Iran is on the verge of a sea change
ulhasj at SPAMbom4.vsnl.net.in
Thu Dec 23 05:19:17 MST 1999
Volume 16 - Issue 26, Dec. 11 - 24, 1999
India's National Magazine on indiaserver.com
from the publishers of THE HINDU
Rumblings of a revolution
Iran is on the verge of a sea change.
EVEN the most ardent of pro-changers in Iran will not admit that they smell
a whiff of 1979 in the air. It is only hope mingled with fear about the
course developments could take in the next few months that prevents them
from acknowledging what every sen se tells them is the objective reality.
Nearly 20 years since the overthrow of the Iranian monarchy, the Islamic
regime that took its place is fast losing its last shreds of legitimacy.
By February next year, the various tendencies jostling for supremacy within
the clerical regime could finally acquiesce to the growing public demand for
democracy, and effectuate a smooth transformation of the power structure
into a truly democratic one. If developments take such a course, Iran can
emerge as a liberal society enriched by a revolutionary morality. That is
the hope. Alternatively, elements of the clergy whose interests are
entrenched in the status quo could battle other clergymen a nd the vast
majority of Iranians whose views they espouse. There is no small danger that
some status quoists would be prepared to destroy Iran in order to save the
revolution. Therein lies the fear.
The objective reality in Iran today is that the Islamic Revolution as a
political system has run its course. It is over. As a system where the
higher echelons of the clergy directed the praxis of society with
overwhelming support from the people, it no l onger exists. The top
clergyman continues to issue directives to the people and his loyalists are
ready to silence those who show defiance. But they are no longer the
vanguard of a revolution which draws sustenance from the people; only a
junta clinging to dictatorial powers. The smarter clerics - the reformers -
realise that the Iranian people have decided to take control of their own
lives and that the clergy in this deeply religious society can best
contribute through guidance and advice.
Three years ago, the position of the Wali Faqih (the Supreme Religious
Jurisconsult), Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei, had seemed unassailable. It was
impossible to find any Iranian who would openly criticise the Leader or even
question the judgment he exerc ised in particular instances. There was some
talk of differences in outlook between Khamenei and President Hojatolleslam
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani but it was not only politically incorrect but
revolutionary anathema to talk of any split or duality in the clerical
hierarchy. It was no secret that there were different tendencies within the
clerical establishment but there was a sustainable myth that the clergy
would successively resolve their differences and do so in the interests of
Iranian society as a whole. This often went beyond the level of mere
pretext. Most Iranians seemed prepared to make the effort to believe that
they were participants in a process and also components of a system uniquely
designed for Iranian needs.
Today even the mildest of controversial statements by Khamenei invites a
barrage of criticism in the liberal press. In the public regard, he often
comes across as a fool and sometimes as a charlatan, while Rafsanjani is
almost universally considered a ru thless and amoral politician. Hard-core
conservatives, such as the Janatis and the Yazdis who were once admired for
their anti-imperialist boldness, are now feared for their fanaticism. The
language used against the conservative clergy, whether the conve rsation
takes place in private, in offices or in the street, is usually strong,
often unprintable. As for the Vilayat-e-Faiqh - the post-revolutionary
system wherein the Wali Faqih is the ultimate source of authority - the
dominant opinion is that it mu st transform itself into something like a
constitutional monarchy if it is to continue to have any relevance. The
"Us-Them" duality is the fundamental precept in the Iranian political
Until recently, it was difficult for an external observer to assess
concretely the balances within the Iranian system. Right from the beginning
of the revolutionary epoch, it has been evident that there were a host of
competing tendencies within the esta blishment. Different viewpoints on
civic, economic, strategic and social issues were fused with ideological
teachings from all manner of sources and the whole was further catalysed by
the tenets of Islam to produce a smorgasbord of political agendas. But all
this was within an establishment that was overwhelmingly clerical. Political
agendas bereft of a scriptural underpinning were either banned altogether or
allowed to rot in the margins. Now there is a fundamental change.
While the most prominent actors in the unfolding Iranian drama are garbed in
clerical roles, they are merely actors, no more the playwrights. The
dominant themes in the unfolding Iranian situation are now scripted by
people outside the clerical establish ment: liberal journalists who make
their newspapers function like, and thereby substitute for, political
parties; student, labour and professional groups, and the huge mass of
working women and educated girls who find that the clerics' intellectual
meand erings have no relevance to their sectoral requirements; and
professors of theology like Souroush, "the Iranian Luther".
