Kamran Matin discusses Iran’s current social and political situation in the light of the approaching presidential elections on June 14.
1. Which fundamental issues do you consider to be at play in the coming presidential elections in Iran?
Kamran Matin: Economic crisis, massive pauperisation of the population, unemployment, corruption, and constant uncertainty about a possible conflict with the west are key issues. Each of these problems however has a different level of significance for different social classes. In fact, mercantile classes involved in export and those with close links to the state are reaping massive profits from the devaluation of the currency and the government’s redistribution of oil wealth, respectively. But these groups form a numerical minority, which will not have any impact on the election’s outcome, assuming they are not rigged.
2. Many observers speak about the inherent and unsolvable contradictions inside the Islamic regime of Iran. How would you describe these contradictions?
KM: The system is an uneven power structure comprising of both popularly elected and arbitrarily selected (by the ‘leader of the revolution’, Khamenei) state officials.
The overall orientation of the state and politics is therefore a result of the specific balance of power between these two main branches of the state. The evolution of post-revolutionary Iranian state can be seen in terms of a constant and growing challenge posed by the elected organs of the state (attendant to the ‘republican’ aspect of the state) to the unelected organs (attendant to the ‘Islamic’ aspect of the state).
Despite appearances in fact Ahmadinejad – both through his peculiar accession to presidency, and his actions during the presidency – has actually done most to undermine the smooth exercise of power by unelected organs of the state and the very ideological and political bases of legitimacy for these organs’ operation. Thus, formally the leader of the revolution-cum-valiy-e faqih has sweeping powers but the actual ability to use these powers, whose routine and coercive exercise in the longer run will erode its own ideological and social conditions of possibility, is changing and depends on the specific balance of social and political powers, a balance that due to the existence of elections and elected executive bodies in the state is extremely fluid and subject to periodic change.
There is a genuine friction though insofar as both groups are loyal, at least formally, to Iran’s existing constitution they can be seen to form a heterogeneous pole vis-à-vis those opposition groups that want a radical transformation of Iranian state and constitution along a secular, republican line. The fundamentals of these two factions’ economic policy are, notably, very similar in that in both cases they are based on a broadly neo-liberal strategy of privatization, de-regulation and marketization of the economy and society.
The difference in this regard lies more in the conservatives’ oligarchic and clientelistic implementation of these policies as opposed to a more technocratic and competitive approach of the reformists. Politically, reformists tend to be more meritocratic and technocratic and less confrontational with the west as they recognize the necessity and benefits of a more peaceful and stable presence within world economy. Conservatives also recognize this but their adventurous and confrontational foreign policy is, and has always been, a tactic in their domestic power struggle with the reformists.
3. What is the determining factor in the next phase of the political process in Iran: conflict inside the regime or the conflict between the Iranian people and the system?
KM: One can only speculate but perhaps we can talk about a sequence: first growing tension and disunity within the regime opens up a political space in the political system through which popular protests against the regime as a whole are then made. This is very similar to what happened in the previous election.
4. Are the current problems of Iran mainly economic or political?
KM: These are inseparable since in all rentier states, in which entrenched social classes with political influence over macro-policy-making are absent or very weak, the state is in effect the commanding height of the economy.
5. Do you think this government has the ability to address the main problems of the Iranian society?
KM: Perhaps in the short run but in medium and longer run there is an unbridgeable gap between the state and society since the very social and economic changes that state has caused through its developmental and economic policies are detrimental to its own political reproduction. In this respect, the current regime resembles the Shah’s regime after the land-reforms in 1960s.
6. How strong is the power of the Regime’s propaganda apparatus?
KM: It used to be very powerful; though with the growth of satellite TV stations broadcasting from outside Iran and also the internet, the state’s monopoly of the circulation of information has been considerably diminished. But access and ability (having leisure time) to use these non-state media is limited to middle and upper middle classes which do not form the majority of the population of course.
7. Has populism exhausted its power in Iran?
KM: No. In the absence of established forms of party politics and social welfare the poor and lower classes, by force of their dire material conditions, are amenable to populist politics and slogans which promises immediate alleviation of economic problems through controlled redistribution of oil revenues, as in the first phase of allocation of subsidies by the Ahmadinejad government.
8. What kind of President does Iran's leader Ayatollah Khamenei prefer?
KM: Khamenei arguably prefers an obedient and timid president. The trouble though is that once in office presidents do have certain resources and abilities to lay a basis for their own political platform from which they then can, if they want to, challenge him as Ahmadinejad did. There is therefore always an element of risk-taking in Khamenei’s intervention in the elections of which he must be acutely aware following his experience with Ahmadinejad.
9. Will a new version of the turbulence of 2009 be possible for the upcoming elections?
KM: Yes. Though it all depends on who gets through the filter of the Council of Guardians and the way in which the election campaigns are conducted.
The relative opening of political atmosphere during election campaigns allows a repressed populace to express their political demands. The way these are dealt with by the state can radicalize the demands and modes of protest as we saw in 2009. However, without the resolute and prolonged participation of the lower and poor social classes, the scale and success of such protests are very uncertain.
Kamran Matin is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. In the past few years, he has explored the international dimension of social, political and intellectual development in the context of non-western experiences of modernity and the Iranian Revolution. His book on the topic will be published this year by Routledge.