Time for Reform?

This time, the forces of conservatism in Iran may have gone too far.


Always in tension, the forces of reform and tradition, pluralism and theocracy, are openly clashing this week in Iran; and unusually, it’s the conservative side that seems to be on the defensive. On Tuesday, Mohammad Khatami, the longsuffering Iranian president, threatened to resign in protest over hard-liners’ attempts to influence upcoming elections; the next day Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered hard-liners to back down, at least in part.

Iran is to hold parliament elections on February 20th, but the Guardian Council, an unelected clerical body that oversees the political system, blacklisted about 3,600 pro-reform candidates, including more than 80 liberal lawmakers up for reelection, four of Iran’s six vice presidents, and six ministers. About 8,200 people filed papers to run for the 290-seat legislature.

A quick recap of Iran’s government: Iran has elements of both theocratic and democratic rule. Khamenei holds all formal levers of power in Iran and takes orders only from God. He has control over the armed forces, the state media and the judiciary. The Council of Guardians is controlled by the clerics and overrules parliamentary decisions it doesn’t like.

On the democratic side, Iran has an elected president and parliament. President Khatami was first elected in 1997 on a reform platform. The Economist notes that, when elected “he embodied the hopes of millions of Iranians who had become fed up with the clerics’ rule, notably the political isolation it had brought Iran, the concomitant economic failures and the social restrictions imposed by rigid adherence to Islamic dogma.”

Since then, Khatami has faced extreme opposition from Islamic conservatives on almost everything he has tried to do, including attempting to pass two bills, one to rein in the conservative judges who prevented him from instituting reforms, the other to curb the Council of Guardians. Neither bill has gone into effect.

Though Khatami was voted into office again in 2001, Iranians are becoming disillusioned with the reformists’ inability to effect change. In municipal elections last February, only 10-15 percent of the electorate in most large cities turned out to vote, handing victory to the conservatives.

The recent move by the Council of Guardians, which disqualified almost half of the parliament candidates has been condemned by Westerners and reformists in Iran. Around 70 members of the pro-reform groups staged a sit-in to protest the move.

President Khatami threatened to leave with the other reformists if the ban is not lifted:

“We will leave together or we will stay together. We have to remain firm. If one day we are asked to leave, then we will all leave – together.”

The outcome of this power struggle may have monumental consequences for Iran. The New York Times explains what’s at stake:

“Candidates have been excluded before, but the sweep of the exclusions announced Sunday by the Guardian Council, a clerically appointed body, vastly exceeds past interference. They would eliminate political competition in scores of contests, handing back to religious conservatives the parliamentary majority that voters overwhelmingly denied them four years ago. Though Iranians are demoralized by how little the reformers have accomplished, they should firmly reject such a travesty of democracy.”

“Though thwarted at every turn, the reformist lawmakers represent Iran’s best near-term hope for peaceful democratic change. They have tried to use their parliamentary majority to curb torture, limit political prosecutions, expand press freedom and reduce the power of unelected authorities. The clerical conservatives, by contrast, are a politically exhausted force. They have woefully mismanaged the economy and kept the country estranged from its neighbors and trading partners.”

Critics also warn of how global opinion will view the election tampering. The Guardian says that “with hundreds of names off the ballot, Iran’s credentials as an “Islamic democracy” will be seriously damaged.”

Most Iranians are fed up with their image in the world and hate having been named part of Bush’s “axis of evil.” The Economist predicts that this particular move by the Council may provoke a showdown between the reformists and conservatives that’s been brewing for some time:

“[Conservatives] face one short-term danger and one longer-term one. Their immediate worry is that the students will be galvanised by the MPs’ sit-in…The young particularly resent the bans or restrictions on dancing, movies, videos, alcohol, women’s dress and indeed all social mixing of the sexes. And like most Iranians, they hate being citizens of a country considered by George Bush to be part of the “axis of evil”. They know that in their aspirations for democratic change they have the moral support not just of Americans but of Europeans too…. And, thanks to watching illicit satellite broadcasts and to keeping in touch with a huge diaspora of Iranians abroad (about 1m in America alone), they are well informed about events outside their country, including the international opprobrium brought about by their country’s nuclear programme.”

“The longer-term danger for the clerics also lies in the dissatisfaction of the young, but this discontent is not confined to students. Two-thirds of Iran’s 70m people are under the age of 30, and half are under 20. Religious rule has given them an education and, in the right to vote (at 16), a taste of and for democracy. It has not given them jobs, nor can it do so in sufficient numbers to satisfy all those now leaving school unless it allows economic change—including foreign investment—and, inevitably, political reform too. Whether this week’s row ends in climbdown, compromise or crackdown, it will not have banished the prospect of Iran’s next revolution. On the contrary, it will probably have brought it closer.”

The Chicago Tribune echoes the growing view that this latest power grab by the conservatives may just be outrageous enough to bring about a regime change in Iran:

“That sets up a sham election as meaningless as any in Hussein’s Iraq or Castro’s Cuba. It also sets the stage for what could be a moment of truth for Iran. The hope is that such a brazen move–coupled with public dissatisfaction over the regime’s emergency response to the recent earthquake in Bam–will reignite the democratic protest movement and bring thousands of students into the streets.”

“How the Iranian people respond in the next few days and weeks could determine how long the mullahs cling to absolute power. All those who cherish freedom can only hope that voices raised so often for democracy and liberty in Iran do not go silent now.”