Iranian strategic decision-making remains largely misunderstood by the West. The system in place does make the Supreme Leader the ultimate decision-maker, and it does give the president constitutional authority, and, as in any system, there are multiple institutional prerogatives that drive decision-making as well. However, in Iran it is the informal institutions that drive decision-making and it is the factional competition that determines the structure of the decision-making system. Factions compete for power and position and it is this factional competition that enables and constrains policy choices. Further, the main mechanism used to advance factional competition is honoring and humiliating opponents. This paper examines the role of honor as social power in the factional competition, conceptualized and operationalized as social networks, that shapes Iran’s strategic policy preference formation. I do so by tracking the rise and fall of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from grace using network analysis and honor as social power. To date, no one has attempted a thorough network analysis of the factions that make up the Iranian political elite. Further, the role of honor, a social construct, recently gaining renewed importance in the IR literature, has yet to be operationalized in a way that is compatible with either analytical or computational methods. This paper gives the background of the political elite, charts the factions that comprise that elite, conceptualizes honor as social power, and then uses a social network analysis method to demonstrate the salience of honor in the factional competition that shapes the foreign and security policy of Iran.
SNA includes social as well as material forms of power, “research into behaviors of agents of all kinds… shows that relative social connectedness is a crucial factor in cooperation and conflict behaviors” (Hafner-Burton 2009a, 29). In the factional competition among the Iranian political elite material power takes the form of gaining a position for someone or removing them from power and in extreme cases arresting or even physically harming someone. Social power takes the form of honoring and humiliating. There are three main ways that social power is utilized in network analysis. First, there is the power to bargain or broker. This speaks directly to the capability of actors to link sub-networks that are not connected. In this particular case this means those members of the elite that are the links between factions. Even here, however, there is an empirical question as to whether this power to negotiate and broker is due to social power or material power. That question will be answered in part by examining the appropriate measure of these key actors in both the informal and formal institutions that shape foreign policy preferences.
Second, there is the power of key nodes to change the shape and size, the topography, of their sub-network. Since the factional structure of Iran’s political elite lends itself to a scale-free network analysis, “which are characterized by a small number of nodes that are connected to a large number of other nodes that are not themselves highly connected,” (Lake 2009, 129) the social power of the sub-network’s hub—the faction leader—is therefore of key interest. These measures will be taken for each network leader across the various sub-networks for which relata are available. Given the power of exit of those other than faction leaders and key allies whose fortunes are too closely tied to the faction leader, that is the voluntary nature of the factions modeled as scale-free networks there are constraints on how far a sub-network’s central node can abuse its power. “Central nodes can manipulate the network to their advantage, but only up to the point where the members become indifferent between continuing to participate in the network and exiting in favor of their next best alternative” (Lake 2009, 130-31). Faction leaders gain positions of authority and bestow offices and honors on their faction members as well as making coercive moves against the members of other factions to weaken that faction’s leader. In network theory this is expressed thusly. “Central nodes can also capitalize on that ‘structural’ power by making the network more efficient and valuable to its members, further enhancing the power of the central node. The emergence of power within networks is a dynamic and self-reinforcing process” (Lake 2009, 131). Third, there is the power to shape the overall structure of the network through the local interactions of the central nodes.