USIP Investigates the Dynamics of Iranian Politics

 The United States Institute of Peace held a conference Wednesday, June 27, 2012 in Washington, D.C., to present a series of commissioned papers on the changing and static elements of Iranian politics.

The papers focused on topics such as  the effects of welfare on Iranian society, the presence or lack of the rule of law, and how the Supreme Leader should be read as an institution rather than a personality.

One of the editors, Dan Brumberg, Senior Advisor to Center for the Conflict Analysis and Prevention, explained that reformists and liberals face hardliners who reject all reform as the first step on the slippery slope to oblivion.

The other editor, Farideh Farhi, argued there was no evidence to suggest the military and security forces are taking control of the government, even though Supreme Leader Khamenei has been losing legitimacy. All of the scholars, she said, hoped to “take a step back” and discover larger trends.

In her paper, Mehrangiz Kar investigated “The Complexities and Dualities of Rule of Law in the Reform Era,” inspired by her own experience when she was arrested in 2000 after attending a conference in Berlin, and her detainers went through the motions of making the detention appear legal.

 Kar found that the regime was both propped up and pulled down by adherence to the rule of law. On one hand, it helps keep order and lends credibility, but on the other, it allows for liberal interpretations of the law and also leads to citizens asking for more concessions.

“The country has become respectful of the rule of law” she was told by her judge after she was arrested.

Shadi Mokhtari explored the role repression has had in inspiring political change. After the 2009 elections, which sparked widespread protests, hardliners in the security forces implemented policies of mass arrest, torture, broad limitations on the press, and systematic rape in prisons to repress the Green Movement.

Mokhtari explained the heightened repression spurred unprecedented criticism of the regime. Even though the protests do not occur in the streets anymore, she said, they remain strong in the private spaces of Iranian’s, such as in homes, taxicabs, and grocery stores.

Kevan Harris argued against the typical view of welfare in Iran, which explains it as top-down control, is short-sighted, exceptionalist and insulting. Rather, welfare leads to an autonomous and educated population that ultimately demands more from the regime. He also stressed that Iran is constantly changing and surprising analysts, “I can predict that we will be surprised again.”

He went on to explain the dynamic between the elite factions that influence Iranian politics.

“I don’t think greed is the best way to explain factionalism. I think it’s fear,” Harris said. External and internal threats convince factions of elites to close ranks or realign into new formations, echoing Brumberg’s earlier statements.

Examining the role of the Supreme Leader was Merhzad Bouroujerdi, who argued against the two prevalent arguments that typically surround the Supreme Leader. The first claims Khamenei serves as an omnipotent Sultan. The second says he is a figurehead while the security and military forces run Iran.

Bouroujerdi said the Supreme Leader is not the ideologue the West often characterizes him as, but rather a pragmatic leader, willing to reverse his positions in order to preserve the state, the system, and his position.

Finally, geographist Bernard Hourcade of the Wilson Center investigated the emerging suburban spaces in Iran and how that has affected the role of women and the role of the clerics.

From the Supreme Leader, to the new generation of Parliament members, to protesters and dissident voices, the USIP argued that Iran’s complexities need to be acknowledged and understood before real progress can begin in relations between the West and Iran.

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