An expert analysis of the reasons why the governments of reforms and moderation led by Khatami and Rouhani emerged in Iran.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Dr. Taqi Azad Armaki, a sociologist and a member of faculty at Tehran University’s School of Social Sciences. In the introduction to the interview which was conducted by Nafiseh Zarekohan and published in the 5th issue of Gozar (Transition) Monthly, the interviewer points out, “I saw Mr. Azad Armaki on a late spring day in his office at the School of Social Sciences shortly before his class. Although he was pressed for time, he responded to my questions patiently and willingly as if an early class had been tucked into his morning schedule.”
In this interview, Mr. Armaki talked about the social reasons behind the emergence of Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government and Hassan Rouhani’s government of moderation and described what he called the “Hashemi Phenomenon” as effective in shaping both governments. In his analysis, he touched on the social and merely internal causes which saw “The Reform Movement” collapse, citing the transition from “Hashemi” and later from “Khatami” as the movement’s Achilles’ heel. He also had a warning for the moderate movement.
Unlike other Iranian political and social analysts, he did not refer to the role of any foreign factor in the “emergence and collapse” of the political movements over the last two decades. Some experts believe Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rise to power and his decision to opt for offensive tactics as the best defense against countries deemed as hostile was due to the fact that the flexibility demonstrated by the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami went unanswered and efforts by Iranian nuclear negotiators led by Hassan Rouhani – the then secretary of Supreme National Security Council – to clinch a deal acceptable to both parties were largely ignored. As a matter of fact, greed on the part of America and other Western countries ploughed the field of reformists and planted seeds of extremism. That’s why I think this key foreign factor is conspicuous by its absence on the list put forth by this famous Iranian sociologist of issues which led to the marginalization of the moderate party that advocated “interaction with the West”.
In the interview which was arranged rather hastily, the effects of the West’s extensive psychological warfare against Iran – under the pretext of suspicious nuclear activities – on the fate of the reformist government and on the emergence of an imbalanced and hard-line government which replaced it have been largely ignored. The following are the thought-provoking excerpts of the interview with Dr. Azad Armaki:
I want to seize this opportunity to analyze the origin of the moderate and the reformist governments and their interrelations. In short, what are the similarities and distinctions between them?
In my opinion, in terms of the prevailing political atmosphere, the two governments have one thing in common, and that is moving ahead in the shadow of a phenomenon by the name of “Hashemi” whose presence can be easily felt in the reformist government which succeeded his reconstruction-oriented government. Likewise, the government of moderation has been under the shadow of Hashemi’s name, and therefore this phenomenon has created some similarities in the political behavior of the two governments.
The reformist government was nurtured by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani [President of Iran 1989-1997]. Over his eight years in office, which is also known as the reconstruction period, he directly and indirectly trained political factions which later formed the reformist government. I must say that the reformist current has not been either for or necessarily against Hashemi’s government. In fact, the first reformist government was born under the shadow of Hashemi and carried on with its life in the same shadow.
A clash erupted when Mohammad Khatami won re-election and started to take on the policies introduced by Hashemi. Eventually, the same opposition sent his government crumbling. As a matter of fact, being under the shadow of Hashemi helped the reformist current forge ahead at first. However, after it stood up to the principles established by Hashemi, it took the movement years to put its house in order before eventually collapsing.
The government of moderation is in the same condition. When the social, political and cultural machine of Hashemi was called in, a moderate government emerged. I can say that both the reformist and the moderate governments are different versions of the “Hashemi Phenomenon”. That is particularly true about the government of moderation which has been a reflection of the phenomenon since its emergence on the political landscape. Shared beliefs, interactions, and relations between Hashemi and Rouhani are completely obvious. Hence the presence of Hashemi is a point of resemblance between the two governments. […]
What about their origins?
[…] In the post-revolution era, the social dimension [of governance] suffered a major blow which was cushioned to some extent under President Hashemi. One might think that the period of reconstruction only empowered the upper class. However, his presidency paved the way for other classes of society to be propped up too, so much so that the middle class emerged transformed and dynamic during Khatami’s presidency. The middle class, which was resuscitated, grew and found its way to universities. In fact, that social force worked in sync with the intellectual men around Khatami and brought about an unexpected new current to society.
But unfortunately, in terms of power, the higher a government goes, the harder it falls. The first thing that happened was that Hashemi ended up in the crosshairs, came under fire and eventually was left alone. Of course, it was followed by criticism of Khatami and a final transition from him too. When a society leaves Hashemi behind, it will definitely do the same when it comes to Khatami. Undoubtedly, the driving force behind such transition takes aim at other figures, for it hastily pursues progress.
