Sunday, January 25, 2009

Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives


Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution. By Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Originally Published in The Muslim World Book Review.

Review by Christopher Anzalone; Indiana University, Bloomington.

The 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadīnejād, the unknown former mayor of Tehran who came from a relatively humble background in the village of Aradan 1200 kilometers southeast of Tehran, to the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran marked the completion of a shift in the country’s political scene. The election of Āhmadīnejād was the crowing event in the rise of a new conservative political movement, the Iranian Neoconservatives, who had begun their march toward power with victories in the 1999 municipal and 2004 parliamentary elections. The Iranian neoconservatives, embodied by Iran’s new president, and recent trends in Iranian politics are thoroughly examined in the new book by Anoushiravan Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Durham University, and Mahjoob Zweiri, a fellow in the modern political history of the Middle East at Durham University and a senior researcher at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. In their well-written study, the two analyze the political failure of the liberal reformists under the former president, Hujjat al-Islām Sayyid Muḥammad Khātamī, the rise of the Neoconservatives, the steadily increasing role of the Iranian military in the country’s politics, and the course taken by Āhmadīnejād as president until the first half of 2006.

Ahmadinejad kisses the hand of Iran's Supreme Leader, Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei [with glasses] as the outgoing president, Hujjat al-Islam Sayyid Muhammad Khatami looks on.

Ehteshami and Zweiri argue that there are presently three major political factions active in Iran today: Traditional Conservatives (represented by the Supreme Leader of the republic, Sayyid ‘Ali Khāmeneī and the generation who were at the forefront of the Iranian Revolution and its subsequent Islamization), Liberal Reformists (such as Khātamī and his political allies), and Neoconservatives, largely non-clerical actors who are close to the security establishment. The initial electoral successes of the liberal reformists with the first presidential electoral victory of Khātamī in 1997 spurred the mobilization of the traditional conservatives and neoconservatives who sought to protect their political and economic interests. Despite the reversal of their onetime monopoly on political power, the traditional conservatives, a group which included the revolutionary ‘ulamā’ such as Khāmeneī, continued to dominate key governmental institutions such as the Council of Guardians, the judiciary, and the military and security services. This enabled the traditional conservatives to short circuit the reformists’ political program by placing legal roadblocks in their way which prevented them from passing much of their promised legal and social reforms.

‘Ali Akbar Hāshemi Rafsanjānī, a key participant in the revolution and a onetime protégé of Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Ruḥollah Khumaynī, initiated the first phase of political and social reform during his second term as president in the 1990s but ended it in order to court traditional conservatives. The Council of Guardians, which was dominated by traditional conservatives, disqualified and barred thousands of liberal reformist parliamentary candidates which allowed neoconservative candidates to sweep into power, winning over 150 of the 290 seats. The neoconservatives also proved themselves to be adept political campaigners and their populist message and emphasis on issues of social justice and economic reform resonated with a large segment of the Iranian electorate. This populist message, combined with Ahmadīnejād’s humble “everyman” background, also proved to be key factors in deciding the 2005 presidential elections. Although he was not expected to perform well, Ahmadīnejād, who earned a Ph.D. in traffic management and engineering, ended up facing Rafsanjānī in a runoff vote. Unlike the wealthy Rafsanjānī, who many voters viewed as the embodiment of the corruption which had spread in post-revolutionary Iran, Ahmadīnejād, was seen as a man of the people who understood the issues facing the common people because of his own life experiences. In the runoff, Ahmadīnejād soundly defeated the wily Rafsanjānī. Ehteshami and Zweiri rightly point out the irony of the U.S. government’s dismissal of the 2005 Iranian presidential elections when 63 percent of the eligible electorate participated, a higher percentage than in any American presidential election.

While the relationship between the neoconservatives and traditional conservatives has generally been a close one, there have been political snags. Conservative MPs questioned Ahmadīnejād’s original list of cabinet ministers because it included too many of his political allies, whose relevant experiences were unclear. Khāmeneī has also reversed some of the president’s decisions and has placed some limitations on Ahmadīnejād’s power, particularly after international pressure on Iran increased after he made fiery, provocative speeches about the Iranian nuclear program. Despite these instances, the neoconservatives and traditional conservatives both seek to limit the successes of the liberal reformists, who they view correctly as being their chief political and social rivals.

Ahmadīnejād, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War and a former commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has courted the political support of the military and security services. The IRGC and Basīj, a large governmental paramilitary organization, are key political constituencies of the president’s. Many of the newly elected MPs in 2004 were either close allies of or former members of the IRGC and the Basīj, who in turn proved to be strong and influential backers of their candidacies.

Ahmadinejad [center] with officers of the Basij paramilitary.

Despite his promise to move Iran closer to its neighbors and other Muslim-majority states, Iran’s relations with neighboring Arab states, most of them dominated by autocratic Sunnī regimes, have become increasingly stressed during Ahmadīnejād’s presidency. His provocative rhetoric and political and financial support of groups such as Iraqi Shi‘ī parties and Lebanon’s Hizbu’llah have alarmed the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the U.S. who in turn have raised the specter of an Iranian Shi‘ī boogeyman who controls all the world’s Shi‘īs. King ‘Abdullah II of Jordan and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have erroneously alleged that Arab Shi‘īs are more loyal to Iran than to their own countries. The conflict between Iranian and Sunni Arab foreign policies, namely that of Saudi Arabia, can be clearly seen in the ongoing sectarian strife and political maneuvering in Lebanon between the pro-government March 14 faction, which is backed politically and financially by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and the National Opposition coalition, of which Hizbu’llah and AMAL are key members. The conflict between the two sides, which is largely political, has taken on more ominous sectarian tones in recent months, particularly among Sunni Arab members of the March 14 faction who have reportedly been financing Salafi takfirī groups as a counterweight to the powerful Shi‘ī party Hizbu’llah.

Ahmadinejad sits on the floor as Iran's Supreme Leader, Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei, speaks. The power relationship is clear in this photograph. In reality, for as much attention as he gets in the Western and particularly hysterical U.S. media, the president of Iran has relatively few powers. The supreme leader is the country's ultimate chief executive officer.

Ehteshami and Zweiri make extensive use of media and journalistic sources in both English and Persian. They have also made use of think tank policy papers and academic sources in coaching their analysis within the larger historical and political context of post-revolutionary Iran. They have also compiled many valuable appendices documenting electoral participation in recent Iranian municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections. The book is written in clear, non-technical language and because of this would be useful in upper-level undergraduate as well as graduate courses on political Islam and modern Iran as well as for the educated non-specialist reader.

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