When Iranians went to the polls on May 23, 1997, they were voting for change. The result, a landslide of 69 percent for the relatively moderate cleric Muhammad Khatame, took most observers by surprise. The key question about Iran today is how this result will affect the country’s political system and foreign policy.
“The mood in Iran is very positive. It is similar to the calm that existed after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. The people feel that a new era is starting,” said Bijan KhajehpourKhoei,
Tehran based editor of Menas Associates’ Iran Focus.
So is this the beginning of a quiet ideological revolution or is the system simply making a mostly cosmetic change in order to guarantee its survival? The fact that Khatame is president–in theory the chief executive–does not mean he has complete power in practice.
Analysts have noted that as the Islamic Republic evolved, most state organs have developed a parallel power structure. The revolutionary regime has always suffered from internal contradictions stemming from the fact that the revolution was never completed. Because of the IranIraq war and the very factional nature of the clerical revolutionary coalition, the thorough reworking of the institutions of state implied by the Islamic revolution were never carried out. Parallel institutions were created instead.
“Almost every organization has a shadow, and the shadow is often the weightier of the two,” The Economist noted earlier this year.
Iran is an Islamic state ruled according to a constitution approved by referendum following the 1979 revolution and amended in 1989. It provides for executive, legislative and judicial branches. But the reality is more complex. Iran’s President is directly elected every four years. He is the head of the executive branch and appoint ministers subject to parliamentary approval. Although powerful, he is subject to numerous constraints, making radical policy shifts unlikely.
There is a set of other institutions–in essence, a parallel government–designed as checks and balances in an attempt to protect the state’s Islamic character. The Spiritual Leader is the Islamic political hierarchy’s president; the Assembly of Experts its parliament; the Council of Guardians, its supreme court; and the increasingly influential Expediency Council its cabinet.
Supreme authority, for example, is given to the Spiritual Leader (VilyateFaqih). This position was initially held by Ayatollah Khomeini until his death in 1989. Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s present Spiritual Leader, was then elected to succeed him.
In 1982, an 83-member body called the Assembly of Experts was established and is charged with interpreting the constitution and selecting the Spiritual Leader.
Candidates for election to both the Assembly of Experts and the 270-member parliament (Majlis)–also elected on a four-year cycle–are subject to approval by the 12-man Council of Guardians. This body–half of whom are clerics–vet the potential candidates’ Islamic credentials. Likewise, all legislation passed in the Majlis must be approved by the Council of Guardians before it becomes law. In the mid1980s so many of the Majlis’s laws were being rejected by the Council of Guardians that Ayatollah Khomeini established yet another body, the Expediency Council, to arbitrate. The Expediency Council has since become a lawmaker in its own right, charged with making political decisions that cannot be solved through regular channels. Some observers believe that its power is increasing and may supersede the authority of the presidency itself. But the Expediency Council is also a tool of the VilyateFaqih, who convenes and appoints its members.
“When Khomeini died in 1989 they changed the constitution and made the Expediency Council as a sort of constitutional organ, an advisory council to the leadership,” said one analyst.
“There was a recent decree from Khamenei; he referred to the constitution and said that the Expediency Council was going to be the main policymaking body in Iran. He said it will be the high council advising the leadership. In my eyes that will be a higher position than the presidency in the power structure.”
The Expediency Council has 26 members appointed by Khamenei along with the heads of the Majlis, judiciary and the president, as well as the six clerical members of the Council of Guardians and also “occasional members”; ministers related to issues that are being discussed at any one time.
Some analysts argue that the Expediency Council’s empowerment was an establishment ploy to buy off Iran’s commercial sector, the Bazaar. This largely conservative capitalist group has taken a more and more active role in the country’s politics. They and their allies dominate the Majlis and favored Khatame’s conservative rival, Majlis speaker Nateq Nouri.
Despite the Bazaaris strong backing for Nouri’s campaign, some in the establishment rightly feared Nouri would be unable to appeal to Iran’s young people and that this would endanger the regime’s long-term survival. Khatame’s overwhelming election victory has been attributed to his capturing the disparate votes of the disaffected areas of Iranian society; the young. women, intellectuals, technocrats, the left, and so on.
Thus, prior to the election the Bazaaris were offered places on the Expediency Council in the hope that they would reduce their backing of the Nouri campaign, allowing Khatame to triumph. “The strong representation of the Bazaar faction in the Expediency Council has satisfied them to some extent, hence it was not a question of making Nateq Nouri president at any cost,” said KhajepourKhoei.
