Ramin Jahanbegloo and Mehdi Khalaji on Iran's Political Culture

Ramin Jahanbegloo and Mehdi Khalaji on Iran’s Political Culture

Ramin & Mehdi

In an exclusive and wide-ranging discussion with Reza Akhlaghi, senior writer at the Foreign Policy Association, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Mehdi Khalaji talk about the current state of Iranian affairs. The following topics were discussed:

• Shiite clergy and institutionalization of violence in Iran;
• Socio-cultural factors and civil, democratic institutions in Iran;
• Iran’s Reformists;
• Corruption; and
• Iran’s Foreign Policy

Originally published in Foreign Policy Association Blogs


Ramin Jahanbegloo is Professor of Political Science and a Research Fellow in the Centre for Ethics at University of Toronto and a board member of PEN Canada. Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East.

Akhlaghi: In Iran’s evolving post-2009 politics, how do you assess the Iranian government’s theoretical and ideological needs? I bring this up because there seems to be an uncertainty and shift in the ideological direction of the ruling class, namely characterized by the IRGC. Given the continuous internal crises in the Islamic Republic and the ensuing political tugs of war, do you think they stem from a crisis of ideology? In other words, do you think the Islamic Republic is suffering from an ideological bankruptcy?

Jahanbegloo: I think there are several levels of legitimacy crisis going on in Iran. The present crisis, which followed the presidential elections in 2009 is mainly rooted in the quest for democratization of the society and the violent reaction from the regime against it. It is a crisis deep seated in the ideological structure of the Iranian revolution. As we saw in the post-electoral movement in June 2009 in Iran, some of the architects of the Iranian revolution found themselves in the pro-democracy movement. And this caused difficult questions for the legitimacy of the Velayateh Faqih. This widened the gap between the state and the people. This ideological crisis is followed by two other crises, one is the political legitimacy, which we see in the role of presidency becoming meaningless and the other is legitimacy crisis in the economic management of the country, which can be talked about later on, but the legitimacy crisis in the economics has put Iran’s ruling class as managers of Iran’s social and political system in an embarrassing position. They’ve proved themselves unable to address the demands of the Iranian people in social and economic spheres. So it has brought a major credibility crisis for those in charge of the economic management of the country, leading to greater crisis of legitimacy for the entire political system.

Khalaji: I think the ideological crisis in the Islamic Republic started after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini when his successor [Khamenei] lacked the necessary religious and political credentials. Additionally, there were irregularities in the transitional period. Khamenei came to power based on the criteria outlined in the revised constitution, though at the time the revised constitution was not yet ratified. These problems during the transitional period caused a crisis in the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. But we must bear in mind that the Islamic ideology of the Islamic Republic, based on the notion of Velayateh Faqih (rule of jurist), is inherently contradictory and paradoxical because it gives authority to a single jurist who can overrule both Islamic law and constitution any time he wishes. In other words, the notion of Velayateh Faqih is self-destructive and leads to a new form of autocratic rule. So it is my view that the ideological crisis in the Islamic Republic is not new; what is new is the popularity crisis, which largely took shape in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections. The government, which formerly claimed popularity and demonstrated this through elections and public demonstrations, was suddenly confronted with problems using both of these indicators. If you look closely, it’s more a crisis of popularity than legitimacy. People are no longer interested in the debate of intellectuals and religious thinkers about Velayateh Faqih and legitimacy because it is viewed as indefensible.

Akhlaghi: You mentioned the “self-destructive nature of the Velayateh Faqih”. What do you mean by that?

Khalaji: Ayatollah Khomeini argued that in order to implement Islam, a jurist, or expert in Islamic jurisprudence, should act as the head of the state. However, when he came to power, he realized that Islamic laws are not compatible with the requirements of modern times and Iranian society. So he introduced a new notion of Maslehateh Nezam, or raison d’état, which allows the ruling jurist to overrule Islamic law whenever he deems a law contradictory to the interests of the regime. In other words, the Islamic Republic exists under a lawless situation or an exceptional state. Therefore, all laws can potentially be suspended due to the interests of the regime, making Islamic laws meaningless.

