Baffled by the Iranian political system?
Looking for clues to the message of the latest “general election” in the Islamic Republic?
Here are two clues: Mexico and kangaroo.
Mexico provides the key to understanding the political system that has taken shape in Iran over the past three decades.
Mexico, as it was until its full conversion to the pluralist democratic system just two decades ago, is the model that the Khomeinist ruling elite seems to have adopted, perhaps unconsciously.
The model has several key features.
First, it promotes a myth of revolutionary legitimacy. It claims to be heir to a popular movement against foreign, especially American, domination and a domestic despotic regime.
Next, it insists that only those with a revolutionary pedigree have the right to claim a share of political power.
Thirdly, it sees itself as a coalition of the poor and lower middle classes, backed by the military and blessed by the church.
The Mexican model created the famous Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled the country for decades.
The PRI created its own opposition party.
And it is here that the word “kangaroo” is useful. The official opposition party resembled the baby kangaroo, secure in its place on the belly of PRI, the mother-kangaroo.
The Leninists had invented the concept of a one-party state. The Mexican PRI came up with the concept of a one-and-a-half party state, a system in which one party always governs while the other, much smaller one, always acts as loyal opposition.
With the final shape of the next Islamic Consultative Majlis (parliament) now clear, the resemblance between the Iranian and the old Mexican systems is striking.
Like in Mexico under PRI, the Islamic Republic divides society between revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries, and denies the latter the right to govern even if they have the support of a majority of the people.
The new Majlis will consist exclusively of those who have a dose of revolution in their CVS. As Khomeini once said, it is not enough to be a Muslim, even a good Muslim, and a servant of society to seek a role in the government of the nation. Anyone seeking a seat in the Majlis must also be “absolutely loyal to our system.
This time, however, almost all those with older revolutionary credentials have been kept out.
The leadership has decided to promote a younger generation of revolutionaries, mostly in their 40s, and thus unable to outshine the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, now virtually alone as one of the “fathers of the revolution” still at the apex of power.
The second message of the recent election is that the ruling elite has resisted temptations to move towards a Leninist-style one-party system.
The one-and-a-half party system copied from old Mexico has been retained, albeit with a reduction in the number of seats allocated to the so-called independents and loyal opposition groups. These groups will end up with around 60 seats, at most, out of 290, too small to have a real impact on legislation but large enough to back the claim that the Islamic Republic tolerates some opposition within its parliament.
The Khomeinist system has yet another feature in common with the old Mexican set-up.
The majority party in parliament is itself divided into several factions.
In the case of the Islamic Majlis, the new majority reflects the balance of power within the ruling elite, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claiming the biggest share of the cake. Four factions are likely to emerge within the majority.
One faction, close to former IRGC Commander Mohen Rezai may play the centre while another, led by Ali Larijani, also a former IRGC figure and presidential candidate, offers a more radical discourse. A third faction will form around General Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, also of the IRGC, and now Mayor of Tehran. The fourth faction, possibly the largest, will see President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, currently the most radical figure within the leadership, as its standard-bearer.
The factional divisions attenuate the possible effects of the IRGC’s domination of the Majlis. Each faction will have its direct line to the “Supreme Guide” who will continue to wield immense power as the final arbiter of decisions at the highest level. The fact that the mullahs no longer represent the single largest bloc in the Majlis does not mean any real loss of power for the “Supreme Guide”, at least in the short-term.
The different factions could serve as different pawns in the hands of the “Supreme Guide”; he could move one or the other as the need arises. If he deems it necessary to play pragmatic, he could advance Qalibaf. If he sees that he can get away with radicalism at little cost, he could stick with Ahmadinejad.
The IRGC’s ascendancy reflects the regime’s increasing fears for its security as it faces some domestic armed revolts while the threat of war with the United States remains, at least for as long as President George W Bush is in the White House.
With the new arrangement, the so-called “reformists”, on whom both the State Department in Washington and several European countries had pinned their hopes for peaceful change in Iran, face a dilemma.
Should they accept their truncated position and continue playing second fiddle in a score composed by their rivals? Or should they break with a system that, regardless of its origins, appears to have led Iran into a dangerous historic impasse?
The choice is not easy for the “reformists” to make, especially because there is no guarantee that if they break with the system, of which they have been part for decades, there is no guarantee that hey would get a place in whatever future system might emerge in Tehran.
The temptation to grin and bear it is great. After all, the Mexican example showed that the one-and-a-half party system could not last longer than the one-party models. The baby kangaroo did not jump off its mother’s belly but remained until it got big enough to assert its independence. Under PRI, Mexico achieved the degree of maturity needed to get rid of PRI, and develop a genuine democratic system. The opposition within the system suffered but did not withdraw its consent until its day in the sun dawned.
That reasoning, however, suffers from one fundamental flaw: Iran today is not what Mexico was in the 1950s while the world has also changed beyond recognition. And that is always the problem with historic analogies.