When so many groups start articulating their separate aspirations, all at
the same time, a cacophony could be expected. Paradoxically Iran is in a
rather fortunate situation in this respect because each of these groups
realise that they are in the initia l phase of self-definition. If various
institutions are to function in harmony, they have to set out the ground
rules to demarcate their respective spheres. If emerging institutions have
to work within their legitimate sphere, so do existing institutions . A net
result is the demand that every social institution be limited to its
appropriate and legitimate sphere. Since in the Iranian scheme of things
until now religion was the social institution which subsumed all others, the
common demand now is that t he role of religion in society be henceforth
THE overall development has not been as neatly linear as set out above, but
the point is that across a wide swathe of public opinion the majority demand
is for restriction in the role of religion while only one segment stands for
the status quo. T his has resulted in the demarcation between the "us" and
the "them". The demarcation might not have mattered much if the majority of
the people had not been so obsessed with religion that they supported the
"them" against the multitude of other instituti ons. But what became clear
during the presidential election of 1997 and was subsequently re-confirmed
by the elections to the local bodies last year, is that over 70 per cent of
the Iranian populace now wants their society to be a pluralistic and multi-s
There were elements within the clerical hierarchy - such as Syed Mohammed
Khatami, Abdollah Nouri, Mousavi-Koeniha - who were able to respond to this
fundamental change in public beliefs and aspirations. The leadership they
have provided has been no smal l factor in this mass shifting of social
aspirations. Khatami hammered away at the importance of the "rule of law" -
that all systems and processes must function according to clearly
established rules - during his election campaign of 1997. The "rule of law"
was a euphemistic expression to convey that the various components of the
clerical establishment - including the office of the Wali Faqih, and the
constitutional and administrative bodies under his control - should be just
as subject to the law as a ny other social institution.
Khatami's role in the new Iranian revolution has been to keep its pace
steady so that too hasty a push does not produce a backlash. The job of
pushing the envelope has been left to others and none has done it to such
devastating effect as Abdollah Nouri, Managing Editor of the Khordad
newspaper. Nouri made one foray after another into subjects not considered
kosher by the dominant elements of the clerical establishment. Sections of
the Koranic criminal code that provide for recompense to v ictims of
aggression were questioned for their lack of contemporaneity. Khordad also
published articles that expressed the views of the National Front for Iran
and the Freedom Movement of Iran - organisations which had contributed to
the overthrow of the Shah, but had subsequently been de-legitimised by the
clergy. That was only the prelude.
Nouri was arraigned before a special clerical court on charges that the
Khordad had published libellous material and spread lies. Himself a
Hojatolleslam (a theological scholar whose grade is just below that of
Ayatollah) and a member of the "fami ly of the revolution", Nouri went
before the court and blew up a virtual philosophical landmine beneath the
clerical establishment. In a legal defence that is bound to become one of
Iran's most important historical documents, Nouri blasted almost every s
ingle taboo which has constrained the nation. He questioned the legitimacy
of the court; when told that its legitimacy was unquestionable since it had
been set up by the Leader, Nouri retorted that the Leader's action was
itself illegitimate since he had never been vested with limitless authority.
On relations with the United States, something that Khamenei rails against
in and out of season, Nouri demanded to know why the issue could not be
discussed exhaustively in public when secret parleys were going on. On
relations with Israel, Nouri wanted to know why Iran must have such a closed
mind when the Palestinians were beginning to look after their own affairs.
On the house arrest imposed on Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (Imam
Khomeini's chosen successor until he was superseded by Khamenei ) Nouri
wanted to know why one of the most important religious scholars in the
country was being denied the right to communicate with his fellow citizens.
On the National Front and the Freedom Movement, Nouri wanted to know why
they were proscribed when the Imam himself had praised their contribution to
Nouri was sent to jail for five years and banned from practising journalism
for another five. But by the time he had finished, he had set off a
philosophical earthquake. A week later, its tremors were shaking Qom, the
citadel of the Ayatollah's power. Le ading theologians had joined
publishers, students, academics and ordinary citizens in questioning the
legitimacy of not just the court which tried Nouri, but the entire
establishment that it had come to represent. When the revolutionary
establishment pun ished Nouri, one of the intellectual firebrands who had
helped create it in the first place, it exposed itself as a beast which
devours its own offspring.
