Saturday, April 12, 2008

Iran: Affluence amid Poverty

Iran: Affluence amid Poverty
Ali Asghar Kazemi

April 11, 2008

“Wherever riches have increased the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion.” Max Weber
* * *

Thirty years after the coming into power of the Islamic revolution in Iran, a sharp social disparity and economic inequality is reaching its alarming threshold. While galloping inflation robs overnight the pocket money of deprived citizens, wealthy people are perplexed as how to spend their extra riches. At the turn of the Persian New Year, once again the apparatus of “trial and error” got under way and the president made another decision to fire two key cabinet members responsible for economy and domestic security. Similar changes have taken place last year with other cabinet ministers.

This short paper attempts to comment briefly on the following points.

* How far these cosmetic alterations are responsive to the demand for effective governance, self-sustained development and responsible leadership?
* Do we need to make frequent modifications at the individual level to cure the system or we have to make bold structural changes at the strategic and systemic stratum?

* * *
Three decades after the revolution, the Islamic leaders still blame the defunct Shah regime for their failure to achieve economic and social development. It seems that there is no consensus among responsible people as to the essence of development in the country. Some would like to bring oil revenues on people’s tables through subsidies and cash payments (the populist president); and others prefer to boost imports of luxury goods and consumable for a dual purposes: a) to patronage their domestic protégées in Bazaar for easy business, b) to boost their ties abroad for eventual hard times and crisis situations. Of course both are supposed to understand people’s hardship and pretend to remedy the deplorable condition.

While oil revenues have quadrupled during the past two years, the surplus money instead of being invested in long range development projects is just spent to import useless junk goods from China and few other countries in order to satisfy political partners abroad and insatiable demands of nagging domestic affluent groups. Indeed, this process only benefits the few “haves” at the expense of the large “have-nots.” Luxury residences, flashy cars, lavish parties, sumptuous travel abroad etc. are now common occurrences even among arch-revolutionaries, clerics and pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and few other “nouveau riches.”

Optimistic estimates show that about 85% of the national wealth belongs to only 10 to15% of the upper echelon class of the country Traditional middle class is gradually falling below poverty line. The rest of the people have to live on subsistence. It seems that we are facing an amazing paradox in a society where it was supposed to set a model of classless and just Islamic state. Whether this is a symptom of Ibne-Khadun’s decadence of the Moslem urban development, it remains to be seen!

Indeed, the idea of development is many sided. Development in general embodies hope, and onward look to the future. Each individual within a nation has inside him the potential qualities to develop, provided that suitable social and political environment is available.

The Aristotelian idea of “realization of potentiality,” combined with the notion of distributive justice, remains the foundation of all development politics. It is generally suggested that “the best policy maximizes growth with equity; it effects the proper balancing of individual wants and needs against the collective good. Growth plus equity therefore equals fulfillment.

Development usually foreshadows economic inequality, others prefer political inequality and more control over economic growth. This is how actually various political systems set their social objectives and goals to the right or left of the balance, and make judgment on their trade-offs. For example, the communist states of the past repressed political liberties in favor of equal distribution of economic opportunities. A capitalist liberal state, on the other hand, may promote political equalities which may ultimately produce sever economic inequalities. Finding an appropriate synthesis of the middle ground is indeed difficult task.

One important issue in this regard is to determine whether political development shall precede economic development, or the reverse shall take place. There is no clear-cut answer to the question in Iran. But one thing is clear and generally accepted that economic development requires certain prerequisites among which political institutions are very important. Whether economic development shall occur concurrently with political development or one must wait until such time that every thing is politically established and ready for economic take-off, is another issue.

Many assert that there is incompatibility between political development (toward democracy) and economic growth, where political stability and sheer political survival of a regime is the overwhelming goal and criterion. Thus, stability must be accompanied by effective planning, with economic growth leading to social development. Unfortunately, this issue is not yet settled in present Iran.

In Western political thought, those who see development as a recapitulation of historic stages of progress, generally regard the objective not simply as economic growth, but also as the realization of political democracy. Marxists used to regard this idea a foolish one since “liberal developmentalism results in intensified capitalist contradictions, resulting in imperialism.” Experience has fallen far short of both ideals.

