Events

The Future of Iran's Islamic Republic: Evolution or Revolution

September 15, 2003 // 12:00pm1:00pm

The opinions expressed in the following text, written by Ramin Jahanbegloo, in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

There is a saying by Sir Winston Churchill that says: " Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount and the tigers are getting hungry." Well, the tiger of the Iranian revolution is quite hungry and Iranian politicians dare not dismount this tiger. This situation is closely related to that of the international politics in our world.

Several months ago, when the U.S. got engaged in a war against Saddam Hussein, many among the commentators on Iranian politics and the majority of Iranians inside and outside Iran came to a quick conclusion that the true reasons of the military action against Iraq was in fact to destabilize the Iranian regime. At the same time, Iranian officials were conscious of the fact that democratic developments in Iraq may send ripples across the border and create a series of civic rebellions inside Iran. Today, what is certain is that democratic developments in Iraq are taking a slower pace than what was expected and the Iranian population has no hope of a future American intervention in Iran. However, the actual impact of the Bush administration destabilization efforts is difficult to evaluate. A permanent fear of foreign intervention among the authorities of Tehran may serve as a constraint. For example, after the start of the student demonstrations in last June, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said on state television, "I call on the pious and the conservative cadres not to intervene whenever they see riots." Two days later, a right –wing militia pledged not to take part in the street fights. Such restraints may lead some supporters of democratisation in Iran to see U.S. threat as a way to accelerate reform. But that presumes that democratisation really matters to the Bush administration. If this is the case, Bush administration endorsement of the student movement may already have helped hard-liners legitimate their suppression of the intellectuals, journalists and students as a measure to guard against "foreign forces." If that is not the case, the Islamic regime is less likely to respond to U.S. threats by conceding democracy and human rights to the Iranian citizens than by offering concessions such as oil deals and a cooperative stance regarding WMDs and the future of Iraq. Iran will probably be forced to sign the additional protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allow the inspectors to carry out unannounced spot checks of any sites that could be making nuclear weapons. The Iranian officials fear two things: to be spied by the Americans and to have all their nuclear program being shut down by the IAEA (maybe that is the reason why the hardliners such as Shariatmadari – the editor of Kayhan newspaper) described this situation as a "suicide" and asked Iran to choose the way of North Korea and quit the IAEA.

Yet, I am not sure how much these favourable "clin d'oeils" to the international community might change the views of the hawks in the Bush administration who share Israel's hostile view of Iran and place it high on their geo-strategic "to-do" list. But they certainly take notice of the fact that Iran is not an inherently weak police state like Iraq used to be and it is not a friendless dictatorship. Also it is not a reckless, impoverished regime like North Korea. Nor will it be easily bought off or subdued. Iran would be a bridge too far to cross.

Also, I am not very sure that the European Union will follow America in a violent confrontation with Iran. With vast gas and petroleum reserves, a consumer market of 70 million, Iran serves as a valuable multi-billion annual asset to the EU. Hence, the very same reason commercial and political issues that served as the core reason for Europe's disagreement with Washington on Iraq, are at play today with Iran. The EU has in the past managed to use its economic tools to improve human rights situation in the Islamic Republic. Any achievement for the EU in this regard could reduce pressure on Iran's civil society and promote free political expression and activity even if the reformists are obliged to oppose EU's interferences. The efficacy of the EU's policies consists in that it has treated Iran as an equal partner in the past. In terms of economic relations European states have managed to receive waivers under the Clinton administration from economic sanctions. While U.S. concerns about human rights in Iran have been in large part of a global strategy, the European Union has persistently tried to change Iran's behaviour to match universal human rights values by means of its trade relations. This said, to the surprise of many in the U.S. and in Iran, EU's policy of "critical dialogue" with Iran has recently shifted to a more sharpened approach. In other words, there has been a recent shift in the EU in support of the U.S. to pressure Iran to fully expose its nuclear facilities to the IAEA. But the question is whether the EU and the U.S. will also turn to human rights issues once their concern about the nuclear question have been eased to an acceptable extent. This is to say that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between Iran's domestic and foreign policies. The fact that they are intertwined exposes the Iranian state to both domestic ad external legitimacy crises. Therefore, Iran has to get to grips with its external and domestic legitimacy dilemmas. It is no longer possible for the Iranian state to be accused of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, supporting terrorism and obstructing the Middle East process. Nor is it possible for much longer for Iranian dissidents inside the country to be deprived of the right to protest. Hence, Iran will have to cooperate more with the international community if it wishes to avoid the isolation that it experienced in the 1980s. Having said that, I believe that Iran is today faced with the choice of being accused of being a "rogue state" or gradually becoming a "mature" and "legitimate" state. This brings me to the state of domestic power struggle in Iran.


