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The State and its Crises in Iran: The Politics of Managing Change

Session IX-04, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
The current form of state in the Islamic Republic of Iran was gradually forged in the 1979 revolution and the war of 1980-88 and has been developing in response to various social, economic and political crises. Some of these are rooted in domestic changes in economy, demography, social structures, culture, and ideology, while others result from international developments such as globalization, migration, economic sanctions, and armed conflicts. This roundtable examines a selection of significant challenges that Iran’s post-revolutionary state has faced and the politics that has emerged in the process of managing the critical change, and the institutional meaning of such politics for the state’s current status. The panel contributes to unpacking the state in Iran, which often remains an opaque and abstract entity, by analyzing the concrete responses to a variety of social, cultural, political, legal, technological, and urban crises. The different crises under examination have their own dynamics and characteristics, but they all created both sudden and incremental changes to which the state had to respond through various mechanisms such as incorporation, appropriation, adaptation, imitation, reforms, exclusion, incarceration, and repression. Rather than having a predictable outcome, many of these mechanisms were contingent on the interactions among and between state and civil actors and the domestic and international conditions. In addition to offering novel empirical perspectives on the transformation of political institutions and electoral politics, housing regimes, the healthcare system, gender policies, incarceration and surveillance regimes, labour relations, and migration policies in Iran, this interdisciplinary panel deploys theoretical and comparative perspectives to conceptualize the state and its crises, and to place them in a historical and global context. The presenters not only demonstrate how 'crisis' is produced and perceived by the state, but also adress the question of whether these crises and the state's responses to them indicate gradual adaptations, structural re-configuration, or breakdown of the state.
Architecture & Urban Planning
Political Science
  • Aging Revolutionaries, Elections, and the ‘legitimacy crisis’ More than four decades after the Islamic Revolution, the main figures of the revolution have either passed away or are at the end of their career. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, 83, is one of the last survivors of the Revolutionary Council. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, 95, holds key government positions, including secretary of the Guardian Council and chair of the Assembly of Experts, and has become the symbol of the “old politicians” and target of ageist jokes. In recent years, Iranian leaders have expressed the need to take “the second step of the revolution” and bring fresh faces to the government. Iran’s political system has faced a legitimacy crisis, especially with the emergence of a generation of political activists who did not gain legitimacy from the revolution and the war. In Iran’s political structure, the Islamic Revolution and “the Sacred Defense” (1980–1988 Iran–Iraq War) have been the important sources of political legitimacy, which the new generation lacks. In the absence of such legitimacy, these “children of the revolution,” mostly 1980s baby boomers, armed with communication technologies, tried to take their share of power through electoral activism. As an authoritarian electoral system, elections have been a way to resolve the conflict between political elites and have allowed for a degree of pluralism to decrease the crisis of legitimacy. However, the past two decades have proved that elections could not solve the country’s main problems. Voter turnout in the recent elections has reached its lowest level in the post-revolutionary period, and some officials talk about the need to change the system from presidential to parliamentary. This presentation addresses the crisis of legitimacy Iran has been undergoing over the past two decades in its transition from the revolutionary generation to the post-revolutionary generation. It focuses on the government’s strategies, particularly elections, to deal with this crisis.
  • Ashes and Granite in Tehran: The Speculative City At the turn of the 21st century, Tehran was a reconstructed city, with over eighty percent of its housing units built in the last three decades. Such extensive urban reconstruction resonates with the post-war urban renewal in cities like Berlin and Beirut, targets of massive aerial bombing and military destruction in the 1940s and 1990s. Like war-torn cities, Tehran has "risen from the ashes," but unlike them, there is no nostalgia, genuine or fake, for saving the old in the reconstruction. In different parts of the city, residential buildings of different heights with natural stone facades reaching up to the sky, have replaced the old single-family houses. On a clear day at the Tochal Telecabin station, the city’s highest point to the north, you can see the city like a porous granite giant sitting on the foothills of the Alborz Mountains, sloping south, with skyscrapers to the affluent north, mid-rise buildings lining narrow streets and alleys in all parts of the city in the east, center, and south, and a high ridge to the west, a wave of 40-story verticals that wall the city on its western edge. My paper examines the transformation of Tehran's physical and social landscape over the past three decades through its housing market. It is part of my broader project on the political economy of Tehran urban governance and its ongoing physical renewal provoked by the converging interests of the municipality and real estate actors. The municipal policy of offsetting state cuts with high-density sales levies has increased the hold of the real estate capital on the city and paved the way for capital accumulation through densification and land-use change. This has transformed the city’s housing regime, based on individual and cooperative production for use into a hyper commodified system governed by monopolized real estate actors, in which all material and legal structures of housing—buildings, land, labor, and property rights have been commodified.
  • Health crises are moments for 'the reconfiguration of the role of the liberal state'. Similarly, they have represented a watershed for rethinking and transforming the idea of the 'state' beyond the liberal model. The transformative power of 'health' in the making of contemporary politics is an aspect that is hinted at in, but often not scrupulously investigated. My presentation reflects upon how health crises destabilise the framework of interaction between power and people, and how this can be remodelled through the technologies of trust (such as vaccines, medical practice, welfare health provision) that become essential to the continuation of political and social life. Within this frame, I would like to show how the question of health produced and continues to shape forms of social organisation and cultural praxis, which originate from the mobilisation of solidarity and mutual help networks. These include an array of categories that have the potential to set the ground for a new sense of community, counterpoising the high tech authoritarian vision of grand solutions to the contemporary crises, with a low tech mobilisation and human-centred vision.
