«Iranian transit» and post-Soviet models of transition (preservation) of power

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The past presidential elections in Belarus continue the series of changes in the post-Soviet space that began in Ukraine (and even earlier in Georgia, but then there was a «pause»). The coming years will be crucial for the post-Soviet countries, since it is the citizens of the republics who will have to determine a long-term strategy for the future. The problem is that the political elites of the post-Soviet countries are split between the supporters of the orientation towards the West and Russia; they are late in working out an integral strategy for the country’s sustainable socio-economic development.

As a result, the main issue of the official authorities of the post-Soviet republics is not socio-economic and socio-political reforms, not a strategy for achieving an honest victory in the presidential and parliamentary elections, but the preservation of the model of power transition («transit» or the so-called «successor» scenario) within a managed democracy. In this context, the so-called. The Iranian case of the preservation of power by the ruling elites is in demand in some post-Soviet republics of Central Asia (and maybe not only there).

Iranian option to retain power

The Iranian option for the elite to retain power is as follows: in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), there is the position of Rahbar (leader, leader of the nation). And the future presidential elections, which will be held on June 18, 2021, are focused on one question — who will be the successor to the 81-year-old spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Against the backdrop of the US policy of «maximum pressure» on Iran, the «successor» scenario in Tehran is considered crucial for the country’s future. The results of the presidential elections in Iran will inevitably affect Tehran’s foreign policy, including with regard to the United States, the EU, the Russian Federation, the PRC, and also its neighbors.

The state structure of Iran is based on the principle of velayat-e fakikh, which asserts the control of the spiritual leader and the religious structures subordinate to him over secular institutions. According to the principle of velayat-e fakikh, Sayyid A.Kh. Khamenei is the head of state, supreme commander in chief and religious leader. In other words, Rahbar has the right to intervene in the legislative, executive and judicial branches, as well as to resolve international issues. However, Rakhbar’s power in Iran is limited by the Assembly to determine state expediency, the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, the Council of Experts, where conservatives prevail.

The traditional division of conservatives and reformers has changed as conservatives include hardliners — ultra-conservatives and pragmatists — neo-conservatives, while many reformists have moved closer to the positions of pragmatists.

In the face of confrontation with the United States and Israel, the conservatives achieved a split between reformers and liberals, which led to a strong weakening of the positions of the team of the incumbent President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. Dissatisfaction with the Rouhani government is widespread among the urban population of Iran, and it is not limited only to economic problems. In late 2019 and early 2020, protesting students demanded greater political freedoms, called for the overthrow of H. Rouhani and the spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran A. Khamenei.

The biggest challenge for reformists is convincing voters to take part in the upcoming presidential elections. Moreover, Iranian voters are dissatisfied with Rouhani’s actions, since he did not fulfill the promises he made in recent years.

It should be noted that the Iranian youth, who make up the majority of the Iranian population, requires not only a weakening of the norms of the Islamic regime, but also a greater liberalization of the country’s social and political life. In other words, most Iranians objectively want to live in a modern social environment. The growing tendencies in Iranian society are dangerous for the basic state-forming principle of velayat-e fakikh, which provides for the almost absolute power of the spiritual leader of Iran.

The socio-political need for socio-economic transformations requires political decisions. Hence the conflict in Iranian society and in power. At the same time, the Iranian leadership, using checks and balances, as well as the force factor, has managed to control the situation.

  1. Khamenei likes to say that the Iranian elections, regardless of who ultimately wins them, are the basis of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and, accordingly, its own. Low voter turnout can negatively affect the legitimacy of the government. High-turnout presidential elections will lend legitimacy to the Iranian regime. Therefore, the main emphasis is placed on the calls of the Iranian authorities to actively participate in the elections. The slogan is put forward to demonstrate the unity of the Iranian people in the face of internal and external enemies. Religious leaders of Iran, calling on the Iranian people to vote, also emphasize that non-participation in the elections is a sin.

At the same time, the conservatives, using the results of the US sanctions and linking them with the existing socio-economic problems in Iran, skillfully use them against the Rouhani government. Against the background of the American policy of maximum pressure on Iran, the reformist direction in Iranian politics has demonstrated its ineffectiveness.

However, the presidential elections in Iran will confirm the legitimacy of the power of the religious and political elites, which will remove doubts about the Iranians’ belief in the Islamic social order («nez-esli») and the conservative circles headed by Ayatollah A. Khamenei will probably be able to achieve this result.

The disappointment of the Iranians in the government of H. Rouhani is pushing the liberal political wing of the reformers to gradually distance itself from the moderate circles in the parliament and the executive branch of Iran.

