“Search for practical and realistic solutions to the problems of the economy and standards of living,” Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei advised candidates in the forthcoming Iranian presidential elections recently.
The candidates – the handful who have been accepted by the Guardianship Council which is responsible for vetting those who register to run for the second most-important executive post in the country – have had little choice but to do so, given the state of the economy and the general public mood in Iran.
The Iranian people’s enthusiasm for this year’s presidential elections, scheduled to take place on 18 June, has sagged dramatically to somewhere between an apathetic shrug and cold indifference since the council disqualified the key reformist candidates. Of the seven remaining, Ebrahim Raisi, a staunch conservative, appears poised to succeed incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Despite the general lack of interest in the Iranian presidential polls both at home and abroad, it is noteworthy how they bear witness to the general decline in the discourse of religion and revolution in Iranian politics.
The concept of Vilayat-e Faqih, or the “guardianship of the Islamic jurist,” has been the cornerstone of the Iranian system of government since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The concept, developed by Ayatollah Khomeini, takes the notion of the custodianship of the jurist to an extreme and holds that jurists must serve as the ultimate authority in government in order to keep state and society from straying from Islamic Sharia Law.
But the precise nature of the relationship between the Iranian religious establishment and the country’s government has been a subject of debate for more than three decades. After the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s and the death of Khomeini in 1989, the discourse of protecting the revolution and the guardianship of the jurist began to recede in favour of the need to address economic and social issues.
Even so, Iran’s ruling elite continued to try to keep the regime’s ideology alive by advancing the national nuclear programme, sustaining the polemic against the “Great Satan” (the US), and increasing engagement in regional conflicts through proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Over the past decade, the sway of the Vilayat-e Faqih discourse has been doubly hit by the deaths of the last remaining main actors in the 1979 Revolution and the rise of a new political generation and the emergence of new affluent and influential families, such as those of former speaker of parliament Ali Larijani and former president, the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. These families, with their wide-reaching political, economic and media networks, have little need for the state’s Islamist revolutionary rhetoric.
As the Iranian republic’s founding generation died off, they have been replaced by a class of technocrats organically linked with such powerful establishments as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This, too, contributed to the declining hold of ideology in the political sphere in Iran, as thinking turned more towards the definition and shaping of the future of the country in the context of new challenges both at home and in the regional environment.
Another crucial factor has been demographic: the majority of Iranians alive today were born after 1979. They were not exposed to the revolutionary ideology at its most strident and dogmatic. Nor did they witness firsthand the conflict over the imposition of the veil for women and Sharia Law in Iran. The younger the age group, the more one finds mounting disillusionment and disgruntlement at the ruling order, the restrictions on their personal liberties, and the actions of Iran’s Basij force that polices morals and suppresses demonstrations.
Indeed, among the 18 to 25 age bracket in Iran, women’s acts of protest against the veil have spread like wildfire in Tehran and other major urban centres. Increasingly, young people are openly voicing their rejection of religious interventions in their lives. The relatively freer spaces of the Internet and social-networking sites have assisted the trend.
The role and prestige of the hawza (Shia religious seminaries) have also declined in tandem with the decline in the discourse of the Iranian Revolution and the state’s theocratic ideology. These religious institutions still control enormous economic resources, but their popular influence has shrunk, especially among urban youth. Senior clerical officials complain that young people are losing their religious ardour and bemoan the shrinking queues of volunteers to work for their organisations.
As the Iranian-American writer and scholar Mehdi Khalaji has pointed out, “with Islamic ideology losing its seductive influence in Iran, the only way to prolong the regime’s life is to reform the economy.” Otherwise put, the maxim of the Egyptian scholar Mustafa Al-Labbad that understanding “the political reality of Iran will remain elusive without a grasp of aspects of Vilayat-e Faqih” has lost its force under the strains that Iranian households are facing.
The growing prevalence of economic and social concerns over ideology in Iran was evidenced in the protests of 2009, 2017 and 2019. These helped to define the dominant contours of the new Iranian political scene, namely the economy and youth. Bread-and-butter issues now control the agenda of public and private debate, from the less-advantaged quarters in the country’s urban centres to the marginalised rural areas.
Young people are increasingly described as being “angry.” To the elites’ discomfort, this anger is directed against the elites who monopolise their country’s economic resources and revenues. The old revolutionary slogans of equality and fairness have been tossed into the dustbin of harsh realities. More than 30 per cent of the Iranian people live below the poverty line, and over 25 per cent of young people are unemployed, are unable to afford to get married, and are looking for alternatives to the extended family.
The regime has thus far managed to survive the waves of grassroots anger, but increasingly it has taken violence rather than persuasion to quell the discontent. An emergent movement that some believe is led by the IRGC or the Guardianship Council represents one hardline attempt to counter the mounting discontent ideologically. Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the country’s founder, has openly spoken of an attempt to found an “Islamic caliphate” on the ruins of the Iranian Islamic Republic.
In the meantime, Raisi, who has been tipped to win the presidential elections, has vowed to improve living standards, reduce unemployment and fight corruption. Remarkably, though some believe he will eventually succeed Khamenei as the country’s supreme leader, Raisi has spoken little of Islam, the veil and the role of women in the country or of social mores and the principles of the Khomeini Revolution.
In a broadside against Rouhani, a centrist, he said that inflation had risen by 320 per cent during the incumbent’s term. But he did not criticise the increasingly vocal opposition to the enforcement of Sharia Law in the streets of Iran, showing a pragmatic sense of the public mood. He knows that with inflation and other economic issues dominating many people’s thoughts, pietistic discourse on his part would fall on deaf ears. The trend has many among the clerical establishment worried, and they fear that the nation’s Shia identity could be in jeopardy.
Another conservative candidate in the elections, Mohsen Rezaee, a senior officer in the IRGC and long-serving secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, claims he will turn Iran into a “breadbasket” for Southwest Asia. Abdelnaser Hemmati, former governor of the Central Bank of Iran, has pledged to prioritise improving the circumstances of the poor and strengthening the role of women in society and government. Hemmati, considered a political moderate, is seen as an outsider in the polls.
The hardliners are determined to win back the presidency from the reformist camp, and in order to do so they have placed the economy front and centre in the campaign. Were they to lose, they would feel the consequences not only in their own personal political prospects, but also in terms of their ability to influence opinion and shape Iran’s future in the absence of the moral clout of the founding fathers.
Meanwhile, the declining prestige of the religious establishment in Iran may ultimately loosen the grip of the religious authorities and give way to a more liberal discourse, creating new possibilities for the regime’s survival.
The writer is senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly