Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, June 19, 2009

More factors to consider

Henry Newman, writing in The Guardian (UK), reminds us of some other factors to consider in understanding the developments in Iran.

Iran's triangle of power
[Historically,] a triangle of factors proved fundamental: popular support, clerical opposition and the involvement of the bazaars. If history teaches us anything, the mass protests of the last week that have followed Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's coup d'├ętat cannot succeed without the support of the bazaar and some Shia clergy...

In Qom, the Assembly of Experts is soon to hold an emergency meeting; the 86 clerical members have the power to dismiss the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. At the assembly's head is ex-president and plutocrat, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, a Mir Hossein Mousavi supporter. Rafsanjani is rumoured to have been in Qom, Iran's holiest city, to persuade the clerical elite to oppose Ahmadinejad...

One factor heightening the potential for divisions within the Shia religious elite, is the absence of a centralised clerical hierarchy. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is not Shia Islam's most respected religious figure, despite his political power in Iran. Khamenei was hastily promoted to ayatollah... at the 11th hour, as successor to Khomeini. According to the original Khomeinist model of government, the most religiously qualified cleric should be Supreme Leader. This was patently not Khamenei and so his selection in 1989 provoked concern amongst the religious...

In Shia Islam believers have the choice to select the cleric (marja) they wish to follow. As a result there is a strong pressure for religious figures to attract flocks of believers. Without believers, clerics lack access to power (political and intellectual) and finances (through religious taxes and donations). Historically this religious "survival of the fittest" encouraged some clerics to align their judgments with the prevailing collective sentiment. As protesters continue to shake the country we should expect ever more fatwas in their support...

Given the widespread protests and growing clerical opposition, at least within Iran, the missing element is a wholesale bazaar strike. Traditional bazaars retain sizeable economic and political clout, despite the emergence of a new post-revolutionary plutocracy interconnected with powerful quasi-governmental charities, the bonyads. Although bazaaris tend to be conservatives they have become frustrated by spiraling inflation and harder sanctions under Ahmadinejad's administration; in October of last year, bazaars across Iran went on strike to oppose a new sales tax. The tax was swiftly suspended. Recently most media reports have neglected the bazaar; however, there were some rumours of pending strikes covered by the BBC.

A confluence of popular mass protests, clerical dissent and bazaar strikes would not necessarily spell revolution in Iran. It would however have enormous symbolic importance for a population well versed in its own revolutionary history.


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