Iran: The New Reformists

The Islamic Republic of Iran is about to enter its most formidable crisis since the 1979 revolution, confronting the United States with new challenges in the already unstable Persian Gulf region. The mass disqualification of the reformist candidates by the hard-line Council of Guardians ahead of February 20 parliamentary elections ensures that the conservatives will have a majority in the next parliament. However, the conservatives’ seeming triumph may contain the seed of their destruction.

Far from restoring their political hegemony, the hardliners’ obstruction of the democratic process is leading to the emergence of a new and emboldened reform movement. A nascent coalition of disenfranchised parliamentarians, dissident clerics, hard-pressed middle class elements and rebelling students is rising to the surface, challenging the mandates of Islamic rule. Instead of President Muhammad Khatami’s patient path of gradualism, the new reformers seek immediate change through drastic methods. Instead of patient negotiations with the right, confrontation, protest and defiance are likely to characterize Iran’s politics for the foreseeable future.

The United States has a stake in Iran’s internal power struggle. By tempering its rhetoric and relaxing its economic sanctions, which are resented by average Iranians, Washington can intensify the existing internal pressures for change.

The Islamic Republic is a regime of paradoxes. The revolutionaries of the 1970s sought to create an order in which temporal affairs would conform to divine mandates. Thus, the office of the Supreme Leader was invested with the power to abrogate election results and to appoint the heads of the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards. The dominance of the clerical estate over national affairs was further strengthened by the creation of a Council of Guardians, which is largely made of up of clerics responsible to the dictates of the Supreme Leader and empowered to screen all candidates for public office and to scrutinize parliamentary legislation for conformity to religious principles.

However, the public that had overthrown the monarchy could not be categorically excluded from the deliberations of the state. Thus, the president, parliament and local councils were to be chosen by the electorate. Despite the impressive array of powers granted to the clerical elite, Iran’s revolutionaries created a governing arrangement whereby collective will would remain an important source of legitimacy. For the theocracy to function, indeed survive, it had to find a balance between divine authority and popular representation.

During the first two decades of the Islamic Republic, the charismatic authority of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the challenges of a prolonged war and national reconstruction obscured the regime’s underlying contradictions. Iran’s contending political factions accepted the clerical elite’s fiats, while elections were occasions for the public to endorse the Ayatollahs’ mandates. In the meantime, the democratic promises of the constitution remained largely unfulfilled, as the clerical oligarchs neither tolerated dissent nor honored the constitutional pledge of political freedom. Revolutionary excess and rigid dogma became the twin pillars of Iranian politics and the bond between the regime and the populace gradually began to erode.

By the 1990s, Iran’s seminaries and universities were simmering with ideas about how to refashion the theocracy along more representative lines. The younger generation of clerics and their counterparts in the intelligentsia insisted that for the Islamic Republic to remain vital, it had to conform to the demands of the time. Terms such as civil society, rule of law and pluralism laced the rhetoric of Iran’s aspiring politicians and enterprising intellectuals. For the stagnant republic to be revived, it had to accommodate basic rights and freedoms and accept the necessity of modern transformations.

The first tangible victory for this coalition came in 1997, when, against all odds, one of its partisans, Muhammad Khatami, defeated the establishment’s candidate for the office of the presidency. Khatami inspired the entire nation by insisting, "protecting freedom of the individual and the rights of nation is an imperative enshrined in our religion." Suddenly, elections in Iran mattered, as the public utilized electoral politics as a means of injecting its voice in the corridors of power. The children of the revolution had come to see themselves as agents of change rather than as passive pawns of the clerical state. Iranians felt they could and should shape the ideals and direction of the state through participation in elections and public affairs.

Once in power, Khatami opted for a strategy of gradual change, seeking to reform the Islamic Republic from within its own institutions. During the "Tehran Spring" of 1997, hundreds of publications were licensed, censorship guidelines were loosened, and permits for reformist groups and gatherings were issued. The reformers further expanded their institutional base by triumphing in local council elections of 1999 and in the parliamentary contest of 2000. For the first time, the Islamic Republic appeared responsive to the demands of its constituents.

As the reform movement gained momentum and began to make inroads in the power structure, the hardliners' counterattack was swift and decisive. Through cynical use of their institutional powers, the hardliners shuttered hundreds of publications, imprisoned key reformers, countermanded parliamentary legislation, and disqualified reformist candidates. The purpose of this stratagem was not just to undermine the reform movement, but to disillusion the public and provoke its exodus from the political process. The militant faction of the clerical community simply refused to countenance a challenge to its anachronistic vision of theocracy.

Led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the hardline mullahs are not only contemptuous of democratic accountability, but also openly acclaim the virtues of despotism. Khamenei captured this sentiment by stressing, "Democracy and liberalism both of which are inspired by the Western culture must not become encrusted in the foundation of the Islamic regime." Despite its manifest popular defects, the radical mullahs remain committed to their interpretation of Islam and view themselves as the only legitimate heirs of the founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.

