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Published on December 2nd, 2012 | by Usman Butt
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="566"] (© Wikimedia Commons, AslanMedia) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei[/caption]   Iran has one of the world’s most misunderstood political systems and regime, as no characterisation that is given, seems to describe it. An authoritarian democracy or theocracy only partially describes what it is. It has a President and a parliament that is democratically elected. But it also has an arch-cleric or leader who is above the presidency, and who holds power over security, defence and foreign policy. Ali Khamenei is not democratically elected and has been Iran’s supreme leader since 1989, after the death of the previous leader Ayatollah Khomeini. However, Ali Khamenei does not have unlimited powers, as he is appointed and can be removed by the assembly of experts, who are themselves democratically elected. The assembly of experts are made up of 86 clerics who scrutinises the actions of the supreme leader. The assembly of experts contains many opponents of the supreme leader, the most famous former member of the council being Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani was president of Iran 1990-1997, is reportedly the richest man in Iran. There is an Iranian joke that says Rafsanjani owns 90% of the world’s pistachio trade. On the way to a friend’s house, we pass Rafsanjani’s house which is a modest but modern villa and the taxi driver turns to me and says “Rafsanjani’s a misunderstood man”.  I turn to the taxi driver and ask how so? “Well, he is an intelligent man, with good ideas. However, Iranians would never vote for him again as they think he is corrupt. If we listened to him the Fitna (Sedition) of 2009 would not have happened. Did you know what the greatest political problem in Iran is? Every Iranian politician hates one another and is constantly score settling with one another. Politics of revenge that is what it is, revenge. That Mr Mousavi (leader of the green movement who ran against Ahamdinejad in 2009) you know what his beef is? He was Prime Minister of Iran during the 1980’s and he wanted to be president. But Ali Khameini and Rafsanjani shafted him and forced him into retirement. So he waited, he waited until 2009 when he ran again and all he wanted was revenge. Soon as he heard a result that he didn't like he decided to take it publicly. That is what the 2009 incident was about. One section of the regime taking revenge on the other. Mr Rafsanjani said that this revenge politics must stop as its bad for Iran. So he proposed that the office of the presidency and parliament be suspended. He also said the office of the supreme leader should be suspended and the country should be placed under the control of the assembly of experts. The assembly would then cleanse parliament of politicians who are out for revenge and once this is done re-open parliament and the presidency. But people here don’t like it.” Iranians are full of political opinions and often when the subject came up you never knew what to expect. I never would have thought that a taxi driver would tell me all that, but Iran is a country of surprises. What is clear is the social and class divide in the country.  In northern Tehran were the wealthy live you will often hear people saying religion has gotten weaker in our society. And yet, when you go to the South Tehran you see fully veiled women, the call the prayer everywhere, men holding pray beads and pictures of Shia leaders everywhere. Despite, the relative liberalness in urban-centres towns and villages remain deeply conservative. Yet even this is to simple a classification and being religious and conservative doesn't make you pro-regime nor does being secular and wealthy make you anti-regime. On the way to Niavaran Palace (The Shah’s former residence and now a museum) one Taxi driver told me “I don’t like the sectarianism that this regime has created. You know there is no Sunni Mosque in Tehran, by doing this they make a conflict between Sunni and Shia. I am Shia, but I believe that we are all equal. Did you know we have quotes from our Imams that say you should never mix politics and religion?”.  Niavaran Palace amongst the many palaces turned museums demonstrates the last Shah’s decadence. The Shah had one of the world’s largest art collections which includes the likes of Andy Warhol and other modern European/American Art. The wealth of Iran and the Shah is outstanding, if the palaces do not impress you then the Jewellery museum will. The amount of gold, jewellery, diamonds and crowns you could understand why people thought the Shah was decadent. On one outing, we drove past the Shah’s grimmest landmark. A friend nudged me and said “you see that? That is Evan Prison”. Evan Prison is an active prison and is notorious for hosting political activists and dissidents. It is a maximum security prison as they also keep alleged spies locked up here. Famous for is torture chambers and execution den it was built by the Shah and is still used. My friend said to me “Do you know who built it? It was built for the Shah by the Israeli government. It’s very well built and secure”.  The point here is not about who built what but the fact that the Shah’s structures are still actively used and that ordinary people retain memory of what they once were. One national characteristic of Iranians is that they have long memories and tend not to forget. By keeping these palaces and making them museums the Islamic republic is trying to remind people of the shameless decadence of the past. Politics of memory is very important in this country, but this memory is not monolithic and often contradicts one another. In 2013 Iranians will take to the polls and elect a new president, election enjoy a high turnout in Iran. In 2009 75% of those who are eligible to vote, voted. However, the memory of 2009 and the last regime hang over the electorate. This is a battle; a battle for Iran’s political soul, the last regime lost this battle. How will this regime do in the next?

