Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Is Iran approaching its 1989? (June 2003)

The discussion below (from June 19, 2003) offers some background to my recent post The Iranian Dubcek bows out. I was responding in part to an item by Kieran Healy, "What's happening in Iran?", posted on the "Crooked Timber" group weblog. Taking off from Theda Skocpol's analysis of social revolutions, Healy asked:

So, I want to know how the Iranian state is doing and how much intra-elite conflict there is.

I responded, in part:

Well, for a start, for almost a decade now the Iranian regime has been marked by an explicit situation of dual power (as a result of a peculiar constitutional structure that is half-representative and half-theocratic). In many respects, the most obvious parallels lie in Brezhnevist East/Central Europe during the last stages of post-revolutionary disillusionment. And in some ways the closest parallel is to Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, in the sense that a party-state apparatus that controls the instruments of repression, military force, and everyday administration, but whose legitimacy is massively eroded, confronts the opposition of a politically mobilized majority of the population. But it's as though Solidarity had been winning repeated and overwhelming elections to the Polish parliament all through the 1980s, only to find itself unable to pass any legislation. Given the exceptional moral power of elections in modern politics (even the most brutal dictatorships go to the trouble of faking plebiscites), this puts a big strain on the legitimacy of the regime.

On the other hand, in some ways Khatami and the political forces he represents are analogous to Dubcek and the other Communist Party reformers of the Prague Spring, representing the last hopes of reform "within the system." Even a few years ago, Khatami was already looking as though he was going to play the historical role of the Iranian Dubcek all the way, ending by being defeated and discredited. Now this is pretty certain. As a number of analysts have pointed out, increasing numbers of Iranians are getting disillusioned with Khatami and the Islamist-reform politics he represents, as it becomes ever more clear that the hardliners are unwilling to give the reformers an inch.

So the deadlock is moving Iranian politics fairly rapidly from a more "Czech" to a more "Polish" situation, and from the 1970s to the 1980s. One element is still missing--namely, a post-Khatami organizing framework (like the Solidarity trade union) to mobilize "society" in a direct, non-reformist confrontation with the hard-liners. But (unlike many other countries in the area) Iranian society has a large number of politicians, activists, journalists, intellectuals and others with political experience who can play key roles in such a process, and also a voting public with political experience.

The answer to your question thus depends, in part, on what you mean by the "elite." From a larger perspective, "intra-elite" conflict in Iran is massive, open, and even semi-institutionalized. Different elites even control different institutions, and different bases of political power, to a quite exceptional extent. "Intra-elite conflicts" are intense and, apparently, irreconcilable. "Crisis within the state"? Sure.

But, as we all know (or should know), in cases like this the meanings of "state" and "elite" are ambiguous, both theoretically and practically. From a narrower point of view, your question has to do with the unity and effectiveness of one specific elite, the hard-line theocratic apparatus and its clients & supporters. This is more uncertain. On the face of it, they seem to be less cynical and demoralized than their Brezhnevite CP counterparts, probably more determined and less fragile. On the other hand, whereas Khomeini would ot have hesitated to crush these recent disturbances with open brutality (and with real popular support), the curent rulers are clearly much more hesitant to resort to massive bloodshed. The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, and do not necessarily indicate that they doubt the ultimate effectiveness of the repressive apparatus if they unleash it; but any historical sociologist of revolutions will recognize that this kind of hesitation is significant. And it's also significant how many former activists of the Khomeini revolution (laymen and even clerics) have become activists of the political opposition.

My impression is that it's very unlikely that the Iranian regime is about to experience a big-bang revolutionary upheaval (if only because Iranians don't want to live through another massive revolution--the memories of the last one are too vivid). But it has clearly entered into a period of prolonged and almost certainly deepening crisis. On thing is for sure: The present dual-power situation can't remain stable much longer. Something has to give. Whether this leads to violent repression, to revolution, or to some kind of political "transition" will depend, to a great extent, on how the hard-liners play their cards. So far, they have been building up the conditions for an explosion.

Jeff Weintraub

P.S. There is a useful overview of these political dynamics in Iran in "Iran Between Two Worlds," a piece by Charles Grant in openDemocracy (February 3, 2004) ... which I discussed in a post titled "End of the road for Khatami?" (February 7, 2004).