Amirahmadi Photo
Iran's Power Structure

by Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi
Rutgers University, New Jersey

Post-revolutionary Iranian studies have either emphasized the roots and nature of the 1979 revolution or the explicit policies of the government. What has been largely neglected is a deeper understanding of the structure of power in Iran and its implications for possible structural transformation and political reform.

The ongoing struggle culminating in the March 1996 parliamentary elections demonstrates the need for a fresh look at the main polarities within the Islamic Republic and in the larger society.

For years, when Ayatollah Khomeini was alive, the rift was predominantly between the right and left, between advocates of a controlled free enterprise and Islamic socialism. But since Khomeini's death in 1989, during Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's two terms as president, the left has largely been sidelined.

The political fault lines have shifted: the real battle today is between technocrats rallying behind Rafsanjani and traditionalists connected to his rivals led by Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, speaker of the parliament and a presidential hopeful.

Competition between the two groups reached new heights in January 1996 when 16 pro-Rafsanjani 16 deputies -- including 12 ministers, three vice presidents and the mayor of Tehran --announced their intention to present to the electorate their own list of parliamentary candidates, largely made up of technocrats supportive of the president's liberal policies.

The conservatives in the Majlis threatened to retaliate through a vote of no confidence, and proceeded with their plan to field only conservative candidates.

Generally, the Iranian government is not pyramid-like, but rather a skeleton with asymmetrical parts. The structure of power is comprised of many inter-connected and autonomous rings. This decentralized, almost feudal power structure has historical roots in Iran; it existed under the shahs, though not as blatantly as it does today.

Yet the new system has fundamental differences with what was before. It is certain that after over two thousand years of autocratic rule, Iranian society is taking important, novel steps toward greater pluralism.

In feudal systems of the past, while power was not concentrated in one person, every region had an autocratic leader wielding absolute power. This is no longer the case. Feudal overlords in the traditional sense no longer exist and political leaders do not exercise absolute power over their respective subordinates either.

Simultaneously, competition for power is fundamentally different from what it was in the age of kings and feudal lords. Some complain that the new system has replaced the previous autocratic rule with muddled and undisciplined power structures.

But this could, nonetheless, work as a transition period toward the establishment of pluralism in the country. However, it is dangerous if these muddled and inefficient chains of command persist for long. Senior posts exclusively belong to immediate relatives of those in power, who in turn appoint their own relatives and friends to sensitive positions.

Thus, personal and patrimonial modes of patronage are the rule. And the government itself is at the mercy of such networks. Thus, to comprehend the dynamics of such a system, we must focus more on the bonds of patronage and loyalty among individuals than on ideological, rule-governed, and bureaucratic distinctions.

In today's Iran, the most powerful chain of decision making, the system's nerve center, is comprised of a group of elite makers who are largely influential clergymen. As a distinct feature of Iranian political culture, individuals are more important than the positions they occupy. Thus, it is often impossible to find elite makers in official government positions.

The next ring of power, comprised of elites who hold senior posts in the government, is made up of clergymen and civilians. Outside the second ring are forces with varying capabilities, who manage different sectors of the system; they in effect make up the systems roots of power. Among these are revolutionary foundations and religious security forces.

Because of the main role played by the second ring of power in the Islamic Republic, understanding their characteristics is essential. These elites are either Western-oriented technocrats or religiously based traditionalists, better defined as "Hey'atis" -- those who are bound by allegiance to a common cleric or mosque.

These two groups are fundamentally different on the basis of worldview and working style. It seems that competition between these two groups, as evident in the current election politics, is more determining of the future of the country than the competition between the ideological left and right.

Generally, for the Hey'atis, modern management techniques or technical and scientific expertise are not central. This doesn't mean that we cannot find educated members in their ranks or that they do not use the expertise of the educated, but rather that education and professional competence are of secondary importance when compared to certain traditional values.

Traditionalists not only believe in Velayat-e-Faqih, but believe that the religious leader's authority transcends law and the will of the majority.

Business transactions among the Hey'atis happen on the basis of personal trust and membership in traditional networks, and not necessarily on the basis of legally guarded contracts. Their cultural roots are to be found in the Bazaar and other pre-modern spheres in society.

Some Hey'atis explicitly reject Westernization and modernity and prefer Iran's isolation from the international community. Some others in contrast prefer Iran's integration into the international community and modernization.

Hey'atis largely represent the interests of merchant capital and enjoy the backing of wealthy and influential traders in Tehran's Bazaar, dominated by the centuries-long tradition of trade in commodities. Taking advantage of the country's under-supplied, unstable economy, many have amassed enormous wealth by buying commodities in bulk, waiting until they become scarce, and selling at exorbitant rates.

For Hey'atis, bravery, faith and guru-disciple relations are more important than regulations and abiding by written laws. The secret to their success lies in their effective networking, competent use of traditional modes of communication and organizing religious spectacles in public.

The Islamic system, on the whole looks favorably upon the Hey'atis, for it sees in them, itself. Yet it should be noted that the Hey'atis, like other social forces, evolve and many of them are changing their traditional values with more modern ones.

The second group of the elite are the technocrats, some of whom are graduates of Western universities. Their perspective places Iran above Islam. Some are globalist in thinking and most are pragmatic in outlook. Their idea of loyalty and effective group work markedly differs from the Hey'atis. The technocrats are focused more on written laws, and view knowledge, science and education as the most important prerequisites of progress.

At the same time, while technocrats are familiar with the policy making process in modern systems, they have not been able to consolidate their position in Iran's decentralized networks. This is due to their inability in effective networking. Conversely, the Hey'atis are more attuned to the traditional nature of the system and society, which is why they have been more successful and instrumental than the technocrats.

The lack of success among technocrats and the government's inattention to their fate has demoralized some of them, such that they have quit civil service and entered the private sector or engaged in independent activities.

Some others leave the country with the excuse of education and research abroad. Of course the role of the Hey'atis in facilitating the departure of their competitors should not be underestimated. Nonetheless, the government needs capable technocrats in its high echelons, and this bolsters the position of some of them in the hierarchy.

It is important to note that the failure of technocrats and their losing incentive is one of the most important reasons behind the exclusivity of state power in the hands of a few. In other words, the government's attempt to monopolize power is attributable to its failure in creating a new group of elites who can be responsible, effective and trustworthy.

Such a subculture should be created in political parties with different ideologies, but since Iran doesn't have serious parties, the government has tried to educate these people in universities -- outside the political system -- and among loyal groups. The government is trying to create religious technocrats, but this group has to grapple with the insurmountable contradictions of religious values and the demands of technocracy and thus cannot be effectively instrumental.

Undoubtedly, the incapacity to train capable technocrats has a lot to do with the under development of civil institutions and the lack of incentives for institution building in society. It is in this perspective that creating serious and competing political parties is urgent. The government should utilize technocrats whose world views are different from the ruling elite.

Unfortunately elite makers in the first ring of power do not trust such technocrats for, lest they lose their grip on power. Thus, if such technocrats wish to join the government, and reform it from within, they cannot show that they are after political power, but must gradually do so in practice. At first they must pretend that they wish to serve as professional managers only.

In other words, since the ruling clerics and their associates do not wish to share power with any other group, technocrats must slowly work their way into the system's nerve centers and only then sow the seeds of reform.


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Last Updated: 18-Mar-96
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