softer line towards Washington. The stand off therefore is likely to continue notwithstanding U.S. difficulties in Iraq and the resultant practical constraints on a 'regime change' operation against Tehran. Changing perceptions in, and relating to, Central Asia would be viewed with satisfaction in Iran. In the meantime, the complex and difficult dialogue with the EU3 will continue.

India would fall within Ahmadinezhad's second category of states - regional, and a civilisation with which Iranian civilisation has interacted down the ages. India's relations today are based on a set of national security interests relating to energy, trade, the north-south corridor and Chabahar-Zaranj road link to Afghanistan - both through Iran. Iran seeks a share of the Indian energy market. Both have a shared interest in regional stability. None of these are likely to be disturbed by the change of presidency in Iran. It is to be hoped that notwithstanding the ambitious wording of the 'New Framework For U.S-India defense Relationship' signed in Washington on June 28, 2005, New Delhi would steer clear of possible American adventures in Iran.

Heresies sometime remain heresies and at others become new orthodoxies. It is to be seen if the president-elect can deliver on the promises made and also carry the Iranian public-not only those to voted him into office-to build a new consensus. He is undoubtedly aware of Khomenei's advice in his Testament: 'We owe the victory of the Islamic Revolution to the support of the people…Bereft of their support, you will be done away with'. 

The author is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He was earlier India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University.

Source: South Asia Politics, New Delhi, August 2005, pp. 3-7.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.

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