Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Georgetown Audience Hears Two Perspectives on Iran

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Georgetown Audience Hears Two Perspectives on Iran

Article excerpt


The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University held a briefing on April 7 on "Iran After the Elections" with Hooshang Amirahmadi, professor of Middle East studies at Rutgers University and president of the American-Iranian Council, and Farzaneh Milani, associate professor of Persian and women and gender studies at the University of Virginia. Professor Amirahmadi began the afternoon briefing by highlighting the long-term view of Iran which goes back to the mid-19th century.

Amirahmadi said Iran's democratic reforms in recent elections should not be regarded as a "new trend." Rather, he said, "if we take the long view of Iran we can see that [political] expressions of today are indicative of past historical trends." According to Dr. Amirahmadi, a "new Iran is emerging" and it should be seen as a process because everything in Iran "is constantly changing and nothing is absolute or stagnant," he said.

Amirahmadi focused on three current aspects of Iran. First is the relationship between the state and Islam, in which the very concept of Velayat-efaqih, or the absolute rule of the supreme religious leader, is being challenged and Iran is becoming more of a secular state. He said moderate President Mohammad Reza Khatami is attempting to modify the concept of a state ruled by Velayat-efaqih into something comparable to a constitutional monarchy, thereby significantly lessening religious influence on the day-to-day affairs of the state.

Second is the fact that in Iran "the people and the state have been on two opposing poles of the same issue," Amirahmadi said. The state is a "rentier state," he explained, and "the more dependency of the state on the people increases, the more the state will become accountable." Thus the two major themes of the current reform movement are "transparency" and "accountability."

The third aspect is the place of Iran in the international community, since President Khatami's Iran of today is no longer isolationist. Amirahmadi pointed out that "Iran is thinking globally and is increasingly convinced that working with the global community is in the best interests of Iran."

Professor Amirahmadi compared contemporary Iran, where "the middle-class religious intelligentsia are attempting to overthrow the religious dictatorship of today," with the situation in 1979, when the secular intelligentsia overthrew the secular state of the shah. And he added that while earlier Western stereotyping of Iran consisted of "demonization," the new stereotyping puts Iranians into one of two groupings, either the religious reformists of Khatami or the religious conservatives of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But these views, according to Amirahmadi, fail to account for the bigger process now underway in Iran--secularization.

"Iran is becoming increasingly secular and the role of religion is becoming secularized," Amirahmadi said. He explained: "For 1,400 years Islam and Iran have been together, [but Iran] has lived for another 1,400 years before without Islam and can do so again."

Amirahmadi then described three stages in recent Iranian history. First, prior to 1979, was the "Islam-Islam" stage, during which there was a complete absence of nationalistic language and the very notion of "Iran" was hardly ever mentioned in any Friday khotbeh (religious sermon). At best, he said, "the term `Iran' was incidental."

Secondly, the stage of "Islam-Iran," beginning around 1982, saw the build-up of Iranian nationalism with the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the arrival of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. …

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