Akhlaghi: I’d like to move to the topic of civil institutions in Iran and their viability for contribution to social change. Almost invariably, the overarching themes in civil society discourse in Iran have revolved around the notions of competing foreign interests, threat from outside powers, and concentration of executive power in the hands of a few powerful individuals. But I’d like to bring up the issue of culture. What role, do you think, Iran’s social and political culture has played in impeding the formation of civil institutions?

Jahanbegloo: I think it is very much related to your first question. The institutionalization of Islamic bureaucracy and what we have seen as the concentration of power in the hands of very few people after the revolution actually created a new political culture. I think after the first period of the revolution we saw the boundaries of the Iranian society somehow occupied and political citizenship defined in terms of political loyalty to the regime or even religiosity or non-religiosity of individuals. Therefore, when we talk about the political culture in today’s Iran we have to remember that we talk about a public sphere that has been colonized by the political ruling elite and at the same time coercively Islamicized, rigidly dominated and oppressed. So the result has been a new political culture which has been dominated by the state and you see these mechanisms of domination not just in the social sphere but also in the economic and cultural spheres. These coercive practices have demoralized the Iranian society and led to social and political violence. Nevertheless, I think we can say that over the past 33 years the Iranian society, the Iranian civil society and its institutions in particular, have been trying to shape their own strategies and political culture against the concentration of power. So, I think there are two levels of culture in the Iranian society today, one which has been pushed by the Iranian state and the other shaped by Iranian civil actors that we have seen actively in women’s rights movement, at the intellectual level with their reformist and critical views seen in the Iranian student movement.  Yet, we need to bear in mind that the political culture in Iran has been fragile by the limits of its civic actors who have tried to empower themselves by creating a competing and parallel political culture of their own.

Khalaji: I have little to add to Ramin’s statements, but if I may, I’d like to emphasize the fact that there are both internal and external problems in the formation of civil society in Iran. In addition to the various kinds of pressure coming from the state over civil society, I believe that there is a crisis of education in Iran, which goes back before the Islamic revolution. In Iran’s educational system, children are taught to compete with each other instead of learning how to cooperate with each other. Such patterns of social behaviour are taught in schools from elementary to high school and are unhelpful to the formation of civil society and civil institutions in Iran. I believe that this behavior and despotic way of thinking is seen in the education system, in the family, and almost everywhere. The government is part of the society not just a result of the society. We see this even when Iranians leave Iran, where there is no pressure from the Iranian government to suppress them and prevent them from forming institutions. They are not very successful. Iranians have failed to create their own independent institutions outside Iran over the past 30 years; and it has nothing to do with the Islamic Republic, it has to do with the Iranian political culture.

Akhlaghi: In a political culture where executions have become public spectacles and sexual violation of political prisoners has become an institutionalized form of punishment, and women have been subject to various forms of institutionalized marginalization, where do you think the Shiite clergy stand and what role they have played in the institutionalization of this culture of violence in Iran?

Khalaji: I think that we must first define clergy. Clergy is associated with jurisprudence. As you know, during the classic era of Islamic civilization, many sciences such as philosophy, mysticism, mathematics, physics, and so on, thrived in Muslim societies, as did jurisprudence. What we see now in the traditional schools of Shiism and Islam in general is mostly jurisprudence. Because a cleric is one who studied jurisprudence and teaches jurisprudence, his mindset is purely juridical. The problem with the clergy in Iran is a problem of traditional jurisprudence or traditional legal interpretation of Islam, as Islamic jurisprudence is based on various sorts of discrimination against women, children, animals, nonbelievers and homosexuality. This systemic discrimination is therefore embodied in the juridical system of Islam. The clergy have studied, institutionalized, and fought to implement this jurisprudence in society, and pressured the government to implement it more and more. In last hundred years we have rarely seen clergy in Iran pressuring the government to be more tolerant and accepting of modern democratic norms and other beliefs. Instead, we have always seen the clergy wanting the state to be more Islamic.

