When there is a general change of conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed and the whole world been altered, as if it were a new and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew. –Ibn Khaldun, The Moquaddimah
Mir-Housein Mousavi, an Islamic revolutionary with leftist political sensibilities, was the Prime Minster of Iran (1981-1989) during the Iran-Iraq war and was highly favored by Ayatollah Khomeini during that period. After two decades of remaining on the margins of national politics, he entered as a candidate in the June 2009 Presidential Elections to run against the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During these years much had changed. The post-war “era of reconstruction” under the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani had sought to normalize politics and economics after a decade of revolution and war. During this time, the country transitioned towards economic liberalization. This economic liberalization set the stage for social and political reform as expressed by the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Under Khatami the political arena was opened, and there emerged a rich public discourse on the history of the Republic, the ideals of the Revolution, and potential threats to its future success. Reformism engendered a conservative backlash and eight years of highly contentious and antagonistic politics ensued. Although the “era of reform” secured significant historical achievements that I will suggest below, the subsequent unification of conservatives and hardliners leading to Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election demonstrated the limits, if not the defeat, of reformist politics.
In 2009 Mousavi re-entered the political scene to restore aghlaniat, “the rule of reason,” to Iranian politics. He claimed that Ahmadinejad, a recent addition to the Iranian political scene, was elected on the coattails of hardliners and conservatives and stood in opposition to aghlaniat. Referring to the instrumentalization of shi’a signs and maxims by the president and those close to him, Mousavi characterized Ahmadinejad’s government as one of superstition. He mobilized the history and memory of the revolution and the war, in addition to his personal association with both events against the dominant political voice within Iran. Unlike secular-liberal critics of the Iranian government, he challenged the very ethical revolutionary and Islamic claims of the established power. Ahmadinejad’s main critique of Mousavi, on the other hand, was that he was the candidate of the Old Guard who—similar to Khatami-- was towing the line of Rafsanjani. Backed by the establishment—after the elections, the Supreme Leader announced that his views were much closer to Ahmadinejad than others—the President was able to secure a second term in the disputed elections. His deceptive populism and international posturing, which proved short-lived at best and hollow at worst, prevailed nonetheless. The state violently suppressed the ensuing protests and dismissed their demands as fitna—a theological-political formulation of secessionist politics.
Ahmadinejad’s second term, however, proved stifling domestically and internationally. Mousavi and his spouse, Zahra Rahnavard were put under house-arrest without trial, along with Mehdi Karoubi, another discontented candidate in the contested election. In the post-election turmoil, reformists and partisans of the Islamic Revolution with important government positions were systematically purged, by either imprisonment or exile. Public discourse was stifled, and public spaces militarized in an effort to stop the aftershocks of the initial protests. In this repressive political climate, however, the hardliner and conservative convergence that had secured Ahmadinejad’s presidency was undone. Ahmadinejad’s grand standings against the establishment, his pandering to Shi‘a theology, and Iranian mythology provoked strong reactions from institutionalized power and the religious ulema respectively.
Along with domestic antagonism, international politics dominated by the policies of the United States further reduced the space of politics. The “crippling sanctions” as described by State Secretary Hillary Clinton, and the threat of military intervention by the United States and Israel, created a political climate that increasingly resembled the dark years of the Iran-Iraq war. Domestic space of contention and critique was foreclosed in face of “the enemy.”
But today, we are seeing “a general change of conditions.”
On 14 June, Hasan Rouhani, a mujtahed of the Qom seminaries with a PhD from the University of Glasgow, was elected the president of the thirty-four year-old Islamic Republic. Rouhani has a notable resume of activism for the Iranian Revolution. He occupied some of the highest ranks of the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq war. After the war, for instance, he has served as the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council during the Rafsanjani and Khatami Administrations. Today, he won the Office of the President in the name of e’tedal and tadbir. E’tedal can be translated loosely as “moderation”, and in the context of Rouhani’s use, counters the extremism associated with hardliners and the conservatives. Indirectly, but very importantly, e’tedal is also a response to the political Islamism of the hardliners within the personal, social, and the international domains; a highly state-centric Islam that mobilizes the disciplinary and regulatory powers of the state in order to impose its vision. Tadbir translates to “wisdom”, “meditation”, “accounting for the consequences”, “long term evaluation” and implies, especially in the context of Rouhani’s usage, aghlaniat: “reason”. Therefore, tadbir, like e’tedal, is the formulation of a certain statecraft that aims at relaxing domestic and international antagonism and decrease exclusion and hostility for the sake of coexistence.
