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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 126-131
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Pressures from below
Predicting the outcome of the struggle for political leadership in Iran has become a popular parlor game in some circles in Washington and other Western capitals. But there is also genuine anxiety about this struggle throughout the world, quite understandably given Iran's vital regional and international importance, along with the huge stakes involved not only for Iranians but for Americans and Europeans, not to mention Iran's immediate neighbors. The outcome will resonate across the Middle East and have major strategic implications for the war against terrorism.
Today, Iran is facing a crisis generated by fundamental contradictions in the political system that has ruled the country during the quarter-century since the Iranian Revolution and the rise of the Islamic Republic. In that time, the country has made an amazing passage from infatuation with Islamist martyrdom and fierce anti-Americanism to preoccupation with free markets, economic-growth rates, and Western ways of life. The resulting "dot Islamism" of contemporary Iran—characterized by the coexistence of a capitalist economy and clerical rule—has only disguised these contradictions. For the historical trajectory of contemporary Iran may point not only to a deepening of economic liberalization but to the implementation of genuinely democratic political reforms and an empowering of civil society that would threaten to end the conservative monopoly on power that has been in place from the outset of the regime.
More than five years after the midranking reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami won his first landslide victory in presidential balloting, Iran's leadership is deeply divided over the country's future. While Khatami [End Page 126] easily won reelection in June 2001, he has remained unable to persuade the powerful conservative clerical and internal-security establishments to embrace his reformist project of bringing dialogue, tolerance, and pluralism to Iran's political system. The clerics and security officials still control most key power centers, including the armed forces, the intelligence agencies, and the judiciary. The reformists remain exposed to pressure and coercion from these quarters, and thus can find themselves blocked in their efforts to take such constructive steps as reestablishing normal diplomatic relations with the United States.
And yet Iranian political reality is complex and fluid in ways that cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy between reformists and conservatives within the regime. There is not actually a single clear-cut political struggle in Iran. Rather, the country's domestic politics is characterized by multiple and competing power centers whose rivalries have created a chaotic situation in which various shades and types of "reformism" and "conservatism" interact in often bewildering ways—generating, for example, contradictions and inconsistencies in Iranian foreign policy that tend to baffle outside observers.
Indeed, the Iranian political order is perhaps best described as a chaotically divided political system that is now frozen in a state of institutional gridlock. The executive branch, led by President Khatami, and the 290-member parliament (Majlis) are both generally reformist. The judiciary is largely in conservative hands. Finally, there is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the successor to Ruhollah Khomeini), whose official title is Leader of the Islamic Revolution and whose prerogative it is to overrule any of the other branches. As supreme leader, Khamenei has the power to choose the head of the judiciary and the chief of the state broadcasting agency, as well as primary responsibility for military and security affairs. The combined result of this constitutional structure and the political forces inhabiting it is that the branches often work at cross-purposes and little gets done. For example, in recent years the executive branch has been handing out newspaper licenses for the purpose of promoting a free press and vibrant civil society, while courts and the security forces have been shutting down papers and arresting or aggressively interrogating journalists and editors.
To be sure, the framers of the Islamic Republic's 1979 Constitution meant for there to be a degree of institutional tension in the system they designed. But the tensions were supposed to be limited, while the constitutional scheme as a whole clearly...