Iran: Turn the Page

8 February 2004

Iran: Turn the Page

By Gwynne Dyer

Last Thursday, only six days before the 25th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution (on 11 February), a hopeful door to the future clanged shut. Democratic reformers, who won control of the Iranian parliament in 2001 but found their legislation blocked by the unelected Guardian Council, have decided to boycott the election on 20 February. Democracy will still come to Iran in the end, no doubt, but now it will come in the streets. The only question is whether it will be a non-violent revolution like Berlin 1989, or a re-run of Iran’s own bloody revolution in 1979.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was a brazen attempt by religious conservatives to regain control of parliament by banning 3,000 reform candidates, including over eighty sitting members of parliament (out of 290), from running in this election. Iran’s bizarre two-headed constitution allows for an elected parliament and president alongside an unelected but all-powerful Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a Guardian Council appointed by the religious leader that can veto all parliamentary legislation and vet all political candidates, so it was technically legal. It was also supremely stupid.

Iran’s elected president, Mohammed Khatami, urged patience on his reformist supporters and appealed to the Supreme Leader to reverse the Guardian Council’s decree. Khamenei, fearing his appointees had overplayed their hand, suggested a compromise: the intelligence ministry would certify 600 prominent reformers as loyal to the Islamic state and they would be allowed to run. The Guardian Council replied by approving only 51 of the 600, and at that point the democrats threw their hands in. At least 127 MPs have already resigned, and the main opposition parties have declared a boycott of the forthcoming election.

The election will probably go ahead anyway, returning a huge conservative majority on a drastically shrunken turnout, but the important thing is that the democratic opposition has finally given up on politics. In one form or another, direct action is what will now determine the outcome of the struggle between Islamic conservatives and democratic reformers in Iran.

It has only taken this long because of the pacifying role played by Mohammed Khatami, who was reluctantly persuaded to run for the presidency in 1997 by the reformers. An Islamic cleric himself, though far more open-minded than the men around Khamenei, he agreed to run mainly to head off a direct clash between the bearded old men who rule Iran and the impatient young men and women who cannot stand them.

To his own astonishment, Khatami won by a landslide 69 percent majority on a massive 83 percent turnout of the vote. In office, he moved very slowly at first, avoiding direct confrontations with the religious authorities, but his enthusiastic supporters forgave him because the conservatives still controlled the parliament. They became more impatient when Khatami still did little after democrats won control of parliament in the 2000 election, but they returned him to the presidency with an increased majority in 2001. It was noticeable, however, that the turnout in 2001 dropped by almost a fifth to 67 percent: some people were already losing faith in the ballot-box.

Khatami briefly tried to play hard-ball in 2002, threatening to resign if the Guardian Council vetoed two parliamentary bills to stop the arbitrary vetting of political candidates and to end political trials. The Guardian Council vetoed them anyway, and Khatami didn’t resign. Neither did he condemn the conservatives when they used their constitutional position to shut down pro-democratic media. He even stayed silent when the police (who, like the army and the state-owned media, are under conservative control) helped fanatical vigilantes to beat protesting students last June.

Eventually the conservatives were so emboldened that they overplayed their hand, and now the political struggle moves to the streets. Khatami will stay in power for one more year, but he is a burnt-out case whose former supporters are coming to see him as a mere apologist of the regime. Among the massive cohort of disillusioned youth (Iran’s population has doubled to 70 million in the past 25 years), the alienation from the whole idea of the ‘Islamic’ republic is spectacular.

If they are middle-class, they are virtual citizens of a quite different world known to them through satellite TV, videos and constant contact with the huge Iranian diaspora that regularly travels back and forth between Iran and its new homes in Europe, the Americas and Australia — a world in which people like Khamenei and Khatami seem like complete anachronisms. If they are working class and under 25, they are probably unemployed.

They may not come out in their millions to demonstrate in favour of a president who was a disappointment and a parliament that proved to be irrelevant. “Protests shouldn’t focus on this matter, but should be about changing the structure of the system,” said Mehdia Aminzadeh, a student leader, last month. But when something does finally bring them out on the street again in a big way, it will probably be the end-game.

Fanatics like Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the regime’s most prominent ideologue, vow to preserve the Islamic republic “even at the price of a million martyrs,” but it is also possible that the whole rotten structure of the theocratic system might collapse at the first hard push. Nobody knows — but it is clear that the patient, political phase of the struggle for Iran’s future is over.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“It has…ballot-box”)