Eau Claire, Wi. (Special to Informed Comment) – The nature and the parameters of power relations in the state-society relations in Iran since the 1978-79 revolution have radically changed. The revolution ended the twenty-five-hundred-year-old monarchical rule in Iran and gave rise to a Shi’a ‘ulema-dominated rule. The demise of the old Pahlavi regime saw the plight of powerful families who owned or control vast resources in the country. The new revolutionary state promised to redistribute national resources and restore social justice. One of the earlier slogans was about making water and electricity-free for everyone.
The new state’s political class after a national referendum declared the founding of an ‘Islamic Republic;’ with popular sovereignty and Islamic justice for all. The early revolutionary zeal and idealism were soon faced with the realities of power politics. The new state, despite its ‘Islamic’ ideological foundation, had to build the foundation of a new state. The ulema with initial popular support created ‘Islamic committees’ and later the Islamic Revolutionary Corps (IRGC), the mobilization (the Basij) force, and the Islamic charity foundations. The traditional Bazarris merchants financial and political support further helped with the mobilization of popular support. The end of the Iran-Iraq war and the Constitutional amendments of 1989 consolidated and secured the place of the Shi’a Ulema at the helm of the power structure in Iran.
Similarly, structural changes in the Iranian society has been significant, including more than doubling of the population since the revolution to 85 million, an increase in the literacy rate to over 96 percent (from 48 percent), urbanization at 76 percent (from 47 percent), and an internet penetration of 70 Percent or 59 million users, social media users of 36 million (43 percent of the population), and with 131 million mobile connection, or 155 percent of the population.
Iran in 2022 has the worst Covid-19 case in the Middle East in terms of the number of fatalities. The country is facing serious socio-economic challenges and has witnessed political upheavals in the past several years. The unrelenting external sanctions have deprived the country of access to the international banking system, SWIFT, oil sales, foreign investment funds, and the import of commodities, including medicine and vaccines. Economic and social pressure on the population is surmountable and the state power structure needs drastic political reforms to reinvigorate the promises of popular sovereignty, economic prosperity, and spiritual fulfillment.
The state legitimacy and the Islamic foundation of the state itself is under severe pressure, given the continuing decline in the standard of living, the widening wealth gap, corruption, and persistent political wrangling and debacle over the nature of the Islamic-Republican relations. The ‘Islamization’ of society has not materialized, as Iranians have been experiencing huge changes in their social mannerism, view on life, religious beliefs, and the place of religion in politics. The parameters of the state-society relations in Iran are in dire need of reform to save what is ‘Islamic’ in the ‘Islamic Republic.’ There are calls for a constitutional amendment to revisit the constitutional authorities and responsibilities of the religious-political leadership.
Iran remains the only Shi’a majority country trying to build an ‘Islamic Republic,’ combining Shi’a jurisprudence, values and principles, and a vision of Islamic society with a republican institutional and legal framework. The state initially constructed a Constitutional structure for the division and the interplay of power among the three branches of government. The Constitutional changes and the creation of the office of the Rahbar, the Guardian Council, and the Expediency Council served predominantly the interest of the clerical outlook and its provocateurs and not the advocates of more ‘republicanism.’
In foreign affairs, the creation of the Supreme National Security Council consolidated power in the hands of the top clerical leadership at the expense of the Majlis and the office of the Presidency. So, the balance of power between Islam and republicanism tilted toward the former. Furthermore, external factors like the Iran-Iraq war, external sanctions, and political pressure strengthened the position of the more conservative forces who saw the West as the perennial enemy with low prospects for coexistence or rapprochement. The slogan, ‘Neither East, nor West’ implied an independent, sovereign Iran free from foreign domination and interference, but in practice, it has brought Iran closer to the East, albeit by default and not by choice.
The historical development in the West demonstrates that the path to national development and democracy is not an easy one, and freedom is not free. The evolution of the modern state and its legal and institutional foundation took at least two centuries. Similarly, today’s western vibrant civil societies are a product of centuries of evolution. The separation of the church and the state since the peace of Westphalia, itself the result of thirty years of religious-political wars, set the tone for future development. The rise of the nation-state as the ultimate source of power and authority since then has witnessed drastic changes in the economic, social, and political arenas in Europe and much of the globe. The arrival of mercantilism, industrial and commercial capitalism, and political democracy also meant the death of absolute monarchism and feudalism in Europe.
