New Internationalist

Justice & Rights

Issue 387

Imran Shafi argues that Iran’s democratic opposition cannot afford to choose one over the other.

In May 1997 a young, vibrant and progressive politician thrilled the nation, winning a landslide victory and putting an end to years of conservative dominance at the ballot box. ‘At last,’ people thought, ‘we will see real change!’ However, by the summer of 2005, as the nation again prepared for elections, many who had placed their faith in this movement for social and political reform had become disillusioned by its shortcomings. The reformists started to consider two very important questions: ‘Why did we fail?’ and ‘What can we do better next time?’

I am not talking about Tony Blair and the Labour Party in Britain but President Muhammad Khatami and the reform movement in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The 2005 elections brought an end to Khatami’s mandated two terms as President of the Republic. His reformist successors did not even reach the second round run-off that saw the hardline conservative Mahmood Ahmedinejad triumph in a shock result. As hardline conservatives in the United States contemplate the possibility of military action against Iran, it has become imperative for those concerned with social justice to understand the dynamic politics of this complex country. In particular, the prospects for reform from within will be crucial in determining how the outside world and ordinary Iranians view their Government.

Unlike secular countries, where religion and state are not officially supposed to mix, Iran’s constitution places Islam at the heart of its politics. The Supreme Leader, who controls a number of key institutions such as the judiciary and the military, is supposed to be an eminent, recognized scholar of Islam, although the standards were lowered a bit for the current leader, Ali Khamenei, whose theological credentials are weak. Any laws passed by Parliament must be vetted by a Council of Guardians, which can strike down any legislation it deems to be contrary to the spirit of Islam. Thus a democratically elected President and Parliament may be thwarted by parallel institutions that claim to speak in the name of Islam. However, in the 1990s, progressive clerics and religious intellectuals became concerned at the way their religion was being used to justify repressive state policies, and began to develop ideas for a fairer government. One such cleric, Muhammad Khatami, emerged as the figurehead for the nascent movement.

It all started so brightly. Khatami was a dark horse in the 1997 presidential election, opposed by most of the establishment, including the Supreme Leader. Most analysts didn’t give him a chance, expecting the establishment-backed candidate to win easily. Yet, campaigning on a platform of promoting social justice, civil liberties and redressing gender inequality, while emphasizing that these core values were at one with Islam, Khatami came from nowhere to win nearly 70 per cent of the vote, with polls indicating a remarkably high turnout. The Islamic Republic, up until now ruled by either dour clerics or firebrands like Ayatollah Khomeini had seen nothing like him before. Iran was to have a reformist as its President.

But the past eight years have dealt the reform movement severe blows. With the support of the Supreme Leader and his powerful institutions, liberal newspapers were closed and their editors were thrown into prison. Clerics such as Mohsen Kadivar, who compared the Supreme Leader to the dictatorial Shah, also found themselves incarcerated. Murky details have emerged of state involvement in the murder of dissident secular intellectuals and there was a botched assassination attempt against the mastermind of the reform movement, Saeed Hajjarian, now confined to a wheelchair. Any legislative attempts to reduce the power of the Supreme Leader were vetoed by his Council of Guardians and in 2004 the 80 most popular reformist MPs (along with 3,000 other hopefuls) were banned from participating in the parliamentary election. A disenchanted public began to lose faith in the ability of reformists to implement the changes that they had promised and began to look elsewhere for their politics.

This culminated in Ahmadinejad’s surprise victory in the 2005 presidential election. He has been increasingly portrayed in the West as an ultra-conservative, and on social affairs, this view is justified. He has clamped down on many of the liberal reforms that survived the previous conservative backlash, and has attempted what some likened to a coup d’état by attempting to dominate all sections of the complex political system. Of greatest concern to the West are his adoption of a firmer line on nuclear power, along with his provocative statements claiming the Holocaust was a myth and calling for the destruction of Israel. However, these inflammatory opinions and social conservatism are not what led to his election victory. Analysts have suggested instead that his victory was on the back of his anti-corruption policies, and his promises to help redistribute wealth.

In what may seem like a time of despair, this can be seen as good news for the reform movement. First, it seems as though the general public did not feel that reformists went ‘too far’ in their liberalization of public space. Apart from a hard-core minority of conservatives, few stated their dislike of progressive policies as their main reason for supporting Ahmadinejad. Given the size of his victory, after all, many who voted for him would have been the same people that twice gave Khatami a landslide victory when he campaigned on a platform of human rights. So we can say that it is more likely reformist neglect for other issues such as economic prosperity rather than their desire for social justice or a conciliatory relationship with the West that led to their downfall. And we must not forget that Ahmadinejad, like Khatami, was a relative outsider in the election – it was his promise to shake things up at the top which gave him popular support. It is worth having a look at some of the problems that he highlighted.