Now, things in Hassan Rouhani’s government of prudence and hope are similar to those of the reformist government, though less intense, because the moderate current is not a strong current and only carries the tag of a political current, and that is only because of the present conditions. Under Hashemi, society was not hit by political or economic crises, but Rouhani’s government faced a crisis from the get-go. In spite of numerous woes, society has been going from strength to strength. Under principlist Ahmadinejad, the country actually was in a fundamental crisis from which the moderate government came into existence.
However, the reformist government showed up on the back of a reconstruction current and that’s the distinction between the two governments. For the very reason, the moderate government lacks a robust intellectual force and suffers from the lack of such a current of thoughts and a group of people who can think deeply and analyze different topics and, one way or the other, generate a ‘moderate discourse’.
So are you suggesting that unlike moderation, the reformist discourse was well-developed and deep-rooted?
In fact, the moderate government doesn’t go beyond an attitude, or a political behavior, as they call it. And that can be said to be one of the most important differences between the reformist and moderate governments. Although both governments were founded by a social force, they are strikingly different, because the social force which constructed the moderate government is crisis-hit, whereas the reformist government was formed when there was no crisis and only the social force was critical of the conditions. Since the moderate government was born in the aftermath of a crisis, the government is reeling under the present chaos, and the country is somehow ruled by oil, budget, economy and political and international conditions.
To sum up, the moderate government’s existence is influenced by the “Hashemi Phenomenon” and a crisis which is a legacy of the principlist government. What annoys the moderate government is this contradiction. Another flaw in the government is that it does not have the chance to rethink. The reformist current was a representative of religious open-mindedness. Although the moderate current is not in contrast with enlightenment, they won’t coexist. That’s why Rouhani’s government is not in tandem with it and this can be viewed as a weakness of his government.
As you mentioned, it was the middle class who established “the reformist government”, the very class took a hit under Ahmadinejad, so with regard to that, can we put down the formation of the moderate government to the determination of the middle class to get back up on its feet? Or did the very crisis you mentioned set the stage for its emergence?
One of the worst things that Ahmadinejad did, which was in his opinion the best move, was the manipulation of the class structure of society. In his estimation, he did it in order to lend importance to the needy and therefore have a special social force on his side forever. So the first step he took was to annihilate the upper class, including the middle class and entrepreneurs, the class that he labeled as thieves. Also, he later sparked off a controversy surrounding Hashemi’s children.
In fact, having dealt a heavy blow to the upper class, he started to attack the middle class, the class whose most dismal days came during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office. It bore the full brunt to the point of total annihilation. Have you ever noticed the gloomy atmosphere that prevailed in universities over that time? Over his two terms in office, he tried to expand the lower class at the expense of the middle class in society. As a result, universities, art, the press and lots of other parts of society were marginalized. The crackdown on the middle class gave rise to an atmosphere in which more chaos and marginalization came to pass. Consequently, the middle class was plagued with daily problems of life and members of the middle class quit their jobs thanks to the unpleasant atmosphere of the time.
For instance, during the period principlists were in power, underground music grew and critical rhetoric got louder and gained momentum. As a matter of fact, under such circumstances, the middle class turned to self-run associations and non-governmental organizations. In my opinion, although the middle class went through its darkest chapter under the principlist government, it was given the best opportunity to reflect and create a new atmosphere. That’s why unlike in the past, it did not get overexcited when Rouhani emerged victorious in the vote. You have probably noticed that since his government came to power, time and again the youth have been asked to give a hand to the government. However, no considerable step has been taken by them, because they were placed under pressure for eight years in the previous government.
So, you mean that the middle class has sunken into apathy and social matters have lost their importance to this group?
No! That’s not true. From my perspective, the Iranian community has developed a relative understanding and won’t be easily fired up to step up to the plate and tap into its full potential. In my opinion, that’s a good change as far as the survival of Iran is concerned. As a result, impulsive acts that might snowball into wider disputes won’t take place. Therefore, the government should act cautiously. This reflective hesitation helps it survive. In short, the civil class in society is not dead. Rather, it is on the fringe, monitoring and acting guardedly. We should expect changes in this class of society. Fortunately, this equanimity in Iranian society is a win-win situation. Despite commotions caused by different currents on the political front, it is no longer possible to fire up and mobilize this class.
Dr. Armaki, how did the approach you talked about lead to the moderate government and its victory in the election?
