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Reviews 13 July, 2020

Understanding Political Currents in Iran

Mehran Kamrava

Head of the Iranian Studies Unit at the Arab Center for Policy Studies and Research and is also Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar. He is the author of a number of journal articles and books, including, most recently, A Concise History of Revolution and Inside the Arab State.

Jaryan Shenasi-e Siyasi dar Iran (Understanding Political Currents in Iran).

Author: Darabi, Ali. 

Date of publication: 1397/2018. 

Publisher: Sazman-e Entesharat-e Pazhoheshgah-e Farhang va Andisheh-e Eslami  

No. of pages: 632 

Since the start of the 1990s, many books published in Iran offer thoughtful and in-depth critical analysis of on-going or recent political developments in the country. The country’s publishing industry did in fact experienced a major renaissance in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, when the popular excitement generated by the election of Muhammad Khatami to the presidency spurred much intellectual activity in the pages of newspapers, journals, and books. Most booksellers in Tehran’s iconic Enqelab Street had sections devoted to what came to be known as “reformist” books. But quite similar to the Khatami presidency, as the politics of the reform movement hit one dead-end after another, the intellectual and publishing excitement generated by it soon died down as well. Even before Khatami had left office, many newspaper outlets were shut down, their editors fined or jailed, and numerous authors and journalists were arrested or otherwise harassed. By the late 2000s, saddled by the increasing price of paper and more stringent censorship rules, Iran’s publishing industry lost some of its luster.

Iran, nevertheless, has a robust reading culture, and many activists, journalists, and academics have still managed to find their voice and readership. Though not with the same frequency and pace as before, many of the country’s publishers still publish solid, in-depth works of scholarship, many quickly selling out and going into successive reprints. Rasoul Afzali’s Modern Government in Iran (2016), Mohammad Hussein Bahrani’s The Middle Class and Political Changes in Contemporary Iran (2009), Ali Sarzaeem’s Iranian Populism (2016), and Ahmad Seyf’s Iran’s Crisis of Autocracy Promotion (2011) are just a few examples of piercing analytical works that continue to be published in Iran today.

Understanding Political Currents in Iran is one such work. Unlike most books of this genre, however, the author of this particular book, Ali Darabi, who does hold a doctorate degree in political science, happens to be a long-time member of the Iranian political establishment. Not only has Darabi held many key offices over the years, he in fact happens to belong to one of the most conservative of the country’s political factions, the Isargaran—literally those willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the system.

Darabi’s long tenure within the different state institutions and his political affiliations notwithstanding, Understanding Political Currents in Iran is one of the most valuable works detailing the appearance, rise, and frequent fall of political parties and currents in Iran beginning in the 1940s. The book is divided into five chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. The chapters start with a robust discussion of some of the broader features of currents within Iranian politics, beginning especially with politically consequential social divisions that have galvanized political groups around key issues. At the broadest level, Darabi claims, five main ideological-political currents can be identified in Iran: religious, or Islamist; leftist or Marxist; nationalist; a combined amalgam of religious and leftist; and monarchist.

Not surprisingly, each of these currents have been subject to the larger political context within which they have found themselves, as the fate of the monarchist current—going from once dominant to oppositional and practically irrelevant—starkly demonstrates. In examining the monarchist current, Darabi reminds us that the recent history of monarchical rule in Iran has not been a happy one. Since the establishment of Qajar dynasty in the 1780s, of Iran’s nine kings only three died in office of natural causes. Two were killed while still reigning, and four were either forcibly removed from office or were forced to abdicate. Recent Iranian monarchies, in fact, have been especially prone to giving rise to mass protest movements, from the Tobacco Concession protests of 1892 to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the oil nationalization of 1951, the clergy-led protests of 1963, and the revolution of 1978-79. Ideologically, the monarchist current relied on a secular nationalism that gloried Iran’s past, seeing the Pahlavi dynasty as a continuation of a long line of monarchies dating back 2500 years. Neither politically nor ideologically, Darabi claims, could the monarchist current prove itself resilient in Iran.

For its part, the Islamist current, which has dominated Iran politically since the success of the revolution, exhibits deep belief in the tenets of religion; ascribes social and political centrality to Shi'i principles; believes in the eventual return of the Mahdi; sees irrevocable bonds between Islam and politics and the clerical establishment; and, since the late 1970s, accepts the principles of Velayat (Guardianship) and Marjaiyat (Primacy) of a supreme religious authority.

While these features of the religious current have stayed relatively consistent since the success of the revolution, the left, especially the religious left, has been subject to precipitous changes since the early 1980s. In the early days of the revolution, Iran’s Islamic leftist groups tended to be highly radical and rejected the structure of the international order, espoused anti-American ideals and were suspicious of international relations, advocated the export of the revolution abroad, and favored statist economic policies. Beginning with the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 1989, however, a “new left” emerged that supported greater personal, social, and political freedoms. This group became especially ascendant with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami and collectively became known as “reformists.” Emphasizing the importance of social justice, they nevertheless called for sustained attention to economic development. Paradoxically, the very group that once called for the export of revolution now advocated a softer line in international relations, included the possibility of dialogue and negotiations with the United States.

