The Middle East Channel

Reinventing the Islamic Republic of Iran

Thirty-five years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to his native land, the struggle to define the political and ideological foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) remains as fraught as ever. This struggle is partly rooted in the novelty of the very state that Khomeini helped to build. While he would insist that it realized the unchanging essence of a transcendent Shiite identity, the IRI's legal, symbolic, philosophical, and institutional architecture rested on a hodgepodge of concepts and institutional practices drawn as much if not more from the modern West as from Islamic traditions. Such eclecticism was vital to sustaining the shifting political-social alliances without which Iran's "Revolutionary Family" might have imploded from the start. What often seemed like an unruly kaleidoscope of conflicting forces and ideas was central to the IRI's capacity for reinvention.

The question today is not whether the Islamic Republic will survive but whether it can reinvent itself. Can its fractious elite forge a common vision for recapturing some of the ideological, social, and political space that had previously animated Iran's restless politics? After a decade-plus of political closure such an opening would have limited contours: sufficiently wide to engage Reformists and their grass roots supporters, carefully gauged to placate veteran Conservatives and their most important ally, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Still, such a pact would be essential to deflecting opposition from ultra hard-liners, many of whom occupy the commanding heights of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). Prosaic, unromantic, and perhaps uninspiring, this elite accommodation could be the first step in a long voyage of political change whose final destination cannot yet be envisioned.

It is precisely this kind of reinventing that the ultra hard-liners are determined to thwart. Having recovered from the shock of President Hassan Rouhani's August 2013 election, they still wield enormous coercive, institutional, and financial resources, as well as the ideological (and practical) motivation to use these formidable assets. For now they are biding their time, waiting for an ambitious bid by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to conclude a nuclear agreement with the P5 + 1 to collapse. As has often been the case in the Islamic Republic, struggles over the domestic political terrain are coterminous with the clash over Iran's place in the international community and its relations -- in particular -- with the United States.

The capacity of Iran's ultra hard-liners to do mischief in the domestic and international arenas has increased in tandem with the rising power of a new generation of political and security elites. Their efforts to narrow the political field intensified after millions of Iranians took to the streets in June 2009 to question the official results of the presidential election. This power grab in turn helped crystallize the view among U.S.-based experts, media pundits, and some U.S. officials -- including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- that Iran by 2011 had transformed into a veritable "security state." Stripped of the semi-pluralistic mechanisms that had allowed for some measure of debate and competition, this state was sometimes described as virtually a wholly owned subsidiary of the IRGC.

But if there was ample evidence of the IRGC's expanding influence, the assertion that this dynamic had irrevocably changed Iran's political system merited careful scrutiny. In a Washington policy arena where policy advocacy often takes precedence over nuanced political analysis, a headline driven focus on Iran's security sector often drew attention away from the myriad of forces that had in fact survived a decade of political repression. These forces did not miraculously revive on the eve of Rouhani's election; on the contrary, their sometimes-boisterous competition suggested that the rumored death of contentious politics in Iran had been exaggerated. Still, by themselves these diverse forces do not suggest any obvious or inevitable path for Iran's political evolution. Instead, the contest to reinvent the IRI will probably flow down multiple streams, some of which could point to greater openness while others could lead to political regression.

In the immediate future, economic issues will provide Rouhani a useful umbrella as he slowly tries to gather support for a wider reform agenda. Indeed, his government's quest for a final nuclear agreement illustrates the broader political logic issues that ultimately inform his current focus on economic problems. The new president has wagered that this diplomatic push will end sanctions and thus re-establish Iran's trade and financial ties with the West. But it would be wrong to conclude -- as not a few analysts and media pundits have -- that this effort merely constitutes a narrow bid to address domestic economic woes without touching the domestic political arena. Rouhani -- and certainly his ultra-conservative rivals -- know that seemingly mundane contests over economic policy always have a direct impact on the political infrastructure that sustains elite cooperation or competition. Indeed, as far back as 2006, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provoked intensified elite conflict by adopting welfare and "privatization" initiatives that veteran conservatives warned -- on the floor of the Majles no less -- were a blatant effort to subsidize the IRGC's expanding business interests.