[…] The Iranian community is not defined or shaped in the political arena. […] Over the past 10 to 15 years, society has grown strong; for such a society, a powerful government should be at the helm, but unfortunately, under Ahmadinejad, society wielded more power than the government. As a result, his government was boisterous in challenging rivals. His clamor exposed us to global ridicule, because his loudness revealed his weakness rather than his strength.
My next question is about the missteps taken by the reformist government. In fact, I want to know about the similarity in mistakes made by the moderate and reformist governments; about those that are likely to all but land the moderate government where the reformist one ended up. If the same mistakes are remade, will the government of moderation share the same fate that befell the reformist government?
[…] The reformist government surfaced under the shadow of ‘Hashemi’ and was not opposed to him. Actually, the same matter prompted the initial logic behind the reformist government to fade away. (Earlier, I pointed out the transition from Hashemi and then from Khatami.) Consequently, all institutions which could have streamlined things were destroyed and this triggered the implosion of the reformist system. Another misstep on the part of the reformist government was that although it was intended for the middle class, it was entangled by all classes. Had it focused its attention on the whole social system, it would not have met such a fate.
Today’s criticism leveled at the reformist government basically centers on the fact that although the middle class was granted all social rights, why was the lower class excluded? Where did the needy stand on the list of the government’s priorities? Why did the sources of emulation, religious culture and things like this slide into oblivion? I am not suggesting that the reformist government was either anti-religion or anti-culture, but as a result of the policies it pursued it immersed in itself and ignored other matters such as other classes of society.
Firstly, the moderate government should take the whole social system into consideration and secondly, it should keep the middle class connected to other classes. If the government fails to do so, it will get into trouble, after all the reformist government failed to keep those bonds in place.
So if action must be taken, then how can the class you just mentioned be engaged and brought to the government’s attention?
[…] There should be representatives of those who have been ignored. Unfortunately, as we speak, there are not such representatives and the country is ruled by bureaucrats. At least in this government, I do not know anyone who represents the educated, artists, scientists, or those who work in the film industry. There is no will to do so, and if such indifference persists, cries of protest will get louder and those ignored will be able to make a profound difference in society. And then this class will reach out to the lower class spontaneously.
[…] Another thing is the welfare policy. In Iran, we intentionally task other institutions and bodies that mostly give rise to dissatisfaction and poverty with implementing the welfare policy.
[…] If the moderate government fails to act on my suggestion about creating a bond between the middle and the lower class, it will help a current similar to principlism emerge.
[…] The moderate current can play a key role in helping it emerge or stopping it from surfacing. It can either nip it in the bud, or act as a catalyst for it. What matters here is how other currents will exploit the emergence of a third group.
Given the analysis you made, what do you suggest the moderate government do to return to the right path and escape the fate of the reformist government? Of course, you pointed out some solutions over the course of the interview, but if you want to give us a package of solutions, what will it be?
[…] The government should return to society and deal with its real issues. The thing which happened in the moderate government, something that has been unique so far, was the transition from the period in which there was wrangling between the leader and the president. In fact, the two share common ground now. I am of the opinion that it is very intelligent of the president to maintain the relationship at this level, […] whereas Ahmadinejad made his disagreements with the leader public.
Anyway, common ground between the leader and Rouhani is a great opportunity for his government to turn things around. I must say that the government should take advantage of this opportunity in favor of development not as a democratic gimmick. Society must be given a chance to develop. Ahmadinejad insisted that society was not capable of developing and that in fact it opposed development. However, Rouhani must know that attention to development will revive the government and the political system. Besides, as I told you, if the government is planning to stay in power, it has to let the middle class pick up the pieces. All of today’s concerns are those of the middle class. If this class is empowered, society will be lively and move toward unity. Under such circumstances, the conflict between the middle class, the upper class, and the lower class will be settled. Actually, when the middle class is alive and well, society will grow and this growth will narrow the gap between the middle and lower class, and therefore it will boost the government and let it streamline society easily.
[…] We will get to the point when science, sociology, psychology and economy find their true meanings. It is when economists rather than bureaucrats will be important; there is no denying that for the time being, bureaucrats make decisions about the economy, social matters and so on. Unfortunately, no one now represents culture, science, and economy in the government. When the government allows such representatives to be influential, then civil action will be taken, which in turn can transform a gloomy community into a lively one, even in the presence of poverty. In conclusion, I must say that the extent of poverty in Iran is similar to that of many other countries, but the bleakness of poverty has taken root within our society. There are a lot of people in our society who are quite well-off, yet they are still sad. It’s because we haven’t taught them how to be happy and enjoy life. We must educate people on that issue.