There is no question that social developments in Iran will continue to be turbulent for some time to come. The question is whether these turbulent developments will lead to a cataclysmic social eruption, with unpredictable consequences, or to a gradual moderation through institutional or parliamentary-type politics. Some observers view the former type developments as the more likely outcome of the ongoing power struggle, but the latter type outcome is not less likely to evolve.

What appears as a certainty is that with hardliners in Iran holding to an inflexible approach to domestic and external pressures, Khatami's olive branch policy is increasingly losing its potency. The more Khatami tries to find a solution through encouraging the coexistence of political forces, the more he loses credibility among his supporters. Today reformists and hardliners are not the only ones who have come to the realisation that Khatami is incapable of carrying out the reforms he promised when he was elected in May 1997. Strangely enough, Khatami himself seems to have lost hope and self-confidence despite the fact that he still believes the Islamic Republic can be reformed. The truth is that in the eyes of the population the line of separation between reformists and hardliners has become very narrow. This perception has been more intensified by the recent civil unrests in Iran. It showed once again that there is much frustration at the inability of reformists to act as catalysts for real change. But it also showed that any kind of alliance between the students and secular intellectuals on one side and the reformists on the other side would not last. The reason is simple. Whereas many reformists in government have been trying to reconcile Iran's democratic and theocratic facets, the students and secular intellectuals want to dismantle the latter. The decisive break occurred in the February 2003 local council elections, during which reformers suffered their first electoral defeat since May 1997. The Office for Fostering Unity (OFU) officially withdrew from the Second Khordad Front and this move was followed by a decision to change the OFU's name to the Office of Fostering Democracy. The result is that the OFU's increasing independence and that of the broader student movement in general challenges the stalemate in Iranian politics and exerts real pressures on reformists to adopt a bolder strategy vis-à-vis the hardliners. However, the separation of the students from the reformists entails real challenges for the reformers in particular and for the Iranian regime in general. One challenge could stem from increasing radicalisation of the student movement and the other lies in the students overestimating their forces and inflicting real damages on the reform movement. The disturbances of June 2003 showed us two things: one, that peaceful protest could turn into violence and second, that students are unlikely to transform Iran on their own. As long as the Iranian people, ordinary Iranian people are silent the decisive steps cannot be taken to make the regime institutions more transparent and more accountable. If this is the case, Iranian students will continue to lack the necessary resources and the popular mandate to decisively change things in Iran.

Another important factor is that though the potential of popular support for changing the current regime exists, there is no Iranian opposition group or leader popular enough to seriously challenge the Islamic Republic. Despite their presence on the satellite televisions, none of the opposition leaders have been able to capitalize on people's discontent of the present and nostalgia of the past. Reza Pahlavi's calls on Iranian s to practice civil disobedience has been more popular in the streets of Los Angeles than in the streets of Tehran. In many respects Reza Pahlavi's strengths appear to be his weaknesses. To many in Iran, the fact that he has become an overnight media star in the West is suspect and attributed to a conspiracy by the foreign powers. Also to those who may be willing to take Reza Pahlavi as a serious leader, there is a contradiction between his public campaigns in the Western countries and his weakness to forge and partake in a cohesive political mobilization effort. As for those who are not convinced of his efforts to bring democracy, it is because in their eyes he is suspected of having ulterior motives.