Political goals such as greater liberty, greater equality, justice, equal opportunity, and higher productivity, greater range of choices open to individuals within the context of peace, security and stability are often difficult to achieve, especially in the so-called developing world. Furthermore, when religious ideology dominates the society in all aspects of political life, it tends to become an independent objective on its own merit and therefore all other primordial goal of the society becomes overshadowed. In the long run, this creates frustration and political cynicism; a negative process which is not conductive to development.

Political development within a nation requires rational political system. A political system is defined as “a collection of recognizable units, which are characterized by cohesion and covariance.” Cohesion means sticking together, or forming a whole and covariance means changing together. Where there is cohesion, there will be also some observable covariance but when there is covariance, there need not be any cohesion. Use of unconventional (authoritarian) means to strengthen unity and cohesion may be counterproductive in the long run.

It is true that people’s mind can be structured to respond to stimulus of the social environment. Thus, a political system may maintain and coordinates interactions and expectations among people who live under it by means of rewards and penalties. It is suggested that the less rewarding a political community or government is the less likely it is to endure. Since human beings tend to learn more from rewards than penalties, a political system must of necessity encourage compliance through rewards rather than coercion. But, in the long run, without a proper political development the whole system may tend to disintegrate because mere economic rewards no longer satisfy people’s demands.

In conclusion, Iran’s president recent decision to reshuffle the cabinet is merely a cosmetic operation which is prone to conceal structural abnormalities and deficiency of the overall system. In order to tackle with the growing social malaise, disparity and economic inequality which are susceptible to endanger national security and societal fabrics, leaders should make bold decisions in readjusting Iran’s national goals, objectives and structure to the requisites of the present world order and nation’s expectations.

We shall discuss on this topic in our future comments. /

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Iran's Selective Elections

Iran’s Selective Elections

Ali Asghar Kazemi
March 17, 2008

Almost a century after the constitutional revolution in Iran in early 20th century (1906),
Iranians are still oscillating between democracy and autocracy. Recent parliamentary elections in Iran raised a number of substantive and procedural questions about their fairness and compliance with international standards. This short essay attempts to comment briefly on the following points:
· How far these elections conform to the requisites of accepted democratic norms and standards?
· Is there really an established general principle as yardstick to measure democratic exercise all over the world?
· Why the Islamic leaders take so much pain to demonstrate that they are democratic?

Ever since Persian intellectuals were acquainted with Western culture, the problem of democracy has become a paradox in their political life. While everybody pretended to cheer democracy as a sine-qua-non of a modern civil society, almost nobody was prepared to accept its consequences. The contradiction emerged when the monarch (the shadow of God on earth) with the authoritarian rule had to give up his absolute power in favor of the people will. However, neither the ruler nor the ruled knew exactly the substance of their rights and duties and were not committed to them.

The constitutional revolution of 1906 took place without a clear understanding of the essence and nature of “democracy” and thus the authoritarian culture continued to live on despite the creation of many formal democratic institutions. The confusion did not end with the advent of another social revolution in 1979 which claimed to hand over to people their long denied rights. The new emerging rule further complicated the situation by hiding behind religious principles and seeking legitimacy from the Almighty God, while putting a big question mark on Western democratic values.

In fact, without trying to be apologetic on the matter, democracy has never been considered by political thinkers and philosophers as an ideal type of government and statehood. From Aristotle to Huntington, democracy was regarded as only one way of running the affairs of a polity which could lead to the ascendance to power of ordinary men and mediocre groups whom may mislead people through demagoguery and deception. Yet, as long as it was based on the laws endorsed by the general will of the citizens, it could be tolerable as temporary solution to governance.

Huntington once said “if the Soviet Union is a democracy, I am against democracy…” He further contended: “who said that democracy is the best way of government?” He takes the example of many traditional Middle Eastern and Asian cultures which are not acquainted with and do not follow Western democratic values but nonetheless handle quite effectively the business of state with or without the explicit consent of their people. The amazing China could be one such example which during the last decade achieved its economic miracles. Certainly, this is not to endorse their way of authoritarian ruling but just to warn against judging others by one’s own standards.