What seems central to the success or the failure of national development within an existing international system is the state’s ability to mobilize human and material resources in the service of national interest. Sustained national development may occur only through systemic, planned, organized, deliberate, and institutional attempts within a legitimate (democratic or otherwise) political system. A confident Political system and leadership is instrumental in national development, regardless of historical and cultural ethos and background. The Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea), Brazil, Chile, and China tell the stories of such successes, despite historical subjugation to foreign powers and confronting tremendous odds and barriers during and after the cold war. The successful developing countries since WWI have all set their first goal of development in securing the nation-state from foreign intervention and meddling through building the foundation of a strong military and security establishment. The state incapable of defending itself from foreign interference is detrimental to national sovereignty and development.
The primary successful examples include, among others, China, Cuba, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and Chile. Some benefited from external military support in the international rivalry during the cold war to better secure their national interest, e.g., South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Cuba. Nevertheless, the burden of development ultimately lies with the state in developing countries. In a recent article, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) acknowledges how the state is crucial in public resource mobilization, stating, “as the Asian examples demonstrate, in less developed economies effective use of state assets, especially property, can be an important driver of economic and institutional development.” It is also noteworthy that these countries’ national development transpired under authoritarian rule, and political democracy only followed some years later.
Successful national leaders recognize the complexities of the international system and the quest for national interest (national defense, domestic cohesion and unity, material prosperity, and sovereignty) requires effective governance. Political ideologies and belief systems can prove instrumental in the mobilization of popular sentiment in support of the state, e.g., nationalism, socialism, liberalism, secularism, or religion—Islam and Judaism in the Middle East. Ultimately, effective governance can mature into good governance when political democracy is inaugurated and the public-private partnership in the management of the economy develops, matures, and consolidates to achieve sustainable development.
The Iranian political economy suffers from serious mismanagement. Political and family cleavages still play a significant role in all levers of power. The weak presence of efficient legal and institutional mechanisms to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of individuals, families, and state agencies is a serious threat to the legitimacy of the state and its domineering ideology. The running of a modern and effective state necessitates complete transparency and accountability. First, there is the dire absence of independent political parties with a well-defined party platform, ideological clarity, and discipline. Instead, personalities loosely place themselves in the reformist–conservative spectrum to vie for power.
This has created an atmosphere of chaos and confusion over who stands for what, with rampant accusations and counteraccusations but without legal and political repercussions! Personal attacks and finger-pointing in the absence of party affiliation and discipline are common, and legal and institutional support for the innocent accused of wrongdoing is haphazard. The conservatives’ hostility toward the creation of independent Political Parties has played a significant role in the political stagnation in the country. Independent political parties are indispensable in interest aggregation of diverging popular interest, with implications for political power, state legitimacy, and governance
Second, inadequate laws to protect political and commercial institutions from abuses of power allow for widespread corruption. Corruption is antithetical to effective governance, rampant corruption can swiftly downgrade popular support for the state, especially when citizens feel victimized by it. Third, the decades-old sanctions have been detrimental to Iran’s economy and have helped delay privatization, when state security and national sovereignty concerns are paramount.
The presence of the ‘security state’ in the face of severe external pressure has meant the creation of a ‘three-tiered foreign exchange rate,’ widespread speculative behavior in the currency market, lower industrial and commodity investment, heavy government borrowing, a multilayered and confusing monetary policy, expansionary money policy and rampant liquidity, little foreign investment, and the overall government domination of the economy. Privatization in such an environment is nearly impossible. Thus, the central problem with Iran’s economy and its mismanagement is political, both in terms of internal weak legal, institutional, and administrative framework and the external sanctions and hostility.
Effective governance demands an effective public-private partnership in the service of the populace. Neither the government nor the market can be left alone to its vices. If properly regulated, privatization can be an effective tool in the efficient management of national resources and economic development. The state can relegate some responsibilities to the private sector in the production and distribution of commodities and services.
The private sector can also partner with state agencies and universities in the development of indigenous technology, research and development, innovation, and a knowledge-based economy. The presence of cooperatives in the national economic scheme also is beneficial in the distribution of necessities of life to the low and lower-middle classes. The cooperatives in Iran can complement and not compete with the private sector. The inefficiencies inherent in the organization and function of coops should be weighed against its practical function as a cushion for the less fortunate in society and as a significant source of the state’s legitimacy.
Despite all its shortcomings, the Iranian state has achieved a great deal in the promotion of national development. Iran can blossom as a burgeoning state and with the potential to become a major player in West Asia. What is lacking are needed internal legal and institutional reforms and continuing with a practical foreign policy but with a smarter, organized, and more conciliatory tone. For this to occur, the state needs to embrace, and not punish, the opposition. The social and economic grievances of Iranians are reasonable and legitimate. A secure and confident state should welcome opposition leaders to explore solutions to national problems, including problems in foreign relations. Reconciliation with the opposition can, for example, expand the popular voice through the creation of private media outlets, professional associations and labor unions, and non-religious political parties that can compete for national development but within its broader view of the Islamic Foundation of the state.
