Sunday, July 5, 2009

Can Iran's New Regime Hold On?

As promised, I propose to start evaluating Iran’s new regime according to a theoretical framework composed of about a dozen generic criteria for evaluating the performance of any political system. The goal, needless to say, is to escape from the suffocating biases that poison any discussion of Iran today and gain some insights into how well the Iranian system of governance actually functions.Since the cohesiveness of Iran’s leadership is one of the most prominent issues now being debated, I will start with that criterion.

Leadership cohesiveness

Evidently perceiving itself as under severe attack, the Iranian regime should, to maximize survivability, have moved to strengthen unity by maximizing inclusiveness. Instead, it did the opposite – slamming the doors on system supporters who disagreed over tactics and highly negotiable details.

Explanation A. Panic. One explanation is that the regime panicked in the face of a stunning popular slap in the face.

Explanation B. The Coup. Another explanation is that the Ahmadinejad faction in fact did not truly perceive itself to be under severe attack; instead, the shrill denunciations of within-system factional opposition as traitors may have been nothing more than propaganda by a faction that saw an opportunity to cement its control.

If Explanation A. (“Panic”) is correct, then the Ahmadinejad faction’s reaction represents a mistake that is likely to leave the elite dangerously fractured, even though it may still give the Ahmadinejad faction temporary control. By rejecting compromise, it has needlessly weakened the Islamic Republic.

If Explanation B. (“The Coup”) is correct, then a skillful maneuver by the Ahmadinejad faction has just frozen out much of the broader elite, including both Rafsanjani and many Qom clerics who favor a system resting more on popular support than the supposed divine selection of a leader (veliyat e faqih) and enabled the anti-Saddam war generation to take control.

Whatever the perceptions of the Ahmadinejad faction, continuing dissent by elite figures suggests that legitimacy of the system has been undermined. In the event, an emerging military dictatorship may substitute force as the glue holding things together.

At this point, Leadership Cohesiveness appears severely impaired. However, that conclusion rests on the assumption that the operative definition of “leadership” is the whole revolutionary elite. It could be argued that such a definition, while perhaps accurate a generation ago, is now outdated. Given the discord within the clerical camp, the age of the revolutionary generation of leaders, and the rapidly growing control by the military over the economy, it could be argued that the operative definition of “leadership” today in Iran should be exactly Ahmadinejad’s apparent definition: namely, the coterie of national security officials and conservative clerics surrounding him. This group now appears confident that it totally controls political power in Iran and can afford to freeze out not only the masses but also Rafsanjani and all the clerics who support free elections.

Even if the importance of Leadership Cohesiveness is accepted, this still does not allow one to conclude anything about the likely course of Iranian politics; it only raises the question of how Leadership Cohesiveness should be defined for Iran at this moment. Theoretical analysis underscores the need to evaluate leadership cohesiveness, but the only clear conclusion it allows one to make is that more data are needed to determine whether or not Iran’s system of governance has been fundamentally destabilized by the regime’s response to the electoral dispute.

A More Detailed Look.

One way to deal with the apparent absence of data is to refine the analytical lens. “Leadership cohesiveness” as an analytical concept can be refined into a set of scales for measuring its impact on system health. The set of scales that is applied here consists of individual scales, each set up to go from positive impact on system health on the left to negative impact on the right. They do not measure the degree of cohesiveness, since under certain circumstances either high or low cohesiveness could be damaging. High cohesiveness might, for example, lead to groupthink. Instead, each scale is designed to measure rising damage.

The six proposed scales:

  1. Attitude toward Skeptics. The attitude of the Ahmadinejad faction since the election toward skeptics not only has been harsh but appears to be getting harsher even as the streets quiet down. Foreigners, voters in their millions, and committed elite system supporters are all being lumped together and threatened with the charge of treachery until one almost wonders who, in the end, will remain to be invited to join the in-group. It is difficult to defend this behavior as rational.
  2. Attitude toward New Information. As more and more members of the elite voice warnings about the need for inclusivity, the attitude of the Ahmadinejad faction appears increasingly dogmatic, with in-group members appearing significantly harsher and more unforgiving even than Khamenei. Evidence is thin, but the trend is ominous.
  3. Policies. Insufficient evidence.
  4. Lessons Learned. The only lesson that appears to have been learned so far by the Ahmadinejad faction is that their victory is total and that no constraints need any longer be given heed. This is a dangerous lesson to learn.
  5. Attitude toward Colleagues. The attitude toward colleagues at the top of the elite structure is arrogant and dismissive.
  6. Attitude toward Traditional Rules, Values, and Institutions. Vicious infighting within the elite is nothing new in the Islamic Republic, but the sense is growing that the Ahmadinejad faction is pushing for a fundamental restructuring of the state away from a republic based to a significant extent on popular support voiced through elections toward a military dictatorship supported only by extreme proponents of clerical oversight. This approach challenges much of the Islamic Republic’s tradition and seems likely to narrow both the regime’s elite support and its popular support.
The highly preliminary bottom line at this early point is that the new Iranian administration is doing itself no favors as far as the development of leadership cohesiveness is concerned. Although only one part of overall regime functionality, it does not suggest smooth sailing.

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