Is it possible for Iranian politics to move out of the grip of theocracy? Yes.
Will it happen anytime soon? No.
The world has been witness over the past week to demonstrations in all the major Iranian cities. Resultant violence has left at least 21 dead so far. Many observers assume these events to be linked to a desire for greater democracy, better economic conditions and a more liberal society. That is only partly what these demonstrations are about, and the chances that it will deliver any of the above are slim to none, for the near future at least.
The Iranian theocracy, constructed after the 1979 revolution of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, is a complex and multi-faceted structure that permeates virtually every aspect of Iranian society. Like all revolutions, this one too overlooked the reality that human nature trumps ideology and faith with time, and that human ego is independent of these considerations.
Differences have emerged over the last four decades among the religious leaders who directly administer the country. As in every other part of the world, these differences converge on the optimal delivery of food, shelter, energy, employment and a reasonably permissive social environment for the general public. And these differences form, among other things, the focus of political activity because the Iranian regime does draw its legitimacy through a circumscribed ballot box process.
One real problem is that the political change happening in Tehran, and it has been happening, has been too gradual to deliver on the economic and social fronts. By Iranian standards, President Hassan Rouhani (an Ayatullah) is a moderate, and his election was welcomed by the general public. His predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was something of a political curiosity even for Iran, and is now facing a list of corruption charges. But he followed Mohammed Khatami, another moderate Ayatullah who was (and reportedly is still) quite intensely disliked by the conservatives and ultra-conservatives in the establishment.
Yet none has been able to deliver what the general public seem to want: jobs, scope for expanded entrepreneurial activity, a more relaxed social environment and perhaps a change in Iran’s strategic posture that will further ease the sanctions imposed by the Western powers. More than half of the Iranian population is under the age of 30, and this means none of them remember what life under the Shah was like. The only state they know is the Islamic Republic, and they are not afraid to criticize it.
Observing the video footage of the demonstrations, one of the rather startling things is to see how confidently young men and women say and do things that, had they much to lose, the would have been wary of saying and doing. By nature, Iranians are an ambitious, inquisitive, curious and education-oriented people – and very aesthetically inclined. All these impulses have, however, been constrained just at a time when exposure to the outside world has become as simple as having a smart-phone, which more than 41 per cent of Iranian households own (according to Euromonitor International).
The protests appear to have erupted spontaneously as the consequence of a political manoeuvre, generated by factional posturing between the conservatives and the moderates within the establishment. One theory is that the demonstrations began in Mashhad (a major religious centre) because the conservatives had organized a rally there against the subsidy cuts and reduction in government hand-outs proposed in the latest budget of the moderate Rouhani government, and that spun out of control. The rally was called because Rouhani himself had tried to expose the conservatives by disclosing the budget allocations for the various religious organisations and centres that the establishment operates. In other words, political infighting gave the opening for the expression of genuine grievances on the street.
That does not change the ground reality. Many Iranians are unhappy about the way things are in the country and want a change. It is possible they will be satisfied with improved economic circumstances. But they may also demand radical social change along with political re-configuration. The Iranian leadership (of all stripes) has shown that it is quite prepared to do whatever it takes to perpetuate the republic in its current form, and there is no suggestion that the military establishment holds a contrary view.
So what is likely to come next? According to this writer, the following realities will prevail:
- It is likely that the regime will consolidate, and efforts will be made to curb factionalism. There may also be some genuine effort to reform the economy to enable an expansion of entrepreneurial activity and spur growth. Iran is subject to intense external pressures, with the objective of regime change – by regional neighbours as well as bigger players like the US and Britain. Reform efforts aimed at strengthening the regime will face implementation challenges. This means they will be, at best, only modestly successful. It will not be enough.
- A relaxation of the rules which pertain to social activity may occur, but these will not be sufficient from the perspective of many in either the middle or upper classes. There is not likely to be dramatic shifts, as that would suggest a concession to the public will. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is made of sterner stuff. On the other hand, while there is a hunger for societal change in Iran, it is important to recognize that this hunger alone will not spark revolution. It forms only a subjectively important component of the grievances, enhancing them and constituting a focal point for the disillusioned. It is the easiest way to demonstrate opposition.
- Gradually, opposition to the theocratic system will accrete, consolidate and manifest itself in more such eruptions of public anger. The protests are not about “Western-style democracy”. They seem to be about the theocratic system within which Iranian democracy is permitted to exist. There is an alienation from the theocracy that the leadership will find hard to sidestep in the years ahead, without bringing in fundamental change – perhaps by moving towards a properly civilian system which has respect for the Velayat e-Faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), which the late Khomeini installed.
There are religious leaders within Iran who have been saying that the Ayatullahs and Hojatulislams should stay out of politics. That said, the current dispensation will not relinquish their grip. Maybe the successor of Supreme Leader Khamenei will. If not, over years (not months), public anger will reach critical mass and a successful revolution is virtually certain. We are not there yet.