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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK
Iran: An Islamic experiment

By Jim Muir
BBC Tehran Correspondent

Iran's Islamic Republic is unique not only in the world - where there are few enough other Islamic republics, and none at all where the Shia branch of Islam prevails - but also in Iran itself.

Never before have the clergy held full political power in the country, though they have usually been one of several important political forces.

So it is a unique experiment, and one which is currently in a state of acute ferment, with the outcome highly uncertain.

President Khatami
Khatami seemed to give the regime a new lease of life
Some analysts argue that from the outset, there was a stark contradiction built into the regime's foundations, crystallised in the two words of its very name: Islamic and Republic.

To many, the first concept implies some form of divine rule, of theocracy; and the second means democracy, rule by the people.

That perceived contradiction is at the heart of today's intensifying struggle between reformists and hard-liners within the Iranian Islamic system.

The Supreme Leader

The reformists, led by the massively-elected President Mohammad Khatami and with a big majority in the current parliament, argue that ultimate sovereignty lies with the people, and that the entire political establishment - including the Supreme Leadership - should be responsive, transparent and accountable to the electorate.

While the reformists accept in principle the concept of Velayet e Feghih (the Rule of the Supreme Jurisconsult) which is one of the pillars of the Iranian Islamic regime, many of them would prefer the role of the Supreme Leader (the Vali e Feghih) to be ethereal and advisory, almost papal, rather than political, intrusive, and engaged with the levers of temporal power, as it currently very much is.

By contrast, most conservatives, and certainly the hard-liners, believe that the Vali e Feghih has a kind of divinely-bestowed authority which makes his intervention, on any issue he chooses, decisive and unchallengeable.

Khatami and the reformists seemed to offer an answer
For some of them, it is at the core of the regime, its power and authority, and the trappings of democracy are ultimately little more than window-dressing.

One of the most common slogans chanted by Hezbollahis, Basijis and other hard-line defenders of the regime in confrontation with student or other protestors is: "Death to the opponents of the Velayet e Feghih!"

Growing alienation

There is little doubt that the Islamic system was starting to drift badly out of touch with the people by 1997, when President Khatami suddenly burst on the scene with his surprise landslide victory.

Inefficiency, pervasive corruption and a general failure to move with the times were seen as the main factors behind a growing alienation.

Khatami and the reformists seemed to offer an answer to all that for the people - and for the regime, a new lease of life.

His idea of Islamic people's sovereignty held out the prospect of a system where the people's vote could make a difference and bring about change, where officials become servants not masters, where religion would imbue the country's values but not intrude oppressively as an imposed system.

The vote for Khatami was also a vote for gradual change, for evolution, rather than another disruptive revolution.
He spoke directly to the vast new generation of young Iranians, and to women, and they responded massively.

"Iranians are traditionally very religious, but also open to new and open interpretations of religion," says Mahmoud Alinejad, an Iranian academic specialising in Islamic topics. "By voting for Khatami, they showed that they wanted change under an Islamic system, albeit a more liberal one."

It may also have reflected the fact that after two decades of revolutions and wars, many Iranians, irrespective of their Islamic commitment, have an almost innate conviction that abrupt change and upheavals take the country and their own prospects backwards.

So the vote for Khatami was also a vote for gradual change, for evolution, rather than another disruptive revolution.

Iran students outside Tehran University during an anti government protest
Frustrations with the pace of reform led to protests
Whether Khatami's liberal interpretation of Islamic democracy could have worked in objective conditions (if such a thing exists) may never be known.

But in the harsh world of real Iranian politics, it is generally deemed to have failed, not because of theoretical flaws, but because it was blocked by an entrenched minority of hard-liners determined to keep their grip on power.

Now the broad national mood is one of disillusion amounting to despair. This was reflected in the latest elections, in February, for city councils nationwide. In Tehran, where reformists swept the board in 1999, the turnout was a paltry 12%, allowing hard-liners to take over control by default.

Victory by default

The reformists now face a general election in February virtually empty-handed.

It is thought likely that there will be another large-scale abstention in the February elections
Practically all significant reformist legislation has been spiked by the Council of Guardians, a highly-conservative unelected body which has the right to vet and veto new bills.

Numerous reformists, liberals and student leaders have been put behind bars, with President Khatami and others powerless to do more than voice criticism.

Unless the conservatives judge that they cannot do without the popular support which the reformists might still be able to confer on the regime, and decide to give them some achievements to take to the polls, it is thought likely that there will be another large-scale abstention in the February elections.