I think that in this regard, we are very lucky to have someone like Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei as a leader, because by applying the theory of “the expediency of the regime”, they have enabled ruling jurists to ignore Islamic laws. Islamic law in the current regime is, in fact, ignored. We even have institutions that are in charge of overruling the implementation of Islamic law. If we had traditional clergy in power that wanted to implement all Islamic laws, Iran would have a situation like Afghanistan under the Taliban. In sum, the clergy is the main supporter of legal institutionalization of discrimination in Iran, and without a paradigm revolution in Islamic jurisprudence, this reality will not change.

Jahanbegloo: I totally agree with Mehdi and think we need to define here the concept of violence, as we previously defined the clergy. I think there are two levels of violence that we have seen in Iran over the past 33 years. One is actually what Mehdi talked about, which is closely related to the role of Islamic law and the Islamization of the Iranian society and I would add to that the role of the hard-line clergy and those who control all means of violence in the Iranian society. This monopoly of violence by the clerical class has been practiced against different social classes in the Iranian society, but it has also been activated against different ethnic and linguistic minorities. The clerical class has been very sensitive towards issues such as homosexuality and certain forms of intellectualism, which they see as dissident ways of thinking and subversive in nature. Hence the regime’s containment of democratic spirit and pluralistic values in the society. Here I’d add the role of the military arm of the regime. I believe that the clerical classes, including the current ruling class, need the military and paramilitary institutions to monopolize the violence to protect their interests.

To be frank, I also think that the regime has injected its own social culture and political psychology in the veins of all Iranians. People are not aware of this, but they continue using the same form of violence among themselves and that’s the hidden violence, which you can see in Iran, manifested in people’s body language and in the way they behave. This violence has, in a sense, trickled down to the masses and their social behaviour. Look at the domestic violence and the surge in killings and murders. Iran has had a history of tribalism in the past, which suggests a certain level of violence has existed before. But any acute observer of Iranian affairs can see that we have not only political violence, but also sexual, social, and domestic violence. So if we don’t create a counter-culture against this culture of violence, the current situation ends up being taken for granted. This cycle can cause the society to become even more violent like in Libya.

Akhlaghi: Iranian thinkers and intellectuals have had a rocky relationship with the clergy. What have been the key aspects and characteristics of this relationship in the post-revolutionary era?

Jahanbegloo: We can talk about those intellectuals who participated in the Iranian revolution and considered themselves to be revolutionary intellectuals, but they failed to present an alternative narrative and perspective to the dominant discourse of the 1978-79 era. They were somehow hand-in-hand with the clergy with the exception of those who went into exile. So Iranians ended up waiting until the 1990s when two diverse groups of intellectuals emerged in terms of their relationship with the Islamic regime. One group was what came to be known as religious intellectuals and the other group known as secular intellectuals. Between the two you had what I would call neo-conservative intellectuals who somehow collaborated with the regime.

The interesting thing about reformist or religious intellectuals is the widening of a rift between them and the clergy. These intellectuals went so far as to reconcile with the secular intellectuals. In this group I’m talking about Mohsen Kadivar, Mojtahed Shabestari, Abdollah Nouri, and Yousefi Eshkevari, all of whom had either a clerical background or a clerical education in Iran’s seminaries. You see in their efforts a rethinking of what constitutes as democratic Islam or, in the case of Shabestari, the idea of bringing hermeneutics in the study of the Qur’an. These efforts have led to what we can call de-theologization of the Shiite thought.

I also think the work of secular intellectuals have been very important in the way they became more conscious of their actions before the revolution. For example, in 1978-1979 Marxist intellectuals had no understanding of the clergy and their influence over the Iranian society, or of the way the Iranian society operated in the 1960s and ‘70s. These intellectuals moved away from fundamentalist politics and utopian rationalities and embraced value pluralism, dialogue with the West and understanding of modern culture and traditional Iran. And because of this exit from their ideological views there has been a dialogue between the religious and the secular intellectuals.

