The Contradictions and Consequences of Civil Society and Governance in the Islamic Republic of Iran

By Eric Lob
Submitted to Session P5107 (Civil Society and Governance in the Middle East, 2018 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Based on fieldwork in Iran, this paper examines the civic associations of former revolutionary activists and war veterans. Analyzing these associations sheds light on the interconnection between and the paradoxes of factional politics and associational life in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), a semi-authoritarian or hybrid state with non-elective and elective institutions. While these associations claimed to be independent and apolitical, they comprised government-organized nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs) – a contradiction in terms – because they were established with the encouragement and support of political elites from different factions in an effort to gain popular legitimacy, political support, and electoral votes. This phenomenon corresponded with previous non-Tocquevillian notions of Middle Eastern civil society as an object of elite clientelism, cooptation, and corporatism through which social capital and interpersonal trust were leveraged to reinforce the authoritarian status quo rather than promote democratic change.

Nevertheless, these associations also produced unintended consequences. Despite the attempts by political elites to mobilize and socialize voters and supporters through these associations, they were infiltrated, steered, and exploited by activists and veterans from opposing factions who did so by concealing their political, religious, and ideological orientations in the spirit of preference falsification. Like other organizations and institutions in the IRI, these associations were not immune to factional politics at the state level nor were they beholden to a single political faction despite elite efforts to the contrary. While using these associations to advance their political interests, political elites simultaneously empowered previously fragmented and marginalized activists and veterans by enabling them to organize a critical mass of constituents and aggregate popular claims from below. In a quid pro quo or bidirectional fashion, these associations became advocacy or interest groups and pressured the very state that they ostensibly assisted and supported into providing increased and improved public goods and social services. As such, these associations represented a seedbed for authentic and autonomous activism. At the same time, they benefitted the state by constituting a controlled feedback mechanism, relegating reform to the socioeconomic instead of the political, and confining contentious politics to the routine (e.g., lobbying and legislating) rather than the non-routine (e.g., strikes and sit-ins).