  • Only Paradoxes to Offer: The Shifting Terrain of the Iranian State’s Gender Policies. While in the “eyes” of the Iranian state women are supposed to have a specific place in a system of gender difference and to be kept within its confines, in the past four decades, the exigencies of domestic and international political, economic, and bureaucratic circumstances have required the state to constantly reorient itself to the different interests that it claims to represent and the different needs that it purports to satisfy. In this talk, focusing on specific policy areas, I provide an outline of the key aspects of the shifting character of the Iranian state as it gradually evolved from a revolutionary ideological construct to a post-revolutionary, problem-solving machine. To this end, I focus on the major factors that have contributed to the reconfiguration of the state policy context, namely the post-revolutionary fatigue and the end of the 8-year war with Iraq, the deepening of internal rifts within the state, the demographic shifts and the feminization of public spaces, and the global and international influences and entanglements. These developments have created what I call ‘gender policy crisis’ and have prompted the state to adopt accommodative strategies that include externalizing crises, through privatization, localizing crises, through municipalization, and securitizing the crises, and thereby making them non-negotiable. Ultimately, as I argue, the Iranian state’s gender policies are not a coherent and are informed by what I refer to as ‘flexible sexism,’ which points to the ways in which the state that has managed to respond and adapt to internal and external pressures, by constantly putting women in and out of place, continually opening and closing doors to women’s aspirations, needs, and demands. It is this coexistence of elements of flexibility and rigidity at the core of the Islamic Republic that shapes a terrain marked by paradoxes lived day in and day out by Iranian women.
  • Crisis as structural impasse: state-labor relations in Iran Growing labor protests in Iran have put a spotlight on the country’s economic crisis and changing labor relations. These growing protests by workers and employees in the formal and informal sectors are rooted on the one hand in grievances caused by rising inflation, unemployment, and precarization, and on the other hand reflect the unravelling of the postrevolutionary corporatist and populist arrangements that provided some a voice in the corridors of power. Moreover, the radicalization of the demands and action repertoires of the protests are shaped by the state’s dual crises of legitimacy and capacity. In this presentation, I argue that the state is neither passive nor monolithic in responding to this crisis in labor relations. It has responded with a variety of strategies, including repression, incorporation, concession and delegitimization. Its inability to resolve the crisis, however, has led to the reemergence of labor protests, which have not yet been able to coalesce around common demands and to create a national movement. I argue that this crisis, therefore, is best defined as one of structural impasse and explore possible scenarios for its development.
  • Since 2009, the Iranian government’s carceral approach — that is, its approach to surveillance, policing, and incarceration — has moved forward on two seemingly incongruous yet, as I argue in this roundtable, ultimately linked tracks. On the first track, the Islamic Republic has further carceralized its responses to the crisis of dissent in the wake of the 2009 green movement, arresting, incarcerating, and/or executing innumerable activists, journalists, and dissidents. Yet on another track, high-ranking members of the judiciary, with the direct approval of Supreme Leader Khamenei, have routinely claimed that a goal of the judiciary is to significantly reduce the number of detainees in Iran’s prisons, in response to linked crises of ballooning prisoner totals, the high cost of prison upkeep, the spread of contagious diseases, and rampant recidivism. Indeed, in 2014, then-head of Iran’s Prisons Organization Gholamhosseim Esmaili avowed, “As custodian of the prisoners in this country’s prisons…I will work to decrease the numbers” of those incarcerated in Iran. This would not be the only effort towards reforming the country's carceral approach. In 2016, conservative Chief Justice Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani issued a 33-point directive on sentencing, bail, prosecutorial norms, and more, many of which were ostensibly aimed at reducing Iran’s prisoner population. Despite their seeming contradictions, this shift towards more lenient sentencing and reduced prisoner totals on the one hand and the expanded carceralization of dissent on the other are in fact linked by carceral logics. Official efforts to reduce prisoner totals have not ushered in an end to or even a shrinking of the carceral state in Iran so much as a modification and diffusion of its preferred methods of social control. Indeed, these divergent approaches both represent a significant expansion of Iran’s carceral state. Since 2009, Iran has increasingly incorporated new surveillance technologies such as ankle monitors, facial recognition software, and various forms of biotechnology — what scholars have elsewhere critiqued as “prison by any other name” — in its ever-transforming (and ever-ballooning) carceral toolkit, and in response to an array of social, political, and economic, crises (including COVID-19). It is in part through these technologies that the Islamic Republic has hinted at an approach in which fewer people are held in traditional jails and prisons, but even more people are surveilled, monitored, and tracked.
  • Managing migrations and mobilities in Post-Revolutionary Iran: the emergence of a migration state? Drawing on the literature emphasising the role of human mobilities in the shaping of the state, this presentation looks at the evolution of migration management approaches in Iran (institutions, regulatory mechanisms and used terminology) and forms of ad hoc accommodation as well as at the politicisation of migration both in domestic politics and foreign diplomacy. By putting into perspective interdependent processes of emigration and immigration, this presentation looks at one hand, the discretionary control over the modalities of circulations and residencies of Afghans in Iran and, on the other hand, it will asses the societal debate, for instance, over access to citizenship for the second or third generation of migrants or children of mixed marriages which Iranian citizenship has to deal with within a context of a diasporic nation. The latter processes should also be understood in relation to the social autonomy that migration has acquired in the Iranian society, weighing hereafter on the societal and political debates. Assessing the inconsistencies of migration politics of IRI, this presentation examines the emergence of a migration state in the context of an ongoing state formation characterized by political and economic instabilities.