- The Political Elite in the Islamic Republic of Iran: From Khomeini to Ahmadinejad
Thirty years after the Islamic revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) remains the subject of misunderstanding. Although the Iranian constitution of 1979, institutionalized after the Islamic revolution, is unique and has absolutely no predecessor, the Islamic revolution was not a big break with the past—the Pahlavi regime, 1921–79—but to the contrary, the IRI, indeed, shows aspects of continuity with the Pahlavi regime. The Islamic revolution took place by a coalition of Islamic, secular, and liberal Islamic social forces. It was the combination of these forces, and not Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini and his followers alone, that enabled a mobilization of the masses. Although the secular and liberal Islamic forces were eliminated from power shortly after the revolution, ideological divisions remained, even among Khomeini’s supporters. When Khomeini was still alive, he was able to channel the ideological divisions among the Iranian political elite and therefore prevent major clashes among them. After his death in 1989, these divisions intensified. His death created the space for more open conflict among those political elite with different views on domestic (economic and sociocultural) and foreign policy. Since then, the different views have been aligned in political factions that compete with one another for power.
The Islamic revolution did not result in the establishment of a political regime oriented toward the past/traditionalism but, to the contrary, has produced a society that is partly very modern and progressive. Since the Islamic revolution, the country has a low illiteracy rate, a high rate of higher-educated people, and, especially, a large number of highly educated women. The younger generation, aware of its personal needs and longings and not afraid to articulate them, is very critical of the Iranian government.
This article discusses elite theories and defines the political elite in the IRI. It briefly elaborates on the continuity and change of power relations from the Pahlavi regime to the IRI. It further describes state institutions and the politically relevant elite in Iran. Then, it analyzes the dynamics of factionalism among the Iranian political elite and the (changing) approaches of the different political factions to domestic and foreign policy issues from the Islamic revolution in 1979 until 2008. Finally, it looks at the prospects for change of the political system in Iran. [End Page 105]
Defining the Political Elite in the IRI
An important element of power in a society is the political elite. The concept of the political elite, as developed by the classical elite theorists Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels, forms part of a doctrine that is critical of, and opposed to, democracy and even more to modern socialism.1 It was also set against the developments toward democratization starting in the late nineteenth century in Western Europe, the expanding structures of mass societies, and the striving for socioeconomic equality by social movements (e.g., trade unions).2 Elite theorists since the end of World War II such as C. Wright Mills and Robert Dahl normatively prefer democracy as a form of government.3 Like the classical elite theorists, however, they acknowledge that there is always an elite that rules over the rest of society. Goran Therborn criticizes the former approaches of elite theorists for neglecting the dynamics of elite change and consequently social change.4 In his analysis of the political elite he is interested not so much in who has power, and for what purposes, but in what the effects of power are on a particular society and on reproduction and social change.
Besides a historical analysis as Therborn suggests, what is also important is to make a systemic distinction between elite theories that study elites in industrialized countries and theories that study elites in developing countries. This distinction is important, as power relations between state and society in countries where a comprehensive industrialization has taken place differ from those in countries where industrialization has failed or been only partly successful. Industrialized countries are usually characterized by a certain extent of cohesion, while developing countries, especially in the Middle East, are often characterized by a socially fragmented society. In the latter...