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Strange Times in Persia: A Traveller’s Account of Iranian Politics, Part 3

(© Wikimedia Commons, AslanMedia) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

 

Iran has one of the world’s most misunderstood political systems and regime, as no characterisation that is given, seems to describe it. An authoritarian democracy or theocracy only partially describes what it is. It has a President and a parliament that is democratically elected. But it also has an arch-cleric or leader who is above the presidency, and who holds power over security, defence and foreign policy. Ali Khamenei is not democratically elected and has been Iran’s supreme leader since 1989, after the death of the previous leader Ayatollah Khomeini. However, Ali Khamenei does not have unlimited powers, as he is appointed and can be removed by the assembly of experts, who are themselves democratically elected. The assembly of experts are made up of 86 clerics who scrutinises the actions of the supreme leader.

The assembly of experts contains many opponents of the supreme leader, the most famous former member of the council being Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani was president of Iran 1990-1997, is reportedly the richest man in Iran. There is an Iranian joke that says Rafsanjani owns 90% of the world’s pistachio trade. On the way to a friend’s house, we pass Rafsanjani’s house which is a modest but modern villa and the taxi driver turns to me and says “Rafsanjani’s a misunderstood man”.  I turn to the taxi driver and ask how so? “Well, he is an intelligent man, with good ideas. However, Iranians would never vote for him again as they think he is corrupt. If we listened to him the Fitna (Sedition) of 2009 would not have happened. Did you know what the greatest political problem in Iran is? Every Iranian politician hates one another and is constantly score settling with one another. Politics of revenge that is what it is, revenge. That Mr Mousavi (leader of the green movement who ran against Ahamdinejad in 2009) you know what his beef is? He was Prime Minister of Iran during the 1980’s and he wanted to be president. But Ali Khameini and Rafsanjani shafted him and forced him into retirement. So he waited, he waited until 2009 when he ran again and all he wanted was revenge. Soon as he heard a result that he didn’t like he decided to take it publicly. That is what the 2009 incident was about. One section of the regime taking revenge on the other. Mr Rafsanjani said that this revenge politics must stop as its bad for Iran. So he proposed that the office of the presidency and parliament be suspended. He also said the office of the supreme leader should be suspended and the country should be placed under the control of the assembly of experts. The assembly would then cleanse parliament of politicians who are out for revenge and once this is done re-open parliament and the presidency. But people here don’t like it.”

Iranians are full of political opinions and often when the subject came up you never knew what to expect. I never would have thought that a taxi driver would tell me all that, but Iran is a country of surprises. What is clear is the social and class divide in the country.  In northern Tehran were the wealthy live you will often hear people saying religion has gotten weaker in our society. And yet, when you go to the South Tehran you see fully veiled women, the call the prayer everywhere, men holding pray beads and pictures of Shia leaders everywhere. Despite, the relative liberalness in urban-centres towns and villages remain deeply conservative. Yet even this is to simple a classification and being religious and conservative doesn’t make you pro-regime nor does being secular and wealthy make you anti-regime.

On the way to Niavaran Palace (The Shah’s former residence and now a museum) one Taxi driver told me “I don’t like the sectarianism that this regime has created. You know there is no Sunni Mosque in Tehran, by doing this they make a conflict between Sunni and Shia. I am Shia, but I believe that we are all equal. Did you know we have quotes from our Imams that say you should never mix politics and religion?”.  Niavaran Palace amongst the many palaces turned museums demonstrates the last Shah’s decadence. The Shah had one of the world’s largest art collections which includes the likes of Andy Warhol and other modern European/American Art. The wealth of Iran and the Shah is outstanding, if the palaces do not impress you then the Jewellery museum will. The amount of gold, jewellery, diamonds and crowns you could understand why people thought the Shah was decadent.

On one outing, we drove past the Shah’s grimmest landmark. A friend nudged me and said “you see that? That is Evan Prison”. Evan Prison is an active prison and is notorious for hosting political activists and dissidents. It is a maximum security prison as they also keep alleged spies locked up here. Famous for is torture chambers and execution den it was built by the Shah and is still used. My friend said to me “Do you know who built it? It was built for the Shah by the Israeli government. It’s very well built and secure”.  The point here is not about who built what but the fact that the Shah’s structures are still actively used and that ordinary people retain memory of what they once were.

One national characteristic of Iranians is that they have long memories and tend not to forget. By keeping these palaces and making them museums the Islamic republic is trying to remind people of the shameless decadence of the past. Politics of memory is very important in this country, but this memory is not monolithic and often contradicts one another. In 2013 Iranians will take to the polls and elect a new president, election enjoy a high turnout in Iran. In 2009 75% of those who are eligible to vote, voted. However, the memory of 2009 and the last regime hang over the electorate. This is a battle; a battle for Iran’s political soul, the last regime lost this battle. How will this regime do in the next?

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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.



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