At a time when Iran was undergoing momentous changes, the Bush Administration adopted a policy which was not only self-defeating, but also counterproductive. In yet another gesture of regime change, the Administration steadily appealed to the Iranian people to overthrow their government. The presidential adviser, Zalmay Khalilzad, captured the essence of this policy in July 2002, by claiming, "Our policy is not about Khatami or Khamenei, reform or hardliner; it’s about those who want freedom, human rights, democracy, and economic opportunity." Although such statements seem inspirational, they betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the complexities of Iran’s internal politics. Under a pretext of national resistance to external intervention, the conservatives quickly embarked on a new backlash against the reformers, prompting even those reformers with pro-American proclivities to denounce U.S. interference. The prominent reformist journalist Saeed Laylaz lamented Washington’s strategy, emphasizing, "Unfortunately the government of the United States usually chooses actions that benefit the conservatives. I don’t know why, I can’t explain to you why, but every response by the United States on internal Iran issues is to the benefit of the conservatives."

The cynical conservative strategy soon began to yield fruit. During last February’s municipal elections, the poor turnout allowed the right-wing candidates to capture the majority of the local political bodies. A similar degree of public apathy is likely to greet the parliamentary contest, given that the hardliners have disqualified Iran’s most popular politicians. However, far from restoring their political monopoly, the conservatives’ strategy is giving birth to a new reform movement.

Despite the conservative backlash, Iran’s reform movement has not crumbled. If anything, it is entering a new and more aggressive phase with the emergence of a younger generation of leaders. The reformers have rejected the strategy of incremental change and opted for the more assertive policies of disengagement and confrontation. The reform parliamentarians’ resignations and boycott of the elections has essentially de-legitimized the government, whose survival requires a degree of popular consent. And student organizations are increasingly engaging in open defiance of the theocracy’s prohibitions. Instead of changing the system from within, the new activists are seeking to pressure it from outside.

The new reform strategy crystallized this past month, when the country’s largest reform party, Iran’s Islamic Participation Front (IIPF) refused to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the head of the IIPF and brother of the president, declared in no uncertain terms, "Unfortunately all hopes are lost today, and the illegal disqualifications have deprived us of the chances for any reforms in this sick process." Mohsen Mirdamadi, one of Iran’s most popular reformers, went a step further, stressing, "We consider what is happening a non-military coup that aims to change the government so that the minority will take charge at the expense of the majority." The reformers departure from the state revokes the republican pillar of the theocratic regime, essentially evaporating its legitimacy.

As the reformers leave the government, university students, chafing under suffocating cultural restrictions and frustrated by lack of employment opportunities, are increasingly defying the state. At a time when Iran meets only half the employment needs of the one million annual job seekers, the prospects of Iran’s youth are indeed daunting. In the past few years, Iran’s turbulent universities have emerged as the focal point of anti-regime agitation. The foremost student organization, the Office of Consolidation and Unity, denounced any compromise with the clerical elite, stressing, "The reason why people are so disillusioned is because of the existence of powerful bodies which in the end render parliament powerless." While in the past Iran’s impatient youth deprecated the parliamentarians for their participation in the system, the recent disqualifications have finally bought these two wings of the reform movement together.

To this volatile mixture of protest and resistance, an additional factor must be added: middle class defiance. Iran’s diminishing economic prospects affect not only students, but also many hard-pressed professionals whose living standards have steadily declined since the revolution. Stagnating wages and poor working conditions have resulted in large-scale labor protests in major cities, including Tehran, Isfahan, Arik, Alborz and Shiraz. In a disturbing development for the regime, labor protests are increasingly political, with clerics getting the blame for the dismal economic situation.

As the Iranian populace stands disillusioned with its revolution, an important segment of the clerical community is beginning to appreciate the need to distance itself from the regime. Iran’s foremost dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, has led the charge by emphasizing, "What the conservative leaders are practicing is not true Islam, and I oppose it." Historically, the Shiite clerics have prided themselves on having close ties to the masses and have strived hard to nurture those bonds. The conduct of the Islamic Republic and its "political" mullahs has appalled Iran’s senior theologians who are loath to grant religious sanction to a corrupt and unaccountable regime.

For long, the divisions and fractures within the broad-based reform movement diminished its effectiveness. Under the leadership of Khatami, the reformers sought change through compromise and viewed incremental progress as a sign of success. The arrogance of the hardliners and their systematic exclusion of reformist candidates from the political process has essentially ended that strategy, but it has not ended the reformist sentiments that pervade Iran. The disparate strands of the reform movement that in the past worked at cross-purposes are gradually coming together, confronting the Islamic Republic with challenges that it cannot contain and demands that it cannot ignore. Twenty-five years after its historic revolution, Iran is once more entering a phase of instability and disorder, from which a new democratic polity may yet be born.

The proper path for the United States is to subtly integrate Iran into the international economy and global society. Such measures would pressure Iran toward decentralization, accountability, and transparency, all anathema to the extreme right. The fact remains that the primary beneficiary of U.S. hostility are the conservatives, as they have long required external demons as a means of justifying their monopoly of political power. A more forthcoming U.S. policy would have the advantage of depriving them of an ability to mobilize a nationalistic population behind their crusade against external threats.

Ray Takeyh is a professor of national security studies and director of studies at the Near East and South Asia Center of the National Defense University and an adjunct scholar at the Center for American Progress.