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Sunday, April 5, 1998 Published at 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK

World: Analysis

Iran: A viable political system?
image: [ BBC analyst Sadeq Saba ]
BBC analyst Sadeq Saba

In Iran millions of people took to the streets across the country in February to celebrate the nineteenth anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

It was one of the biggest political upheavals of the twentieth century which ended 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran and established the first fundamentalist Islamic government in modern history.

Almost two decades later the Islamic Republic is still struggling to reconcile Islamic principles to the requirements of a modern democratic state.

But as the BBC's Iranian Affairs reporter, Sadeq Saba, reports, since the election of President Khatami last May democracy has a better chance in Iran:

On February 11th, 1979 the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini swept away the last remains of the Shah's regime, storming army barracks, the radio and television centre and government buildings in Teheran.

Fred Halliday, Iran expert at the London School of Economics: revolution follows secular pattern (0'28")
The Ayatollah, who had ten days earlier returned home from a long exile, was determined to establish the power of the clergy in government. By March, Iranians voted overwhelmingly in a referendum for an Islamic Republic which nobody hardly knew anything about.

It is based on the concept of Velayat-e Faqih, or "Rule by the Supreme Jurist", which finds its expression in the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

[ image: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
The leader, who is the highest political, religious and military authority, is subject to almost no political control. But the constitution has also stipulated that the people are the source of power.

This contradiction has been evident during the last twenty years.

Human rights violations common

During the past two decades the Islamic Republic has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations and international human rights groups for its violations of basic human rights.

Opposition political parties are not allowed and there is a continued absence of the rule of law. The Iranian opposition abroad condemn the government as a religious dictatorship.

Professor Halliday: Iran is freer than any country around it (0'28")
But Professor Halliday believes that despite the authoritarian elements, Iran is comparatively a democratic country.

Khatami faces opposition

After the landslide victory of President Khatami last May an important difference has emerged between his supporters and the conservatives over which concept has priority in the Islamic Republic - Islam or Republic.

[ image: President Mohammad Khatami]
President Mohammad Khatami
There have been calls for some of the vast powers enjoyed by the supreme leader to be transferred to the directly-elected president.

Some of the most senior clerics have also questioned the Islamic credentials of Ayatollah Khamenei, saying that the leader should supervise and not rule.

John Simpson covered Iran's election for the BBC and was impressed by Khatami's honesty (0'40")
Mr Khatami himself has called for the establishment of "civil society" and the rule of law.

Khatami could be Iran's Gorbachev

The Islamic Republic is now facing a dilemma about its future direction. Some observers compare Mr Khatami with the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, saying his reforms will put an end to the Islamic regime in Iran.

Professor Halliday believes that there is a possibilty of peaceful transition in Iran (0'36")
Others believe that the powerful conservative establishment in Iran has learnt from the Soviet example and will forcefully stop Mr Khatami if he really endangers the clerical basis of the regime.

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