Iran without Illusions

Article excerpt

The view from Ayatollah Khomeini's study once took in a garden dense with tamarind, quince and fragrant jasmine. Today, all that remains is a murky goldfish pond and a few scabrous zinnias. But the past still hangs heavy here in the sacred city of the Imam's birth; according to local legend, it was on the veranda opposite this window in 1978, a year before the Shah's demise, that SAVAK agents martyred Khomeini's oldest son, Mustafa. And it was at a Koranic school around the corner the same year that police opened fire on a demonstration of clerics and seminary students, setting in motion a cycle of violence that would culminate in the Islamic Revolution. With all this in mind, I turned to my host, Hojatolislam Ali Asrar Ahmadi Khomeini, the late Imam's first cousin and pretender to his spiritual legacy, and inquired genially if he objected to having an American resting on this hallowed spot.

The old man fingered his beard and frowned. "We can live with other nations and other religions," he mumbled solemnly, "if they don't try to make trouble for us." He sat silently for a few seconds, staring into a cup of cloyingly sweet tea and showing no inclination to continue. Suddenly, his furrowed face brightened. "But we are so very happy you have come to visit us!"

Ideological confusion reigns at the highest levels of Iranian society; the bloom is off both the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the era of "pragmatism" that followed it. In the past fourteen months the two rivals who aspire to the mantle of the late Ayatollah have seen their political legitimacy badly undermined by an increasingly disconsolate electorate. In presidential balloting on June 11, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had been projected to win a second term with over 90 percent of the popular vote, struggled to take 63 percent. His main challenger, a conservative former Labor Minister, won a surprising 24 percent, even though he was, like the other two candidates in the race, a relative political unknown. The results of the contest and the anemic turnout - 57 percent - shamed Rafsanjani into canceling a scheduled press conference on June 13, the day he was supposed to announce his triumph.

Ever since the death of the Imam four years ago, Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Khamenei have represented the two competing wings of the post-Khomeini political order. Rafsanjani, familiar to Americans as the man who collaborated with the Reagan Administration in the Iran/contra debacle, favors limited political and economic liberalization and better relations with the West. Khamenei, by contrast, calls up disturbing images of besieged embassies and blindfolded hostages. Outsiders felt certain that in the foreseeable future, the direction of Iranian politics would be determined in the tug-of-war between these two men. But the voters had a different idea. A year ago, after a round of parliamentary elections dealt a stunning defeat to candidates loyal to Khamenei, Western journalists predicted the final demise of Khamenei's "radicals" and the ascendancy of Rafsanjani's "pragmatists." Last month's results have sent the foreign press corps foraging for a new paradigm.

The roots of the current crisis are not difficult to discern. Workers and pensioners on fixed incomes stagger under an inflation rate of over 30 percent. The frenzied economic growth in the first years following the eight-year war with Iraq has withered, and jobs for Iran's burgeoning population are harder to find now than at any time since the revolution. Rafsanjani's infatuation with the World Bank and "free market" reforms has complicated matters; earlier this year, he unified the byzantine exchange rate system, which in effect sharply devalued the rival against the dollar. Overnight, the price of imported merchandise soared. The President has also shown a determination to but government subsidies on essential foodstuffs, a policy that is certain to hit hardest at the poor. …