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Iran´s self-fulfilling prophecy

The New York Times
February 27, 2000

TEHRAN, Iran -- The best-selling books here these days are all by jailbirds. Among the hottest are the bound transcripts of defense arguments from the trials of an iconoclast Muslim cleric, Abdullah Nouri, and the activist former mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi. Even the essays of the journalist and erstwhile hostage-taker Abbas Abdi -- the same ones that landed him in prison when he published them in his magazine last year -- have been reprinted in paperback and fly off the shelves of Tehran's busy book shops.

The reactionary mullahs who arrested these new darlings of the publishing world must rue the day they decided to muzzle their critics with a few political show trials. The liberalization of society they so feared had already advanced too far. Persecution only made the reformers louder and more popular.

United by little more than antagonism toward the insular clerics, the self-styled reformers have now gained strength following their victory in the first round of parliamentary elections on Feb. 18. Their movement is partly a backlash against a clerical cartel that has ruled the country, in one form or another, since the 1979 Islamic revolution. During that time, this cartel has moved to stifle change through arrests and violence.

"This is a victory for progressives, but they are progressives in the Iranian context," said a veteran Middle-Eastern diplomat in Tehran last week. "They come from within the system and although they have adopted nationalist slogans, they are fighting the old fight of who is the most pure revolutionary and the most Islamic of the clerics."

By expanding into all levels of society, the hard-line guardians of the old theocratic order may have planted the seeds of their own election defeat. They have not only drawn political fire from the larger society for their actions -- and inaction -- on social issues; they have also created a competition among themselves. They have turned from passive religious guardians before the revolution to activists jealous of each other's grip on power. And by making loyalty to the revolution a litmus test, they have also invited scrutiny of their own ideals and interpretations of what the revolution promised. In effect, the revolution that gave the clerics power created a new class of politicians. This class includes not only the traditional clerical elite, but also opponents of absolute clerical rule.

Most of the clerics come from Islamic centers like Qum, the most prominent city for theological study in Iran. Qum produced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, and the moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami, the country's president and the icon of the democratic movement. The Qum system elevates some clerics over others by conferring various ranks including the highest, grand ayatollah. Each scholar elevated by his peers becomes an autonomous force, with his own students and followers taken with his particular interpretation of Islamic law.

But Qum's schools no longer graduate only theoreticians of Islamic jurisprudence, as they did for centuries when religion was the property of mullahs and government the purview of kings. Nor do they mainly produce revolutionaries, as they did in the waning years of the shah. Now the schools also teach computers, accounting, business management and political science. Since they have created positions for themselves in the regime, they also produce Iran's bureaucrats, politicians and critics.

The current calls for change are coming as much from Qum and other theological centers as they are from the non-clerical public. To a large degree, the outcome that some ayatollahs feared after the revolution -- that political involvement would tarnish the prestige of religious leaders -- has come to pass. In the parliamentary elections, not one cleric was elected to any of the three Qum seats. All the winners are technocrats or university professors.

The competition among politicized clerics has inevitably produced a power struggle between insiders and outsiders. Nouri, the jailed cleric who was convicted of apostasy for questioning the political status quo, was very much on the inside for much of his career. He was interior minister in the government of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and previously Khomeini's representative in the powerful Revolutionary Guards. His anti-establishment credentials solidified relatively recently, after parliamentary conservatives forced him out of Rafsanjani's cabinet.

The voices for change in Iran are also coming from those who were active in the revolution and after but, like Nouri, have spent the last few years as outcasts. Abdi, one of the intellectuals of the movement, was a leader of the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

With Rafsanjani's presidency, Abdi was put aside to placate the increasingly threatened conservatives. Khatami himself resigned under pressure in 1992 after serving as one of the country's most liberal-minded culture ministers.

Now the revolution's outcasts are back and those who slighted them are in their sights.

Many of the reformers sharply criticize Rafsanjani as a betrayer of the revolution who caved in to the conservatives on cultural, political and economic issues. Yet it was Rafsanjani who first tried to face down the hard-liners, hiring Khatami to run the state propaganda machine and oversee culture at a time when Iran was rebuilding after its devastating war with Iraq. Although he later backed down, Rafsanjani's legacy is the flowering of free expression seen in Tehran's book shops today.

Khatami, who speaks engagingly of civil liberties and a dialogue of civilizations, was swept into office in 1997 because he engaged the pent-up energies of masses of young people and women. The loose coalition of ex-revolutionaries, political exiles and religious nationalists who ran for the parliament under the Khatami banner this month appealed to a public that has no memory of the revolution but has tired of enduring ideological battles. As many Iranians said in conversations before and after the elections, ordinary people want a normal life that includes religion and politics, but is not ruled by either.


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