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

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