Democracy Lab

Why Iran Can't Reform

Many commentators are hailing the results of the Iranian presidential election as a victory for popular choice. But that feel-good narrative misses the bigger story.

So a "moderate" has won the Iranian presidential election. He's a moderate who advertises himself as a sly defender of Tehran's nuclear aspirations. He's a moderate who's been warning Western countries to stay out of Syria's civil war (where Iran has been giving massive support to the beleaguered dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad). He's a moderate who was allowed to run only after a host of more pragmatic candidates were cut from the field by the current leadership's vetting commission. And he's a moderate who's made it clear that he's not about to tamper with the principle of clerical rule that stands at the core of the system Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established in 1979. So should we be celebrating?

Well, the upside is that Hasan Rowhani won on Friday's election because Iranian voters were intent on showing their leaders that they prefer as their president a man who suggests even the most minute revisions reigning order (such as vague promises to rein in the widely hated morality police). But the fact remains that, even if Rowhani wanted to implement even more far-reaching changes, Iran's current power structure gives the president minimal space to do so. Iranian voters may have signaled their desire for reform by voting for Rowhani, but that doesn't mean they're any likelier to get it.

And that's just the way that Khomeini, the father of Iran's Islamic Revolution, would have wanted it. From the very beginning he and his followers aimed to transform Iran into a state where the Shiite clergy had the final say. The Khomeinist constitution passed in 1979 (and revised a few years later) included some opportunities for limited political competition by embracing direct elections for local government, parliament, and the presidency (with the proviso that only approved candidates were allowed to run). But no one elected the Supreme Leader, the man who holds ultimate power. That's because, as clergyman-in-chief, he embodies the principle of divine rule. God's sovereignty trumps the people's.

In reality, of course, it's actually a very small group of human beings at the top who interpret God's wishes for earthly ends. Indeed, as became clear soon after the revolution, Khomeini's vision of clerical rule didn't even extend to all of the Shiite clergy; those leaders of the clerical establishment who disagreed with his theocratic vision -- a group both more numerous and influential than most people in the West have ever realized -- were systematically marginalized and outmaneuvered until they were silenced altogether. They included, most remarkably, Khomeini's handpicked successor, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who fell from grace when he began criticizing human rights violations committed by the revolutionary regime. He ultimately died in obscurity after enduring long years of intense persecution.

That should tell you all you need to know about Iran's capacity for reform. There are few who would seriously dispute the imperative for change. Today, the Islamic Republic is an international pariah and an economic basket case, a supporter of Bashar al-Assad and a close ally of North Korea; it's also a country whose governing class faces growing demands from its own citizens for greater freedom and political participation. Thirty-four years after the revolution, however, it's become increasingly obvious that the system established by Khomeini has ossified -- and is now correspondingly brittle. The limited space for democratic participation originally allowed by the first generation of revolutionary leaders has steadily yielded to unvarnished authoritarianism.

And that is, above all, the doing of today's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During his 14-year rule, Khamenei has consistently followed the Khomeinist principle of keeping real power confined to a tiny elite. When reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami tentatively attempted to widen the room for personal freedom during his presidency in the 1990s, Khamenei successfully marshaled conservative forces to block those efforts. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has now completed his second and last term as Iran's president, caused headaches of a different kind. Khamenei fended off Ahmadinejad's populist efforts to build himself into a rival power center, but also had to support him when angry Iranians protested perceived vote tampering during the presidential election of 2009. The big protests that followed the vote prompted Khamenei to deploy every means of repression in his toolbox -- and also inspired him to apply particularly harsh criteria to the process of candidate vetting in this year's election, just to be on the safe side.

In the process Khamenei has steadily shrunk the circle of the ruling elite. By excluding fellow 1979 veteran and political heavyweight Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from this year's presidential election, Khamenei broke the last link connecting his own rule with the hallowed revolution. Over the years, he has come to depend primarily on the Revolutionary Guards Corps, an organization originally established as a parallel military designed to defend the revolution from its enemies at home and abroad. Today's Guard consists largely of opportunists who have exploited their power to gain control over broad swathes of the economy. They have a big stake in the current status quo -- and they also happen to command many of the guns needed to protect it.