In other words, Iran today is very much like the Soviet Union in its last days. The ideology has burnt out, Iranian youngsters are disenchanted, the reform movement has failed to fulfil the popular demand and there has been practically every year spontaneous rioting and uncivil unrests in the major cities of Iran. But 25 years after the revolts that did away with the Shah and his regime, there is an absence of an organizational factor to unite the diverse inspirations of Iranians.
The embattled president himself seems to have lost hope and self-confidence despite the fact that he still believes the Islamic Republic can be reformed. As a president who has promised to the people that he will bring change but also remain loyal to the Islamic Republic, Khatami seems willing to leave the ultimate step (which is to remove the right of the Guardian Council to disqualify electoral candidates) to his successor in May 2005. He does not have the courage to push his will further. Today Khatami still seems hesitant to resign and because of this, the wide variety of reformists, once unified in their commitment to Khatami are forcing the president to choose between the people and the Islamic Republic. Khatami is well ware of the consequences of a resignation. His passivity vis-à-vis the Guardian Council's rejection of the two bills has already backfired on him. The longer Khatami hesitates to react to the Conservatives, the more we go deep in the crisis of legitimacy of the regime and the more the likelihood of unrest and urban riots. Nonetheless, the possibility that Conservatives' undermining of reforms will continue is relatively high. In that case, the perception that the legal channels will not lead to reforms and only force can dispel political conservatism in Iran will be proven right. But then, it will be difficult to argue that unrest will be neutralized as soon as in the past.
Whether the Islamic Republic evolves into more of a democracy or will crumble in revolution is anyone's guess. For the vast majority of Iranians living inside the country, a people who are already disenchanted with one revolution and have suffered from a brutal eight years war with Iraq, peaceful evolution is a more favourable option. For the younger generation, the 70 percent of the population under the age of 30, the change has to come sooner or later, because the youngsters are looking for jobs, social freedom and opportunity. Based on this analysis of the Iranian situation, we are left with three scenarios for the future of Iran:

1) In the first scenario the Iranian regime will weather the storm and the so -called pragmatists or centrists among the ruling elite of Iran will be the survivors. Thanks to a leadership vacuum among the opposition, the centrists will buy some time by offering a series of strategic concessions. These concessions may come in two forms: to the West on the issue of WMDs and the Middle East peace plan, and to the Iranians in the area of social controls and guardianship (which could be replaced by the Expediency Council with a sudden death of Ayatollah Khamenei). Under this formula, Iran will integrate in the market economy and there will certainly be a shift from a monopolistic, mafia-type of economy represented by the new class of property owners to a more normalized market stability and investment security. The tendency of the pragmatist political leaders such as Rafsanjani and Mohsen Rezaii and centrist religious intellectuals such as Sadegh Ziba Kalam and Shamsolvaezin towards centrist politics is, in a sense, is a reflection of this change in Iran's capitalist class. In this first scenario Rafsanjani will have an important role as the power broker.

2) In the second scenario unlike the first one the clerical regime will not be able to stand the socio-economic and political pressures and will be left with only one option to defend itself and that is a "palace coup" by the conservatives and the security agents such as Asgaroladi (leader of the Islamic Coalition Group), Badamchian and Shariatmadari (editor in chief of the journal Kayhan) to save the Revolution and the political Islam. Unclear though is the role played in this scenario by Ayatollah Khamenei?

3) In the third scenario the regime change will be inevitable. Irrespective of tactical manoeuvres by the Islamic regime and the absence of an organized leadership by the opposition, the regime will be unable to stave off the energy of dissent and answer the demands of the Iranian youth and Iran will see a series of urban unrests. In this scenario, there is also the closing of a window of opportunity for the Iranian regime and the imminence of political chaos in Iran.

That said, what is certain is that Iranian politics is tearing into pieces by a political gridlock symbolized by the decapitation and unpopularity of the reform movement, the growing dissatisfaction of the Iranians inside the country and a legitimacy crisis which is threatening the battle which is waged by those who are trying to blend constitutional democracy with a redefined Islam that limits itself to inspiring private virtues not controlling the public space. But one way or another, Iran is standing on the verge of a post-Islamic condition in which symbols of political Islam are exhausted and the regime is going towards a political change. This political change is not going to be an easy and a quick change. But if there has to be a change in the Iranian politics through democratic efforts, the current political gridlock needs to be broken, and outside pressure can help this process, as long as it is consistent and not violent. But in the long run the change will come from inside the country, where the tradition of autocracy will be criticized and replaced by more modern and liberal mechanisms of political life.

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