Scenario Building for Iran
by MICHAEL M.J. FISCHER
06 Jan 2010 17:31
Power at the moment in Tehran is divided between religious legitimation and the coercive powers of the state. Religious legitimation has been seriously tarnished for Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the person holding the top position of velayat-e faqih or what the American press calls "the Supreme Leader." (In Persian it is Rahbar, Leader or Guide, a fascist title, but without the explicit references to der Führer or Il Duce that it evokes in translation). Khamenei's credentials as a top-rank religious leader have always been in question, and in the past weeks protesters have taken to demoting him back to "Seyyed Ali," when they are not chanting "Death to Khamenei" (something unthinkable a few months ago).
In the fraudulent June election, which sparked this crisis, Khamenei failed to stand above the fray and mediate at least a procedurally plausible solution. Instead he chose to declare President Ahmadinejad's reelection a landslide victory. Ahmadinejad is known to have been systematically placing members of the Revolutionary Guard in positions of power throughout the state machinery, as well as according them control over large parts of the economy. Was Khamenei already captured by the power network of the Revolutionary Guard? If so, would they eventually push him aside and just declare a military regime? And would it be secular in the sense of valuing technocratic expertise over mere ideological commitments, or would it be those parts of the Revolutionary Guard that follow Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who argues for the people being allowed only to affirm the decisions of the religiously inspired?
There appear to be four possible outcomes in a classic scenario matrix: the Green Movement becomes sufficiently strong to sweep away the current government and establish a secular constitutional democracy (call this the secular republic); the Green Movement in combination with pragmatic and technocratic factions of the Revolutionary Guard creates a new constitutional order (call this a tutelary republic); a military figure takes over à la Reza Khan in the 1920s, Attaturk in Turkey, or Mobarak in Egypt (call this a dictatorship which could be more secular, or more religious as Zia ul-Haq was in Pakistan); or the Revolutionary Guard could install Mesbah Yazdi as the new Supreme Leader (a theocratic dictatorship).
Of the two complicating issues, the nuclear may be the easier to solve. Under any of the three outcomes except the theocratic dictatorship, the formulas for Iran pioneering a new international model for the control of the fuel cycle for nuclear reactors of all types might be feasible. The internal domestic political issue may prove more difficult: What is to be done with such perpetrators as the judges and prosecutors who abused their offices and were behind the many extrajudicial killings, torture, and summary executions of the past decades. It is not only such easily identifiable individuals, but also the many enforcers in the Basij militias whose salaries, access to higher education, and government positions came from the patronage system. This may be why the lower left cell of the scenario diagram may be the transitional form necessary to maintain order, albeit as in other such post-authoritarian settings, such a solution will be full of pitfalls of complicity.
It is important for Iran's future and that of the world that more attention be focused on these alternative outcomes, so as to avoid the worst of them. Iran needs less our intervention or sanctions than an insistent questioning of who the players and their connections and alliances are. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement, may or may not be enduring leaders of the movement, but they know the people they are confronting. The decentralized Green Movement needs to also be clear and prepare for the next steps.
These next steps require not just immediate tactics, but strategies for all four possible outcomes. Basic to such strategizing is exposing or making more and more transparent the alliances and connections among the factions and players in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), so as to anticipate how they might move, and to hold them accountable. The IRI runs on secrecy, innuendo, backroom negotiations, and ambiguities. These need exposure to the healing light of the sun. The complex marriage alliances of the clerical elite families need to be understood and made open to pressure, just as the state allows home visits, books, and other affordances to its prisoners, as well as seizing property and bank accounts, as ways of trying to manipulate them. Just because someone is an in-law doesn't mean the two sides agree on politics or actions, but they are usually available to one another and so possible levers of pressure from democratic forces as well as from the other side.
Similarly a public accounting of the holding companies and decision-making of the IRGC in the economy need to be mapped out, if only to understand pressure points and points of strength. Mentoring lineages and conflicts within the IRGC as well need mapping.
The Direct to Secular Republic Scenario
In an ideal outcome for the Green Movement, the IRI state apparatus will collapse allowing a purely civilian leadership to guide the control of events. This will require the clerics and Revolutionary Guard currently in control to turn on their closest allies and thereby undermine their own power that they cannot continue. Both security forces and clerical legitimation will shift to the side of the Green Movement. In classic revolutions, this has happened when the state, needing money, turns on its primary supporters to extract the most immediately available sources of wealth, as when royalty taxes the aristocracy or the finance bourgeoisie, thereby losing their support.
In Iran this happened under the shah when severe bottlenecks developed in the wake of the inflationary expansion of construction after the 1973 price increases, and the regime first tried to scapegoat the bazaars for rising prices, then squeezed other sectors. Today, the potential parallels lie in the underemployment of the educated classes, the pressure of rising prices for the working classes, and the increasing demands to know where billions of petrodollars have gone in a corrupt system. Indeed this last was perhaps one of the most damaging charges fired during the 2009 televised presidential debates, one of the places where cleavages within the elites began to be exposed.