Such concerns did not, of course, impel veteran Conservatives to oppose the clamp down on their archrivals in the Green Movement. Nor did they induce most Conservatives to reconcile with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose unprecedented public criticism of the regime in July 2009 at first deepened his political isolation. But by 2012, the economic costs of fiscal and monetary mismanagement -- magnified by sanctions -- not only widened the fissures within the Conservative camp: They invited quiet efforts by an array of leaders, including Rafsanjani and Rouhani himself, to reopen the political sphere to leaders whose estrangement from the regime threatened that very political system. This effort has been supported by a number of leading Conservatives, whose own interests are not served by a context of escalating elite conflict.

It is tempting to dismiss Rouhani's reconciliation efforts as a self-serving exercise to save that system. But anyone familiar with regime transitions in Latin America or Eastern Europe knows that even limited openings sanctioned by ruling elites can eventually produce deeper political transformations. The IRGC fears this very prospect, and is thus ready to invoke its constitutionally blessed role as defender of IRI's theocratic ideology to once again justify shutting down all efforts -- no matter how modest -- to advance reform. But ultimately the IRGC's capacity to do harm will depend on the readiness of the Supreme Leader to invoke his unrivaled constitutional powers -- and the institutional prowess of his office -- to compel Conservatives to stop supporting -- or acquiescing -- to the still fragile coalition that Rouhani is striving to pin together.

While Khamenei is wary of his new president, the very dynamics that helped set the stage for Rouhani's election could provide the Supreme Leader with an incentive to tolerate a modest juggling of the political arena. As a remarkable set of studies undertaken by a United States Institute of Peace Iran Working Group clearly demonstrates, these dynamics included the emergence during the 2009 to 2010 period of a discourse on human rights that eventually reached the pinnacle of the state. Indeed, in the wake of the June through July 2009 repression, dramatic Internet images of state violence -- not least of which was the killing of Nada Agha Soltan -- as well as widely distributed reports of torture and rape in Iran's prisons, elicited public condemnation from a wide spectrum of lay and clerical elites. The death of a young political prisoner who turned out to be the son of a prominent Conservative further illustrated how the net of repression can quickly widen to ensnare the "children" (and grandchildren) of a fragmenting Revolutionary Family.

It is of no small consequence that during his final year in office, Ahmadinejad waved the flag of human rights to deflect criticism from his Conservative critics. However cynical, his actions illustrate what happens when rival elites lob ideological grenades rather than heed the Supreme Leader's pleas for unity. After all, Khamenei's authority as Leader rests on demonstrating that he is the ultimate arbiter of the system rather than servant of any one faction -- including the IRGC. I would wager that this elemental political consideration has not only sustained Khamenei's grudging support for Rouhani: It has convinced many Reformists to embrace their own policy of heroic patience and fortitude. However difficult, these activists have learned through bitter experience that they might be better off seeking reconciliation with their political rivals.

Whether veteran Conservatives will reciprocate the Reformists' strategic calculations remains to be seen. Judging from Majles Speaker Ali Larijani's February 7 speech before the Tunisian Constituent Assembly -- during which he assailed the United States and other "Arrogant Powers" rather than celebrate Tunisia's new constitution -- Conservatives might ultimately prefer using the stick of diplomatic controversy to embarrass (or bash) Rouhani rather than tolerate the risks of domestic political reconciliation.

A collapse of the nuclear talks could deal Rouhani a politically mortal blow. But what he and his allies still have working in their favor is this: A return to the days of relentless repression and a narrowing political landscape will only expand the already yawning gap between state and society and thus further divide and isolate the ruling elite. With Majles elections due in 2016, another chance to gain an imperfect electoral mandate for domestic political detente could emerge. Whether this opportunity will be seized or lost will depend as much -- if not more -- on the vagaries of international diplomacy as on the unpredictable dynamics of Iran's fractious politics.

Daniel Brumberg, author of Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran, is a special advisor at the United States Institute of Peace and co-director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

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