Thursday, May 05, 2011

Iran's Crisis of Authority

Those interested in a brief (109-page) overview of the historical and political context for Iran's June 2009 election controversy should check out Ali Ansari's most recent book, Crisis of Authority: Iran's 2009 Presidential Election. In this Chatham House publication, Ansari analyzes the competition between principlists and reformists before and after the election as the latest stage in the struggle to work out an interaction between what he calls "Islamist" and "republican" elements of the governing system, one in which the nature of the struggle has, perhaps like never before, been made obvious for all to see. Early on, he points out that, for the Ahmadinejad and his principlist supporters, elections are not about people's right to choose their own government:
"The vanity of the governing elite may require public acclamation but not legitimacy, which for the ideologues of the right comes from God rather than from the people. In their view, if the people do not have the wisdom to vote for the correct candidate, their misfortune should not obstruct the regime's consolidation of power...The further one looks from the date of the election - in either direction - the clearer this becomes"

Amidst a brief political history of Iran since the 1989 death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ansari explains the ideological underpinnings of the different political movements and their claims to embody the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution. As in his other work, the reformists come across as highly complacent about the lengths to which their opponents would go to retain power. The principlists, however, fare little better, as he says:
"Their failure to see the changes taking place beneath their own gaze has regularly been their ondoing. The eruption of popular anger that followed the stolen election of 2009 stands testament to the persistence of this extraordinary hubris among Iran's governing elite; while the failure to move swiftly to capitalize on this anger reflects the persistent romanticism of the reformist leadership."

Ansari also highlights a key point about the election's aftermath:
"The strategy of the authorities has been to raise the stakes, to turn an electoral dispute into a confrontation about the nature of the velayat-i faqih (guardianship of the jurist). This had the desired effect of clarifying the nature of the dispute and reinforcing the core of their support. But it also raised fundamental questions about the nature of governance and accountability that many Iranians preferred not to confront. It was as if the ambiguity that had been essential to the character and political sustainability of the entire edifice of the velayat-i faqih had been discarded. Iranians could no longer remain ambivalent about their position towards the system; it had to be absolute, one way or the other. Put simply, did Iranians really believe that obedience to Ahmadinejad was equivalent to obedience to God."

I read this book a couple of weeks ago, then got distracted by the last week of classes and final exams before posting about it. I remember thinking Ansari was optimistic about the hardline regime's eventual collapse, but can now no longer find an explicit section that gives that impression. As the quotes above suggest, however, he believes it has become difficult if not impossible to sustain the government ideologically, while on the level of personalities, divisions among the elite remain a critical asset for the Green Movement. Regardless of those conclusions, however, this book has a clear narrative that reviews all the major elements of the 2009 crisis and their possible implications for the future.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! Does it speak about the fissures in the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei (hardline?) faction that we are seeing now? I will definitely check this book out if it gives some good background not just to the reformists vs. hardliners, but also within each camp.

Would love to read some longer analytical stuff on those tensions developing!

3:25 AM  
Blogger Brian Ulrich said...

Yes, it does

6:50 AM  

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