SPEAKING FREELY Modernity makes a mark in Iran vote
By Amin Shahriar
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The June 14 election in Iran has not only shattered many prejudgments about the supposedly predetermined results of the 11th Iranian presidential poll on the international level, but it has also taken many inside Iran by surprise. The reformists, who have been subject to the most severe media criticism and sabotage in
the past eight years, have found the opportunity to return to power.
Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric backed by reformists, owes this achievement mainly to the support and endorsement he received from Mohammad Khatami, the former president who remains to be one of the most widely cherished figures of the Iranian politics. This was enough to prove all the equations of the regime wrong. Rouhani was also chosen arguably because he was the one who bore the least resemblance to outgoing President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. But why would the same people who had grown weary of a reformist administration and had brought the hardline Ahmadinejad to power turn so much against him and his discourse?
To answer that question, several layers of the Islamic Republic's history must be peeled back. That reveals an uncanny similarity between why the Islamic Republic happened in the first place and why the fog of war between reformists and fundamentalist conservatives lingers. This note seeks to shed light on the nature of power distribution in Iran from a sociological point of view.
The Shah regime, which ruled the country prior to the 1979 revolution, led times characterized by rapid economic growth, fast-paced urban modernization and peaceful economic and diplomatic relations with the West. The very same had led to the creation of an impoverished population dwelling in city ghettos. The Islamic Republic was a move away from these liberal tenets towards socialist Islamism by the predominantly religious poverty stricken population of the country. At that time, citizens of the more prosperous areas in the capital, the then emerging frail middle class, had a rather lukewarm attitude towards the whole movement. However, outnumbered by revolutionaries, they only witnessed as the Shah was toppled.
Yet, the revolution turned their life upside down limiting their social freedoms and imposing creeping restrictions on their private lives, not to mention the war; the eight-year exhaustive conflict with Iraq meant that the economic and social demands of this widely disregarded class were not mooted up until the beginning of the second decade of the Islamic regime. After the war though the political scene was plowed.
On the economic level, the policies of Shah were more or less replicated by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; creating wealth, building infrastructure and inevitably widening the already existing gap between the affluent and the deprived.
As education expanded, the middle class grew broader and stronger. This massive new found social class had their own demands mainly of a political and social nature. This set the context for the rise of reformists making generous promises bearing on social and political freedoms in 1997. Khatami, once elected the president, accelerated the change that had already begun among the middle classes. This era was characterized by economic stability stemming from peaceful coexistence and cooperation between Iran and the West.
The country had all of a sudden had a very similar look to before the revolution, 20 years back: a growing oil-rich country which got along okay with most Western countries. Nothing could be further from the ideals of the "Islamic" revolution.
Ahmadinejad is now believed to have had impeccable political savvy. As young and relatively unknown politician he revived revolutionary sentiments by falling back on the same maxims, again counting on the same social class for support. There, however, was one main stumbling block: the existence of a bulky middle class that didn't want radical changes. Despite this, disagreements between reformist politicians, coupled with a general lack of interest in politics from the middle class, were perfect recipe for his rise to power.
In the eight years of his presidency, Ahmadinejad damaged the middle class, weakened the economy, ruined diplomatic ties and in a sense duplicated the effects of the 1979 revolution. Witnessing how the country was heading for total collapse, many conservatives previously supporting Ahmadinejad started distancing themselves from his discourse while remaining faithful to the principles of the revolution. They were not prepared to concede that the Islamic revolution was failing for a second time. Put differently, the rise of Ahmadinejad to power was an Islamic revolution within an Islamic revolution. Like most revolutions, including the one in 1979, it left people deeply regretful.
This centrifugal pattern might well repeat itself in the future, a vicious circle involving the embracement of revolutionary sentiments closely ensued by public repulsion, and resulting in a deviation to modern governance. In effect, there is a full blown battle between modernity and tradition, in which modernity seems to stand a better chance of winning thanks to the rise of the middle class. Now there seems to be an implicit agreement among most moderate Iranian politicians that the underlying principles of the revolution are clearly insufficient to run the country. The leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his team are still deeply incredulous.
Saeed Jalili, whose ideology resembled that of Ahmadinejad and the leader the most among all presidential candidates, won little more than a tenth of total votes despite the public media conspicuously favoring him. This clearly shows how Iranians have for the second time in less than two decades rejected the very foundation of an anti-imperialist Islamic regime that compromises people's welfare in return for its vaguely defined hardline ideologies.
What remains to be seen, however, is how President-elect Rouhani can interact with people and the leader, admittedly occupying a much more seminal political position, without suffering the same fate as most previous Iranian presidents.
Amin Shahriar is the pseudonym used by an Iranian lawyer and journalist.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.