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Reading Iran Wrong

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by Amir Taheri

PostPosted: Sat Jan 24, 2004 8:51 am    Post subject: Reading Iran Wrong Reply with quote

Reading Iran Wrong

January 23, 2004
New York Sun
Amir Taheri

Starting a revolution is hard, sustaining it even harder. But it is bringing a revolution to a close that is the hardest. This is the challenge that Iran's divided leadership faces today.

Consider the power struggle in Tehran that started with a sit-in by some 80 members of the Islamic Majlis (parliament) earlier this month.

The sit-in politicians were protesting a decision by the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution to reject their applications for seeking a new term in the Feb. 20 general election. The council, a self-perpetuating body of 12 mullahs and jurists, has the constitutional duty of checking applications and deciding who can and who cannot be a candidate.

Some foreign observers believe the fight is between a "hard-line" faction clinging to power and a "moderate" coalition that wishes to set Iran on course for democracy. Parts of the Western media identify the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei as leader of the "hard-liners" and President Muhammad Khatami as the standard-bearer of the "moderates."

All this reminds one of the old days of Kremlinology, when Western specialists tried to detect differences between Nikita Khrushchev and Grigori Malenkov on the basis of who had his suits cut by an Italian tailor.

The Kremlinologists divided the Soviet leadership into "hawks" and "doves," exaggerating what was a power struggle inside a small, and increasingly isolated, Nomenklatura into a fight of almost cosmic significance. The premise was that the Soviet system could be reformed.

A later version of Kremlinology promoted the idea of "Communism with a human face." Kremlinologists clung to their illusions right to the end. Even as the Soviet Titanic was sinking, they toured the world to seek support for Mikhail Gorbachev, who continued to sing of "revolutionary Leninist solutions."

Today, the Kremlinologists have been replaced by Iranologists: Western scholars and journalists who, continuing a well-established tradition of fascination for totalitarian ideologies, always support a revolution for as long as it does not affect them personally.

As mentioned, the typical Iranologist sees two factions in the present power struggle. Again, the illusion is that the "moderates" would preserve the romance of the revolution minus its ugly aspects.

Instead of "Communism with a human face," we now get "Khomeinism with a smiling face." The reality is more complex. To start with, this is a power struggle within the ruling establishment. No outsider, not even those who had collaborated with the regime in its earlier stages, is allowed any role, even as an extra.

Both factions insist that only those who are "100 percent Khomeinist" should be allowed to stand for election. Thus the debate is not about free elections in the sense understood in any democracy but about the right of some regime insiders to prevent some other insiders from becoming candidates. The best way to describe all this is as a family feud.

If you look at the top 600 positions in Iran today, including the 290 members of the Islamic Majlis (parliament), you would be struck by the fact that so many of the individuals concerned are related to each other by blood or marriage.

And neither faction is proposing any radical reform of any aspects of the Khomeinist system. Both reject the almost unanimous call of the opposition parties and movements for a constitutional referendum. Both claim legitimacy on the basis not of the people's will but of their fidelity to the teachings of Khomeini.

Those branded as "moderates" have, in fact, a much more radical record than the "hard-liners." Almost all the so-called "students" who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran almost a quarter of a century ago and held its members hostage for 444 days are now members of the "moderate" faction.

To further add to the irony, almost all those who had opposed the seizure of hostages at the time are now in the Iranologists' "hard-line" camp. The mullah who created the Hezbollah in Lebanon is a leader of the "moderate" faction, while another who has persistently called for disentanglement from the Lebanese scene is classified as "hard-liner."

There are two areas in which the two factions differ.

The first is public relations.

The "moderates" grow designer stubbles, as opposed to full Khomeinist beards, and wear Italian-cut suits, as opposed to the traditional cloaks favored by the "hard-liners."

The "moderates" adopt much Western political terminology, including democracy, human rights and pluralism but immediately add the prefix or suffix "Islamic" to alter their meaning. President Khatami, for example, seldom uses the word "democracy" but constantly talks about "civil society" which, he says in private, means the same thing. The "hard-liners," for their part, have no qualms about saying that their brand of Islam rejects democracy, human rights and pluralism as "Zionist-Crusader" concoctions.

But when it comes to calling for the legalization of political parties, including those that reject Khomeinism, the two factions are more united than a pair of Siamese twins. Neither faction wants to open the gates of Iranian prisons where thousands of people languish because of their political, cultural or religious differences with the ruling establishment.

Nor would either faction end a system under which the so-called "revolutionary foundations" dominate key sectors of the national economy and sabotage any attempt at economic and trade reform.

Both factions reject calls for abrogating the law under which women are forced to wear a certain type of clothing and hijab. The "hard-liners" see elections as Khomeini saw them; i.e. as an occasion for the believers to renew their allegiance to the regime and not as a means of changing rulers and/or policies. The "moderates" share that belief but claim that elections are free only as long as they and their friends win.

In fact, there is not a single area of political, economic, social or cultural life in which the two factions defend clearly opposed positions.

The second area where the two factions differ is foreign policy.

The "hard-line" faction believes that the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the standard bearer of "true Islam," is duty-bound to challenge the claim, especially by the United States, that Western-style capitalist democracy is the ideal model for all nations. The "moderates," like Gorbachev in his time, have developed the illusion that a regime's foreign policy can be dissociated from its domestic policies.

The European Union and part of the Bush administration appear to believe that a win by the "hard-line" faction would be bad news for all concerned.

That belief, however, is not based on any evidence. In fact, a win by the so-called "hard-line" faction may end the decision-making paralysis in Tehran and enable the Khomeinist regime to speak and act with one voice. And that may enable Iran to develop a more predictable foreign policy than the one it has pursued in the past seven years.

Email: amirtaheri@benadorassociates.com
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