February 09, 2005

The Iran-Iraq Comparison

So I'm seeing more and more posts around the crazy ol' blogosphere comparing and contrasting The New Iraq under Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the United Iraqi Alliance with Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The most forceful point, made first by Ezra Klein, is that Iran didn't start out as a theocracy either; but gradually grew that way as the new government started to crackdown the MEK and dealt with domestic threats. There's a lot to this picture here, but let me say that Ezra's account isn't exactly complete, and fleshing it out a bit may prove useful.

First, some context. When we say Iran is ruled by clerics, let's not kid ourselves, this doesn't mean that a few middling clerics are placed in powerful positions and have access to key security forces. There's that, sure, but the government really is explicitly set up as a clerical-run affair from start to finish. Originally the Supreme Leader was to be a high-ranking cleric, but Khomeini downgraded this requirement when he could find no acceptable successor save for the poorly-qualified Ali Khamene'i, who is currently Supreme Leader. But it's clerics everywhere else.

A brief overview of Iran's government: First, we have the 290-seat parliament (the Majlis), elected by popular vote. Next, there's the twelve-person Council of Guardians, which reviews all parliamentary laws to make sure they conform to the Islamic Constitution, is comprised of six clerics—including the head of the council, currently Ahmad Jannati, a fairly prominent ayatollah and a presidential candidate, and I think four or five other ayatollahs—all picked by the Supreme Leader, as well as six Islamic lawyers vetted by the head of the judiciary (who in turn is picked by the Supreme Leader). The Guardian Council also gets to vet all presidential candidates. Meanwhile, the Expediency Discernment Council, which was set up in 1988 to resolve disputes between the Council and Parliament, has a few ayatollahs and several hojjatoleslams (ie. the rank below ayatollah). Then there's the Assembly of Experts, which supervises the Supreme Leader and picks a new one. The eighty-six clerics on the assembly are all elected by popular vote, but they must be vetted by the Guardian Council. Some relatively prominent ayatollahs here. Meanwhile, each province must have a clerical representative. So while Khamene'i himself may be a lightweight on credentials, there are other heavy-hitters lurking around.

Oh, one exception to all this: Parliament used to be dominated by mullahs, though thanks to the decline in clerical prestige (more on this in a bit), they now make up a very tiny minority.

Now the key question: How did Iran get to this point? One of the key things to note, I think, is that the original 1979 Iranian Constitution was extremely poorly designed. Ken Pollack doesn't really mention this much in The Persian Puzzle, but it deserves closer attention. Under the original constitution, all officials had to answer to the Supreme Leader (i.e. Khomeini), and there was no way to settle disputes between Parliament and the Council of Guardians. So responsibility all sort of fell on Khomeini by default. You can see the potential pitfalls for Iraq here, and it's why I tried to point out over at MoJo earlier today that the devil really is in the details—how clerical involvement actually gets implemented. Iran wasn't simply a non-theocracy that happened to get usurped by a talented and ruthless cleric; there was that, but post-1979 Iran was also a fucked-up constitutional order just waiting to be usurped. Blaming the MEK revolt or the Iran-Iraq war for Khomeini's radical rule sort of misses the deeper structural cause.

Now it's worth noting that Khomeini never really wanted democracy, though he was forced to compromise with many of the more moderate clerics at the time, many of whom frowned on his wild theories. (As Pollack does point out, Khomeni's "guardianship of the jurisprudence" owes very little to the Qu'ran, quite a lot to Plato, and is especially antithetical to the main tenets of Shi'ism.) So he didn't have much incentive to oversee a rigorously democratic constitution. Daniel Brumberg's recent book on Khomeini, Reinventing Khomeini, really laid this all out nicely.

One also shouldn't underestimate, as I pointed out at MoJo, the massive role anti-Americanism played in all this. Even Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who we all now know as the nice guy who was originally next-in-line for Supreme Leader but was excoriated and denounced by Khomeini in 1989 for his too-moderate stances, even that Montazeri way back in 1979 was denouncing the U.S. at every turn, and cheerfully helped write a constitution explicitly designed to oppose Western principles. The constitution's system of checks and balances wasn't just heavily tilted in favor of clerical interference; it was completely and utterly messed up because Montazeri, Khomeini, and other drafters went out of their way to make it look wholly dissimilar from Western constitutions. It's hard to imagine Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who reportedly devours books on Western democracy, to oversee such a flawed structure for Iraq. You'd either have to hate "Western-style democracy" blindly and fiercely (as did Khomeini, Montazeri, and friends) or be a complete moron to design a constitution like Iran's.

So I don't think Iraq under Sistani will go the way of 1979 Iran. Certainly, in the event of an Iraqi civil war, the more radical elements of SCIRI would gain an upper hand—since they control the militias and have connections with the lunatics in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard—but absent that, I have a fair bit of faith in Sistani. That's not to say I'm without skepticism. As I said, how Sistani proposes that Shi'ite clerics oversee the courts in Iraq will be a huge deal. And Iraq has never had to deal with the tensions between the government ministries and an actual legislature. (The interim government had no significant legislature, just an executive branch.) So hopefully the Shi'ites adopt a sensible model for the interplay between the two centers of power rather than the Iranian non-solution. But like Kenan Makiya, I'm not entirely convinced that the Shi'ites know why democratic rights are important in and of themselves.

But I do think Sistani and the other Iraqi clerics at Najaf have genuinely learned a lesson from the Iranian experience. With Iran, it's important to remember that clerical rule hasn't just run the country into the ground; it's also completely devalued the once-hollowed clerical school in Qom. Several Iranians have told me that most clerics are afraid to show themselves in public. Too many Iranians no longer respect the ayatollahs—even the quietists who stay out of the mud Iranian politics. Obviously the grand ayatollahs in Qom still pull in millions per year in donations, but their prestige has sunk considerably along with the antics of Khamene'i, Rafsanjani, the crazy young "neoconservative" (though I think we should dub them paleoconservative) clerics of the Islamic Developers Party, and other politician-mullahs. My unfounded and baseless suspicion is that Sistani fears this more than he values democracy as a form of good government.

Anyway, I hope this rather amateur overview helps clarify things. I've hardly said the last word on the issue, and obviously the picture of what the new Iraq will actually look like is still slowly emerging and extremely uncertain at this point. But the Iran-Iraq comparison deserves a little fleshing out. I wish Juan Cole would spend more time on this stuff and less time cat-fighting with Jonah Goldberg (whose idea of betting on civil war was entirely revolting), but what can you do.
-- Brad Plumer 4:18 AM || ||