How has the Islamic Republic of Iran persisted when all indications point to its imminent collapse? Indeed, one of the most stylized facts to emerge from the study of democracy and dictatorship in the last quarter-century involves the robust relationship between a nation’s political elites and its prospects for democracy. As elites become divided in authoritarian regimes, the state becomes increasingly vulnerable to these fissures and inevitably collapses. This is because political elites, the argument goes, are the ultimate arbiters of a nation’s path to democracy. Elite-centered explanations of democratic transition are premised on the assumption that competition between elites in autocratic states is a zero-sum game. This line of thought remains so deeply rooted to our understanding of authoritarian collapse because it easily explains how countries democratize—through the beneficence of enlightened elites.
But this contention remains curious, especially in light of the massive uprisings throughout the Arab World that were triggered by people—not elite—power. The animating force underlying the Arab Spring has been the unyielding will and determination of anti-regime protesters, in spite of the ensuing murder and mayhem deployed by authoritarian leaders to forestall the democratic aspirations of millions. The cases of successful regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya point to the mobilization of people as the galvanizing impetus forcing elites to answer the democratic question. But something else is at work here beyond the calculations of political elites and the will of the many. The case of Iran starkly highlights the sheer complexity involved in producing a transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Unlike regimes in the Arab world where elite divisions and massive anti-regime protests are a relatively recent occurrence, in Iran both have not only been present but thriving for some time. Recall the most recent episode of popular mobilization, when in 2009 the reelection of Iran’s current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad instigated a cycle of protest-violence when Iranian demonstrators poured into the streets to dispute massive electoral fraud and vote rigging. This is not new. The regime has for decades been able to withstand the crippling effects of elite disunity and overwhelming public disapproval to preserve its authoritarian grip on society. Few regimes in the world, if any, have been able to endure for so long despite the existence of long-standing elite divisions. Although decades of accumulated research has undeniably demonstrated a strong link between elite cleavages and regime breakdown, Iran remains a glaring exception to the rule.
Iran has had a limited yet vigorous form of democracy since shortly after the inception of the Islamic Republic. To be sure, its democratic legitimacy was dealt a devastating, if not irreparable, blow after the 2009 presidential election. But make no mistake; elections in Iran are more than rubberstamps for unmitigated authoritarian rule, regardless of systematic electoral fraud perpetrated by the regime. Fierce parliamentary debates and a bustling civil society reflect the institutionalization of democracy to every corner of the state. Newspaper editorials regularly castigate the president, with parliament members even calling for his impeachment. Student protesters routinely brandish their disapproval of the regime while ordinary Iranian citizens increasingly demonstrate against crushing economic policies and rampant inflation. A vociferous women’s movement calls for greater gender equality alongside working class protesters demanding government action to improve services and living conditions. However, widespread public discontent and enormous divisions among Iran’s political elites has not hastened the breakdown of the regime. Why?
Elite competition in the Islamic Republic is the legacy of a constitution that attempts to fuse democracy with religious dictatorship. This ideological paradox remains at the center of Iranian political life. Scholars have for years recognized that the Iranian regime is not an ideal type, which is to say that terms like authoritarian or totalitarian cannot begin to describe its sociopolitical and institutional complexity. Elite divisions in Iran are not a zero-sum game; they are the game. Few states have been able to combine the political elixir of both mass protests and elite divisions in producing a transition to democracy. In fact, the combination of mass protests and elite divisions has proved to be exceptionally elusive. In most cases, the existence of one of these factors has proven sufficient to cause regime collapse. In Iran, the simultaneous existence of both has yet to offer anything of the sort.
The paradox of authoritarian persistence in Iran cannot be explained simply by the state’s ideological and religious orientation or its willingness to repress society. The Arab Spring has powerfully demonstrated the impunity with which autocratic states will target their own populations in an effort to preserve their regimes. Instead, the Islamic Republic’s ability to absorb long-standing elite divisions and rampant public dissatisfaction is firmly rooted to the very nature of the state and its byzantine political structure. This is because the democratic elements of Iran’s political system are undermined by a series of institutions that constrain their ability to pursue systematic change. This is contrasted with the Arab spring, where splits among elites and massive anti-regime protests rapidly precipitated the breakdown of autocratic regimes.
