A Tale of Two Governments: How American Politics Affects Iranian Politics

On November 8th, 2016, millions of Americans will flock to their local polling places. Voters will be faced with choices for the senate, house, local elections, and of course, the presidency. While the conversations dominating the American political sphere focus largely on the economy, healthcare, immigration, and ISIS, the party who gains the presidency will also be well placed to craft a foreign policy that will have an immense effect on the political, economic, and cultural path of another country, Iran.

The main cleavage separating Democrats and Republicans regarding Iran is whether America, and the world, should welcome Iran into the larger global community or continue to impose sanctions. The lack of political consensus concerning Iran is reflected by the American population, which also holds a mixed view on the debate. The Iran nuclear deal further intensified the argument about the two possible paths, and will likely serve as a hot-button issue in the general election. A Democratic win in November means continued support for the agreement. Continued support for the agreement will empower both moderating voices and loud reformers in Iran, while a return to forced isolation due to a Republican win will continue to empower the hardline conservatives and radicals. Iran’s politics, economy and culture, oddly enough, is dependent on American politics.

The Iranian Political Context

Following former Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini’s consolidation of power after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, three main political factions emerged. Reformers, conservatives (who can also be distinguished between neo-conservative and pragmatists), and the hardliners constitute the political identities in the officially party-less state. The current balance of power between the three main factions can best be explained by policies implemented immediately following the 1979 revolution targeted at families. Iranian hardliners, as well as many conservatives have a demographics problem, called the youth bulge.

The youth bulge was brought on by calls for young and large families during the brutal Iraq-Iran war. Large families could contribute more soldiers and material benefits to the war effort. The residual effect of this policy, however, was an ever-growing youth population, and a shrinking middle aged and elderly population. The youth were required to make sacrifices during and after the war, often being compelled to join Basij groups or to join the Iranian paramilitary force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In turn, young Iranians were promised jobs, security, healthcare, and education. This “Iranian dream” can be seen as analogous to the American dream, if a person works hard, they should expect to see success.

The internal reaction to the Islamic Revolution, however, is largely due to the Iranian government’s inability to provide this reality to young Iranians. Sanctions levied by America as well as other countries with America’s backing placed severe burdens on the Iranian economy, environment, and general ability to function as a member of the world community. Because of these strains, Iranians looked inwards, either blaming their own government for their struggles, or outwards,blaming America and other countries viewed to be antagonistic.

The Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies highlight one response to outwards pressure. Both presidencies are marked by moves to liberalize society (resolving a major grievance of many Iranian youth), encourage economic ventures both internally and within the world community, and to engage in discussion with both foreign countries as well as to resolve issues internally. Rafsanjani, more the pragmatic conservative than the fervent reformer, re-engaged in diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, shifted toward economic privatization, and encouraged development through a Five Year Plan. Furthermore, Rafsanjani lifted some cultural restrictions, such as allowing fraternization between unrelated men and women. Khatami, who was Rafsanjani’s cultural minister, continued many of Rafsanjani’s policies, as well as emphasizing civil law, the importance of civil society, and to call for an open dialogue between Iran and America.

This pragmatic conservative and reformist response to outwards political pressure, however, was swiftly undone with the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. After allowing for some foreign and cultural détente and economic liberalization, the hardliners quickly realized that their place in Iranian society would be endangered with a continuation of pragmatist policies. Hardliners in Iran faced the decay of their core cultural and political tenants, and thus moved to return to the pre-reform Iran. After ostensibly moving to help the youth and disenfranchised, why would this pro-reform momentum stop?

To put it bluntly, the reforms failed to reach their full effect. The main cause for this can be directed to two problems: the conditions produced by outward sanctions; and an internal backlash at a changing Iran by the clerical and hardline establishment. Although the Iranian economy is actually quite diversified, sanctions prevented full integration into the world economy, limiting exports and thus the capability for Iran to reach its full economic potential. The Iranian economy may have been internally diverse, but the inability to export goods and services to some of the larger world markets meant that Iran could never quite exceed a certain level of economic success. This structural flaw meant that jobs and resources would be scarce, dampening the enthusiasm for reformist politics.

Secondly, an internal backlash facilitated by Iranian hardliners and conservatives meant that even with popular support, the tenability of reformist politics might not have actually been as robust as some would believe. After Khatami’s success in 2000, pro-reform publications were closed, intellectuals and journalists were jailed, security forces and members of the Basij assaulted students at the University of Tehran, and political and judicial oversight organizations were banned by the constitutional watchdog the Guardian Council. Khatami never put up much of an effort to stop the backlash, demonstrating his inability or lack of volition to direct Iran towards major change.

After the enthusiasm for reform was significantly dampened, President Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. Ahmadinejad was the immensely popular former mayor of Tehran. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad came from a populist background that made him more appealing to the culturally conservative poor, as well as to certain military institutions. Ahmadinejad was a commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s major paramilitary force. Framing the reformist politicians as morally bankrupt and economically self-interested, Ahmadinejad easily reached the presidency. In the aftermath of the election, however, Ahmadinejad began to appoint former Revolutionary Guard officials to important political posts, highlighting his view that politics should be one in the same with the standard bearers of the Islamic Revolution.

