Iran Rattled by Political Unrest
Hopes were high when he left office. On January 16, 1979, Shah Mohammed Resa Pahlavi left his homeland, which at the time was still called the Empire of Iran. The "king of kings, beacon of the Aryans" – as he called himself – finally made room for a better future. Or so everyone believed. In a revolution no one had expected, the Iranian people had risen up against oppression, censorship, torture, and for a right to have a say in their own affairs.
The Shah's regime had seemed stable because it was ostentatiously well-armed and was considered modern. That was sufficient to the outside world. But to his own people, the Iranian monarch was a despot who refused his subjects any say in their own affairs and brutally suppressed criticism. His spies were everywhere, and their methods of torture struck fear into the hearts of the population. In spite of the country's tremendous oil reserves, a majority of the people lived in poverty.
Desire for change
And today, 25 years later? Today even the Iranian chamber of commerce admits that 40 percent of all Iranians subside in poverty; foreign diplomats estimate the figure at more than 60 percent. The nation is still in bondage; censorship and torture are rampant, people are dissatisfied with the system. Since the first time they were allowed to vote in 1997, the Iranian people have taken advantage of every opportunity to express their wish for reform. In 1997, 2000 and 2001 they voted for those presidential candidates and legislators who promised democracy and the rule of law.
But the question is, is the system even capable of real change? So far, every attempt at reform has failed due to the special conditions of the Iranian system. While it does contain some elements or parliamentary democracy, namely the parliament itself and the office of the president. But these institutions operate within a second, clerical structure. Even when proponents of reform control the parliament, as they have since August of the year 2000, they have not been able to achieve much.
The president is similarly powerless. Due to the power invested in the Guardian Council, parliament has hardly succeeded in putting through any of the more than 50 reform measures introduced. Altogether, 90 percent of all laws introduced by parliament have been rejected by the council as unconstitutional.
Frustration on the part of the population
For this reason, the latest action of the Guardian Council was cause for some astonishment. It refused to legitimize 80 reform-oriented members of parliament for re-election, in spite of the fact that the parliament is hardly in a position to threaten the conservatives.
Besides, they probably would have won the election anyway: People are frustrated and disillusioned, believing themselves powerless to influence Iranian politics through the election process. That's why most of them stayed away from the polls when regional elections were held in February of last year – resulting in a victory for the conservatives, who were more effective in mobilizing their supporters.
It doesn't seem to concern the conservatives that the system loses legitimacy as more voters stay away from the polls and more candidates are locked out. The Guardian Council has often been used to squelch undesired political rivals on a large scale – for example in 1992, when the Guardian Council prevented parliament from being dominated by left-wing Islamists, the same political faction that produced most of today's reformers.
Against the constitution
Complicating the situation is the fact that the selection process for council members is in fact unconstitutional. The Guardian Council does not have a constitutional mandate to select candidates for election. This task was assigned to it in 1992 by the so-called Expediency Council. It, in turn, is also not anchored in the original constitution of the year 1980, but was called into being on order of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.
Because of new developments such as these, and because of the strength of revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei, even those who support the state doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Iran in principle have been forced to admit that the "founding fathers" who wrote the Iranian constitution had envisioned an entirely different system. Grand Ayatollah Hoseinali Montaseri, who participated in the writing of the constitution, accuses the ruling conservatives of having perverted the intentions of the constitution.
Corruption and mismanagement
Twenty-five years after the Shah fled the country, 25 years after the first serious attempt to implement the Islamist motto, "Islam is the solution," the degree of alienation between the people and their conservative rulers has reached its apogee. The earthquake in Bam was a contributing factor. Why did so many people have to die in the earthquake?
This question was raised openly in the Iranian press, and the answer came promptly: Because corruption is rampant and construction ordinances were not observed; because those in power are allowing their people to suffer, and because the potentially rich nation is so poorly managed.
Even though at the moment all indications are to the contrary, the forces of reform will prevail in the end. The days of the theocratic state in Iran are numbered, because it has lost touch with society. Young Iranians in particular have turned away from the ruling clerics.
Seventy percent of the younger generation are below the age of 30. They are too young to remember the shah's reign, but they can see for themselves that the ideals of the revolution have not been made reality. Every kind of pleasure is denied them by the prevailing conservative interpretation of Islam.
"If this is the pure Islamic teaching of Mohammedan tradition, then I would rather do without it," is the thinking of many Iranians today. Surveys have shown that more people say their daily prayers in the secular republic of Turkey, than do so in the supposed theocracy of Iran.
Reform politicians blame the conservatives for creating this negative view of Islam among the nation's young people. Mohammed Resa Khatami, the brother of the ruling president and a new "shooting star" among reformers, recently stated frankly: The young people of Iran are fleeing from religion due to the violent and dictatorial interpretation Islam has received. On the 25th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the people of Iran may well be the most secularized nation in the Middle East -- a nation that has seen first-hand the dangers of unifying politics and religion.
And yet there is hope: In spite of all the set-backs to the reform process, a community of self-confident, politically aware citizens has emerged. There are initial indications of a civil society in the process of organizing itself, of a society that desires liberalization in the public sector. This is promising for the future. For even if the political reform movement should fail, that doesn't mean civil society must fail as well.
Katajun Amirpur © die tageszeitung,16.1.2004
Translation from German: Andres Rossmann
Katajun Amirpur is a journalist and professor of Islamic Studies. She is currently employed in a teaching position at the Institute for Islamic Studies at the Free University of Berlin.