the matter with Iran?
How the reformists lost the presidency
Thomas Frank opened his What’s the Matter
with Kansas, 2004, with a piercing sentence: “America is always
in a state of quasi-civil war: on the one side are the unpretentious
of authentic Americans; on the other stand the bookish, all-powerful
liberals who run the country but are contemptuous of the tastes
and beliefs of the people who inhabit it.”
how the religious right farmed a mass movement of social discontent
that came to political fruition with the Reagan presidency. This
movement generated an unlikely passionate alliance between growing
numbers of the poor and the working class, Americans of the heartland,
and the white middle class of suburbia.
With Frank’s account,
it should no longer surprise us to see jobless laborers voting
against their own wellbeing for conservative politicians who advocate
cutting unemployment benefits. Once a political force becomes hegemonic,
it gains the power to lead its constituency towards any direction,
albeit against their own immediate or long-term interests.
What does Kansas have to do with the Iranian presidential election?
On June 24, 2005, Iranians chose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by a large
margin in a run-off election over Hashemi Rafsanjani as their president.
Not only did this election stun the Iranian reformist camp, it
also astonished the small coalition that sponsored Ahmadinejad’s
Since the first-term election of President Khatami in
1997, pundits and students of Iranian affairs took for granted
that Iranian society was steadily retreating from its earlier
Islamic Jacobin revolutionary politics. At the heart of this reform
it was believed, lay the easing of social restrictions on gender
segregation, and a host of liberal rights such as freedom of
expression, movement, and association.
Although this reformist
far from realization, during his two-terms, President Khatami
encouraged the expansion of the institutions of civil society
the transformation of Iranian political discourse towards a
democratic pluralism. He succeeded to transform the political discourse
but failed to turn his project into a hegemonic force in society.
Prior to last week’s election, the coalition that brought
Khatami to power, known as the Second of Khordad (May 23) Movement,
concluded that Khatami lost much of his popular support due to
his inability to push social reforms further and stand firm against
the Supreme Leader’s obstructionism and an antagonistic Judiciary.
The idea of social reform became so entrenched in the Iranian
political landscape that every qualified presidential candidate
its terms. Even Mohsen Reza’i, the former head of the Revolutionary
Guards, and Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s former Police Chief,
wrapped themselves in the cloak of the reformist agenda. Tehran’s
Police Chief even went as far as sending his advisers to seek guidance
from Tony Blair’s campaign managers on how to target the
affluent middle classes of Tehran and repackage himself as a pro-reform
All the presidential candidates, with the exception
of the winner, agreed that the one who could successfully situate
himself as the voice of social reform (that is, advocating rapprochement
with the U.S., lessening the restrictions on women’s mobility
and claiming their legal rights, and recognizing “joy,” i.e.
dating, entertainment, coed public presence, as a basic right of
youth) would win the election. In the morning after, we know that
they were wrong.
Democracy, Iranian Style
Most of the American mass media followed the lead of the Bush
administration in characterizing the election in Iran as an inconsequential “sham.” For
example, in an editorial on June 21, 2005, the New York Times called
the election “a race for the mostly meaningless position
of the president of Iran.” The Times’ editorial was
written after the first round of the election which drew over 63%
of eligible voters to the polls. Only if the editors had read the
work of their own reporters in Tehran, would they have recognized
the enthusiasm that many Iranians demonstrated on the streets of
the big cities in the days and nights prior to the election. It
is hard to imagine that kind of fervor for a “meaningless” position.
A chorus of Iranian expatriates also called for a boycott of
the election. They argued that participating in an election marred
by the Guardian Council’s rejection of hundreds of candidates
based on politically motivated qualification procedures, would
legitimize the existing system. In order to justify their position,
proponents of the boycott minimized the differences between the
platforms of the opposing candidates and characterized them as
variations on the same theme of Islamic totalitarianism. It is
hard to imagine how they will reconcile the fact of high turn out
of the populace with their criterion for the legitimacy of the
For many Iranian expatriates, Monarchists as well as the old-Left
and new-Left cum liberal secularists, the problem of legitimacy
does not rest on public participation. Their opposition to the
Islamic regime is more ideological than procedural and political.
For many expatriates, the problem of the legitimacy of this regime
goes back to the 1979 revolution when one group was dethroned and
the other lost the struggle over postrevolutionary state power.
Although these groups ought to get a hearing in the court of
history, they need to transcend their ideological commitments
with Iranian realpolitik. With a political strategy that demands
regime change as its prerequisite, Iranian exilic communities
risk joining their historical counterparts, the White Russians
and the Cubans of Florida.
