Clerical Oligarchy and the Question of "Democracy" in Iran

By Rahnema, Saeed; Moghissi, Haideh | Monthly Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Clerical Oligarchy and the Question of "Democracy" in Iran


Rahnema, Saeed, Moghissi, Haideh, Monthly Review


For more than twenty years the Islamic regime in Iran, along with its extensive repressive apparatuses, has created an impressive array of ideological and economic mechanisms of control to construct an Islamified civil society and build consensus for the establishment of a theocratic state. Through massive propaganda and the manipulation of religious beliefs the Islamic ruling bloc has succeeded in maintaining its monopoly of power against all external and internal odds. Political repression eliminated, jailed, and exiled the progressive secular forces that had initiated the revolution in 1979. Ideological indoctrination maintained a strong following for the clerical regime.

However, faced with social, political, and economic realities, a growing number of Iranians, even those who were once devoted supporters of the Islamic regime, have turned against it. The Islamic Republic is in deep political crisis. The Islamists' economic policies have failed, the per capita income is less than half of what it was before the revolution, and the gap between the rich and the poor has drastically widened. The regime, which assumed power in the name of the dispossessed, is increasingly losing its popularity among the most dispossessed Iranians, and public unrest and dissatisfaction are on the rise. The Islamists' moral crusades have also run out of steam as people increasingly and openly express their disapproval through any means they can. The Islamification policies, primarily targeting women and youth, have produced the opposite of the intended result. Not only has the regime been unable to push women back into the home and reestablish the gender order of bygone days, but its policies have produced an unprecedented increase in gender-awareness and resistance by women. Likewise, the authority of the Islamic rulers faces a formidable challenge from Iranian youth, now over 65 percent of the population. Born and raised under Islamic rule, the youth in Iran have turned their backs on the political and moral regime established by the clerics. "Youth distancing themselves from the revolution and faith" has been a recurring concern of the Islamists. [1] Political suppression, particularly the series of assassinations of prominent intellectuals and nationalist leaders, which came to be known as chain assassinations, have severely discredited the regime. A disgruntled public, which has remembered the unfulfilled promises of the 1979 revolution, grasps every possible opportunity to show it despises what the Islamists stand for. Iranian voters have repeatedly expressed their discontent with the regime by voting against the fundamentalists' favorite candidates in parliamentary and presidential elections. In ternationally, with the exception of the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the regime's early policy of "exporting the revolution" failed to link it to other Islamic movements.

Finally, and perhaps deadlier to the legitimacy of the regime, is the ever-intensifying conflict between different clerical factions after Ayatollah Khomeini's death. The ruling bloc in Iran has not been able to resolve its internal conflicts over economic, social, political, and moral issues by the physical or ideological elimination of one faction by another. Unable to replace the late Ayatollah with an equally charismatic and powerful figure capable of maintaining a balance between contending factions, frictions among clerical factions have turned into seemingly non-negotiable divisions. The two sides-- those who believe that the system cannot survive without political reform, and those who see reform as a serious blow to the very foundation of the system--are confronting each other in every arena, from the mosques and newspapers to the electoral process. Each side blames the other for the regime's growing crisis of legitimacy. The great irony is that both sides are right. If the regime loosens its grip, dissatisfied Iranians fed up with political suppression, social degradation, and economic decline, will become bolder and put forth more radical demands. …

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