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The Islamic Republic's 'Rastakhiz' Moment?

Rafsanjani’s decision not to contest control of the Council of Experts has been portrayed as a defeat to the veteran leader in his attempt to influence the Islamic Republic’s political process.  While Rafsanjani’s options for evolutionary change may have dwindled, ceding an important position without contest at a strategic moment could prove to be smart strategy after all.  By allowing Rafsanjani to exit the system, the government has precluded the last possibilities for incremental and evolutionary change.  Other autocratic governments, such as Iran in 1975 and Egypt in 2010, have lain the final straw on the camel's back by pushing their autocracy too far and Rafsanjani's departure might represent that for the Islamic Republic.

‘Stepping down’ in the interest of unity, as Mr Rafsanjani said he did in deference to Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani's bid for the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts, fits in with his classic pattern of slow, considerate action.  Rafsanjani has been subjected at this point to a long and intense villification by Iran's state-dominated media, but given his cautious and deliberate approach it seems likely that he will seek to minimise damage to whatever degree possible.  Like the meta-goals of Mousavi and Karroubi, which have included incremental gains and delegitimation of those who try to constrain the political space, Rafsanjani's tactics have the 'slow-burn' effect of making his opponents seem increasingly ridiculous to an increase number of people.

Since the contested elections of 2009, Rafsanjani has consistently played within the politics of the IRI while consistently supporting the opposition.  Even resigning from his post on the Assembly of Experts would have been a step that would have allowed supporters of the regime to attack him for ‘inciting’ sedition himself.  Rafsanjani has evidently failed to influence any changes in favour of the Assembly of Experts (such as encouraging it to fulfil its putative role of oversight over the supreme leader), so this gives him an easy exit.  This approach forsake unproductive political fireworks for the possibility of productive change, and that in turn is the only way to provide a ramp for a deeply entrenched and yet debilitatingly delegitimised regime to climb down.

In the early 1970s, the Shah's autocracy seemed firmly in place with a rubber-stamp parliament consisting of a ruling party and a 'loyal opposition'.  Such arrangements are typical of autocratic states, and risible, but they serve a real political purpose in that they provide at least a limited corrective to the main weakness of a non-democratic system--poor circulation of ideas.  This is why the key component of democracy is not simply voting, it is checks, balances, and institutionalisation and regularisation of change.

Husni Mubarak in Egypt, too, kept his hold on power through a complex system of gerrymandering, intimidation, and rigging, which allowed his National Democratic Party to win overwhelming majorities in elections.  All the same, some opposition figures from groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Ghad did attain seats and thus a voice within the framework.

In 1975 the Shah decided that even the most meaningless of divisions was too much and merged both legal political groups into a single Rastakhiz party.  Because of the already stifling autocracy, it seemed irrelevant at the time, but it robbed the government of any internal checks on its actions as political dissent and finally protests escalated in the coming years.  In 2010 the Egyptian NDP's 90% take of seats was equally appalling and removed that much more credibility from the government.

Iran today has an extremely opaque party structure, with politicians being referred to by oblique references to their political affiliations or even marriage alliances.  In 1970s Iran and 2011 Egypt, the military ultimately provided the final check that forced the regimes in power to step down (although this proved too little, too late in Iran, where the state had been far too weakened by the time the army shifted).  The Guardian Council, Assembly of Experts, and Supreme Leader all create a closed feedback loop that excludes different opinions from even those who might still support the regime.  Aside from the obvious victims of government repression in the form of outspoken reformists and activists, large sections of the senior clergy have also been pushed out of the system.  Not only has the Iranian state removed many corrective mechanisms, its extreme opacity deprives it of warning signals that could usher in internal change.

Politics abhors a vaccuum and agendas will find their expression.  Just as the sequestration of the Green leaders will only engender more radical voices, the removal of Rafsanjani from the ruling elite hurts there grip on power by depriving them of another perspective.  Today protests are again gaining steam, and another new year is upon us.  The trajectory of the Islamic Republic is unsustainable but it could be that the loss of Rafsanjani will be looked on as one of the key events in its downfall.

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