Providing a ‘Who’s Who’ for Iran’s last four decades
Some spoke of a “thousand families” ruling Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. A new book based on decades of research reveals family and other links within today’s Iranian political class.
“Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook” is easily the most extensive “Who’s Who” and political anatomy of Iran’s 39-year-old Islamic republic. The book is by Mehrzad Boroujerdi and Kourosh Rahimkhani, respectively professor of political science at Syracuse University and a doctoral candidate at Binghamton University.
In surveying 36 national elections, organisations, institutions and positions appointed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the book offers evidence of the system’s cohesion and durability. This is topical given looming American sanctions and increasing talk in Washington of “regime change.”
“You will see that [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s family ties are the most extensive,” Boroujerdi said. “He’s connected to Mohsen Reza’i [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander 1981-97], the Sadr family, going back to Lebanon, as well as [former presidents] Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.”
Boroujerdi said such ties, given Iran’s lack of effective political parties, influence decisions. “Preserving the reputation of the family and making sure they are in a regular circle of trust is important,” he said.
With roots in traditional Shia clerical intermarriage, the practice, extended across the political class, may bolster the regime. “It makes them strong in the sense of knowing each other intimately, being able to use informal channels, maybe wives, to plead a case,” said Boroujerdi. The limits, he said, were seen in Khamenei criticising Rafsanjani or in Hadi Khamenei siding with reformists against his elder brother.
Intermarriage and other intra-regime networks have been shaped by durable connections forged during the revolution and the 1980-88 Iraq war. “Many of the students who took over the US Embassy [in 1979] married each other and I counted 23 who went on to occupy important political positions,” said Boroujerdi. “The current IRGC commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, married the sister of a fellow hostage-taker.”
The book, said Boroujerdi, identified “four resume-enhancers: prison before the revolution, serving in the Iran-Iraq war, being in a family of martyrs, being an IRGC member.”
The cabinet with most ex-IRGC members — 19 out of 42 — was former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second (2009-13). “I haven’t seen evidence that Ahmadinejad served at the fronts during the war,” said Boroujerdi, “but it’s fascinating how many of the people he appointed to his administration were his buddies from the Revolutionary Guard period, including [Sadeq] Mahsuli, his IRGC war-time commander.”
Boroujerdi has not, however, found extensive intermarriage between the professional IRGC cadres, who replaced the mass participation of 1980-88, and the wider elite.
As well as the IRGC’s position, post-revolutionary Iran offers data relevant to assessing other alleged weaknesses of the Islamic republic: the role of non-Persians and the “greying” of the elite.
On the latter, Iran’s assemblies all show politicians ageing. In the Guardian Council the median age has risen from 50 to 66. In the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the leader, it has gone from 55 to 68. In the Majles or parliament, it has gone from 41 to 51, and in the cabinet from 52 to 57.
The Majles’s younger profile reflects a low incumbency rate of 33%. That’s well below, Boroujerdi pointed out, the US Congress at 90%. There is far less turnover in the unelected Guardian and Expediency Councils.
Overall, said Boroujerdi, a transition was looming: “After 40 years people are circling out, and new forces are coming into play.”
With nationalities, the data suggest relative inclusiveness. “If before the revolution, much of the political elite came from Tehran, after the revolution it became more ‘democratic’ in distribution,” said Boroujerdi.
Figures show that 26.7% of all ministers are from Tehran province, home to 18% of the national population. Isfahan, Fars and Razavi Khorasan, including Mashhad, have also been important, making up 13.9%, 6.4% and 5.2% of the cabinet, respectively.
So has Khuzestan, some of whose Arab population have alleged discrimination. It has 3.2% of ministers, the ninth highest of Iran’s 31 provinces. Its prominent sons have included Reza’i and top security official Ali Shamkhani.
Among poorer provinces, Hormozgan and South Khorasan have produced only one minister each and Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad none.
The big losers, the statistics indicate, are Sunnis, who are concentrated in Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchestan. “There has never been a Sunni minister or vice-president,” said Boroujerdi. “There have been Sunnis in the Experts Assembly and in the Majles, nothing more than that.”