Besides, Khatame is unlikely to implement a radical shake-up of economic policy in the near future. Analysts agree that a short sighted crisismanagement policy is likely to continue, although Khatame might be more willing to listen to the advice of different experts.
“Khatame will try to increase investment in local domestic manufacturing capacities over and above imports. Then of course, yes, the bazaar will be hurt,” said Vahe Petrossian of Middle East Economic Digest.
“But I don’t think there will be any dramatic shifts and whatever he does will take time anyway. No one, including Khatame, likes to take risks. They will be very cautious.”
Perhaps the most important figure behind Khatame^Òs victory was outgoing president Rafsanjani himself. “Khatame’s win is Rafsanjani’s win. Khatame had no electoral machine of his own. It was the Rafsanjani machine that produced the victory,” said one Tehran-based source.
“Rafsanjani is the most pragmatic figure in this regime and his main objective is to make sure the Islamic Republic survives as a system, and that meant appealing to the young above all else.”
The voting age in Iran is 15 and the outgoing president acknowledged their importance. “This is a new movement which cannot be ignored,” Rafsanjani said. “But any changes should be within the boundaries of the constitution and Islamic rules.”
Although no longer president, Rafsanjani will remain highly influential, largely due to the fact that he will retain chairmanship of the Expediency Council for a further five years.
Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denied the Khatame landslide was a protest vote against the system.
“Western commentators said this election was a protest, but what are the slogans of the president elected by the people?” he asked. “They are law and order, ending discrimination, social justice, moving towards Islamic and revolutionary goals^Å These are the very slogans of the Islamic system,” Khamenei added.
“The 20 million votes Mr Khatame gathered were votes for the protection of Islam and revolution and no one can claim otherwise,” said a strongly worded–if disappointed–editorial in the conservative newspaper Kayhan. So real change, if it comes at all, will take time. It should not be forgotten that Khatame comes from within the existing system and is not seeking to remove it altogether.
“I think expectations are dangerously high at the moment. People have vented their frustration and are expecting Khatame, somehow, to bring about a transformation and reconciliation in the political and social attitudes of the country overnight,” said Vahe Petrossian.
“If that’s what they expect, some people, the more naive and the younger ones, are going to be disappointed and there’s going to be frustration as a result. There might be a temptation to try and push things along resulting in a backlash from the conservative side. Everything is done to preserve the system any way. If Khatame thought there was going to be trouble on the streets, he’d make damn sure it doesn’t happen.”
Among other important issues Khatame will have to handle are the armed forces, military budget, and Iran’s policy in the Persian Gulf region. “The Iranians have been intensifying their military exercises and procurement in the past few years,” said Andrew Rathmell of London’s International Center for Security Analysis.
In late April, Iranian troops conducted three days of largescale wargames to train for surprise attacks on “enemies” posing a threat to the Islamic Republic. Both the United States and the GCC have long claimed that Iran’s military might is growing and has once again reached dangerous levels.
“Our armed forces enjoy high morale and are ready for combat to defend the country,” said Rafsanjani in a speech to mark Army Day on April 18.
But many Western observers argue that Iran’s conventional military rejuvenation has a long way to go before it poses a significant danger in the Gulf region. They say much of the Iran’s strategic military planning is informed by its own sense of weakness in the face of overwhelming U.S. military power. Analysts agree that Iran has stepped up efforts to increase its military power but point out that the long years of fighting Iraq between 1980 and 1988 decimated the country’s capabilities.
Iran has been significantly rebuilding its navy and air force but there is a long way to go. Both forces were shattered by the IranIraq war, while land forces also lost much of their equipment. “They’ve rebuilt the air force and navy, the army and Revolutionary Guards have also been rebuilt but the first two are the main defenders of the Gulf. You have to remember that by the end of the IranIraq war, they didn’t have much armed forces left. Also the six Arab GCC states on the other side of the Gulf have built up their forces massively and Iran wants to try and even up the balance,” Rathmell said.
Whether Iran’s unhealthy economy is capable of competing with her wealthy neighbors across the Gulf is a moot point but last year Iran’s defense budget was approximately $3.4 billion compared to a Saudi military expenditure of $13.9 billion. Israel, another country that could pose a threat to Iran, spent $7 billion on defense.”