So with the end of the Al’e-Ahmad syndrome, Iranian intellectuals are now moving toward a more cross- cultural dialogue, which is a new phenomenon.

Khalaji: I agree with Ramin’s description of the Iranian intellectuals above, but I would briefly add that the Islamic Republic, from its early days, has been very consistent in its hatred of intellectuals. Ayatollah Khomeini made it clear that, under his rule, there would be no room for secular intellectuals to write and publish. After more than 30 years, we now see a total war being waged against humanities and social sciences in Iranian universities, the commander in chief of which is Ayatollah Khamenei. This hatred towards intellectuals has significantly altered the clergy and the clerical establishment over the last 20 years. Hatred impacts the person who hates, and this has created a very ambivalent relationship between the clergy and intellectuals. On one hand, they hate the intellectuals, but on the other, they seek to imitate them.
If you look at Iran’s educational system and seminaries today, they mimic the university system and its bureaucratic administration.

If you go to Qom and visit different book shops, you’ll see that young clerics are more eager to read intellectual books than they are to read their own religious books. It’s very complex. The clergy know that there are many things that they don’t know, but they won’t admit it. This is actually characteristic of much of Islamic history. When the clergy oppose a foreign intellectual power, they fight furiously against it and accuse it of heresy, but over time, that same foreign intellectual power gradually influences them. It’s fascinating to see how in Qom, clerics read works by western thinkers on ethics and the history of religion. One of the most radical clerics in Qom, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, heads a research institute at the Imam Khomeini institute in Qom, where he has created a library with the best collection of books on ethics and philosophy of religion in all of Iran. The collection includes books in English, German, French and other western languages. This tells you a lot about the clergy’s ambivalence toward intellectuals and western culture and their lack of confidence in the comprehensiveness of their own work.

Akhlaghi: The Arab Spring continues to make its impact felt throughout the region in the form of new geopolitical calculations, recognition of newly formed interim governments, and secret and sometimes not-so-secret negotiations and meetings in the annals of power in Middle Eastern and Western capitals. Based on your observation, what are Iran’s chief strategic objectives as well as chief strategic concerns in formulating its foreign policy as events continue to unfold in a region that Iran considers its sphere of influence?

Jahanbegloo: First of all, I think the chances of witnessing the kind of uprising that swept Tunisia, Egypt, and brought down their rulers seem very remote in Iran in the near term. In Iran the opposition and its leadership are not as coherent as they were in the countries affected by the Arab Spring. Another point is that unlike many young Arabs, many young Iranians are leaving the country instead of confronting the establishment and believe resistance is too costly. Young Iranians don’t romanticize the idea of revolution after 33 years of revolutionary politics.

As to the strategic objectives of the regime, the first and foremost is its survival as we can see in the Iranian politics. The Iranian foreign policy is based on regime’s survival. At the same time, the regime also has the goal of making Iran a permanently dominant regional power with a leading role in the Islamic world.

We see these in the regime’s official discourse as well as its deterrence and retaliation policies. The fact that Iran has maintained and fed its proxies in the region with weaponry and financial support indicates that its strategic objective is about regional supremacy. The latter happens to be closely related to the goal of survival. Whereas in the early days of the revolution the export of revolution was a key foreign policy component, today regime survival is key to regime’s policy with military strategy part of this policy. One can see a shroud of ambiguity with regard to the Iranian government’s strategic objectives with its military presence in places where non-aligned countries are based such as South America.

The Arab Spring, which initially started as the Iranian Spring in 2009, is a concern for the Iranian government because it wanted to endear itself to the Arab street and dominate the Middle East. In this context, the Iranian authorities have tried to tie the events in the region to the 1979 revolution and frame them as inspired by the Iranian revolution. And by not talking about the uprising in Syria and instead focusing on Egypt, Tunisia, they have clearly demonstrated a sense of double standard.

Khalaji: Iran’s attitude toward Arab revolutions has been different from one country to the next. Of course, Iran is very concerned about its survival due to events in Syria. If Iran loses Syria as its main and only Arab ally, it will be very hard for it to implement its regional policies. Assad’s removal would break Iran’s bridge to Hezbollah, Hamas and other radical groups, and it could have a fatal impact on the Iranian regime.

