Mehrzad Boroujerdi and Kourosh Rahimkhani, Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you decide to write this book?
Mehrzad Boroujerdi (MB): In 1979, the world’s first theocratic state, born through a popular revolution, came to power in Iran. An entirely brand-new generation of elite, led by a charismatic cleric, held the reins of power and mystified their own citizens and the world by creating a Byzantine political structure with multiple nodes of power, concentric circles of influence, informal networks of patronage, and an opaque system of checks and balances. Four decades later, there was still little known about the class origin, ethnic background, age composition, education, and patterns of social-political mobility of these elites who built a muscular state. This is why my co-author and I decided to write this book. We wanted to accomplish two goals at the same time: (1) preserve, for the sake of posterity, an account of actors and events that emerged in the first four tumultuous decades after the revolution, and (2) provide the insight of big data and a longitudinal study. This task took us fourteen years as we assembled the largest database on political elites anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MB: The Islamic Republic of Iran supplements nominally democratic institutions, such as local councils, the Office of the President, the Assembly of Experts, and the parliament with a plethora of unique “narrow institutions” that include the Office of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and the Expediency Discernment Assembly. The book is really made up of two parts. In the first part (350 pages), after providing a comprehensive chronology and a bird’s eye view of the overall structure of power in Iran, we present over 150 charts, graphs, tables, and data points about each of these key institutions of power. This is supplemented with data on thirty-six national elections held so far, 166 outlawed political organizations, 248 legal political parties (with lists of their original founders), various ministerial impeachments, and women’s political participation.
The next 460 pages provide biographical sketches of 2,333 political figures from the very first day of the revolution to January 1, 2018. This includes ministers in fifteen different cabinets, members of ten parliaments, members of the Assembly for the Final Examination of the Constitution, members of seven Guardian Councils, members of eight Expediency Discernment Assemblies, and members of five Assemblies of Experts. Also included are supreme leaders, presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers, leading commanders of the military and Revolutionary Guards Corps, high-level judiciary officials, and other assorted prominent personalities. The book ends with a comprehensive list of family ties (revolutionary nepotism?) among the ruling elite.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MB: My previous works, Iranian Intellectuals and the West (1996) and Mirror for the Muslim Prince (2013), were pieces of intellectual history where I wrestled with such themes as nativism and theories of statecraft. This latest book is a radical departure in the sense that it is an empirical study. I like to experiment with different epistemological and methodological approaches, and Postrevolutionary Iran allowed me to abandon grandiose theorizing in favor of laborious data collection and fact-based biographical sketches. I now have more appreciation for those who do empirical research and the challenges they face.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MB: Our fundamental purpose in compiling this compendium was to address what we perceived to be an enormous gap in the otherwise large corpus of scholarship on contemporary Iranian politics. We decided to share our empirical “sandbox” to provide the scholarly community with the kind of raw data that can enrich numerous books, student research projects, dissertations, policy papers, editorials, and social media posts about Iranian politics. We consider our venture a success if the data presented here will swing the pendulum of research on Iranian politics a bit more toward fact-based, empirical analysis, and thereby open up new vistas of understanding. More broadly, I hope that scholars of elite studies, electoral behavior, gender and politics, and party politics will read this book, as they will find a lot of food for thought.
As far as impact, I recall that Francis Bacon once said: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” I hope this book will be chewed and digested by all those interested in studying revolutions and elites, and those with an intense interest in Middle Eastern/Islamic politics and Iranian history. Hopefully, the 853 pages will not cause heartburn for the valiant reader.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MB: True to my penchant for experimentation, I have decided to abandon monomania for hard-nosed empirical research in favor of embracing authorial subjectivity in my next work. It will be an account of how the 1979 Iranian revolution tragically altered the course of life for me and my family. I hope to tell a wrenching story that has been fermenting in my head for exactly forty years. So, stayed tuned.
J: What were some of the challenges you faced in terms of data gathering?