The right-wing would be likely again to inherit the Majlis (parliament) and a year later the presidency, not because the pendulum of public favour had swung back their way, but by default and with minority support.

The most predictable result would be an even more disillusioned and bitter public alienation than that prevailing before Mr Khatami's advent in 1997 - unless the conservatives could somehow, and quickly, deliver some major achievements especially in the realms of economy and job-creation.

In that scenario, a narrowly-based right-wing Islamic regime might find its legitimacy under challenge more than ever before, from both within and outside the country.

If you would like to make a comment or ask the author a question about this article, we would like to hear from you. Send us your views using the form below. We will publish a selection of your emails, and send a further selection to the author for response.


Your comments:

My interaction with Iranians in the US as well as back home in India has indicated a country which is far more liberal and open than the Western media is ready to admit. We've heard enough about their so called nuclear weapons capability and support to terrorism. Iraq too was supposed to have developed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; will someone please tell me where they disappeared to after the US invaded Iraq? It will be good if the media remained as an independent and unbiased institution rather than one that toes the line of their respective governments.
Taha Suglatwala, USA/ India

Labelling Iran as evil played straight into the hands of the Iranian hard-liners
Matt, USA
I suspect that the situation for reformers in Iran was greatly damaged when Bush made his "axis of evil" speech. Labelling Iran as evil played straight into the hands of the Iranian hard-liners and put a stop to any efforts to improve relations with the West.
Matt, USA

It sounds like the people have developed 'learned helplessness'. Because of the past history of the country the people have come to think that the elections won't matter because even if the reformists do obtain 'control', the fundamentalists will still find a way to steal power.
Chris, United States

Iran is a democracy in the same fashion Iraq under Saddam or Soviet Union were a democracy. The form of democracy Iran is one that is setup for western consumption. However, the President has virtually no power, and even if he had power, an extremely hard-line guardian council eliminates all candidates whom they think aren't 'Islamic' enough. 234 out of the 238 candidates were disqualified through this process. Once you understand that concept, you will understand that Iran is a brutal dictatorship with virtually no support inside the country. Khatami is a puppet setup by the government for western consumption, don't fall for the trick. Support the people, not the hated regime.
Samuel Bakhtiar, USA formerly Iran

The United States seems poised to expose the evil nature of the inhuman regime
Arash Parvaneh, Toronto
While the Islamic regime is perhaps one of the most brutal regimes that remains to be ousted, there is hope for Iranians and all freedom loving people in the world. And although Europe has turned a blind eye to the barbaric regime that rules Iran, the United States seems poised to expose the evil nature of the inhuman regime under which women are forced to cover up, people are routinely jailed, assassinated, kidnapped and prosecuted for expressing their thoughts. The world needs to speak up. These mullahs are going to go.
Arash Parvaneh, Toronto

More than 90% of the people of Iran do not want the Islamic regime whether led by the conservatives or the so called reformists. The British should think of their long term interests and stop supporting this barbaric Islamic regime in Iran. The British should support the rights of the vast majority of Iranians and their call for a referendum under UN supervision and freedom of all political prisoners.
Ali Shahehdi, Iran

I can understand that some governments, groups and individuals who live by and benefit from confusion, chaos and war would want to have a change of government in Iran at any cost! But let us not fool anyone; none of this is out of caring or wanting to help anyone. This is not to say that I am a supporter of theocratic rule, far from it. However, I do believe that forcing democracy on a nation is a contradiction in terms. Democratisation cannot be prevented and has already started in Iran. It will take time, but it will happen as a process of evolution. So, let anyone who claims to care about Iran, Iranians or a peaceful and stable Middle East, help to evolve this budding democracy without wanting to destroy innocent lives or wanting a piece of the cake!
Farhad, UK

Most mainstream politicians in the different political camps in Iran believe in an Islamic democracy
Sasan Taymoori, Iran
The divisions that are made here do not seem to be very accurate. Most mainstream politicians in the different political camps in Iran believe in an Islamic democracy within the framework of the current constitution. While people are unhappy with the current economic situation in the country, they most definitely do not want "American or British help" in further strengthening their democracy. What they want is a change in attitude from these two countries and for the Iranian government to sort out the current economic problems facing the 'baby boom' generation.
Sasan Taymoori, Iran

What is clearly lacking among the reformists/democratic forces in Iran is a strategy of mass mobilization that will force the hard-line clerics to concede power. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "We have learned from painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed." In the context of Iranian politics today this means that politely asking the clerical elite to share power and to democratize Iran is a waste of time. This group has to be confronted with concrete action in the form of civil disobedience, boycotts, non-violent mass mobilization etc. Until they feel (and see) that their interests are threatened and it can no longer be business as usual they have no reason or incentive to relinquish power.
Nader Hashemi, Canada