Democracy is an ongoing project that, as Chantal Mouffe once
wrote, “always entails drawing a frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ those
who belong to the ‘demos’ and those who are outside
of it.” Democracy has never been invented and implemented
anywhere as a complete system of rights. Rather it always poses
a point of contention over the boundaries of the “inside” and
the “outside.” Gaining formal rights to run for office,
though necessary, does not provide sufficient ground for inclusion
into democratic processes.
In Iran, the Guardian Council does not
recognize the right of all citizens, men and women, Muslim or
not, to run for the office of the president. But the electoral
for qualified candidates appears to be competitive and for the
most part democratic. In contrast, in the U.S., where no legal
body oversees the processes of nomination (except in the cases
of age and criminal record), the campaign process is mainly staged
and highly undemocratic. Access to media and televised debates
is largely restricted as increasingly the corporate boardrooms
merge with elected political offices.
Democracy Iranian style allows the Guardian Council to prohibit
women and those with allegedly questionable commitments to the
Islamic Republic from running for the president. However, as the
political orientations of eight qualified candidates showed, the
election in Iran did not lack pluralism. We may wonder why, 26
years after the revolution, is there still not a stable, unified
regime to speak about in Iran. The answer can be found in the diversity
of the revolutionary coalition that overthrew the monarchy in Iran,
and how its leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, held this coalition together.
What appears to critics of the postrevolutionary regime as a
homogeneous group of “traditionalists,” “fundamentalists,” and
a host of other pejorative “ists,” were in fact disparate
groups with divergent tendencies. These groups shared neither the
same conception of Islamic ideals, nor a unified perception of
rules of governance.
The intentional ambiguities in Khomeini’s
declarations and his mastery of navigating between theological
issues and the expediencies of the regime perpetuated the coexistence
of these factions, even after his death. Every presidential election
in Iran elicits fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose
of the Islamic Republic. This in turn leads to the carnival atmosphere
of the election season that coalesces electoral process with
populism of street politics. Unlike western liberal democracies,
style democracy highlights that the president in Iran plays a
constitutive role in devising domestic and foreign policies.
Why Is Everybody Chagrined?
Very few organizations and editorials in Tehran dailies endorsed
the Tehran Mayor for president. There were three more electable
candidates who vied to offer an alternative to President Khatami’s
reformism: Mohsen Reza’i, the former Head of the Revolutionary
Guards, Baqer Qalibaf, former Police Chief of Tehran, and finally
a close ally of the Supreme Leader, Ali Larijani, the former head
of his propaganda machine the “Voice and Vision of the Islamic
Each candidate fetched the support of different
factions in the powerful seminaries of Qom and Mashad, the Society
of Militant Clergy (of the most influential clerical political
institutions), and three daily papers, Resalat, Kayhan, and Jomhuri-ye
Islami. Judging from the geography of the pre-election endorsements,
Mr. Ahmadinejad enjoyed the least support among the anti-Khatami
camp. While Ali Larijani appeared to hold the wining ticket for
the defeat of the reformists, he came in sixth place and was
eliminated in the first round.
The reformists stepped into the race when the Leader overruled
the Guardian Council’s disqualification of their main candidate,
Mostafa Moin. By expanding his coalition to include banned
liberal parties and personalities, Moin hoped that his campaign
would attract the politically disgruntled and those who otherwise
had decided to boycott the election. He ran on a platform of expansion
of social reform, respect for human rights, civil liberties, unconditional
release of all political prisoners (not in the thousands, but by
all accounts in double digits), and a series of partly neo-liberal
economic reforms for the sake of hopping on the train of globalization.
On the day of the election, the Moin camp spoke of the possibility
of capturing more than 50% of the vote, thereby winning the office
without dragging the electorate into a run-off. With less than
14% of the vote, Moin came in fifth place and was eliminated.
The other oddball of the race was Mehdi Karrubi, a soft spoken,
unassuming cleric who was the Speaker of the reformist dominated
Sixth Parliament. No major political or religious institution openly
endorsed his candidacy. Only Abdolkarim Soroush, an influential
philosopher and lay theologian, lent his support to him by speculating
that “since [Karrubi] has no enemies and no friends, he will
be situated fittingly to negotiate with all factions productively.”
turned out that Karrubi found many friends among the electorate
and came in a close and contested third. He lost his chance to
compete in the run-off by a few hundred thousands votes. Karrubi
became the victim of the irregularities of the first round: voter
intimidation and the massive mobilization of the Basiji Militia
on behalf of conservative candidates. He should have pursued
his allegations and pushed his way to the second round.