Should there be this kind of collapse, then perhaps there would be time and space for a transition to allow a new constitutional convention that would create a framework for checks and balances and accountability in the structures of governance. The transition requires a coalition of leaders of constituencies, leaders who can speak to religious and security constituencies, to civil rights issues, to economic planning, as well as some guidelines for how to deal with the past. Musicians and media creators, including comedy, might well be important in this transition to model the ability of different people to interact, chadored women with unveiled ones, for instance.
So will leaders who can make the distinction between secularism in governance (that religion, Islam, has been and is inevitably corrupted by involvement and attempts to control daily politics) and secularism in belief (a secular republic does not require giving up of faith or belief, only not forcing it violently on others). After all, the high road of Islam, particularly in Iranian poetry, parables, and epics, has always been internal purity and faith while living in a corrupt world.
Tutelary Republic Scenario: Focus on the Transition
The transition period may not be so smooth as in the "direct to secular republic" scenario. In the 1979 revolution although there was a period of euphoria and coalition, and although the security apparatus was neutralized, the transition over the course of the year, and through the process of writing a new constitution, turned into a struggle for power and control, and as in so many revolutions an authoritarian outcome emerged followed as well by a terror and violent retribution against members of the old regime, which turned also against coalition partners. In Iran's 1979 revolution, it took the form of the velayat-e faqih bolstered by a series of cleric-dominated control bodies (the Assembly of Experts, the Council of Guardians).
In addition, as in many revolutions, a dual power structure was established which became first the defenders of the revolution and then the enforcers of state ideology: the Revolutionary Guards were unified into a military parallel to the army and eventually grew stronger than it; there were revolutionary courts, revolutionary councils in factories, bureaucracies and universities. Rather than being transitioned out, these grew over time, a process reinforced by the emergency of the war with Iraq. In the aftermath of the war, children of those killed as well as veterans, were given various kinds of compensatory access to higher education and jobs, again establishing a dual structure, in which ideological commitment was credited over expertise. Ideological exams were part of entrance to universities, and separate funds were made available to the ideological cadres. On the streets, as well, veterans guarded their legacies and trained a new generation of militias (Basijis), some of whom ritually engaged in attacks on more affluent youth in north and west Tehran.
To guard against a repeat of this, quite regular, process might require the hand of a strongman, and the problem always is how to ensure that the tutelary structure so imposed does not become permanent. The primary function of such a strongman, presumably coming with backing from pragmatic factions of the IRGC, is to prevent bloodshed and mayhem by stirred-up Basijis, families supported by the IRI's patronage system, and former officials and enforcers fearing retribution by a new order of affairs.
Indeed one line of speculation is that Khamenei would prefer, or has so acted to make more likely, such a succession to a more unpredictable cleric succeeding him, who might find it politically expedient to purge Khamenei's family and holdings as part of a corrupt past that needs purification and correction (see scenario four below). He, like Khomeini, might distrust Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and his allies, and, despite the latter's ties to Ahmadinejad and key figures in the Revolutionary Guard, be cannily playing to out maneuver them within the IRGC ranks.
The three closest examples are Attaturk, Reza Khan (who thanks to the clerical opposition to a republic crowned himself shah), and Mohammad Reza Shah (who was restored to power not only with American and British help, but with the support of Ayatollah Kashani who divorced himself from supporting Mohammad Mossadegh). All three committed themselves to modernizing their societies, and arguably did far better than their counterparts in Pakistan. One could conceive of a new Reza Khan who would build upon those efforts and those successes of the IRI such as expanding university education both demographically and to the Ph.D. level, and the expanding experience with the idea of elections, who would also learn to allow democratic institutions to be built. Ideally, this again would be a defender of a secular constitutional structure, with well run, transparent and accountable elections. And it would be a defender of a transparent judiciary that did not rely upon the national security state of the secret police (SAVAK and SAVAMA) or extrajudical killings and disappearances approved by clerical or political authorities.
Free and popular elections are not sufficient. Plebiscitary elections by themselves are subject to wild emotional swings of mood, and are unstable means for policy-making. A true democratic structure is one with various institutional checks and balances to channel and regulate the competing interests and power formations in a society. This was the point of the arguments in the Federalist Papers of the period leading up to the American Constitution, and recall that the Americans did not get it right the first time, and required important amendments the second time around. One can argue that the American Constitution as a model had various flaws, quite apart from initially and for many decades, not counting all human beings as voting citizens. It could be argued, and has been, that it favored too much one or another form of political economy.
Here some of the goals of the democratic coalition of 1978 in Iran might be recalled: to diversify the economy away from an oil rentier state, to diversity trade relations, to institute a free press and civil rights, to build a democratic political structure. These need to be thought through again, and not allow the Plan and Budget Organization, for instance, to be a place of just making up numbers, or slogans of social justice to be unproductive distributions of money that tie people to patrons.
Arguably a mixed tutelary republic would, in foreign affairs, engage in regional and global diplomacy that would build upon Iran's strategic interests to stabilize the region, expand the diversity and robustness of its global trade and technical links, and in that context strengthen its position in the nuclear arena by helping to pioneer a new age of international controls over the nuclear fuel cycle for energy, and give up its nuclear weapons programs (as Brazil did in an earlier decade) in exchange for becoming a robust economic power.
