Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A briefing on recent Iranian history

Phil Paine sent me a link to this excellent article in Foreign Affairs: Akbar Ganji, The Latter-Day Sultan: Power and Politics in Iran. This passage from the beginning of the article shows its thrust:
[F]or many Iranian opposition leaders, as well as much of the Western media and political class, [President] Ahmadinejad is the main culprit of Iran's ills today: censorship, corruption, a failing economy, the prospect of a U.S attack.

But this analysis is incorrect, if only because it exaggerates Ahmadinejad's importance and leaves out of the picture the country's single most powerful figure: Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. The Iranian constitution endows the supreme leader with tremendous authority over all major state institutions, and Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989, has found many other ways to further increase his influence. Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government all operate under the absolute sovereignty of the supreme leader; Khamenei is the head of state, the commander in chief, and the top ideologue. He also reaches into economic, religious, and cultural affairs through various government councils and organs of repression, such as the Revolutionary Guards, whose commander he himself appoints.

Of all of Iran's leaders since the country became the Islamic Republic in 1979, only Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution's leader; Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president for much of the 1990s; and Khamenei have had defining influences. Despite all the attention he receives, Ahmadinejad does not even rank among Iran's top 100 leaders over the past 30 years. Khamenei supports Ahmadinejad immeasurably more than he did any of Ahmadinejad's predecessors, but Ahmadinejad is only as powerful as he is devoted to Khamenei and successful at advancing his aims. Khamenei's power is so great, in fact, that in 2004 the reformist Muhammad Khatami declared that the post of president, which he held at the time, had been reduced to a factotum. Blaming the country's main problems on Ahmadinejad not only overstates his influence; it inaccurately suggests that Iran's problems will go away when he does. More likely, especially regarding matters such as Iran's foreign policy, the situation will remain much the same as long as the structure of power that supports the supreme leader remains unchanged.
Ganji devotes the bulk of the article to discussing Khamenei's goals and powers and the institutions that he has created to sustain his regime, which Ganji describes as "sultanistic" using a term originating with Max Weber:
"Where domination is primarily traditional, even though it is exercised by virtue of the ruler's personal autonomy, it will be called patrimonial authority," Max Weber wrote in Economy and Society in 1922; "where it indeed operates primarily on the basis of discretion, it will be called sultanism." Sultanism is both traditional and arbitrary, according to Weber, and it expresses itself largely through recourse to military force and through an administrative system that is an extension of the ruler's household and court. Sultans sometimes hold elections in order to prove their legitimacy, but they never lose any power in them. According to Weber, sultans promote or demote officials at will, they rob state bodies of their independence of action and infiltrate them with their proxies, and they marshal state economic resources to fund an extensive apparatus of repression. Weber might have been describing Khamenei.
The chief use of this article is its informed and detailed analysis, but there some other points of interest, such as this remark:

Nor does Islam run Iran. The ruling religious fundamentalists lack a unified vision, and fundamentalist, traditionalist, and modernist versions of Islam compete for attention among Iranians. Since the 1979 revolution, religion has served the Iranian state, not the other way around. Khomeini held a resolutely sultanistic view of Islam. "The state . . . takes precedence over all the precepts of sharia," he wrote in 1988.
Or this one:
Detention conditions remain deplorable today -- over the past year alone, a young female doctor and a Kurdish student have died in custody -- but they have generally improved compared to the 1980s. This progress has had little to do with Ahmadinejad, however. If instances of political repression have decreased over the past three decades, it is largely because notions of democracy and human rights have taken root among the Iranian people and thus it has become much more difficult for the government to commit crimes.

Image: Iran's real ruler.


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