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Wednesday, 2 February, 2000, 18:19 GMT
Democracy Iranian style
A Muslim cleric addresses a crowd outside Tehran University
The struggle for power is escalating
By Islamic affairs analyst Roger Hardy

Iran has the trappings of democracy. There is a constitution, there are political factions with their own following and their own newspapers, there are local and parliamentary elections - and women can both vote and stand for election.

But Iran's political system is like no other.

The system created by Ayatollah Khomeini after the revolution of 1979 is unique, first and foremost, because of the role he carved out for himself. He established himself at the top of the political pyramid as the faqih, or supreme leader.
Ayatollah Khomeini:
Ayatollah Khomeini: Authority and charisma

He stood above the political fray, as the final arbiter whose word was law. Although Islam has no papacy, Khomeini became a Pope-like figure and many Iranians regarded him as infallible.

His critics, in contrast, saw the institution of faqih as a cloak for dictatorship.

Factions

The second striking feature of the Iranian system is its factionalism. Although supreme authority rests in the hands of one man, the levers of day-to-day power are dispersed among dfferent clerical factions.

Conservative clergy control the army and the police and wealthy religious foundations.

The current reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and his allies run various ministries and a number of widely-read newspapers and magazines - and enjoy an enormous popular following.
President Khatami
President Khatami: At loggerheads with the hardliners

A more centrist faction under former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has, over the years, shifted its support from the conservatives to the reformists and back again.

This means that, aside from the supreme leader, no single figure has been able to gain unchallenged power.

And since Khomeini's death in 1989, even the role of the faqih has sometimes been questioned, since the current holder of the post, Ayatollah Khamenei, lacks his predecessor's authority and charisma.

Competition between different centres of power is built into the system, which as a result is often baffling to outsiders. This raises the question of whether Iran is or is not a model for other Muslims to follow.

Burning issues

The Iranian revolution has unique features, but there is no denying its enormous impact on the Muslim world.

For 20 years, Iran has been a laboratory of political experimentation. It has had to grapple, in the most down-to-earth way, with a host of burning issues which fascinate - and divide - Muslims everywhere.

Is Islam compatible with democracy - and if so what kind of democracy? Is there a specifially Islamic approach to economics, and if so is it viable?
Student protester, Iran
Students are urging radical and fast reform

Should an Islamic government favour free enterprise or state intervention? What are the rights of women in a modern Islamic state?

Many Muslims watch events in Iran closely, seeking to draw lessons from its successes and failures.

Conservatives elsewhere are able to identify with the conservative Iranian clergy in their suspicion of both Western economic dominance and Western-style democracy.

Modernists, on the other hand, especially among the educated young, are excited by President Khatami's advocacy of an "Islamic civil society" and his call for a "dialogue of civilisations".

Mixed feelings

Many governments in the Muslim world, meanwhile, remain suspicious of the Iranian model, even when their state-to-state relations with Khatami's Iran are relatively good.

The Iranian revolution showed it was possible, in the late twentieth century, for Muslim clerics to seize power and create a modern Islamic state.
Iranian women
Women are allowed to vote and stand for election

This was a startlingly new precedent, and it frightened many governments as much as it electrified many young Muslim activists.

The new Iran, for all its failings, is Islamic, anti-Western and, in its own way, democratic. Many Muslims, both men and women, Sunni and Shi'ite, find this attractive.

Unique experiment

Political leaders in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia - Muslim countries that are important allies of the West - are accordingly watching the elections in Iran with decidedly mixed feelings.

So far, the Iranian revolution has remained a unique experiment. Although Islamic movements have come to power elsewhere, notably in Sudan and Afghanistan, they have done so in very different circumstances and with very diferent results.

But that does not mean that, 20 years on, Iran has lost the power to influence events elsewhere in the Muslims world.

See also:

10 Jun 98 | Middle East
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