During his campaign, Rouhani moved significantly towards political goals largely associated with the reform movement and the discontented parties of the last presidential election. He spoke up against the security state, as well as the evacuation of political speech and action from public spaces. His foreign policy had a strong emphasis on diplomacy. He explicitly counteracted the foreign policy advanced by Ahmadinejad’s government, and articulated by the country’s chief nuclear negotiator, and presidential hopeful, Saeed Jalili. In a view that he shared with conservative candidates, such as Ali Akbar Velayati and Mohsen Rezaee, the current style of Iranian foreign policy is largely ineffective. It is suffering incessant blows from international sanctions, which trickle down to the population, while using the language of independence and anti-imperialism. His reformist policies were a refreshing break from politics as usual such that Mohamed-Reza Aref – the only reformist to avoid disqualification by the Guardian Council – pulled out of the elections in his favor. Rouhani also won the consequential endorsements of Rasfanjani and Khatami. In his nationally televised victory statement, he recounted their names, a significant political speech act in light of the hardliner derision of both figures in the media following the 2009 crisis.
Notwithstanding Rouhani’s association with the reformists, his promise to work towards releasing political prisoners, and undo the house arrests imposed on Mousavi, Rahnavard and Karoubi, I would like to suggest a different way of thinking the relationship between Rouhani’s election and the reform movement in general. Rouhani`s election is not the continuation of reform, or a retreat to a middle ground. Instead, his election transcends both the reform movement and a certain strand of hardline conservatism that has countered the reform movement since its inception in 1997. By this I mean that the elections signal a certain back-grounding of both reformism and conservatism, while it brings forward the triumph of the reformist`s socio-political discourse, and counter-intuitively, the failure of conservatives to offer a viable counter-political platform to holds together the present heterogeneous political desires and demands. Moreover, the experience of Ahmadinejad and the fragmentation of the conservatives in the elections demonstrate the conservatives’ inability to unite and have a monopoly over politics.
Rouhani, then, is not the middle ground between reformists and hardliners. He is not the focal point of polar coordinates: reformist and conservative. Such a spatial formulation ignores the historical experience of reformism and conservatism over the last two decades, their particular struggles, achievements and failures. Instead Rouhani’s election builds upon the historical experience of both reformism and conservatism for a politics of coexistence. Domestically, it addresses the limit of a form of politics that merely seizes the state and mobilizes its capacities for the exclusion of political opponents. Internationally, too, it points to an uncomfortable awareness that “the enemy” cannot be eliminated and must be engaged with differently. The election of Rouhani, then, expresses the desire to ease the present domestic and international antagonism, in favor of a more generative and less hostile politics of coexistence. For these reasons, the election is not a “moderate” choice by the electorate, but a strategic historical act.
Rouhani’s election and the public discourse surrounding it – the televised debates, the individual campaigns, and the celebrations—demonstrate the fruitful back-grounding of reformism and conservatism that I have tried to elaborate. The election discourse and Rouhani’s political platform in particular, are only conceivable between the signposts of Mousavi and the short-lived conservative-hardliner alliance. These positions became what we now understand to be reformism and conservatism in their most antagonistic form. In the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections, and in relation to each other, one came to signify revolt while the other spoke in the name of the established order. While Mousavi and some other experienced partisans of the Islamic Revolution claimed ethical positions in refraining to engage with the existing political order, conservative-hardliners pointed to the danger of civil war and the need to preserve order at all costs. Over the course of the last four years Rouhani strategically refused both positions. During his election campaign he spoke of the legitimacy of both dissent and the need to preserve the order of the Islamic Republic. In reference to these positions he articulated politics of e‘tedal and tadbir, a vision for coexistence and a statecraft that moves towards minimizing exclusion while avoiding domestic and international disorder. My point is that his politics is both enabled by and departs from reformism and conservatism of the last two decades.
These same reasons suggest the fragility of Rouhani’s politics. In light of the deep-seeded domestic exclusions and antagonisms, the pressure of international sanctions, as well as the co-optation of the desires of Iranians by an international imbalance of power that thrives on war and the threat of war against Iran, this reading of the election might strike some as naively optimistic. If it is hopeful, it reflects the hope of the Iranian voters who chose to participate in the elections, and to give the politics of coexistence a fighting chance. For Iran, this is a moment of ashtiy-e meli, “national reconciliation”. It is significant, but not surprising that this moment has comes about through the vote and within the structure of the Islamic Republic. Iran has experienced revolution and war. Iranians know all too well – and are still struggling with - the challenges of a post-revolutionary state, foreign intervention and domestic disorder that their neighbors are experiencing today.
Addressing the international community in his victory speech, President Rouhani stated:
"A new opportunity has come about in the international scene for those who speak in the name of democracy, pluralism, free speech and truth, to bear witness to this popular achievement, engage with the Islamic Republic with respect and justice, and accept the rights of the Islamic Republic in order to hear the appropriate response, and work together to expand international relations based on mutual interests, peace, security and development in the region and in the world."
It remains to be seen what comes of this opportunity. Perhaps we can hope that the excessively violent domestic antagonism of the last few decades transforms into a politics of coexistence. We can hope, too, that if this opportunity fails, it fails while securing significant achievements. We hope too, in the spirit of the hope that is expressed in the vote, that this fragile play of forces in Iran is not flattened by the international pressure on Iran.