MB: Any researcher who has ever tried to gather accurate empirical data on politics and politicians in an authoritarian state knows that it is a vexing exercise. The state often regards information through a security lens, and the lack of transparency brings many frustrations and difficulties. In the case of postrevolutionary Iran, we faced a multitude of additional problems. Poor recordkeeping in non-digital formats and partial or contradictory information and statistics from official sources were the first hurdles we faced. For example, it has become commonplace for the Ministry of Interior and the Statistical Center of Iran to offer different statistics on the number of eligible voters in any given election. The researcher has to decide which source to use. In addition, the Iranian government agencies often put information about current legislation or election results on official websites for a short period of time, and later make it unavailable to the general public. This phenomenon required us to monitor official websites vigilantly to save needed information before it disappeared. When it comes to election data, the government may discontinue providing an indicator that they had provided in previous elections, thereby making comparisons difficult. For example, while the Islamic Parliament Research Center (the research arm of the Majlis) provided data on the father’s occupation of MPs elected to the First Majlis in 1980, they refused to provide the same information for any other round. Furthermore, ascertaining the religious rank of individuals also proved to be a challenge. While an individual may be referred to as a hojjat al-Islam (a clerical rank immediately below ayatollah) in some government or media pronouncements, others may use the inflated title of ayatollah for that same individual. The data surrounding the contested 2009 presidential election is riddled with inaccuracies and dubious claims. The statistics put out by the government regarding the number of actual voters, votes received by President Ahmadinejad, and his margin of victory in that election should be taken with a great degree of skepticism.
Excerpt from the Book:
In early 2000, a reformist member of the Iranian parliament, Akbar Alami, claimed that a cabal-like group of 200 individuals had controlled Iranian politics since the revolution. Some years later, John Limbert (2008), a former American hostage in Iran who became a deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran, opined: “Controlling this system is a group of about twenty-five individuals, members of an elite inner circle who, with varying titles, have held the reins of power in the Islamic Republic since its beginning in 1979.” As political scientists and as political observers of Iran from abroad, we realized that there was no empirical evidence to either confirm or reject Alami’s and Limbert’s propositions. Meanwhile, we appreciated the fact that Iranians, like political subjects everywhere, were curious to know the identities of the heavyweights that pull the strings of power and oversee the grave matters of the state. We recalled that before the 1979 revolution, a widely used expression referred to the “thousand families” who ruled Iran. After the revolution, the effort to identify the elites who were “truly in charge” did not lose any appeal. We recognized that not only the “size” but also the “accent” of the “heavenly chorus” in theocratic Iran, this novel form of political regime, remained unknown. This desire to understand the practical functioning of Iranian politics is what inspired the book before you.
The 1979 revolution fundamentally altered Iran’s political landscape as a generation of inexperienced new men, who did not hail from the ranks of the upper class and were not tainted by association with the old regime, came to power. The political inclinations of the new truculent clerics and their lay allies fundamentally altered the nature of state–clergy relations in Iran and caused major international concern about their actions and intentions. Imposition of theocratic rule and religious ethos on the disconcerted modern landscape of Iran with its inorganic body politic has been an uphill battle. The author of a major work on the Iranian constitution concludes his book by maintaining that within the confines of Iran’s authoritarian theocracy, “the state has conquered the clergy and along with them religion” (Schirazi 1997, 303). Roy (1999) refers to the politicization, “Iranization,” and secularization of Shiite clergy. Finally, Alamdari (2005, 408) notes, “political rivals now use the religious umbrella to justify their economic and political interests.”
For much of the last two decades, Iran’s domestic and foreign policy and its nuclear program have loomed large in daily news coverage. Yet, despite all the consternation over their rule, the knowledge about Iran’s political elite remains skeletal. Elite theorists maintain that elites have agency and can act to maximize their interests, profits, and power. Following Best and Higley (2010, 6), we defined “political elites” as those “persons who are able, by virtue of their strategic positions in powerful organizations and movements, to affect political outcomes and the workings of political institutions regularly and seriously.” To be more precise, we wanted to study those whom Perthes (2004, 5) defines as the “politically relevant elite” meaning those “who wield political influence and power in that they make strategic decisions or participate in decision-making on a national level, contribute to defining political norms and values, and directly influence political discourse on strategic issues.” However, it should be noted that we did not aim to study the social impact of elites or present a discursive analyzes of them. Furthermore, we excluded the economic, literary or intellectual elite from this study.
Beyond the attention paid to a few leading political figures (e.g., the supreme leader, the president, or the chief nuclear negotiator), scholars and policy analysts know very little about the characteristics of other high-ranking individuals and almost nothing about the middle and lower echelons of government. We know embarrassingly little about the class origin, ethnic background, age composition, educational pedigree, prerevolutionary prison experience, familial ties, party affiliations, or patterns of political mobility of the revolutionaries who came to power in 1979.