THE mistakes committed by the status quoists have contributed as much to the
decline of their standing as the attacks by the pro-changers. At almost
every stage of the confrontation that has been going on since Khatami's
election, the conservative s have opted for iron-hand methods. Their refusal
to confirm some of Khatamis choices for the Cabinet, or endorse the
impeachment of others were among the milder rebuttals of the conservatives.
To the Khatami Government's efforts to make the national deb ate as wide as
possible by liberally issuing licences for new publications, the
conservatives retaliated by using the plethora of courts at their command to
close one after the other.
Several secular but moderate intellectuals were killed by a group of
supposedly "rogue" intelligence operatives. Enquiries into the killings have
not been concluded but dark rumours abound that the killings were pursuant
to fatwas issued by conservative theologians. Students protesting against
the closure of a liberal newspaper were set upon by the Ansar-e-Hizbollah,
the conservatives' strong-arm brigade. While several of the protesters were
sentenced to imprisonment, not a single Ansar has been punishe d for the
murderous assault. Ansar chieftains are openly talking of procuring arms to
"defend the revolution", and there is no indicationthat any action will be
taken against them.
In earlier instances the conservatives could fall back upon the Leader,
whose stand on various issues was left ambiguous. This enabled Khamenei to
step in and sort out differences whenever the conservatives boxed themselves
into a corner. Khamenei's inte rventions almost always helped the
conservatives, but not to such an extent that he lost all legitimacy to
mediate on the other side. But of late, Khamenei had begun miscalculating,
and not surprisingly, his impartiality was exposed to be a hoax in the N
Iranian conservatives are today on a slippery path to nowhere. Some of them
genuinely believe that the viewpoints they espouse are sanctified by
religion. Others have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo since
they have reaped the monet ary benefits the revolutionary set-up has thrown
their way. Whatever their motivation, they realise that they are set against
the tide of history, and their only real hope now is that a flash-flood of
violence will somehow stymie the inevitable. There is genuine fear amongst
the reformers and the public that the conservatives will provoke a violent
confrontation, and that too, very soon.
Time-wise there is a definite span within which the Iranian developments
have to pan out. Parliamentary elections are due on February 18, 2000 and it
is almost a foregone conclusion that with the momentum so much in their
favour the reformists will swee p the slate. Once, or if, they do, they are
certain to transform completely the clerical establishment even if they do
not legislate it out of existence.
For the moment the conservatives can draw relief from the fact that they
control the apparatus, the Council of Guardians, which decides who should be
allowed to stand for election. But this power is also limited in practical
terms because if the conserva tives do prevent the pro-changers from putting
their first, second or third choice candidates on the ballot paper the
turn-out will be so poor as to make a mockery of the electoral process.
Large-scale abstention from the ballot booths will be just anoth er
indictment of the conservatives' illegitimacy.
The next two months will be testing times for Khatami. There are murmurs of
dissent within the pro-changer ranks, especially among the students, at his
perceived pusillanimity. The more ardent among them feel that Khatami should
have been far more outsp oken in his critique of the conservatives. The
President has so far succeeded in counselling the dissenters that patience
will bring its rewards; he has enough supporters among the sober-minded
citizenry to help him hold the ranks together.
As one leading woman pro-changer put it, the current situation in Iran could
be seen in either of two metaphorical terms. It could either be viewed as a
huge pool of petrol waiting for a spark. Or it could be seen as a balloon
which can be blown up some more before it reaches the bursting point. Either
way an explosion looks inevitable unless some inconceivable outlet can be
found to let out the pressure.
So far, the clerics of the status quo have not bent to the ideas of the
reform advocates. The conservatives' belief in the legitimacy of violence
could lead to a blood-bath. If so, they will only prolong the death throes
of the Islamic revolutiona ry system. Something even more profoundly
disturbing for the religious hardliners could happen sooner than they think.
Beneath the sober commentary and grim analysis there is another sound to be
heard on the streets - the sound of bubbling laughter. The tragedy that the
Revolution has now become could in time be turned into a farce by the
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