Iran's revolution, 20 years ago, set off a cycle of Islamist radicalism.
Now its struggle to reform itself is being watched and, perhaps, may even
October 8, 1999
AS ISLAMIST militancy smoulders or erupts at the edges of the Muslim
world-most recently in the Caucasus (see article 25)-the central flame,
which seemed a few years ago to be threatening to consume many parts of
the Arab Middle East, has subsided. All is not yet calm: outcasts in Algeria,
beyond the reach of the ceasefire, keep the killing fields alive; the
security forces in Egypt and elsewhere are vigilant; no Arab government
is as yet relaxed. But the greatest dangers of revolutionary upheaval
in the Middle East, most would acknowledge, have passed. The debate is
tentatively turning to ways of accommodating non-violent Islamic radicals
within the system.
At the same time, Iran, the non-Arab country whose Islamist revolution
20 years ago was the pilot light for the Arab furnace, is going through
a second revolution, much quieter but hardly less important than the first.
Iran's struggle between reform and conservatism is precariously balanced:
the outcome will determine whether or not a theocratic republic, founded
on one man's rigorous vision of the perfect Islamic state, can peacefully
evolve into a more tolerant regime that takes democratic account of the
wishes of its citizens.
Iran is a Shia Muslim country, whereas most of the rest of the Muslim
world is Sunni. Even so, Muslims the world over are again beginning to
look to Iran as a pioneer. Believers, deeply unhappy with current regimes
or rulers, wonder about the nature of a state based on Islam. Reform-minded
Islamists-people who believe that government should be founded on Islamic
law but that the law should be interpreted in a way that allows the individual
considerable freedom of choice and expression-discover a model in Iran's
reformist president, Muhammad Khatami.
And where else, indeed, can would-be reformers look? One established
Islamist state, Saudi Arabia, is an autocracy bound by a stringent, and
often harsh, interpretation of Islamic law. It is inching forward into
the modern world of technology and economics, but it cannot yet be said
to be entering those areas of modernism where democracy or freedom can
flourish. A new Islamist state, Afghanistan under the Taliban, is in an
angry ferment of creation, whipping people into Islamist line by applying
its own exacting and exaggerated version of the law. It may mature-even
as Iran has-but it has a long way to go.
Iran's own maturing process is at a crucial stage. By appointing liberals
to key jobs and by allowing a number of finicky rules to go unobserved,
Mr Khatami has, in his two years as president, turned Iran into a more
agreeable (though, alas, no more prosperous) place for an independent-minded
person to live in. But he is still far from the "civil society"
he has promised, and the hardline establishment is fighting him, with
skill, cunning and authority, every trudging step of the way. The conservatives'
latest manoeuvre, described on article 50, is to put a straitjacket on
the election next February, which had been expected to produce a less
The president, under siege, has two powerful weapons on his side. The
first is public support: he was elected by 70% of the voters on his pledge
of reform. This is useful, but by no means decisive. His second, and
indispensable, strength is the tacit support of Iran's supreme leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who under the constitution has the final say on
just about anything that matters. The conservatives have tried to appropriate
Ayatollah Khamenei for their cause, and he has at times allowed himself
to be numbered among them. But he and the president have discreetly worked
as a team, and last weekend he expressed his support with unprecedented
openness, reproaching the hardliners for exploiting religion for their
The president, said Ayatollah Khamenei in his Friday sermon, "is
a cleric, he is pious...and he is working for the rebirth of Islam."
This statement from on high on Islamic rebirth is enormously encouraging
to Iran's reformers, pointing to a more enlightened interpretation of
Islamic law. But, at the same time, the statement underlines the limits