In Bahrain, Iran feels very frustrated. Iran has tried to project itself as a Shiite government protecting the interests of the Shiite community around the world, especially in its own region. But in Bahrain, Iran proved completely unable to do anything to protect Bahrain’s Shia against their Sunni rulers. 80% of Bahrain’s annual budget comes from Saudi Arabia, essentially in the form of a donation. In a way, Saudi Arabia owns Bahrain. For the Saudis, it was important to save the al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain to preserve Saudi influence in the country against Iran’s similar desire for regional supremacy. Yet during the suppression of the Shiites in Bahrain, the Shiite community learned that when it comes to physical need at a crucial time, Iran might consider its own interests instead of coming to the aid of Shiite community.

We saw this in the 1990s when Iran took the side of Christian Armenia against Shiite Azerbaijan in the conflict between the two former Soviet states. History shows that Iran’s claim to be a Shiite state protecting Shiites is meaningless, and the Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have learned this lesson. However, in Egypt, Iran would like to see a fundamentalist group or Islamist group like the Muslim Brotherhood take a greater share of power, which would impact Egypt’s relations with Israel and ultimately with the U.S. In Tunisia, Iran has very little interest, so it looks at events there from an ideological perspective.

Akhlaghi: From an economic perspective, over the past three decades Iran has lagged significantly from many developing countries. It has also experienced drastic decrease in the living standards of its citizens with a bureaucracy considered fraught with corruption. What role the ideological nature of power structure in Iran has played in the above socio-economic picture?

Khalaji: It’s very hard for me to understand the concept of ideology in the context of Iran because for me it’s more of an autocratic regime than an ideological one. There are no ideological constraints on Ayatollah Khamenei when he makes a decision. His decisions are based on his own interests and on the interests of the inner circle of power upon which he relies. So in this dictatorship, it’s not surprising to see contradictory economic policies. Sometimes the Iranians advocate a socialist economic policy and sometimes they implement subsidiary reforms, which is a policy favored by the World Bank.

What we are seeing is ideological chaos. I cannot say on which ideological basis the Iranian economy is currently functioning. It is working to protect the interests of the Revolutionary Guards and a very small political elite, with Ayatollah Khamenei above them. To protect them, Ayatollah Khamenei needed somehow to expand the circle of beneficiaries of the Islamic Republic. So the number of people who benefit from this current system is in the millions, and the economy does not follow any recognized western pattern. That is why you see a lot of corruption, and it is not limited to a select few near the locus of power. Millions of people in Iran are corrupt; their economic life is corrupt. A great portion of Iranian citizens do not respect the law, do not pay their taxes, and try to bypass most of the regulations when they deem it necessary. So Ayatollah Khamenei, or any dictator, needs to make a great portion of the society corrupt in order to stay in power. This is more than ideology. It’s more dangerous than ideology in that it makes the government less predictable.

Jahanbegloo: Usually autocracy and corruption go hand-in-hand. In the case of Iran, we can talk about autocracy as the rule of a jurist who has unlimited legislative and executive powers, but the Iranian regime also has semi- totalitarian symptoms, which go beyond the rule of a single ruler and extends to the realm of militarization of violence. I think corruption in Iran takes many forms and we need to distinguish between them. We have incidental corruption, which is about bribing the officials, which impacts governmental institutions. So we have a corruption that exists at the level of government and another at the social level.

It’s part of this autocratic psychology in Iranian society that legitimizes corruption and makes people, even those who are against the government, to bribe government officials in order to get their daily work done. With respect to root causes of corrupt practices in the government, one needs to understand two important aspects of the regime: one is the existence of an unlimited authority at upper levels of management; the other is the absence of an independent supervision (as evidenced in the case of recent banking embezzlement) on the economic and political management. We need to understand that corruption in Iran has deteriorated the public confidence in the state and the legitimacy of those in charge of the country’s political and economic management. I think it’s fair to say that the Iranian society is a sick society: part of it is political and part of it, as Mehdi said, related to Iran’s mass psychology.