In 2009, Ahmadinejad retained power in a widely disputed election, in which he was accused of voter fraud by several figures in the reform movement. Despite the large protests plaguing urban centers throughout Iran, Ahmadinejad retained power. Following reelection, Ahmadinejad would dampen relations with Arab states by endorsing the Arab Spring uprisings, as well as relations with the West through inflammatory comments about Israel and the Holocaust. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad mismanaged the Iranian economy and political system, often arguing with his advisors and superiors as well as undertaking pet projects and needless reforms that distracted from improving the failing Iranian economy.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic requires that presidents a term limit of no more than two consecutive terms. After Ahmadinejad served his second term, a new zeitgeist swept the country, demanding a return to competent and moderate rule. Hassan Rouhani, an establishment yet pragmatic member of the conservative faction, won the election with a promise to return Iran back to its pre-Ahmadinejad path. Perhaps the most significant of all of Rouhani’s accomplishments is the hotly debated Iran Nuclear Deal. As in America, Iranians too have a mixed reaction to the agreement, with some seeing it as a capitulation to the West and others as a fair trade off in order to secure Iran’s economic security. Nonetheless, the deal persists, signaling Iran’s intent to join the world community and to secure its future.

We can see, then, that there are two main discourses on what Iran’s purpose should be. Some in Iran believe that Iran should be the standard bearer of the Islamic world, while others hold a less parochial view, recognizing the importance of existing as a member within the international community. When one faction gains too much power, a reactionary current takes hold of the Iranian zeitgeist. Too much liberalization and integration results in a rapid snapback to the revolutionary fervor of politicians like Ahmadinejad and groups like the Basij and Revolutionary Guard. On the other hand, the Iranian youth are highly educated and underemployed, which is a recipe for political change if they are not satiated. A pattern has emerged, and the budding détente between Iran and the West might tip the balance of which political current maintains its power. Depending on the results of the 2016 election, America’s politicians will be well placed to either nudge Iran towards joining the world community, or reinforcing the involuntary isolation.

Democrats, Republicans, and Iran’s Future

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump believes that the Iran Nuclear Deal is so bad, it is almost like it was constituted that way on purpose. On the other side of the aisle, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton claimed that it was unrealistic to get a better deal, arguing that it was the best possible compromise for both parties. Within those two instances, the different American approaches toward Iran are demonstrated; one a gradual opening of relations, and another an immediate return to the last several decades, which, ironically, parallels the decisions Iranian politicians are faced with as well.

The Republican plan is to “undo” the agreement, returning to the previous sanction regime and to continue America’s forced isolation on Iran. Who would this help? And who would this hurt? Forcing Iran to return to its previous isolation will likely empower groups such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the hardline clerics. A common theme in authoritarian regimes is to paint an outside actor as an enemy of the state. Iran has long been a pawn in a greater geo-political tool by outside powers, which is reflected by an important theory accepted by the Iranian polity called Gharbzadegi, which translates to a “Westoxification,” essentially meaning that Iran (and, indeed, the Muslim world) has been corrupted by the West through its imperial pursuits. Continued forced isolation pushes Iranian politics down this path, increasing internal and external tensions, and empowering the extreme elements within the country.

The Democratic plan, on the other hand, will have the opposite effect. Through easing the path toward economic integration, the highly educated yet underemployed youth will see new economic opportunities, facilitated by an influx of foreign investment. The Iranian reformist movement, along with the pragmatic conservatives, could see a new wave of enthusiasm as the quality of life in Iran slowly improves. Furthermore, economic integration between countries tends to have a moderating effect. Foreign investment would be hard to come by if a corporation owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps would likely embezzle it, for example. Efforts to improve the infrastructure and accountability of Iran’s economy would increase, as new opportunities to seek outward investment present themselves.

For two countries ostensibly at odds, it is a fantastic irony that the politics of one can have such a large effect on the politics of another. When Americans go to the polls this November, they should remember that they are likely not only choosing who they want to lead their country, but also, the path that Iran will follow. A vote for a continuation of the long held policy of sanctions and forced isolation could mean a strengthening of the hardliners and a suppression of the moderators and reformers. A vote for a change in policy and the beginnings of a real détente could mean the reformers and moderating voices could finally get the break they have long needed. The future of Iran stands at a crossroads, much like that of America, a vote for one party over the other will have a wide range of effects, and could push Iran towards true reform or towards a consolidation of extremist politics.

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.

Adam Goldstein

About Adam Goldstein

American University senior on the BA/MA track for Comparative Politics. Unapologetically obsessed with Iranian politics, political science, and Phish. Contributing editor and Middle East/Africa columnist.