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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 19:04 GMT 20:04 UK
Iran 'must reform now'
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami
President Khatami looks certain to win a second mandate
Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics says Iran cannot afford to lose time with reform

The issues underlying Iranians' choice of a president are ones that go way beyond those of most other elections: they involve choices with regard to the future direction of Iranian politics and Iranian society, more than 20 years after the Islamic revolution, and choices about Iran's relations with the outside world.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains supreme leader
There are many people in Iran who want to see change - in society, politics and foreign relations.

They are dissatisfied with the controls of the revolutionary regime and want to improve relations with Iran's neighbours and with the West. There are others who oppose such changes and who believe that Iran should continue along the lines of the past two decades.

Camp balance

At the moment there appears to be some kind of balance between these camps: public opinion is on the side of change, but those who hold power in the state are more evenly distributed.

In practice this means that Mohammad Khatami's room for manoeuvre will be limited. He does not have the independent political base for a determined challenge to conservatives and, despite his evident intellectual gifts, he appears to lack the political will to confront his opponents.

Iran appears to be on the eve of another period in which change is slowed down.

If there is one idea that unites reformers and conservatives, and which is fundamentally mistaken, it is that Iran can afford another four years of indecision and compromise: not to act, and to act decisively, to confront the problems Iran faces is itself to take a decision and one that can cost Iran dearly.

Must-do

This urgency is evident in at least three respects.

  • The first is the economy. The Iranian economy is stagnating, inflation remains high, unemployment is widespread. Foreign investors are reluctant to invest in the country. Until and unless decisive action is taken to reform the economy, and to create favourable legal and political conditions for investment, by Iranian and foreign investors, this stagnation will continue.

  • The second is the relation of state to society. The revolutionary regime, like that of the Shah, believes it knows what is best for the population. It continues to control society with an oppressive rhetoric about cultural aggression and foreign plots. The free press has been destroyed, women are subjected to discrimination, the universities are threatened by security forces.

    President Khatami
    Mohammad Khatami: change is "inevitable"
    Yet if the people are not allowed greater freedom there will sooner or later be the risk of explosion, while those who can will try to leave Iran to find work abroad.

    The only conspiracy in Iran to-day is the conspiracy of the conservative elite who want to resist change.

  • Thirdly in its foreign relations Iran has continued to miss the opportunities presented to it. There has been some improvement in relations with the Arab world and western Europe since 1997, but there has been no progress in relations with the USA. The Bush administration is moving towards a new confrontation with Iran, one to which conservatives in the country are contributing with their demagogic policies on Palestine and their refusal to engage in direct negotiations with Washington.

    Time element

    The great illusion of Iranian politicians, reformers as much as conservatives, is that they have time.

    But the world - and Iranian society - are not going to give limitless time for these problems - of economy, society and foreign relations - to be worked out.

    It was this illusion to which earlier Iranian leaders have fallen victim: in 1941 Reza Khan thought he could manoeuvre between Germany and its enemies; in 1953 Mosadeq believed he could balance Europe and America; in the 1970s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi miscalculated about the support he could receive from the west; in the 1980s Khomeini and his advisers mistakenly believed that they could defeat Saddam Hussein by prolonging the war.

    It would be unfortunate if the Iranian leaders of today, reformers and conservatives alike, were to make the same mistake. Time is not on the side of Iran: recognising this is, more than the choice of president, the fundamental issue facing the Iranian people today.

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    See also:

    01 Jun 01 | Middle East
    Iran election: People and policies
    05 Jun 01 | Middle East
    Khatami says reform 'inevitable'
    04 May 01 | Middle East
    Khatami ends waiting game
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