Ahmadinejad made the valid point that many of the Iranian élite are guilty of corruption, using their privileged positions for their own financial advantage. The 1990s had seen the rise of bourgeois capitalists in Iran under the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. These men brought something of a neoliberal approach to the economy. They tended to be pragmatic on social issues, showing support for whichever vested interests would give them greater economic power. The Khatami Government, although many of its figures had a background in the Islamic Left (and thus were against neoliberal economics), did not do enough to clamp down on this misuse of power. This was especially apparent in sectors such as the oil industry, which was notoriously controlled by Rafsanjani and his cronies at the expense of the poor. Although socially conservative, Ahmadinejad has hinted at an economic policy more focused on those less well off, for instance through increasing the pay of teachers, and it is apparent that this brought him a great deal of support.

The fate of the reform movement is dependent on the ways in which it can relate to the general public. The progressive movement itself is built up mainly of socially liberal students, journalists and clerics, and there is a risk that they have lost touch with the majority living in the less developed rural areas of Iran. The reformists must learn not to ignore economic injustice while arguing the case for their progressive social programmes. Dr Hadi Semati, an expert on politics in Iran, suggests that over half of Iranians still support some sort of reform – it is now a question of being able to articulate a coherent, progressive vision that appeals to the masses.

Some argue that, given the conservative tendencies of the Supreme Leader, attempts to change the system from within are futile. They may have a point. The massive power that the Supreme Leader wields led Khatami to complain that he was unable to do his job properly. Some supporters of reform, especially students, are becoming increasingly daring in their subversive behaviour – using mass rallies, boycotts and other measures to show their disapproval of the Supreme Leader’s unaccountability. But it is important that reformers speak with one voice. If some work within the system, and others outside it, they will both be defeated relatively easily by a powerful government. If they act boldly and in unison, they will be a much more formidable political force. If they are consistent in their positions, they will also be respected by a public that values integrity.

It is interesting to compare Iran with other Muslim countries. While human rights violations and anti-democratic practices cannot be ignored, Iran has greater social and political freedoms than many countries traditionally backed by the United States, such as Saudi Arabia.

President Khatami appointed a woman as his Vice-President; in Saudi Arabia, women are not even allowed to drive, let alone participate in political life. In a country such as Egypt, the political battle is often between authoritarian secularists (President Mubarak) and conservative Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood). Out of all Muslim countries, only in Iran has a large progressive movement used Islam as its justification against authoritarian government. When the al-Watan party attempted this in Egypt, both the hardline secularists and Islamists quickly moved to crush it, fearful of its calls for human rights and democracy.

The Ahmadinejad presidency has created uncertainties over which direction Iran will take. It seems likely that fearful pragmatic conservatives will join with the reformists in attempting to constrain his radical agenda. Some claim that the increased rhetoric against reformists and outsiders is an attempt to disguise Ahmadinejad’s ineptitude in economic policy. His promise of greater economic redistribution gave him his early appeal. His efforts to create distractions hint that he is speaking from a position of weakness. Most close observers of Iran believe that in the long run the population will become disenchanted with his extreme views.

The politics of Iran is likely to emerge as one of the most crucial issues in the early years of the 21st century. We must not ignore the richness and potential of its reform movement. Any progressive change in Iran must come internally. Foreign support would likely hinder rather than aid the reformists. Indeed, Western aggression is only likely to provoke nationalist sentiment amongst an Iranian population that views the CIA-backed coup of 1953 as the beginning of a period of oppression and disenfranchisement. The key battle is not Iran vs The West, but Iran vs Iran.

A traditional Persian saying translates as: ‘Go as far as you can see, and when you get there you’ll see further.’ These are dark days for people in the reform movement, but while doing everything they can to restrain Ahmadinejad, they must also continue to advocate their vision of a progressive state fighting against economic and social injustice. And if a backlash against Ahmadinejad’s failed economic promises does occur, their vision – of a state where human rights and Islam complement rather than contradict each other – will gain popular credibility.

Imran Shafi is studying International Relations at Cambridge University and is the co-ordinator of the Western Sahara Campaign, UK. ifshafi@gmail.com

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