With respect to the Islamic government in Iran, which came to power as the upshot of a social revolution, it is not a secret that there are serious inherent contradictions between Western democratic values and religious teachings of traditional Islam. Besides that, the cleric leaders are well aware that in order to continue their rule they have to conform to a number of accepted norms and principles of statehood, including various types of elections. However, through time and by experience they have learned that they can not wait and take a defensive stance vis-à-vis harsh criticisms coming from outside as well as secular domestic opposition groups. Thus, they constantly maintain that the “Islamic democracy” (mardomsalary-e dinee) is above and beyond all sorts of governments so far invented by mankind. By this they mean that they are not prepared to go along with the “dubious democratic values” which had so far the effect of dragging Western civilization into astray.

The face value of these contentions is indeed very appealing and easily stimulates the appetite of ordinary peoples here and there. Perhaps the reason behind relative popularity of Mr. Ahmadinejad among certain layers of traditional Muslims around the world is his very blunt rejection and uncompromising attitude with regard to the West and everything that goes with it. His famous saying: “go on the offensive before others take on you!” is now a guideline for politicians and diplomats. Interestingly as an example, just a day after the rejection of Iran’s elections by EU and US as unfair and undemocratic by accepted standards, Iranian ambassador to the UN in Geneva condemned extensive breach of human rights in these two continents.

In reality, the West has a very weak and bad record as regard to the application of democratic standards around the world. Here we are reminded of the outcomes of many democratic elections in Algeria, Palestine, Turkey, Iraq, and a host of other countries which brought down western oriented governments in favor of Islamist groups. The West is increasingly under strain from this unwanted outcome of democratic exercise. The US conception of democratic “Greater Middle East” was so naïve that died out before it was born.

All of the above gives justifying pretext to the ruling clerics in Iran to set their own standards of democracy and claim their superior principles on human rights, ethics and politics. To them, those who advocate Western democratic values are simply traitors and enemy collaborators. Thus, they continue their way of handling state’s affairs in Iran in total disregard of widespread criticisms from international institutions, NGO’s and opposition groups. Pretending to be the most democratic and open state in the world, they even venture to make paternal advices to other non-Muslim nations. They don’t hesitate to preach Western leaders to the path of salvation in any occasion in various world forums. Islamic hard-line president’s letters to various Western head of states are examples of such endeavor.

Despite many favorable constitutional provisions, religious leaders backed by the Para-military junta (Pasdaran and bassiji) are now in control of public and private spheres in Iran and do not permit any pressure group to endanger their absolute grip of power. Recent parliamentary elections were merely a meticulously selective process of candidates totally devoted to the regime as determined by the Guardian Council. This whole process is a purely formalistic demonstration of people participation and “democracy” as practiced in the West. Hard-line fundamentalists in various branches of the government, supported by the powerful “Guardian Council,” have enacted and enforced so many legal restrictions and barriers on the way of the so-called “reformists,” liberals and opposition groups that virtually none of them can assume a decisive role to change the course of events in Iran.

The truth of the matter is that the political system in Iran is neither a republic nor a democratic state in the proper sense of Western terminology and political culture. In reality, it is the skewed replica of a Khalifat as existed in early Islamic epoch, transfigured to the formalities and requisites of 21st century. Therefore, we should not expect it to follow the patterns of Western standards in running the business of the Ummat.

Many prominent traditional religious figures in Iran have suggested to set things straight once for all and relieve the Islamic state from unnecessary burdens of questionable democratic attributes borrowed from Western political culture. To them the “Imam” or the supreme leader of the “Ummat” does not recognize Western tradition of separation of state powers; since, he possesses all legislative, executive and judicial power of the Islamic state at the same time. Besides, his power is not limited to the material and earthly affairs of the people but he is also responsible for the spiritual salvation of the Islamic Ummat as interpreted in the Shiite doctrine.

Those who take the pain of criticizing the Islamic regime’s behavior in various domestic and international matters should bear in mind that the primordial objective of the Islamic state is the safeguard of the Madineh (the city of Islam). To this end, the Islamic state is permitted to perform any act that promotes the cause of state (i.e. cleric absolute power), even against the prevailing accepted norms and standards. This means that all other instruments of power and even people are subservient to this very vital goal. /