Akhlaghi: What is your assessment of reformism movement in Iran since the presidency of former president Mohammad Khatami and of the movement’s contribution to the development of civil institutions in Iran and move toward a culture of non-violent change? What are the chances of Iran’s reformists in bringing about change?

Jahanbegloo: When we talk about non-violence and the potential for non-violent resistance in Iran, it goes beyond the reform movement. There are elements of reform movement that can be violent, but non-violence is a new political culture in a society like Iran. I believe in Iran we have somehow two political struggles going on; one is the struggle for democracy and the other is a struggle for a non-violent negotiation. We need to integrate the two concepts in one strategy. It’s a big challenge for most of us. From my point of view, non-violence is the best means to achieve social change and political transformation in the Iranian society, but it’s not a short-term solution; it is a moral high ground that we need and of course it’s going to be a difficult choice; nevertheless this is one of the ways to change the Iranian society.

And on the chances of reformists in Iran achieving their goals, I don’t think reformists have any chances of continuing their agenda, if they don’t have a critical view of their past and don’t take into consideration their weaknesses. If reformism situates itself in the judicial structure as Mehdi was referring to, that means they are close to the clerical culture. I don’t think reformists have much of a chance in Iran’s future. I think reformists have to switch to a new political culture that would involve being more critical of their own political attitudes. They need to think of a new political culture for the Iranian society in the future.

Khalaji: The will to reform must come from the government, not the people. When a government is divided into different factions, reformist policies can succeed if even one faction takes a reformist stance. In Iran’s case, however, the government is divided into two radical factions and reformists have little power and are so politically marginalized that they have little chance of success. Moreover, under the current regime even small political changes will be costly for the public, who typically seek reform at the lowest possible price. If the regime is unwilling to accept even small changes, let alone reform the system, any external reformist effort is bound to fail.

In Iran the term ‘revolution’ is typically associated with violence, while reformism is associated with non-violence. Unfortunately, these associations are not necessarily true. Both a violent reform movement and a non-violent revolution are distinct possibilities. A non-violent revolution, however, could potentially lead to regime change, constitutional reform, transformation of the political elite, and the eventual establishment of a new political system.

Iranians have become wary of the word ‘revolution’, as they equate the term with violence. I think, however, that one can exist without the other.

Akhlaghi: What mechanisms, in your opinion, exist in de-ideologizing the country’s political and economic management system? Does de-ideologization necessarily need to involve a wholesale transformation of the political system?

Khalaji: Let’s look at it this way; the Islamic Republic labels its dissidents counter-revolutionary. The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, however, might also be considered a counter-revolutionary par excellence. He plays a large role in delegitimizing both the Islamic ideology and the republic because he systematically tries to weaken institutions established by the Islamic Republic. Look at what he has done to the Majlis, the Iranian parliament; or the presidency, for example.

Khamenei has tried to undermine the achievements of the revolution and the Islamic ideology of Iran. He is attempting to reduce the power of elected institutions and transform a very sophisticated revolutionary government to a conventional dictatorship. The actions and policies I have mentioned that were put in place by Ayatollah Khamenei serve to delegitimize the Islamic Republic more than any other internal or external force.

Jahanbegloo: What I would like to add to Mehdi’s remarks is when we talk about de-ideologization of a religious regime we tend to think not only of bringing more pragmatism and rationality to the Iranian politics, but also working more closely with other cultures and nations, which I think is very important. So the process of rationalizing the public space is very important, which can actually show itself in different levels of the Iranian society. A simple example would be privatization of the Iranian economy with meaningful economic reforms, which we know is practically impossible since we are operating in the arena of criminal capitalism in Iran rather than liberal capitalism.

So the de-ideologization that you’re referring to should take place at the state level as well as at the level of the citizens, which means public participation in the affairs of the state. This is actually a demand for transparency and accountability that the Iranian people have been seeking in their struggle for democratization.

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