Iran’s unresolved conflict between reformers and fundamentalists

Either the Islamic Republic wishes to remain in its fundamentalist cocoon and alienate more educated, westward-looking young Iranians, as well as be regarded as a pariah by the international community, or it wishes to join the modern world

Farhang Jahanpour
11 November 2014
Tehran Friday prayers protesters

Supporters of the Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, 2009. Demotix/Iran360 (some rights reserved)As we get close to the November 24 deadline for a comprehensive nuclear deal to be reached between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany), another conflict has been raging in Iran between the moderates and the hardliners, a contest that could be regarded as a culture war between two different ideologies and two different versions of Islam. Thirty-five years after the start of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the conflict between the two camps has not yet been resolved. If anything, once more, it has taken centre stage and its resolution can affect the future direction of Iran as much as can the nuclear deal with the west.

The recent spate of acid attacks on women allegedly not fully observing the hijab, and jailing a 26-year old British-Iranian woman for a year for trying to attend a volleyball game (women are not allowed to be spectators in any games alongside men, it is claimed on account of the use of foul language at such gatherings), the Iranian Parliament’s rejection of four of President Hassan Rouhani’s nominees as science and higher education ministers at the behest of the hardliners eager to control the universities and their curricula, the increasing number of executions (according to Amnesty International, at least 369 people were executed in the Islamic Republic in 2013), draconian measures against journalists, discrimination against religious minorities, especially the Baha’is - all these are symptoms of the tug of war between the hardliners and the reformers.

The roots of the revolution

It is often forgotten that the movement against Mohammad Reza Shah’s 37-year rule from about 1975 onwards was mainly concerned with freedom, human rights, independence and social justice. In fact, people’s demands were summed up in the slogans chanted by the revolutionaries, “Freedom, Independence, Social Justice”, the last element of which was later changed to “Islamic Republic”.

By ‘freedom’, the revolutionaries meant freedom from arbitrary rule, freedom of expression, for genuine political parties, and freedom of assembly. To be fair, there existed a great many social freedoms under the Shah. Both men and women were allowed to dress in any way they liked. They could drink alcoholic beverages, make music, have fun, travel and engage in many other social activities. There were a number of political parties with a limited degree of political activity, tolerated as long as they did not oppose the Shah.

However, the Shah’s disastrous decision to abolish all other parties in favour of the Rastakhiz or Resurrection Party in 1975 meant that even the pretence of party politics came to an end. Trying to steal the clothes of the communists whom he regarded as his main opposition, the Shah declared that everybody had to be a member of the new party or leave the country. He even offered to pay the cost of their tickets to leave the country, not realising that many people wanted to reform their country, not to leave it. The Shah’s secret service SAVAK, which had spread its tentacles into every part of society striking fear into the hearts of many Iranians, especially young people, brutally enforced submission to the Shah’s rule.

The rise of Islamist groups

As the Shah only feared opposition from the leftist and communist parties (represented by the Mojahedin-e Khalq as Islamic Marxists, or the secular left represented by the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party and Fada’ian-e Khalq, Maoist parties and others), any political activity was severely curtailed; but, strangely enough, not only were religious gatherings not curtailed, on the contrary, they were encouraged as a bulwark against “ungodly communism”. As a result, people flocked to the mosques in their tens of thousands, including many with political motivations, and the mosques became hotbeds of dissent and opposition to the government.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, exiled from Iran in 1964 due to his opposition to the Shah’s so-called White Revolution (a set of progressive reforms launched in 1963 to form a modern society, including female suffrage, land reform, universal education, universal health insurance, etc.) continued preaching against the Shah from exile, first from Najaf in Iraq, and later on from Paris when he was expelled from Iraq by Saddam Hussein on the Shah’s request. Khomeini’s fiery speeches were distributed on cassettes through the mosques and the bazaars, and he became the figurehead for opposition to the government. From then on, the revolution assumed a religious direction, with the use of religious terminology popularised by pro-Khomeini clerics.

