Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Iran at a Crossroads

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Iran at a Crossroads

Article excerpt

Iran today is a society immersed in a dynamic debate regarding the essence and direction of the Islamic Republic. Six years after the election of the moderate President Muhammad Khatami, his attempt gradually to liberalize the theocracy has been stymied by a determined conservative backlash. However, as with most democratic transitions, Iran's reform movement is beginning to acquire new leaders and bold strategies for altering the demarcations of the state. This aggressive reform movement is beginning to provoke defections from a segment of the conservative bloc that is beginning to appreciate the disutility of ruling through terror. The Islamic Republic of Iran may yet witness another momentous realignment of its political order.

Iran today is experiencing one of its most acute crises since the 1979 revolution that originally launched its Islamic Republic. Six years after the election of the moderate cleric Muhammad Khatami to Iran's presidency, the project that he pioneered-to liberalize gradually the theocracy through the strategic development of its established institutions-has largely failed. A determined backlash by conservative clerical oligarchs has effectively paralyzed Khatami's original stratagem for incremental change. However, contrary to the emerging Washington consensus, the demise of Khatami's original enterprise has not bankrupted the reform movement, as the bedrock of Iran's politics has irrevocably shifted in the past few years. Although Khatami's liberalizing initiatives have failed, the reform movement that he rode to the presidency has transformed Iran's political realities, leading a forceful public to defy the suffocating imperatives of the guardians of the theocracy.

As with most democratic transitions, as Iran's reform movement matures, it is adopting new tactics and acquiring new leaders. A younger generation of parliamentarians, dissident clerics, and students are displacing Khatami and his cohort as the moral and tactical leaders of the reform movement, and they are adopting more aggressive strategies for altering the demarcations of the state. Instead of Khatami's patient strategy of gradualism and negotiations with the right, the new activists are adopting a two-pronged strategy of disengagement from the Islamic Republic's formal politics and active confrontation with its would-be enforcers on the streets. While impatient reformers in the parliament are contemplating the stark measures of evaporating the legitimacy of the system by boycotting its elections and vacating their seats, Iran's powerful student organizations are beginning forcefully to challenge the regime by demonstrations and defiance. Instead of changing the system from within, the reformers are now seeking to pressure it from outside. As the political impasse of the past few years yields to active confrontation between the contending political factions, Iran is entering a period of uncertainty and potential unrest. The critical question remains: whose vision of the Islamic Republic will survive these tensions and conflicts?

THE REPUBLIC OF CONTRADICTIONS The conflict that is gripping Iran today is a manifestation of contradictions deeply embedded in Iran's governing structure. From its inception, the Islamic Republic was a state divided between competing centers of power and profoundly differing conceptions of political authority. The original constitution pledged that the foremost purpose of the state was to "create conditions under which may be nurtured the noble and universal values of Islam."1 To achieve this mission, unelected institutions, such as the Spiritual Leader and the Guardian Council, were created and empowered with the ultimate authority over national affairs. Yet, the structure of the Islamic Republic differed significantly from that of a typical totalitarian state, as it empowered Iran's populace to elect the president, parliament, and the municipal councils. Such perplexing duality reflects the legacy of a revolution that saw a diverse coalition of secularists, liberals, and fundamentalists uneasily cooperating in the overthrow of the monarchy. …

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