Some analysts argue that Iran’s rearmament, though comprehensive, has been limited. “I think that on the conventional side…the rearmament has been rather slow and methodical,” Shahram Chubin of the Geneva Center for Security Policy told The Middle East. “They don’t have the choices that they might have since they are embargoed by certain Western suppliers. So they’ve had to try and fill in the gaps as best they can.”
Others agree. “There is certainly an attempt to increase the capabilities of the Iranian military, although the full extent of it is not clear. I’d highlight particularly the acquisition of fast attack boats that carry Chinese-designed missiles which they have in the Gulf,” said Terrence Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
“The reinforcement of their land forces and their air force pose for them considerable problems in upgrading their equipment, given the nature of Iran’s trading relations around the world, but certainly they’re developing them as best they can. And they are seeking technology transfers, if nothing else, from China, for example, and have in the past from North Korea.”
Such diversification has led a logistical nightmare for Iran’s top brass. The former Shah bought most of his weapons from the West, while the Islamic Republic has purchased equipment from a variety of other sources including the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. Iran is also trying to cope with budget shortages and an international arms embargo by producing its own weapons where possible.
As a result Iran’s military, while impressive on paper, is in reality a mixture of disparate, incompatible weapons systems. According to “The Military Balance,” the annual assessment of international armed forces published by the IISS, Iran’s tank forces include 250 British built Chieftains, 160 American M60A1s, 220 Chinese Type 59s and 200 Soviet era T72s among others.
Likewise the air force contains an eclectic mixture of planes, the best of which-American jets bought by the Shah–may not even be combatworthy due to a lack of spare parts.
The scale of last April’s exercise, involving 200,000 Revolutionary Guards and Basiji volunteer militiamen, as well as firing of missiles, was supposed to underline Iran’s reemergence as a significant military power in the Gulf.
The Iranian news agency IRNA quoted the Revolutionary Guards’ Deputy Commander, Brigadier General Rahim Safavi, as saying the troops were taking part in an operation called “TariqalQuds” (Road to Jerusalem). “Iran wants to upgrade the quality of its personnel so it can better defend Islamic ideals and safeguard territorial integrity,” he said.
But Shahram Chubin believes the Iranians had ulterior motives for organizing the maneuvers. “I think the timing of it was twofold; one was to remind the Arab states that Iran is a major power, and the other was to remind the Americans that if they are thinking of launching an attack on Iran, a punishing attack in relation to Khobar [the bombing of a housing complex for U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia] that the Iranians would not be sitting by idly,” he said.
“In fact, if you look at the statements that have been made since November last year when this Khobar thing started to be linked to Iran it’s very, very clear that the Iranian strategy is to hold the Arab states hostage: `If we get hit by the Americans then you will get hit by us.’ It’s a sort of logical asymmetrical strategy, as it doesn’t make sense to confront the Americans head on.”
But it is not Iran’s regular forces that might deter such an attack. “The Iranian army in the current situation is no threat to the GCC states,” Rathmell said. “In terms of force projection, what could they get to the other side of the Gulf? A thousand men–a battalion–assuming the US Navy didn’t blow them out of the water, which they probably would.”
Chubin agreed with this analysis. “What Iran could do is perhaps seize an island with special forces dropped off by speedboats. But they don’t have the capacity to put in significant forces with the air defense they would need and therefore cannot sustain any operation across the Gulf on any scale,” he said.
“They don’t have an invasion capability across the waters of the Gulf, the only place really that they could do anything would be in Southern Iraq, which is a totally different scenario.”
But Iran’s armory could pose a limited threat to GCC targets. “In the area of missiles-all categories of missiles surfacetosurface and shorebased missiles, as well as mines and submarines–those are more worrying to the West,” Chubin said.
Iran possesses Chinese-designed “Silkworm” antishipping cruise missile, which the Iranians are trying to upgrade to having a range of 400 kilometers. The Scud missiles in Iran’s armory are less accurate and therefore largely weapons of political terror. Cruise missiles are a less known quantity, and may prove more of a threat in the longer term.
In recent years Iran has bought three Soviet era Kiloclass diesel powered submarines, making it the only regional state with a submarine force. But opinion is divided as to the military efficacy of using such weapons in the shallow waters of the Gulf. Others argue that Western arms companies and governments have exaggerated the submarine threat in order to sell the GCC states costly Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) equipment.
“The Middle East is still the world’s biggest market for arms,” said one Arab diplomat. “Competition is very fierce and many arms companies and governments are determined to come away with orders from the Gulf states regardless of whether these countries really need the weapons or not.”