Khomeini as the leader of the revolution

After the Shah’s departure and Khomeini’s return to Iran, millions flocked to him as the symbol of resistance to the Shah, and he became the “leader of the revolution”. Having achieved the almost miraculous feat of unseating the Shah who had the fifth most powerful army in the world and enjoyed western support, the revolutionaries were not initially bothered about the direction in which Khomeini was taking them.

Shortly after Khomeini’s return to Iran some left-leaning lawyers prepared the draft of a progressive constitution, and in his zeal to achieve legitimacy for his revolution, Khomeini agreed to this document. However, some revolutionaries were keen to do things by the book, including Mehdi Bazargan, one of the non-clerical leaders of the revolution prior to Khomeini’s return, who insisted that a constituent assembly had to be formed to draw up a proper constitution.

This mistake played into Khomeini’s hands. Instead of a constituent assembly, Khomeini called for the election of an “Assembly of Experts” to write the constitution, and of course by experts he meant those who were experts in Islamic law or the Shari’a. As a result, the assembly that came into being was dominated by prominent clerics or ayatollahs, and the constitution that they prepared enshrined the concept of Velayat-e Faqih, or the guardianship of the leading clerics. Although initially many liberal and leftist groups had been prominent among the revolutionaries, soon Islamic groups took charge of the revolution.

After Khomeini’s return, religious and leftist forces clashed, as the result of which leftist forces were totally crushed and eliminated from the political scene. When radical Islamic students attacked the US Embassy and took American diplomats hostage, the leftists had no option but to condone that illegal act. By supporting the so-called Students Following the Line of the Imam who had attacked the US Embassy, Khomeini consolidated his position and marginalised the leftist groups.

The Iran-Iraq war that was launched by Saddam Hussein on 22 September 1998 and supported by the west due to the mistaken belief that it would weaken the revolution, further consolidated the clerics in power and put an end to all ideological debates in favour of unity against the foreign enemy. 

Velayat-e Faqih

During his years of exile in Iraq, Khomeini had come up with the novel idea of Velayat-e Faqih that had no precedent in Islamic theology or history, and after coming to power he placed that concept at the heart of the new republic. Consequently, the Islamic Republic became an oxymoron. Both the 1979 Islamic Constitution and its 1989 revision after Khomeini’s death were intensely undemocratic. On the one hand, the regime was Islamic with a cleric at the head, ruling as the Supreme Leader; while, on the other hand, it was supposed to be a republic, or a government chosen by the people. That dichotomy has continued ever since.

Contradictions at the heart of the Islamic Republic

Right from the start, there has been an inherent contradiction at the heart of the Islamic Republic. The Islamic Republic has all the appearance of a democratic state, but in reality everything is tightly controlled by the clerics, led by the Supreme Leader.

There are elections in the Islamic Republic for the Majlis or parliament, for the president, even for the members of the Assembly of Experts who are in charge of appointing the new Supreme Leader when the current one dies. But any candidate who stands for any of these posts must be approved by the Guardian Council, six of whose clerical members are directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, and the other six by the head of the Judiciary who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Majlis can pass legislation, but all its legislation has also to be approved by the Guardian Council who check their compatibility with the Shari’a and the constitution.

In addition to these powers, the Supreme Leader has a final say about the appointment of intelligence, foreign and interior ministers. He appoints the heads of the armed forces and the Revolutionary Guards and is the Commander in Chief of all the military forces. In order to ensure religious loyalty and enforce religious conformity, the Supreme Leader appoints all the Friday prayer imams throughout the country and these imams provide a direct link between the clerical establishment and the people in the remotest parts of the country.

The Supreme Leader can dismiss the parliament and can call upon it to change any legislation that he disapproves of. He can also call upon the president to dismiss a minister and to appoint someone that he approves of, and Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i made frequent use of that power under President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, which resulted in the president leaving his office in protest and staying at home for over two weeks due to Khamene’i’s opposition to his choice of intelligence minister. In short, in addition to acting as the spiritual head of the society, the Supreme Leader wields more extensive powers than the Shah could ever have dreamed of.