I lived in Iran (Tehran to be exact) for a while even after the revolution and I know the people. The people of Iran show their rich Persian heritage and culture by being understanding and loving of others. At the same time, like the ancient Persians they will stand up and defend their country with everything they got as they did with the 8 year Iran-Iraq war. Bottom line, Iran needs time to heal itself. There cannot be another revolution; it will be disaster for the Middle East. We have to face it; we need to work with the people and the government of Iran to help them come out of the revolution style regime and into democracy. The UK has done a great job by opening diplomatic channels with Iran. The US should do the same.
Jack Jones, USA

This regime has no 'moderates'
name here
Iran is an amazing country with some of the most hospitable people on earth. Regrettably they are ruled by a despotic reactionary religious theocracy based on the mullahs' constitution for the absolute rule of the clergy. This regime has no 'moderates'. That was yet another illusion created by the mullahs to fool the rest of the world and it worked for six years. Please let us not forget the recent student protests in June of this year in which over 4,000 people were arrested and tortured for demanding democracy and freedom. Please let us not forget Mrs Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian photographer who was recently beaten to death in Iran by the state security forces for having taken photographs of the student protests. Further abuses of human rights include public executions by hanging or stoning to death and inhumane court sentences such as public flogging, gouging out of eyes and amputation of limbs. This is the present Iran as the 4 million Iranians living in exile and 70 million living in Iran know it.
Masoud Zabeti, England

The US and the West owe nothing to the Iranian government. They support terrorism and now are developing nuclear weapons. The US and the West owe it to the people of Iran and assist in revolution if they want it. There is no sugar coating the Iranian regime, they are evil.
Mike Daly, USA

I am concerned that the regime does seem to be moving to develop a nuclear capabality.
Mssr Renard, USA
I have no doubt that Iran will change for the better over time, but I am concerned that the regime does seem to be moving very quickly and deliberately to develop a nuclear capabality. The conventional arms race is bad enough in the region without the troubling prospect of nuclear weapons being held by a radical religious regime. Iran has the only population in the Middle East which had sympathy with what New Yorkers went through in 2001. It would be a shame if our two peoples could not work together for a better future. There are so many Iranians here in California who miss their home.
Mssr Renard, USA

Actually, the word "republic" has nothing to do with a democracy. Technically it is a country that is not a monarchy.
Michael Joe Thannisch, USA

The Iranian people have been trampled by this barbaric regime and those who supported it. This regime is the darkest part of Iranian history; everyone can expect another revolution, but this time an anti-Islamic revolution .
Soroosh, United States of America

Regime survival requires a "super foe" to focus the minds of people away from their everyday drudgery
Peter Thatcher, Australia
The more I read about Islamic religious/political parties, the more they remind me of communism. They have a shared concept of suffering joyfully for the greater good i.e. God's will (as interpreted by those in power) or the will of the proletariat (again as interpreted by the powerful minority.) Regime survival requires a "super foe" to focus the minds of people away from their everyday drudgery; in this case the foe is Western 'decadence' and democracy; this is a role that the U.S. has ably played. Based on historical precedent, you would have to expect that the Islamic state (as distinct from the religion) will fall by the wayside as did communism as evidenced by the growing dissatisfaction in Iran.
Peter Thatcher, Australia

An interesting insight into the turbulent waters of Iranian politics. I have had to explain to quite a few people that Iran is a democracy and one of the most liberal Islamic countries in the world (bar Turkey's secularism), albeit beset by problems. I wish the US administration would do more to help (rather than hinder) Iran's fledgling modern society, rather than continuously antagonise them with accusations about nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism. It is in everyone's interest to ensure that Iran doesn't fall by the wayside especially with the chaos in Iraq. The last thing the Middle East needs is another unresponsive hard-line Islamic regime.
Matthew Adams, Thailand

I would like to second Matthew's comment and remind readers that Iran is the most democratic Muslim country in the Middle East. More democratic then Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or any other US ally in the region. While there may be tension between parties inside Iran, they all operate within the constitutional system. Elections remain free and fair. I believe that the best way to deal with Iran is through engagement. Backing Iran into a corner with constant threats will simply strengthen the hardliners and prevent the natural evolution and maturing of their system, which interaction with the outside world will surely bring.
Hassan Noura, Australia

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SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Iran
15 Sep 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Iran
13 Sep 03  |  Country profiles
Iran's frustrated generation
10 Jul 03  |  Middle East


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