What does this mean? The Islamic Republic, because of its truly peculiar political structure, suffers from a spectacular level of institutional overlap and duplication. The religiously inspired institutions of the state are constitutionally sanctioned to perform a supervisory role over the state’s democratic institutions. The Guardian Council, for example, filters all available candidates for political office by ensuring they meet the regime’s standards for ideological fidelity. They supervise and interpret laws passed by the parliament (Guardian Council), arbitrate legislative stalemates between the president and the parliament (Expediency Council), and establish the overall direction of the system and maintain ultimate authority over the armed forces (Supreme Leader). The dual sources of legitimacy and authority—the republican and the religious—can be seen in every major corridor of power, with religious super-bodies acting as custodians of the regime by presiding over their democratic counterparts: the Supreme Leader over the Presidency, the Guardian Council over the Parliament, the Expediency Council over both the President and the Parliament, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a paramilitary adjunct to the regular military. Therefore, power is distributed unevenly among state institutions and legitimacy is often derived in an inverse and irregular fashion, whereby the democratically governed institutions of the state defer to their unaccountable counterparts.
As the state in Iran actually nurtures a political environment of elite competition, it fundamentally differs from its Arab neighbors and most other authoritarian states. This has meant that while the state is predisposed to factional conflict, unlike its Arab neighbors, in Iran disagreements among political elites are a reflection of the constitutional and institutional arrangements of the state—they do not necessarily portend regime collapse. Even when political elites who favor democracy have occupied key institutions of the state, they have been unable to fashion meaningful political change because popular sentiment does not necessarily translate into political reforms the public seeks. This was precisely the case during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Although president Khatami sought to establish political reforms, his efforts were thwarted by conservative factions who used their institutional standing to block his reformist agenda. This basic reality also means that political actors not only seek to undermine the agendas of their opponents, but also actively seek to undermine the institutions of political opponents.
The Iranian reform movement, as it is popularly referred to outside Iran, is not actually a social movement in the classical sense. It can more accurately be described as an amorphous network of loosely connected and like-minded politicians and citizens that have a history of pressing for political, social and economic change. The problem for reform-minded political leaders has been their inability to coalesce with other disaffected segments of Iranian society in pressing for reform. Iran does not have a political party structure. Instead, political groupings are popularly referred to as factions. Although they bear some resemblance to political parties, factions lack the most important factor needed for the success of a social movement: organizational linkages which allow them to disseminate and coordinate political activity across the wide spectrum of Iranian society. Without any institutional capacity, reformist factions are permanently anchored to a system that pivots on the survival of the regime and the preferential treatment accorded to certain institutions. Indeed, the resolution of institutional conflict remains important to the regime only insofar as it shields hard-line elements from acquiescing to meaningful political change. One way this is achieved is by banning political parties, for even in authoritarian regimes, the existence of a political party structure often proves invaluable in shepherding burgeoning democratic movements—both during and after authoritarian rule.
During the Arab Spring leaders such as Mubarak and Gaddafi staffed the military with trusted supporters, relying on nepotism and cronyism to shore up their support. Yet neither of these tactics worked since both regimes succumbed to splits within the elite establishment or the military. The Iranian military is markedly different in a number of respects. First, the military, much like the rest of the state, consists of two overlapping layers: the regular military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC’s primary objective is to defend the achievements of the revolution and thus the regime. Reform movements in Iran are, by definition, in opposition to the objectives of the military since they seek fundamental political change. This was demonstrated with abundant clarity in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election. The IRGC ordered the Basij—a volunteer militia whose mandate similarly overlaps with both the police and military—to end the protests, which occurred with brutal repression. In many respects the basij maintain more power than the local police since they are an appendage of the IRGC. For everyday Iranians, they are essentially the morality police; for protesters, they are first line of defense for the regime, acting as an extension of the state’s vast and layered coercive apparatus.
The existence of elite competition in Iran has not bestowed the opposition with access to the institutions of the state nor has it forced the regime to make concessions to protesters. The Islamic Republic long ago installed electoral filters and institutional safeguards to shield the regime against the type of collapse that, paradoxically enough, defined the breakdown of the shah’s rule in 1979. The fall of the shah demonstrated that a military based on traditional patterns of chain-of-command were vulnerable to fissures in the event of mass protests. Once the military split, the shah’s fate was cemented, much like the regimes that were felled during the Arab Spring. In the Islamic Republic, the regime has made every effort to ensure that splits among military leaders do not materialize. The ideological nature of the Islamic Republic is contrasted with the largely secular character of the state in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.