President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s reforms

After Khomeini’s death in 1989, President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani started the reform process in Iran. His first priority was the reconstruction of the massive damage inflicted by the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, but he realised that this required capable technocrats and an opening up of Iran’s political and cultural scene. It was under him when the reformists first began to make their presence felt, and it is to his credit that he prepared the way for the election of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997.

Rafsanjani was also the first person after the revolution to speak of the importance of professionalism, a free economy and being more open to the west. It was Rafsanjani who ended the Lebanese hostage crisis in 1992 and also gave a one billion dollar oil contract to the American oil company Conoco. However, for those efforts he was rewarded by the United States - when Martin Indyk was serving as senior director of Near East and South Asian Affairs at the United States National Security Council - with the Dual Containment policy, which put an end to his opening up to the west.

 President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government

With the election of President Mohammad Khatami the Reformist Movement was launched in earnest. Many reformist publications pushed the limits of free expression, including strong criticism of the revolution and its founder and the current Supreme Leader to new heights.

Religious reformists, such as Abdol-Karim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar, Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari, Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari and others, put forward revolutionary interpretations of Islam and its alleged compatibility with freedom and modern concepts. However, the hardliners did not sit idly by. The hardline judiciary closed more than 80 reformist newspapers and magazines. Reformists were attacked, many of them were jailed, and some were even made the targets of assassination attempts.

Demonstrations by the students at the University of Tehran against the closure of reformist newspapers led to fierce clashes and security forces and vigilantes attacked student dormitories, ransacked their rooms, threw some students from their upper floor rooms and killed and wounded dozens. In the face of that concerted attack by the judiciary, the vigilante groups, and the Revolution Guards Corps supported by Khamenei, the elected president felt powerless.

 To add insult to injury, his reaching out to the west and calls for a “Dialogue of Civilisations” and a settling of the differences with America, including the nuclear dispute and relations with Israel, were only greeted by President George W. Bush (or by his speechwriter David Frum) with the declaration that Iran was a member of the Axis of Evil.

Hardline backlash under President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad

The concerted attack by the domestic and foreign hardliners against Khatami sealed his fate and paved the way for the election of President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad in 2005. In the 2005 election, the reformists were disheartened and disunited. They failed to reach agreement over a single candidate, and the reformist vote was divided between Hashemi-Rafsanjani who decided to run again for president, and former Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, former Vice-President Mohsen Mehralizadeh, and former Minister of Science Mostafa Mo’in. As a result, the candidate of the hardliners, Mahmud Ahmadinezhad, who was also supported by the Supreme Leader and by a large number of paramilitary groups, won the election. Due to his reliance upon the Revolutionary Guards and Basij paramilitaries, his government came to be known as the “Government of the Barracks”.

The 2009 election showed that the reformist movement in Iran was far from dead. After the fraudulent election when Ahmadinezhad was declared the winner, despite the earlier results announced by the Ministry of the Interior declaring that the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Musavi had won, the country witnessed the biggest demonstrations and protests since the victory of the revolution. The Green Movement attracted millions of Iranians from all walks of life, and although Ahmadinezhad continued in power he became a lame-duck president during his second term with disputes arising between him and the Supreme Leader and serious splits appearing among the hardliners.

A new beginning with President Hassan Rouhani

The election of the centrist Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in June 2013 has once again swung the pendulum towards the more moderate elements in the Islamic Republic. However, after a short honeymoon, the hardliners have again started to flex their muscles. The judiciary and security forces have continued to arrest journalists, dissidents, intellectuals and students as a clear challenge to the president’s promise of greater freedoms.  The Majlis, dominated by hardliners who were elected under Ahmadinezhad, have impeached his minister of science and higher education for allegedly appointing reformist figures as university presidents and deputy ministers. They have rejected three nominees by the president for the ministry on the excuse that they were close to the “Seditionists” or those who took part in the protests after the 2009 election.