The most well-known candidate, Hashemi Rafsanjani, declared his
intention to run after assurances from other factions that they
would not engage in a smear campaign for alleged of corruption
and nepotism during his previous tenure as the president. Hashemi,
as his campaign managers reinvented him, revitalized large groups
of youth, men and women, and mobilized them through what they called “club
The “club” organized dance parties
and parades with banners and face paint reminiscent of British
soccer fans. Women appeared without hijab on the streets under
the auspices of Hashemi campaign. Hashemi blurred the boundaries
between northern Tehran and Westwood, as the appearance of his
supporters became indistinguishable from the fashion-struck Iranians
of Los Angeles. Women’s make up and face paint could not
cover his past wrongs, and he lost his bid in the run-off with
a humiliating 35% of the vote.
Why was everybody so wrong? Mohammad Quchani, a young and brilliant
editor of the Tehran daily Sharq, noted that the recent election
was the “defeat of reformism by democracy.” Both Khatami
and Ahmadinejad were swept into power by a wave of mass support
that had been invisible prior to the day of election. For Khatami
in 1997, a silent discontent was brewing among the youth and women,
who were then ready to step into the theater of electoral politics.
And in 2005, another silence among the disinherited burst into
demands to end corruption and manifested the good old conflict
between the rich and the poor.
Why has it been difficult to detect
the emergence of these movements? To borrow again from Quchani, “politics
in Iran have generally been a-social, political struggles often
do not correspond to fundamental social rifts.” The Iranian
elite, no matter of which political persuasion, often miscalculates
and misinterprets the constituents they allegedly represent. This
is why Iranian politics oscillates too often between elitist political
conflicts and massive populist outbursts.
What Lessons Do We Learn?
When it comes to elections, conspiracy theories
abound. People tend to dismiss their own power and imagine their
lives as controlled
by an impervious political elite which installs favored candidates
into contested elected position. Electoral politics is universally
vulnerable to apathy and disenfranchisement. Iranians are newcomers
to this game and not yet affected completely by a chronic apathy.
A great majority of Iranian electorate genuinely believes that
the system rewards their democratic participation. Everyone grappling
with the results of this election must appreciate that the most
significant lesson of this election was the act of participation.
The more people believe in their own agency, the easier it is
to engage them in social change and political reform. The further
removed they are from political engagement, the stronger looms
the opportunities for totalitarianism.
The result of this election is perhaps most astonishing to those
who boycotted it, albeit it won’t register in their minds
as such. With a large turn out of the electorates (though they
might dispute that, too), not only did their strategy fail but
also the winner was a candidate who stood for everything they despise,
from the aesthetics of his appearance to his rhetoric of Islamic
social justice. The boycott camp is left with two options: first,
question the validity of the tally and insist that the great majority
of the people boycotted the election; second, question the maturity
of the voters, condemn the masses for their backwardness.
The reformists had the highest stakes in this election. For the
first time since the 1979 revolution, many of the key figures of
this camp have lost their footing inside the state apparatus. They
should turn this unwanted blessing into a platform for mass mobilization
and the expansion of their constituency. While the boycott camp
fails to see the significance of political negotiation and the
continuing possibility of top-down reform under the existing regime,
the reformists neglect the importance of bottom-up pressure and
the institutionalization of their agenda. They held the highest
office, but failed to become hegemonic.
This failure created an
atmosphere of mistrust against the Khatami administration -- reflected
in the common complaint, why didn’t he deliver on any of
his promises? The reformist camp paid dearly for this mistaken
identification of the President as the vanguard for social change.
Rather than generating it, the President’s proper responsibility
was to create the political opportunity for social change. Social
change ought to happen bottom-up, through institutionalized movements
of rights and justice, but it needs to be recognized top-down.
In the absence of a top-down recognition, bottom-up social change
leads to explosive revolutions. Conversely, without bottom-up institutionalization,
top-down social changes lead to the alienation of the leaders and
the disenfranchisement of the masses. Not only did the elitism
of the reformists discredit Khatami, it also blinded them to the
growing discontent that was quietly consuming their constituents.
The reformists had their greatest impact on the political discourse
of the election. But unfortunately, the same impact brought the
political fortunes of everyone who followed it to an abrupt end.