In the endless punditry on the Arab Spring, it is often overlooked that all the regimes in question were essentially all military dictatorships. The enormous mountain of data we have accumulated in the study of durable authoritarianism clearly indicates that military regimes are the most vulnerable to collapse among all autocratic states. This argument is most often referred to as the “return-to-the-barracks” effect. This simply means that military leaders—because of the nature of the military as an institution and as the coercive arm of the state—preserve the ability to make credible guarantees over the political future of the state, allowing military leaders to peacefully return power to civilian authorities without fear of retribution. Whether it was driven by Gaddafi’s cult-of-personality or Mubarak’s police-state, both regimes were classic examples of modern authoritarian states with integrated bureaucracies. In Iran, the opposite holds true. The parallel institutions of the state are only informally integrated into the rest of the bureaucracy. Authority and legitimacy in the Islamic Republic is not contained in the central government, but in the parallel religious bodies that oversee the central government. This is why political battles in Iran are waged from institutions.
While a divided political environment may be crucial in initiating a period of democratic transition, it is in-and-of itself insufficient to cause the collapse of some authoritarian regimes. The uniquely odd institutional blend of the Islamic Republic and its divided political environment highlights this point. That is not to say that a country’s institutional arrangements decide the fate of democracy. But as we have seen in the Arab Spring and Iran, in the absence of any institutional foundation and coordinated opposition activity to launch it from, it is difficult to leverage public and elite dissent into a transition from dictatorship to democracy. Contrary to our understanding of authoritarian collapse, in Iran the specter of mass protests and a highly factionalized state has existed for years, yet it has not yielded a regime that is increasingly susceptible to breakdown.
Some contend that the greatest malady afflicting Iran’s Green movement—and particularly those elites which champion its cause—has been their unwillingness to call for the abrogation of the Office of the Supreme Leader, an inherently antidemocratic institution. They further argue that, contrary to the Arab Spring, Iranian elites have not been willing to call for an end to the system as it currently exists, or velayat-e-faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist). As long as the position of the Supreme Leader exists, they claim, true reform will remain a chimera. Perhaps. But rhetoric is one thing; acting upon it is something else entirely. While articulating a clearer vision of change—rather than just respect for individual rights or the lack of respect for democracy— might yield Iranian elites greater respect, it would not circumvent the real structural and organizational problems that would still exist. The Green movement would still face monumental collective action problems in pressing for change, since reform-minded elites would still be handicapped by a disorganized and fragmented opposition.
The use of targeted coercion has similarly proved effective in limiting the organizational capabilities of the opposition. The cycle of protest-violence is not an aberration of Iranian political life. Electoral victories notwithstanding, elite politicians have been unable to initiate democratic reforms, partly because their relationship with society and their social base remains deeply dysfunctional. As such, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the opposition retains the leverage to reach a negotiated settlement with the regime. Mass protests similarly lose much of their steam because of the fragmented nature of the opposition. Even faced with protests numbering in the millions, the regime has with relative ease devastated the fractured opposition by deploying the tried-and-true method of indiscriminate violence.
It also remains true that the Islamic Republic cannot indefinitely endure in a political climate where pressures from both state and society increasingly call upon the regime to enact genuine reforms. The odd structure of the state may temporarily overcome some of the inherent weaknesses exhibited by regimes in the Arab Spring. Yet state power is limited by the transformative role of society. To be certain, acknowledging the Islamic Republic’s enormous democratic deficit while at the same time recognizing the decades of blood, sweat and tears Iranians have poured into fashioning even a limited form of democracy does not bestow legitimacy to the regime. Quite the contrary. The struggle for democracy persists in spite of the regime’s flagrant human rights violations and its attempt to purge democratic proponents from the political landscape. Indeed, we have all borne witness to the momentum of society and how it can shift alliances among political actors, collapsing what were once believed to be rigid ideological connections because of society’s infinite capacity mobilize. The ability of Iran’s opposition to coalesce under a collective umbrella movement with organizational strength would perhaps force the Islamic Republic to come to terms with its own democratic Spring.
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