Other analysts agree. “There is a tendency among the arms supplier countries to overstate the threat,” said Shahram Chubin. “Originally it was the USSR, then those submarines. But the fact is the Gulf is too shallow for submarines to operate effectively. These weapons are a throwback to the days of the monarchy. The Shah dreamed of Iran being a naval power in the Indian Ocean, something the Islamic Republic clearly isn’t. To that extent they are status buys.”
Chubin argued that were Iran’s submarines to start posing a genuine threat to Gulf shipping, the U.S. navy could destroy both them and their bases in Bandar Abbas almost immediately, making the ASW hardware purchased by Gulf Arab countries an unnecessary expense, like so much of the weaponry bought by Middle Eastern states over the years.
But Andrew Rathmell is less sure Iran’s submarines are paper tigers. “Essentially they would not be used to launch torpedoes, but to lay mines. What the Iranians found was very effective in the 1980s was that if you lay mines in the Red Sea, the Straits of Hormuz and lower Gulf area, then you can really mess up the U.S. Navy and international shipping very cheaply,” he said.
Chubin agrees that much of Iran’s equipment in the Gulf is aimed at making life as difficult as possible for outside powers. “Mines, submarines, missiles and fast attack boats could be called `sea denial’ capabilities to deny the Americans complete control in the Gulf,” he said.
“The Americans and others, of course, insist on seeing these as `sea control’ weapons, part of an effort to impose Iranian hegemony on their neighbors.”
Aware of their own weaknesses, especially in the face of American military hegemony, the Iranians seem to be desperate to trumpet what strengths they have. “All the Gulf states engage in large-scale maneuvers but the reason the Iranians give such exercises so much publicity is diplomatic posturing. They are being pushed around by the Americans-the Americans are threatening them over the bomb attack in Khobar–and the Iranians want to assert their right to the Gulf,” Rathmell said.
“If you take it from a U.S. Navy perspective, the more exercises the Iranians have and the more they buy, the more of a threat they are in a military sense. Two or three years ago if the U.S. Navy went to war they could have wiped out the entire Iranian Navy without batting an eyelid. Nowadays they might expect to lose a couple of planes and a few people. So it is a threat, but still there’s no comparison.”
According to an IRNA report on 21 April, CommanderinChief of the Revolutionary Guards, Major General Mohsen Rezaei, said that the West continually portrayed Iran as a threat to other countries in the region in order to justify a sustained military presence in the Gulf. He called for a regional security arrangement which would exclude outside powers something that would always prove unacceptable to both Washington and the GCC states.
“As long as the territorial integrity of Iran is not threatened, the military and defense power of Iran will not be a threat to any country,” Rezaei said.
“Tehran is saying, `If you hit us we’re not going to stand by,’” said Chubin. “They are well aware they can’t confront the Americans directly. They had this phrase, which became almost a doctrine in the IranIraq war, which is `Either everyone enjoys security or no one enjoys security.’”
Iran tries to portray this situation in the best light. “If the United States doesn’t attack us we will become stronger. And if it does attack us, we will become more united and find a lot of friends throughout the world,” said Ayatollah Ali Kahmanei on July 21. “We are not afraid of the United States,” he added. “(It) is the main loser because it boycotts Iran.”
One Iranian response might be to try to improve relations with its neighbors across the Gulf. The hardline newspaper Jomhouri Islami, quoted outgoing President Rafsanjani as saying Iran wanted to sign a security pact with the GCC. “Our Arab brothers do not have any problem with us,” he said on Iranian national radio, July 19. “The main obstacle is the United States and Great Britain.”
But bluster and posturing will not be enough to protect Iran if it becomes involved in a military showdown with the United States.
“The Gulf is an American lake. It’s run by the Americans and the GCC, backed up by the British and the French,” Rathmell said. “Iran feels very paranoid about that because its whole economy is centered around the Gulf; oil production, gas production, shipping and so on, which could easily be taken out by the Americans. They could strangle Iran if they wanted.”
* Darius Bazargan, a London-based journalist, has written for the Middle East Economic Digest, “Meedmoney,” “The Middle East,” “Jane’s Defence Weekly,” and other publications. He has also worked for the BBC World Service and is currently writing a report for the UK Parliamentary Human Rights Group on mercenary soldiers.
This story is an extended, updated combination of two articles that were published in “The Middle East” magazine in July and August 1997.