Complementing the so-called new left was, not too far from it, what Darabi calls the “modern right”. This group was mostly made-up of technocrats, many of whom were closely allied with President Rafsanjani. In 1996, they formed the Executives of Construction Party (Hezb-e Kargozaran-e Sazandegi). In domestic politics, the party advocates rapid economic development through increased industrial production. In the social and cultural domains, the party’s position is not fully clear, a product, most likely, of deliberate opacity so as not to offend the sensibilities of high-ranking religious officials. In foreign policy, meanwhile, similar to the reformists, they call for a reduction of international tensions through dialogue. In recent years, this current has been most readily identified with the presidency of Hassan Rouhani.

Darabi also details the characteristics and fortunes of the “traditional right,” many of whom are politically and ideologically affiliated with the Qom-based, conservative clerical establishment. In addition to highly conservative cultural values and political beliefs, such as the absolute authority of the Velayat-e Faqih, members of this political current support the mercantilist capitalism of the bazaar. As such, they do not favor foreign investments but instead prefer speculative financial transactions that are supported by state entities and enterprises. In recent years, the traditional right has morphed into what in Iran is called the Principlist camp—i.e. the group that sees itself closest to the original principles of the Islamic Revolution. Perhaps the most notable representative of this group was former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Throughout the book, Darabi presents detailed analyses of right-wing Islamists, left-leaning clerics and intellectuals, secular and religious nationalists, and religious thinkers. The amount of information provided is impressive in its depth and breadth, as is the comprehensive scope of the book’s coverage. Frequent tables usefully summarize the book’s main arguments and present snapshots of ideological positions or other relevant details about the various groups being discussed. The chapters are followed by a bibliography listing more than 320 sources. More importantly, there is a highly useful appendix listing 235 political parties and groupings, as well as civil society organizations, along with the names of some of their founders or main activists.

Darabi’s book, of course, is not without limitations. Although the author does not tend to privilege the analysis of some groups over others, some of his analysis in the earlier parts of the book appear more thorough and comprehensive in comparison to what appears in later chapters. Also, parts of the books are more descriptive rather than analytical, simply outlining the positions or ideological orientations of groups or individuals instead of placing them in a broader social and political context and examining the cause and consequences of their actions.

No meaningful analysis of political currents in a country can take place outside of the institutional context of the political system. In Iran, the Islamic Republic’s highly complex—in fact, convoluted—institutional setup has been particularly determinative of the shape, orientation, and ultimately the fortunes of various political currents that have appeared from time to time. The rise and unceremonious fall of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri exemplifies this point. A devoted student and disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini in his younger days, Montazeri was one of the main proponents of codifying the notion of Velayat-e Faqih in the new republic’s constitution back in 1980. In 1985, in fact, Montazeri was officially designated as Khomeini’s deputy and successor.

But soon Montazeri began to voice repeated objections to state policies and especially to the conduct of those close to Khomeini, especially his son Ahmad. By 1989, tensions between the founder of the Islamic Republic and his former pupil had reached such a point that their relationship was becoming untenable. In March of that year, less than three months before his death, Khomeini removed Montazeri from office. Montazeri, the once archetypal conservative rightist, had moved so far to the left that the establishment could no longer tolerate what it saw as his intransigence. From the Velayat-e Faqih’s perspective, the system had to right itself, even if it meant leaving the frail and dying Khomeini without a designated successor.

Montazeri’s ill-fated tenure as the deputy to Khomeini has not yet been written out of the official history of the Islamic Republic. To his credit, Darabi is more or less faithful to the story, although his retelling of it is brief and devoid of the rich detail that marks most of the book’s other analyses. Where the author’s analysis does fall conspicuously short, however, is the transformation of the office of the Velayat-e Faqih during the tenure of its current holder, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and what that has meant for the country’s various political groupings. Khamenei was at first a highly tenuous leader, his promotion to the rank of ayatollah was a matter of political expedience in order to facilitate his ascension to the highest office in the land. His qualification to the marja'iyat was openly questioned in the Assembly of Experts that elected him to his position, and, to save further embarrassment, Khamenei volunteered that he would not be a marja' inside the country and would only serve as one to the Shi'a outside Iran.

Steadily, Khamenei grew more comfortable in the office of the Velayat-e Faqih, soon emerging out of the shadows of the powerful president Rafsanjani and, ever since, having emerged as the undisputed head of an increasingly centralized, and securitized, Islamic Republic. In the process, Khamenei has been unabashedly conservative in his theological, social, and political outlook, consistently privileging rightist positions by those in the religious establishment and by Principalists over all others. Given the duality of Iran’s executive, having both a president and a Velayat-e Faqih, Khamenei’s conduct in office has had consequences beyond policymaking. Institutions, and with them political and ideological currents, have been directly affected by how the office of the Velayat-e Faqih has changed. Khamenei, in effect, has at once become king and kingmaker.

Perhaps Darabi cannot be faulted for overlooking the consequences of the evolution and conduct of the office of the Leader for the rest of the political system. After all, even an insider has to have his manuscript approved for publication by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and even then, he cannot risk falling out of favor or worse. Nevertheless, the book’s depth and analysis would have been enriched even more had the office of the Velayat-e Faqih been also subject to rigorous analysis.

Despite these limitations, Darabi’s Understanding Political Currents in Iran is both valuable for the detailed empirical data it presents as well as for its insightful analysis. Originally published in 2012, the book’s twentieth printing was in 2018, with more than 36,000 copies sold. It would be surprising if there are no more printings of the book in the coming years.