Civilian-Led, IRGC-Backed Mixed Republic
One of the foundational problems of the tutelary (Attaturk) republic scenario is legitimacy, and this would be even more the case if Britain and the U.S. had a hand in helping it to come about, however grateful segments of the population might be. This, despite the aid of Ayatollah Kashani, was the problem of Mohammad Reza Shah's restoration. It is a moot point now whether if he had democratized and diversified the economy, gradually empowering the growing middle classes, the outcome might have been different.
The better alternative then would be a Mandela-like scenario. In South Africa (to simplify greatly), Mandela, with the restraining and backing of the armed African National Congress, was able to lead a negotiated civilian transition from the old Afrikaaner security state, one that also, with the help of Bishop Tutu, was able to provide an imperfect, but still politically effective, public peace and reconciliation process.
Whether or not a Mandela figure emerges in Iran (alternatives to a singular figure can be imagined in the range of potential coalition figures), it might be possible for a strongman or faction of the IRGC leaders to back such a civilian-led transition and the process of establishing a new secular constitution. The role of senior clerics such as Ayatollahs Sistani, Sanei, Dastgheib, and others could be helpful in maintaining a strong sense of the moral authority of Islam. Again: a secular state does not require an anti-religious population. In many societies, class structures contain popular religious enthusiasms, and can again in Iran, in the sense that religious hayats (ritual and mutual help organizations) need not be abandoned, but they need to be integrated into productive economic networks (as they were once through the bazaar economies) rather than being greased with state ideology-tied funds. The tariqat (Sufi organizations), often tied to middle class teachers and bureaucrats with their mystical understandings of Islam, need no longer be suppressed as they have been by the IRI.
It is possible to imagine a vigorous democratic debate leading to a robust constitutional republic supported and made accountable by the rich press and Internet activity of the past decades, and aided by the talents of lawyers, economists, engineers, social scientists, polling professionals, and others whose talents have been underutilized, coming together from both inside Iran and the diaspora. Most of the more hopeful elements of the previous scenario could then apply here.
Reinforced Theocratic Scenario
Finally there is the scenario of either an IRGC coup installing Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi or one of his allies as Khamenei's successor, or without a coup the successful maneuvering by Mesbah Yazdi, as he has been doing, to have this done by a vote of the Assembly of Experts, or even of a repeat of 1979 through an out-maneuvering of an initial more liberal coalition transitional government.
There are more than one logics along which this could occur. One logic includes the fear among groups of the IRI elites of retribution from any new constitutional order. It has been speculated that unlike the affluent classes of the 1970s, these elites might find it less easy to leave Iran having considerably less experience and comfort outside the country. It has been speculated by many commentators that Khamenei and other IRI leaders are stiffened in their resistance to compromise by their memories of 1978, that any sign of weakness or compromise will only engender further demands.
A second logic is the rationale of so-called "hardliners" since the taking of the American Embassy hostages in 1979, that Iran needs protection from domination by the corrosive capitalist Western and global economy, which distorts the ability of Iran to pursue its own independent course. The heightened emotional populism of the embassy takeover helped pass the Constitution that had seemed defeatable, and institutionalize the multiple institutions of clerical "supervision" of, and final word over the government. Arguably one of the successes of the IRI has been to diversity its trade relations and global political alliances, initially a third-worldist approach, but more importantly building up relations with India, Turkey, both Koreas, and perhaps China. In any case, this second logic is one reason that such a scenario would likely imply intransigence on the nuclear weapons front. It, together with the third logic, is also the source of the language of infection and contamination used to fend off the commoditization and lifestyles of the West, and effect a "criminalization of youth culture" as Shahram Khosravi puts it in his 2007 book, "Young and Defiant In Tehran."
A third logic is ideological, the claim that an Islamic state can be created with will and discipline, force and executions if necessary, and that the result will be one of a good society sustained by faith. In this logic, faith is protection against mental illness and depression, homosexuality and social deviance. It has authoritarian hard edges, apocalyptic messianism, and a kind of Heideggerian care of the soul, of authenticity, and of Being, the knowledge of which last, and thus of the divine intent and ordering of the world, is revealed to the true faqih. It also can be expressed in a language of intimate family-like paternalism, which followers can find comforting.
Even if this scenario were a temporary outcome, the danger is of a renewed major Terror, with executions of opponents justified in the ideological terms that have already labeled leaders of the Green Movement 'corrupters of the earth' and similar terms which carry the death penalty. It is likely that there would be, as is already being called for, another "cultural revolution" as when the universities were shut down for three years in the early 1980s with purges of students and professors. Marx might speculate that such a scenario stage might have to be undergone in order to finally isolate and destroy this faction of the ideological state. One hopes not.
Mesbah Yazdi and his prominent allies among the clerics cannot act alone. This is a reason, as argued from the beginning, that one of the most important tactics, certainly not the only one, in the short term is to track and make visible the networks of influence in the institutional structure that this faction is building and to redirect or block them.
Michael M.J. Fischer is a professor of anthropology at MIT.
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