Once we consider that postrevolutionary politics in Iran are defined by an opaque structure, a top-heavy state, contentious politics, parallel institutions, an ideologically divided elite, weak political parties, and lack of transparency (see Boroujerdi 2004), the deficiency of our prima facie knowledge becomes more glaring. The problem is further compounded by the observation that Iranian politics do not run along strict party lines and are rather influenced by filial dependence, paternal authority, and local connections. Graham Fuller (1991, 26) writes: “Because the Iranian political and social systems decree that one deal with personalities and not with institutions, the personal relationship to this day transcends any formal or institutionalized relationship.” Hence, a shortage of biographical information can seriously handicap all analytical work of political analysis. Scholars and analysts implicitly acknowledge their lack of understanding. It is not surprising that the adjectives commonly used to describe postrevolutionary Iranian politics include “arcane,” “anachronistic,” “bewildering,” “enigmatic,” “incongruent,” “intricate,” “ironic,” “multi-dimensional,” “paradoxical,” “permutable,” “recondite,” and “unpredictable.”
Nearly four decades after the clergy became the state elite par excellence, there has not been a large-scale empirical study that could shed light on the recruitment, composition, and circulation of the Iranian ruling political elite after 1979. Consequently, we are left with two competing theoretical approaches, with accompanying narratives of Iranian politics. In the first approach and narrative, commentators employ an agent-focused conceptual framework and analyze the complexity of the polity and politics in the postrevolutionary state through the prism of clashes of personalities and factions (e.g., Akhavi 1987, Baktiari 1996, and Moslem 2002). Alternatively, the competing narrative emphasizes the role of institutions and collective action at the expense of everything else (Parsa 1989, Buchta 2001, and Hen-Tov and Gonzalez 2011). A focus on factions requires the creation of more and more labels and typologies to cover ever-narrower shades on the political spectrum. At the same time, interpretations that stress institutions fail to explain the crucial and inevitable evolution of key individuals and groups over time. Nor are they able to explain why despite their extensive socioeconomic web and evident resourcefulness, the bazaaris have so far failed to produce leadership cadres on par with those of the clergy or the secularly minded middle class. One scholar laments this epistemological deficit when he writes that Iran is generally analyzed “in a framework of a revolution that occurred more than a generation ago, as if all that has transpired [in and outside of Iran] since is inconsequential” (Ansari 2006, 239).
Our dissatisfaction with the quality of analysis on a theocracy born through popular revolution was the impetus for undertaking the current work. We were convinced that the generally available sources—dramatized journalistic accounts, government propaganda, partisan policy briefs by Western think tanks, and slanted commentary by exiled activists—all fell short in capturing the nuances and vicissitudes of Iranian politics. Conventional analysis suffers from the dearth of in-depth knowledge of political players and the almost total lack of quantitative analysis, not to speak of the ubiquitous subjective bias.
The gestation for this book began in earnest in 2004. Convinced that gathering empirical data about political elites and institutions might allow us to move beyond the two frail narratives described, we decided to assemble a mountain of hard empirical data that might eventually facilitate new insights based in evidence. We started methodically to collect large amounts of data regarding political elites, elections, demographic indicators, women, and political parties. This data-gathering was accomplished through doggedly scouring archives, books, yearbooks, obituary notices, newspapers, and online sources, as well as correspondence and interviews with former politicians, opposition activists, political analysts, scholars, and journalists. We also drew upon a rich array of English and original Persian-language sources, including the proceedings of institutions such as the Iranian Parliament (Majlis), the Assembly of Experts, and the Guardian Council, memoirs written by numerous postrevolutionary clerics and political figures, and websites of various political personalities, government organs, and political parties. We think it is fair to say that the present book contains the most comprehensive collection of data on political life in postrevolutionary Iran. Hitherto, there has simply been no work in any Western language that covers Iranian politics as empirically and comprehensively. Indeed, we can even safely say that there is no empirical study of political elites in any Middle Eastern country that can match the depth, range, volume, and originality of information assembled here. Free from the limitations of strict censorship and the restraints of state-imposed “historiography,” we were able to provide more detailed, objective information about Iranian political institutions and elites in this volume than one might find in a Persian-language book on elites published in Iran. For example, the biographies contained in the Who is Who section of this book provide accounts of political defeats, fraudulent university degrees, corruption charges, and other unflattering details about individuals that are often whitewashed in official biographies.
In summary, this book provides a cartography of the complex structure of power in Iran through a longitudinal study of political elites. It provides a window into the immediate years before and after the Iranian revolution.