It was the alliance of these two currents that allowed Rouhani to win the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections. Today the coalition is in collapse. Liberals do not want their candidates to be associated with the failures of the Rouhani government. The reformers consider themselves deceived, because, having a broader electoral support in Iran, they supported the moderates in the presidential elections, and thereby ensured the victory of H. Rouhani. However, then none of the reformers entered the government of H. Rouhani, and the executive branch was formed from moderate politicians. In other words, on the one hand, conservatives accuse H. Rouhani of inability to govern the country, and on the other hand, supporters of liberal reforms accuse the Iranian President of inability to create conditions for these reforms.

Therefore, the wing of moderate politicians moved away from the liberals. Permanent speaker of parliament from 2008 to this day, representative of one of the most influential clans in Iran, Ali Larijani, is one of the possible presidential candidates. A. Larijani in recent years was close to moderate, although traditionally related to conservatives. A. Larijani is largely responsible for the establishment of partnership between the parliament and the government of Iran. At the same time A. Larijani is close with supporters of the conservative wing and the higher clergy. A. Larijani will suit both moderates and conservatives.

The presidential elections should prove the righteousness of the supporters of the «economy of resistance», which will allow the conservatives to strengthen their power and to appoint their candidate for the post of President of Iran, and then the future spiritual leader of the country.

It can be assumed that on the eve of the presidential elections, the pressure on the Iranian leadership from the United States will be intensified, including through the activation of ethnic separatism (the Kurdish extremist group Pjak, based in Iraq and fighting for the independence of Iranian Kurdistan, as well as the Mujahidin -e Hulk «). The only path the ultra-conservative group will choose is the path of confrontation with the United States and Israel, especially in anticipation of the American presidential elections in November this year and in preparation for the transition of power in Tehran.

The main direction of Iran’s foreign policy in the medium term will be to resist US pressure. However, Tehran, despite all the harsh statements of ultra-conservatives, threats against the United States, under certain conditions will nevertheless negotiate with Washington.

Successor scenario

The demand for a model for the transfer of power (the “successor” scenario), tandems and constitutional reforms designed to bypass the time limit have become an integral part of the post-Soviet space. The “successor” scenario is relevant in those countries where the abolition of the limitation on the number of presidential terms may lead to destabilization of the socio-political situation in the country with all the ensuing negative consequences for the ruling elites.

The political elites of the post-Soviet countries view the transit of power only as a controlled process under the control of the current government. Post-Soviet leaders prefer a controlled way of transferring power, which guarantees them the preservation of their current political and economic resources, which they have accumulated during their time in power.

The ineffectiveness of this model of maintaining power lies in the weakness of political systems and ruling parties. For example, political parties look like puppets of the executive branch in the eyes of voters.

At present, against the background of the events in Belarus, the effectiveness of power is in demand by the society itself. True, the absence of a policy of continuity and replacement of the country’s foreign policy, the desire to start all over again inevitably leads to irreparable losses. But the conservation of the processes of modernization of power by the ruling elites, who want to maintain a monopoly on power, is no longer acceptable for citizens of the post-Soviet republics.

It should be borne in mind that the controlled form of transfer of power is not initially recognized by the international community as democratic, since democratic institutions (including general elections) play a secondary role in this process. In fact, the entire transit process and its concrete results are determined from above.

In the “successor” scenario, the ruling elites seek to redistribute power in the direction of a parliamentary republic headed by a prime minister. These attempts have been implemented in Moldova, Ukraine (in part), Armenia and Georgia. In other words, the parliamentary system of power, towards which the post-Soviet countries are moving, is still being born. As a result, power becomes more distributed.

The experience of, for example, Norway demonstrates that the authorities are able to achieve sustainable socio-economic development of the country with all the ensuing positive consequences for the people by taking into account the interests of citizens. But for this it is necessary to create a feedback system through the conduct of referenda. It is this instrument that helps to strengthen citizens’ confidence in the authorities. In addition, the authorities must create conditions for the formation of new elites at different levels. Thus, in a number of European countries such a strategy is being implemented through elections and the emergence of new political parties and leaders.

In other words, the functions of state institutions in post-Soviet countries are poorly differentiated, political systems are not very susceptible to changes of a socio-economic, socio-political and technological nature. None of the elements of the functioning political system of the countries of the post-Soviet space are capable of ensuring socio-political and socio-economic stability. This requires a combination of sustainable socio-economic development of the country and the effective functioning of its political institutions. In addition, it is necessary to adapt the ruling elites to social changes, timely carry out economic reforms, the nature of relations within the elites, as well as maintain a balance between power and opposition.

Rauf Rajabov, Orientalist, Head of Analytical Center 3RD VIEW, Baku, Azerbaijan


1 comment

  1. Мария Reply

    The last presidential election in Belarus continues a series of changes in the post-Soviet space that began in Ukraine (and even earlier in Georgia, but then there was a pause ). The coming years will be fateful for the post-Soviet countries, as it is the citizens of the republics who will have to determine a long-term strategy for the future. The problem is that the political elites of the post-Soviet countries are divided between the supporters of the orientation to the West and Russia, they are late in developing a comprehensive strategy for sustainable socio-economic development of the country.

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