[Amil Saikal, Iran Rising: The survival and Future of the Islamic Republic. Princeton University Press. Princeton, 2019. 344 p.]


review / Ignacio Urbasos Arbeloa

Iran Rising: The survival and Future of the Islamic Republic

Since its constitution in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a conflictive actor, isolated and misunderstood by the international community and to a greater extent by its regional neighbors. Its origin, revolutionary in character and antagonistic to the Shah's pro-Western model , completely changed the geopolitics of the Middle East and the role of the US in the region. Both the Hostage Crisis and the bloody war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq left deep wounds in Iran's foreign relations. More than 40 years after the Revolution, the country remains in a dynamic that makes it impossible to normalize its relations International Office, always under the threat of armed conflict or economic sanctions. In this book, Amin Saikal describes in depth the ideological and political nature of the Ayatollahs' regime with the intention of generating a better understanding of the motivations and factors that explain their behavior.

The first chapters develop the concept of governance devised by Ayatollah Imam Khomeini, known as Velayat-E Faqih or Governance of the Guardian of Islam. A model defended by a non-majority faction of the revolution that managed to impose itself by the charisma of its leader and the enormous repression on the rest of the political groups. The political system resulting from the 1978 Revolution tries to confluence the Shiite teachings of Islam and a representative model with institutions such as the Majlis (parliament) or the President that to some extent simulates Western liberal democracy. This model is unique and has never been imitated despite the Islamic Republic's efforts to export it to the rest of the Muslim world.

In the internship, the system has proven to subject Iranian politics to schizophrenia, with a constant struggle between the power of the clerics -Supreme Leader and committee of Guardians- versus the executive and legislative power elected through elections. This tension, dubbed as Jihadi-Itjihadi (conservatism-flexibility) by Khomeini himself, has result been a resounding failure. The lack of clarity in the roles that religious groups play in the system results in unlimited power to repress and eliminate political opponents, as the house arrest of Khatami or Moussaoui demonstrates. This struggle generates duplicities at all levels with the omnipresence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) in the armed forces, intelligence, social services and public enterprises. The lack of political transparency generates corruption and inefficiencies that hinder the development of a Economics that does not lack the human capital and natural resources to prosper.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the evolution of the system after the death of leader Khomeini in 1988 and the end of the war against Iraq. This new context allowed the entrance of new ideas to the Iranian political discussion . The controversial appointment of the ultra-conservative Ali Khamenei in 1989 as the new Supreme Leader meant reinforcing authoritarianism and the rigidity of religious power, but now without the undisputed leadership exercised by Khomeini. The presidency of Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative, marked the beginning of a trend within Iran that advocated normalizing the country's International Office .

However, it was Khatami who, since 1997, bet on a reconversion of the system towards a real democracy that respects Human Rights. His bet staff to improve relations with the US failed when he encountered an excessive distrust on the part of the Bush Administration. Not even Iran's exemplary response to the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York with an official condemnation of the attack and even a minute's silence observed by 60,000 people in Tehran on September 13, 2001 was enough for G.W. Bush to reconsider Iran as a part of the United States. Bush to reconsider Iran as part of the famous Axis of Evil that it constituted along with Syria, North Korea and Sudan. Despite achieving an average economic growth of 5% of GDP under his presidency, the lack of reciprocity from the international community created a complete rift between the reformist president and the conservative faction led by the Supreme Leader.

The period from 2005 to 2013 was marked by the presidency of the ultra-conservative Ahmadinejad, who ended without Khamenei's confidence by failing subject economically and bringing Iran to the brink of armed conflict. During this period the IRGC grew to dominate a good part of the ministries and 70% of Iran's GDP. His controversial reelection in 2009 with accusations of fraud by the civil service examination generated the green movement, the largest protests since 1979, which were harshly repressed.

Rouhani's arrival in 2013 could have been a historic occasion by aligning for the first time since 1988 the vision of a moderate president with that of the Supreme Leader. Rouhani, a pragmatic moderate, took over position with the goals of improving the living conditions of Iranians, reconciling relations with the West, increasing minority rights, and relaxing control over society. In subject of foreign policy, the Supreme Leader assumed the need to reach a agreement on the nuclear program knowing that, in its absence, an economic improvement in Iran would be very complicated. The JCPOA, although imperfect, allowed for a rapprochement between the West and Iran. The arrival of Donald Trump blew up the agreement and with it the harmony between Supreme Leader Khamenei and Rouhani, who now faces a growing conservative civil service examination considering his foreign policy a failure.

For the author, it is essential to understand the battle between elected institutions and religious institutions. Iranian politics works like a pendulum between the dominance of conservative factions protected by the religious and reformist factions boosted by elections. If benefits are offered to reformist moderates when they are in power, the chances of bringing about political change in Iran are greater than if conservatives are treated as harshly, argues Amin Saikal in the fourth and fifth chapters. Moreover, there is a correlation between those who know the West and those who do not. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, the main representatives of the hardliners, have never visited Europe or the USA, while Rouhani, Khatami or Sharif are fluent in English and Western culture.

With a population under 30 years of age accounting for 50% of the total and a growing modernization of society in Tehran, the demands for reforms seem unstoppable. According to Amin Saikal, an intransigent policy with Iran when there is a willingness to open up only generates mistrust and reinforces the most conservative positions. Trump's policy with Iran, he concludes, demonstrates a lack of knowledge and understanding of its society and political system.

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