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Monday, 29 July, 2002, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Iran rifts deepen as tension mounts
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to soldiers from a jeep
Supreme Leader Khamenei tends to back the hardliners

Political tensions are rising in Iran, so much so that some Tehran-based diplomats are openly wondering how much higher the pressure within the Islamic regime can get without serious consequences.

Woman protester with tape over her mouth holds reformist newspaper
Reformists have been thwarted in their goals
Things have got so bad that the main reformist party is openly threatening to pull out of the system and go into opposition.

That would mean the collapse of parliament, and it would put huge pressure on the reformist President, Mohammed Khatami, to follow suit and resign.

There are at least two major, and interacting, reasons why tension has mounted so sharply.

Little to show

One is that frustration on the part of the elected reformist majority is almost at screaming pitch.

Since the 1997 presidential elections, reformists have won all major elections, with bedrock support of about 70% of the electorate.

But despite their control of both presidency and parliament, they've been able to achieve very little, because they have been blocked by bodies controlled by hardliners, who won't give up their grip on power.

The Islamic system has shown considerable elasticity in defusing crises at the last moment

General elections are only a year and a half away, so time is running out for reformist candidates who don't want to face the electorate without having enacted the reforms which so many people voted for.

It's widely believed here that the United States will soon attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime in neighbouring Iraq.

Iran is no more keen on the Iraqis than it was on the Taleban.

But that doesn't mean to say it wants to see the Americans ensconced on its western border, as they are in Afghanistan to the east.

The assumption in hardline power circles, reinforced by hostile and intrusive comments from Washington, is that the Americans would then turn their sights on Iran itself.

So, the hardliners argue, the nation must rally together behind the Islamic republic, and the revolutionary values on which it was built.

In other words, forget all this divisive talk about reforms.

Popular discontent

For the reformists, national unity is also the answer - but based on enacting the will of the people.

As the daily newspaper Norouz put it last week - shortly before it was closed down by the judiciary - national unity doesn't mean the majority have to fall in line behind a hardline minority.

Iranian girls wave pictures of Mohammad Khatami
Despite disappointment it is unlikely Iranians would opt for revolution

For the reformists, there's no particular reason why Iran shouldn't defuse the tension with Washington by talking to the Americans, and the sooner the better.

But the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who generally comes down on the side of the hardliners, says even the idea is treason.

As for the people, the level of discontent is clearly rising, especially in view of the failure of the elected reformists to deliver on the hopes that were raised.

But few analysts believe the situation is ripe for another revolution.

People have learned that such upheavals carry the country backwards; they want a better life, not a worse one.

There's also no vehicle for popular discontent, no plausible alternative waiting in the wings.

Public discontent does make itself felt within the system, though, through the elected reformists who feel keenly the pressure from their disappointed constituents.


That's why, as the pressure steadily mounts, people are talking increasingly about an implosion within the regime, rather than an explosion from without.

In the coming months, the pressures are bound to increase even more sharply, as the elections draw closer and, perhaps, the Americans move in next door.

So the chances of that implosion taking place will also rise.

But when, and even whether, it will actually happen, is frankly anybody's guess.

The Islamic system has shown considerable elasticity in defusing crises at the last moment.

Few predicted the overthrow of the Shah's monarchy in 1979, although all the major traditional mobilising forces - the clergy, the bazaar merchants, and the urban intellectuals - were clearly ranged against it.

Most of those forces are by and large with the Islamic regime, even if they have their internal divisions.

The Islamic revolution carried Iran into uncharted historical waters, and that will be even more true of any new change that might happen.

See also:

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