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The Shifting Terrain of Power and Politics in Iran

Session XIII-05, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • This paper suggests that the long-running urban-rural divide in the political behavior of Iranian voters is on its way out, whilst that divide gets more and more pronounced in most Western and some Middle Eastern countries. This is achieved through a quantitative study of Iran’s census socioeconomic data and the votes cast in presidential elections from 2005 to 2021. Accompanying it will also be the specific case of Iran’s 2016 parliamentary elections compared with the two presidential elections before and after, which together formed a rare case of three competitive elections in a row in the country. It has long been suggested that in Iran, as in many other places, the rural voters tend to vote for conservative candidates and the urban voters flock to the more liberal reformist faction. Moreover, there’s a common notion of voters acting in a “tribal” way in parliamentary elections in the more rural counties away from the metropolitan areas. This paper would argue that these mainstream readings of Iranian politics do not apply anymore, going hand in hand with emerging research questioning other long-held beliefs on the political behavior of the people of Iran. The paper suggests that the main reasons for this change have been first, internet penetration, especially access to social media and messaging services, and second, the evolution of both of Iran’s political factions into the vehicles of Iran’s two (or more) urban middle classes, foregoing the rural areas. Keywords: Iran elections, urban-rural divide, internet, quantitative
  • With the radical political change in 1979, Iran’s revolutionary state assumed the responsibility of re-rewriting the past history to forge a new sense of belonging, a particularly collective religious (Shia) identity. It launched a complex process of forgetting and remembering to first eliminate the ethnic (Persian), non-religious memories and heritage, associated and celebrated by the previous regime, and then establish a sense of continuity with the country’s Shia past; a feeling markedly engendered with a distinguishing symbolic reservoir of Shia traditions and memories, presented in history books, literature, the media, and everyday culture. In this paper, I seek to analyze the political use of commemorative street names, reflecting on the ideological redefinition of modern Iranian identity. I compare changes in Tehran’s street names and analyze the widespread renaming of streets and public spaces in the city as one means of both ‘de-commemorating’ the pre-revolutionary regime and marking the Shia legacy and memories, as the signifiers of a widespread political maneuver to articulate a new version of the past and narrative of identity since the 1979 revolution. The new names commemorating a) revolutionary personalities and religious heroes, b) religiously significant events and ‘turning points’, c) sanctified sites, and d) religious ideals and principles and are assigned to forge a religious meaning for Iranian identity. Though seemingly mundane and ostensibly present, symbolic and commemorative street names, I argue, are politically charged and constitute an integral part of the ongoing state-sponsored construction of national identity. Street names marking significant turning points in the history of a nation, its political leaders, historical heroes, and mythical legends, as well as the admired ancestral lands, represent the preferred narratives of collective past and identity symbolically. As a case study, in this paper, I give particular attention to the renaming of Shayad Square and Tower, constructed in the previous regime to mark the 2,500th year of the foundation of the Imperial State in Iran, as the manifestation of the revolutionary regime’s effort to construct a new collective identity. In short, I argue that Tehran’s street names can be ‘read’ as a mirror of the state project seeking to ‘correct’ the long-lasting conflict over the meaning of Iranian identity and its ‘remembered’ collective memory.
  • In today’s Iran, it is difficult to pinpoint a sphere in which Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) does not have direct or indirect role and influence. IRGC has become an indispensable power broker despite having one of the most marginal roles in the constitutional structure of the Islamic Republic. This paper examines IRGC’s trajectory of expansion from an agile task force of young revolutionaries to a multidivisional cluster of military and civilian units. The common trend in scholarship offers a deterministic explanation for this rapid expansion. However, we argue that the institutional and functional advancement of IRGC has been historically contingent upon a series of political conflicts that–through a dialectic of (perceived) internal and external threats and opportunities–demanded ad-hoc and improvised responses, and generated spontaneous spaces for the Corps to step in. Applying a tailored Outcomes Harvesting methodology, we look at the organization’s growth in size and in the scope of its activities, and demonstrate that these developments go beyond any deliberate state agenda. In fact, on several occasions, Iran’s civil administration attempts to normalize and regulate the machinery of the state, and to tranquilize the revolutionary energy, paradoxically led to further concentration of power into IRGC’s hands. Iran’s major political camps have tried at different times to tame, confine, discipline and even dissolve it. At the same time, other state institutions have fiercely competed with IRGC over scope of responsibilities and extent of authority. Furthermore, there have been several rounds of infightings and shakeups within IRGC, and the internal dynamism of this entity has proven ripe for generating new political cleavages. Nonetheless, IRGC not only has persevered but also has grown bigger and stronger. This has not always been the case for other experiments of institution-building in post-revolutionary Iran, as those entities either did not last long or their powers and authorities shrank over time. The existing literature often attributes IRGC’s hegemony to its coercive power. But we argue that hegemony also entails gaining and securing the acquiescence to IRGC’s presence, by which the business, cultural and political elite signal consent to be co-opted.
  • This paper will show how the history of the Mashrooteh (Constitutional) Revolution continues to shape - and be shaped by - Iranian politics by looking at why and how the memory of that defining moment in Iranian history has been invoked in public discourse since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It will provide an analysis of the politics of re-reading and re-constructing the historical past by contextualizing the various interpretations of Mashrooteh history and their chief proponents. To do so, newspapers, magazines, speeches, events, and political campaigns from three different periods will be consulted: the period of revolutionary crisis from 1979 to 1983; the Reform Movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s; and the post-Reform era. Ending with the 2009 Green Movement, this paper will tell a thirty-year political history of Iran by recounting the battles over the history of the Mashrooteh period fought by various political actors during the same period. Beginning in 1979, I will show how Mashrooteh history became one of the main battlefields of the post-revolutionary power struggle. Consequently, I will argue, the new sovereign in the emerging political system was entangled in a particular (Islamist) reading of that history which, in turn, left it vulnerable to future historical revisions. I will then discuss the two most politically consequential revisionist accounts of Mashrooteh history which sought to displace the historical foundations upon which the bifurcated sovereign of the Islamic Republic was erected in 1979. By contextualizing the Reformists’ discourses of (neo)constitutionalism and what I call “Islamic republicanism,” as well as the “secular” interpretation of Mashrooteh history which became popular in the post-Reform era, I aim to shed light on the intricate ways in which history and politics are entangled in contemporary Iran. I will, therefore, argue that disputing the past in post-1979 Iran functions as a means of contesting the present. In this context, therefore, revolution becomes not only the ultimate political act, but also the ultimate act of historical revision through which the monopoly over the legitimizing fountain of history is transferred from one political group in society to another.