So can we imagine a scenario in which the Supreme Leader himself decides that Iran needs reform -- and inaugurates a corresponding program? That's about as likely in the case of Khamenei as it was with Leonid Brezhnev back in the 1970s (and it's an entirely apt comparison, considering that both the old USSR and today's Iran managed to mask catastrophic economic mismanagement with the help of their vast oil reserves). The Revolutionary Guard would resist any polices to introduce greater competition into the economy, since that would probably interfere with their current rent-seeking privileges. Khamenei's theocratic allies would push back against any attempt at political liberalization, since doing so would implicitly question the allegedly divine underpinnings of clerical rule. What, then, would serve as the Supreme Leader's source of legitimacy? Claiming a mandate from God is one thing; but once it's been relinquished, it will be impossible to recover it.

And after Khamenei? I guess it's always possible that the current elite could beget an Iranian version of Mikhail Gorbachev -- though I suspect that the fate of the USSR (like Iran, a multiethnic state tugged apart by many restive minorities) and the dreary story of his ultimate downfall are not examples that Iran's rulers wish to emulate. They are, presumably, all too aware that Iranian citizens are hungry for more freedom than the present regime can concede without undercutting its own argument for existence.

We know that the Chinese Communist Party has carefully studied the collapse of other authoritarian regimes and one-party systems, exhaustively examining transition experiences from Mexico to Poland in order to draw lessons for the protection of its own power. There is little evidence that Iran's ruling clergy has done anything comparable -- and it's easy to imagine why they won't.

As for Rowhani, let's expect him to make a few modest gestures in the direction of reform. But it will be a big surprise if he manages to go beyond that. He knows that it will be his own neck on the line if he steps out too far.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Secret Police State

What’s worse: the NSA or the East German Stasi?

President Barack Obama is headed off to Germany next week, and while he's there he should expect to get an earful about the National Security Agency surveillance scandals that have been dominating the news in the United States over the past week.

The Germans are scandalized. "Germans so outraged at U.S. over spying that Merkel will raise the issue directly with Obama," says the Washington Post. A leading German data protection official is telling German Internet users to avoid American companies like Facebook and Google, since, he says, all of the data in their networks is likely to be scooped up for use by U.S. intelligence. A German parliamentarian says that the revelations about the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance remind him of the Stasi, the old East German secret police. (Let's leave aside, for the moment, the point that European governments still do plenty of spying of their own, and intrude in the lives of their citizens in ways that many Americans would find repugnant.)

German touchiness on the subject has a lot to do with history. There was that singular unpleasantness with the Gestapo a few years back, of course -- but for all its crimes the Nazi secret police was actually a fairly small organization that depended heavily on a wide net of enthusiastic informers within a broadly regime-loyal population. And then there's the horrifying tale of East Germany's Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit, the Ministry for State Security, known more widely by the abbreviated version of its name -- the Stasi. It was this agency that was responsible for building up what was probably the most expansive surveillance state in history.

Let me say one thing right off: Daniel Ellsberg notwithstanding, the NSA is not the Stasi. The East German secret police, the direct equivalent of the Soviet KGB, viewed itself as the "shield and the sword" of the East German Communist Party -- and that was the only authority to which it bore responsibility. The Stasi was not in business, in other words, to protect East German citizens from threats to their lives or liberty: both of those things were entirely subject to the dictates of the Politburo. The Stasi's job was to keep communism in power. If it failed in that larger aim, it wasn't for want of trying.

By contrast, intelligence agencies in the United States (and in liberal democracies, generally) are supposed to be subject to congressional oversight and a wide range of legal strictures, and so far leaker Edward Snowden has provided little indication that the NSA programs have broken any laws. Indeed, both the PRISM data mining program, as well as the NSA collection of phone metadata, appear to have followed the letter of the law -- and Congress signed off on all of it. Some critics, indeed, are saying that this may be the most disturbing part of the whole story.

Still, there's one aspect of the comparison between the Stasi and the NSA that's illuminating -- and that's the question of technological capability. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the East German state, people around the world were astounded to discover just how thoroughly the Stasi kept track of its charges. It's been estimated that one out of seven East German citizens was a Stasi informer. The Stasi destroyed many documents in the days that followed East Germany's democratic revolution in the fall of 1989, but the papers that are left fill more than 100 miles of shelf space. (The photo above shows a researcher reconstructing a shredded Stasi document --  some 15,000 giant bags of which remain to be puzzled back together.)