Iranian lawmakers have approved a draft bill in support of those who “promote virtue and prevent vice”. It calls for the creation of a 17-member body to oversee the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, and grants the hard-line Basij militia greater powers of enforcement. The so-called injunction to “promote virtue and prevent vice” is an Islamic teaching, basically calling on the believers to give advice to their friends who might indulge in immoral activities. However, this has become an excuse for fanatics and vigilantes to attack complete strangers on the excuse of wishing to promote virtue if they behave in a way of which they do not approve.

Recently, acid was thrown in the faces of at least eight young women in Isfahan who allegedly had not fully covered their faces, resulting in serious injury and even blindness in some cases. Those barbaric attacks have given rise to nationwide protests and demonstrations, and President Rouhani has also denounced the attacks. In a speech, criticising the draft bill and condemning the acid attacks, he said: “The sacred call to virtue is not the right of a select group of people, a handful taking the moral high ground and acting as custodians. It is upon all Muslims to exhort love, respect for other and human dignity.” He warned that such practices will “lead our society down the path to insecurity, sow discord and cause rifts, all under the banner of Islam.”

These statements are commendable but they don’t go far enough. The authorities have so far claimed that they have not been able to identify the attackers. However, this is a lame excuse because everybody knows who is really behind these crimes. On October 16, 2014, Yalesarat newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ultra fanatical group “Ansar-e Hezbollah” or Hezbollah’s Helpers, published a report about a conference held by that group the previous day to enforce the strict observance of hijab by women. Speaking in that conference, Abdol-Hamid Mohtasham, secretary general of Ansar-e Hezbollah, ominously warned: “Our hands will not be tied in confronting those who violate religious injunctions.” He added: “The most important point that should be made in this meeting is that we will not stop only at oral warnings.” A few days later, eight girls were subjected to acid attacks in Isfahan. The government should have the courage to go after such vile individuals and their backers among the clergy and in the Majles.

Failure to act will embolden the hardliners

One lesson that one can learn from President Khatami’s failure to achieve his reformist goals is that he did not confront the hardliners with sufficient determination. His weakness emboldened them and paved the way for Ahmadinezhad’s hardline government. If President Rouhani follows the same path he will certainly meet the same fate.

He should realise that he has the backing of the vast majority of Iranians. His own election showed that hardline candidates who stood against him only managed to get just over 10 per cent of the votes, while he and the more moderate candidates received the overwhelming majority of the votes. Iranians have also gone through the sobering experience of eight years of Ahmadinezhad’s fundamentalist administration and are more ready to support a reformist president. With the rise of the fanatical religious terrorist groups such as ISIS, the Iranian people are more prepared to denounce extremism, and the international climate is also more conducive to change.

Meanwhile, the best help that the west can give to the cause of change in Iran is to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran on November 24, and put an end to over 35 years of unnecessary and counter-productive estrangement and hostility between Iran and the west. An Iran that has greater contacts and engagement with the west is more likely to pursue more moderate policies in the region, including towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. If this great opportunity for an agreement is missed, it will further intensify hostility between Iran and the west, Congress will impose more sanctions, and Iran will speed up her nuclear program, paving the way for a disastrous clash between Iran and the west.

An inevitable clash

At the same time, a serious confrontation between the moderates and the extremists in Iran is inevitable, and further delay will only make the battle more intense. Either the Islamic Republic wishes to remain in its fundamentalist cocoon and alienate more educated, westward-looking young Iranians, as well as be regarded as a pariah by the international community, or it wishes to join the modern world and win its rightful place in the community of nations. There is no other alternative.

The Shah’s experience should also provide another lesson for the Islamic Republic. He was often encouraged to reform his regime and on a number of occasions he even made some attempts to introduce more freedom and democracy, but he hesitated due to the fear that the whole system might unravel. The opposite was the case, because had he opened up his government, the country would have prospered and he would not have met the fate that he did. The present leaders of the Islamic Republic are also gripped with the same fear, but inaction will lead to the same outcome, namely the total collapse of the system, while reform can strengthen it. 

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