Political Power and Its Discontents

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals.


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In premodern Iranian political thought, the question of how to govern was far less discussed than the question of who gets to rule, with little elaboration on institutions or groups to effectively oversee the rulers. The available literature has mainly focused on internal and external tools of checks and balances based on virtue and on general ethical precepts such as taghva, adl, or amre beh maroof va nahye az monkar, available to the subjects and more importantly to the ulama. The 1905 Revolution was a turning point whose key demand was to make the arbitrary power of the monarch subject to the constitution. While this movement ultimately ended in authoritarianism, 70 years later, another revolution replaced the monarchy by Velayateh Faqih in the form of the Islamic Republic. This paper attempts to examine the degree of departure of both constitutions and their amendments from the classical ethicist guidelines towards functional, coherent, checks-and-balances mechanisms. Three key questions will be discussed. First, what were the Legislators’ interpretations and conceptions of sovereignty, legitimacy and representation? Second, what mechanisms were suggested to keep the power in check? Finally, what are the key contrasts between these constitutional devises and the European constitutions which inspired them?

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The Shah put the Iranian military on high alert during the Islamic Revolution in 1978-79. Its high-ranking officers who were in charge of different branches of the Imperial Armed Forces performed their duties under direct orders of the Shah. Thus, from the beginning of the first wave of protests in summer of 1978, the military encountered the protestors in various ways that included declaring Martial law. However, when Shapour Bakhtiar was appointed to the office of prime minister by the Shah who shortly after left the country in January 1979, the military malfunctioned and was unable to continue to perform its duty effectively. As a result, the protestors gained more ground and Bakhtiar’s government collapsed after 37 days when General Abbas Qarabaghi, the Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced the neutrality of the armed forces in the Revolution.

In this paper, I argue how the military establishment failed in its objective to keep the Pahlavi dynasty intact due to its lack of confidence in its own leadership that was mainly the consequence of the shah’s egocentric management of the military leaders’ training. Additionally, I argue that because Bakhtiar was not yet settled into his position as the new prime minister in the heat of those chaotic days in January 1979, the military refused to take heed of his orders, and that is why he could not continue his work as Iran’s newly appointed prime minister.

This paper is based on two sets of primary sources. The first group is a collection of videotaped interviews that are now archived in the Iranian National Library. These interviews were recorded in 2009-10 in Europe and North America. Over 500 hours in total, I have examined over 100 relevant hours of these interviews. They include interviews with Lieutenant General Abdullah “Shapur” Azarbarzin, the commander of Iranian Royal Air Force, General Khalil Shojaee, the director of Iranian military counterintelligence, Rear Admiral Amir Houshang Aryanpour, the deputy commander of the Iranian navy, Amir Aslan Afshar, the Shah’s chief of staff in exile, and the Iranian ambassador to the United States Ardeshir Zahedi, amongst others. The second group is a collection of transcripts of confessions and court proceedings of ex-military leaders of Iran after the Revolution had succeeded and once the provisional government put them on the infamous kangaroo trials led by Sadeq Khalkhali.

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The Cultural Revolution was a period after the 1979 revolution in Iran, when all universities in Iran were closed for three years (1980-83). After these three years, the students/faculty/staff that were not in compliance with the new regime were purged, strict political and ideological screening was placed on admissions and employment, and student/faculty behavior was closely monitored. Clergymen were appointed to administrative/teaching positions, males and females were segregated and Islamic ideology courses were introduced in all fields of study. The most ambitious plan was to restructure the universities along the tradition of Shi'ite Islamic schools known as Howze and to combine expertise with commitment to Islam. Politically, the Islamic Cultural Revolution was the Islamic state's attempt to remove the opposition from the universities and to integrate the institutions into the Islamic state. Ideologically, it aimed at desecularizing the institutions and turning them into ideologically loyal institutions. The Cultural Revolution can be categorized in three stages: first, theoretical development of the revolutionary transformation of the educational system; second, the attempt to close universities and to purge dissident student groups from universities; third, university closures and establishing of Cultural Revolution council.
The focus of this paper is a descriptive study of the formation of the Cultural Revolution. To answer the question whether the Cultural Revolution was a project orchestrated by the government; whether it was the outcome of the political conflicts of various militia groups in the universities; or whether it can be explained in terms of power struggle within the government. Do we see different approaches to the Cultural Revolution among male and female students? What are the political and ideological foundations of the Islamization of the universities? Do we see the foundation of Islamization in the works of influential scholars such as Ali Shariati , Morteza Motohari, Ahmad Fardid, Seyed Hossein Nasr? Was the Islamization influenced by China's experience and Marxism, what is the evidence? How the "Islamization" was implemented? What are the consequences of the Cultural Revolution?

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There is a daunting challenge facing the democratization process and the consolidation of the constitutional liberal democracy on the contemporary Iranian political scene : “the paradox of nationalism in multinational states”. The observance of the nations' right to self-determination, guaranteed by the liberal democratic constitution, international law and the doctrine of human rights prima facie, paradoxically, justifies the national minorities' claim to self-determination in the multinational states. Does national minorities’ right to self determination in Iran permit a right to political divorce from the existing nation-state?

The demarcation of the nation and the establishment of nation-states however have not come about as a voluntary process. The nation-building however, in most cases, has not been a successful pursuit. The forceful nation-building therefore has historically sowed the seeds of a crisis in the soil of the multinational states. Minority nations within multi-national states have constantly attempted to pursue their right to self-determination in various ways (Eisenstadt and Rokkan 1973; Gellner 1983; Anderson 1991).

Some theorists argue that secession is indeed the most appropriate response to the crisis of multinational states. (Philpott 1995; Buchanan 1991). Secessionist struggles are often assessed from an ethical perspective, in terms of either justice based, or autonomy/self-determination based arguments. Justice based theorists argue that there is a right to secede only when a secessionist group is a victim of injustice (Seymour 2007). In this sense the right to secede is conceived as a remedial right only, as a right through which a group may have to remedy an injustice imposed on them. The proponent of the autonomy-based position, by contrast, typically defend the right to secede based on the significance of collective identity to individual self-respect and the exercise of autonomy (Raz 1990; Wellman 1995; Moore 1998).

In this paper, we intend to examine the national minorities' claim to self-determination in Iran. We will, first, investigate whether national minorities in Iran have any justified claim to self-determination. This is to be established by determining whether they would fit into a definition of nation available in the literature and whether they have been subjected to the unjust process of nation-building. We will then assess the possible responses to national minorities' claims to self-determination, while primarily focusing on the question whether their allegedly justified right to self-determination entitles them to a right to secession.