A comparable but uncomfortable example is the state of Israel, where the secular and the divine compete for political power through legal venues, political parties, and institutions. The Islamic Republic need not make the same mistake the former Pahlavi regime committed. Accommodation and not oppression is the answer to widespread legitimate discontent among the populace. The state can secure its legitimate power through an appreciation of what can be secular and avoid mandating if recommending, what is divine. Ultimately, the relations between and within the state and society can secure prosperity and political democracy if the distribution of socioeconomic resources and political power is widespread. So, the concentration of political power and socioeconomic resources prevents the establishment of a thriving national development and political democracy.
The opposition inside and outside of Iran must accept its responsibilities and propose concrete solutions to many of Iran’s problems. Iranian social media and opposition leaders often complain about the situation and quickly finger point whom to blame. Purposeful, nonviolent demonstrations free from harsh sloganeering and with clear demands may prove effective in building bridges between the state authorities and the populace. The Iranian public opinion makers and influencers, and intellectuals can lead the way in instilling a culture of peaceful demonstration and tolerance. The experiences of widespread antiwar movement and civil rights demonstrations in the United States, though at times turning violent, can offer some insights. Civil protests must remain peaceful, organized, persistent, targeted, and nonthreatening to the state, especially when security concerns, real or not, reign overriding. public space can expand through persistence, planned, and organized peaceful demonstrations since the state tends to monopolize political power. It is a lesson from the West and, I believe, can be applied in the East.
The Iranian intellectual and opinionmakers have a central role to play. Iranians have experienced grave sociopolitical and economic turbulences since 1979, overtaxing the society with continuous social anxieties, including the Iran-Iraq war, harsh state laws and directives over social clothing and behavior and gender relations, severe economic hardship, the inflow of millions of refugees and external sanctions. Noam Chomsky contends that “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” Ideally, public intellectuals, those without a vested interest in political, social, economic, or career ambitions, everywhere can perform such a task. But Chomsky’s audience mainly resides in the liberal, democratic West. This task carries a great deal of risk for the public intellectual outside the liberal west. The Iranian public intellectual, like its western counterpart, should engage the public to inform and to expose what is propaganda, misinformation, and ‘constructed’ truth.
They must engage the public under the watchful eyes of the state and the historically bound male-governed, traditional social norms and values. The public intellectuals from the 1906 Mashruteh (Constitutional) Revolution to the Mosaddeq era to the present have also dealt with the challenge of the supposed tradition-modern dichotomy in a rapidly changing world. They need to engage the public in discussions of the intricacies of state-society relations and effective(state-dominated, purposeful, and planned development) and Good(state-private partnership and democratic) governance. The public intellectual needs to scrutinize the boundaries of the individual vis-à-vis the state/public responsibility. Citizenship is more than a mere designation; it comes with responsibilities for both the state and society. Above all, the Iranian public intellectuals must be a voice for tolerance and nonviolent social change.
In foreign relations, Iran is militarily secured enough to confidently engage with the rest of the world based on a pragmatic national interest. Iran can rely on its hard and soft power to extend its national influence without a confrontation with the West. Following a Chinese and Russian non-interference policy approach, Iran should establish friendly relations with all countries while quietly using its religious principle/doctrine of justice and the defense of the innocent and its geostrategic location as soft power. The state can focus on political and institutional reforms at home, with fewer external hostilities. Finally, the failure of national leaders to deliver good governance is a failure of the state’s leadership, despite claimed or actual foreign meddling and intervention.
The rise of the Raeisi administration is a manifestation of political contraction in Iran whilst reformists and advocates of a more moderate political Islam are under pressure. The 2nd and the 3rd post-revolution generations care more about the state of the economy and freedom in political and personal expression. Political reformists have declined in power and prestige and the conservatives have fallen short in delivering economic prosperity and virtuous life in the face of ever-worsening economic conditions. The overburdened and unnecessary social restrictions and political pressure have turned most people cynical about political and religious sloganeering, if not Islam itself. The incongruences between what is Islamic and what is Republic remains unresolved. The blending of secular and religious laws, the institutional frameworks, and the constitutional division of power need addressing. Reforms are needed to address the peoples’ democratic rights to correct the imbalance in the structure of power. The rise of the Raeisi administration signifies further Islamization of Iran’s constitutional republicanism while republicanizing what is Islamic is the path to national salvation.
I contend that the Iranian society has in the past forty years taken a giant leap forward in social change for the better whilst the state has been slow to respond to structural changes. Barring any drastic reversal in Iran’s social development due to wars or widespread social calamities, the future of civil society and good governance is hopeful. This is because of the structural changes in the Iranian society and state-society relations since 1979. Only time will tell what is in store in a future (Islamic) Republic.