From Tehran’s police chief to the former head of the revolutionary
guards and from the tsar of cultural repression to the Caesar of
corruption, they all packaged themselves as the right candidate
for reform. This reform, however, was not the kind of reform that
could buy any of these contenders the presidency. What the reformists
and their cheap duplicates learned was that the majority of the
people did not share their conception of what reform in Iran means.
Under Khatami, reform became synonymous domestically with a movement
for individual rights and civil liberties with a strong emphasis
on its gendered dimension. Globally, it came to be understood as
better relations with the western world, particularly the United
States, and with their global financial institutions, the World
Bank and the IMF. Without anybody looking, signing on to the onerous
neo-liberal structural adjustments defined the political economy
of reform in Iran.
Somehow, somewhere in the middle of the road,
instead of offering better negotiation power to resist the undemocratic
and unjust conditions of the World Bank, individual rights and
civil liberties movement became an instrument for making the
country more attractive to IMF suitors.
The Iranian government is a colossal welfare state. It offers
extensive subsidies for basic means of subsistence, from wheat
to gas, public transportation to retirement benefits. Unless one
has been reading too many of Tom Friedman’s columns, no one
should have any doubts that “joining the rest of the world,” under
the existing terms of the main global financial institutions, would
have devastating consequences for the majority of the Iranian poor.
The idea of encouraging investment and privatization of non-essential
industries does not inherently undermine social justice. But the
Iranian reformists should learn that liberty is the first victim
of economic disparity, and social injustice is the inevitable consequence
The dogmatist ideologues of the revolution, the Guardian Council,
the Supreme Leader, and now the president-elect, on one hand, and
their ideological neoconservative counterparts in the White House,
on the other, have the biggest lesson to learn. Although Mr. Ahmadinejad
won the presidency, he must recognize that the undemocratic and
unconstitutional arbitrary supervision of the Guardian Council
undermines the legitimacy of his office. The recent election was
indeed an indication that the ideological factions of the regime
still enjoy popular support and they still pose a viable political
alternative in an electoral process.
By electing Ahmadinejad,
the electorate showed that they rather live in a society in which
redistribution rather than accumulation of wealth defines the
greatest Islamic virtue. The president-elect and his allies need
that the commodities of the western culture industry do not mesmerize
all Iranians, and indeed many respect and value their religious
and cultural particularities. The result of this election shows
that even with an open and democratic election, this faction
will not disappear from Iranian political landscape. The freer
process in Iran, the stronger the legitimacy of its institutions.
The president-elect also must avoid making the reformists’ mistake
and believe he captured the presidency in spite of other political
currents in the country. Who wins in an election is partly made
possible by those who run against him. Together they legitimize
the system. The key to the success of this new president is the
expansion of his constituency, speaking to the needs and demands
of those who did not vote for him. That might prove to be an untenable
position, but the mere fact of the recognition of the integrity
and legitimacy of competing factions will make the Ahmadinejad
administration domestically and globally more effective.
The American neoconservatives are slow learners. If reality does
not match their perceptions, too bad, they declare, for reality.
They should concede that the Islamic Republic bears no resemblance
with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The more they insist on regime
change in Iran, the further they move away from an attainable solution
to the conflict between the two countries.
President Bush and Dr.
Rice ought to listen more carefully to those who know Iranian politics
rather than to their usual one-size fit-all ideologues at the American
Enterprise Institute and Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board.
They should not simply ignore the 28 million Iranians who cast
their ballots for a president and replay the broken record of “axis
of evil” and regime change.
Democracy is not good only in
cases that its outcome is consistent with American interests. If,
despite the unprecedented global unpopularity of President Bush,
the rest of the world respects American citizens’ choice
for president, it should not be difficult for Bush administration
to return the favor and engage the Iranian president as a legitimate
I write these lines with conflicting emotions. I did not vote
for Mr. Ahmadinejad and my favorite candidate did not make it
to the run off, but by virtue of participating in the election
he is my president, too. I do not share his vision for the country
and I fear that he might bring the country back to a time that
violence was an integrated part of everyday life of many Iranians.
I fear that the new president might commit massive purges and persecutions.
I fear that he will not be able to deliver the promises of prosperity
and fairness to the Iranian poor. I hope that he will not pursue
an antagonistic policy against the western powers, and that he
will realize that a strong international position requires a just
and respectful domestic governance.
I am also hopeful that the president-elect is true to his words
when he declared, “today we have only two-degree of the possible
360-degree of freedom.” We will see him next time at the
ballot box to assess his degrees of freedom and the extent of prosperity
he has mustered for his constituency at the end of his term.
Ghamari-Tabrizi is Professor of Sociology at Georgia
State University in Atlanta.