The extent to which Stasi agents went to keep tabs on their own population (as well as East Germany's foreign enemies, since the Stasi was also in charge of spying on other countries) still boggles the mind. Husbands spied on wives, and vice versa. In one program, Stasi scientists experimented with capturing smell samples that could be used to track the activities of their sources. The Stasi had secret rooms in every post office in the country where operatives opened mail and inspected packages. Stasi eavesdroppers listened in on countless phone conversations -- and not just at home. "Virtually all West German satellite-based telephone, Telex, fax, and data transmissions were monitored," notes one online history of Cold War intelligence.

(The Stasi collapsed for good, a few months after the fall of the Wall, as I was beginning my career as a foreign correspondent. I had my share of brief run-ins with the organization; I remember in particular a session in early 1989 when East German border guards pulled me out of a line of Western visitors waiting to cross the border back into West Berlin and brought me into a room where a plainclothes officer interrogated me about my friends and activities in the East; he was already surprisingly well-informed. What I remember most vividly was the picture on the wall of the Stasi man's office: a reproduction of Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, a painting that resided in a museum in the East German city of Dresden. It's a painting that implicitly turns the viewer into a voyeur, covertly witnessing a private act of communication. I've never been able to decide whether the irony of putting that image in a Stasi office was intended or unconscious.)

At any rate, to those of us who watched the Stasi's collapse first-hand it was obvious that the organization's technological capabilities never quite managed to live up to its vast ambitions. The Stasi did some pioneering work in invisible ink and even came up with creative methods of using radioactive isotopes to keep track of suspects, but most of its computer equipment was shockingly clunky -- as one might expect from an agency that had to deal with the constraints of an Eastern Bloc economy. Most of its files were recorded on reels of magnetic tape. The Lives of Others, the remarkable film that describes the ethical transformation of a Stasi spy, gives a good idea of how labor-intensive the Stasi's methods were. Technicians had to plant bugs by hand in meticulously planned covert operations. Wiretaps were monitored by human listeners. Out on the street, targets were shadowed by teams of watchers.

The NSA today inhabits a radically different world. In a digital universe, all the snoopers need is access to routers, satellites, and switching equipment -- and that's enough to tap into virtually all the information worth knowing. There are still some secrets that are locked inside people's heads, of course, but even they, it seems, can be increasingly be guessed at, and in some cases reconstructed, by sifting through the digital trails we leave behind. In a remarkable report last year, reporter James Bamford provided a sense of the scale of NSA's routine data collection effort by looking at the 1-million-square foot information warehouse being built by the agency in the Utah desert:

The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails -- parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital "pocket litter." It is, in some measure, the realization of the "total information awareness" program created during the first term of the Bush administration -- an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans' privacy.

This is a beast of a completely different order from the old-school police-state surveillance model embodied by the East German secret police. For all its resources, the Stasi still relied on human agents and human-scaled technologies. Nowadays, as Bamford notes, the U.S. intelligence community thinks in terms of yottabytes (1024 bytes) of data. (A yottabye, Bamford helpfully adds, is "a septillion bytes -- so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.")

In this digital universe, those who would surveil us no longer need spies to do the work. We're the spies. By going about our daily lives we generate huge cascades of data that merely need to be sorted and analyzed. As the NSA phone scandal vividly shows, those who wish to monitor us no longer even need to listen in on our conversations -- the metadata of those conversations are already enough. (If you want to know more about why metadata are so important, just take a look at Josh Keating's article on the academic paper that predicted the NSA scandal.) And need it be said that the flows of internet traffic and phone data have profoundly blurred the distinctions between domestic and foreign communications that were once so crucial to U.S. laws on intelligence?

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which serves as the basis for much of the monitoring that the U.S. intelligence agencies do, was published in 1978, at the height of the old Cold War. Its provisions now seem bizarrely outdated. James B. Rule, recently writing in The New York Times, observes that we are witnessing "a sea change in the kinds of things that the government can monitor in the lives of ordinary citizens." He's right. Can the constitutional constraints designed to protect us from government intrusion into our private lives keep up? I wonder.

So which is worse, the Stasi or the NSA? Definitely the Stasi. East German citizens had no defense whatsoever against its intrusions. American citizens can still exercise control over our own intelligence organizations, which are still bound (or so we are told) by the rule of law. But do we really have the will to restrain them? So far most of us seem eager to give the benefit of a doubt to the spies as long as it's a matter of fighting terrorism. But somehow I can't summon up the same enthusiasm for some of things that my government has been up to behind my back. It's all just a bit too reminiscent of the bad old days.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images