Change in Iran slow but assured
By Gelareh Asayesh
February 23, 2000
I know a young woman in Iran who got into trouble for eating a cheese
puff. It came from a bag held by a member of the opposite sex. Those running
the film club where this moral calamity occurred told her to make sure
it never happened again.
I know a civil servant in his 20s who had to answer complicated questions
on what circumstances would invalidate a fast in the eyes of God -- in
order to get a job.
I know a housewife who followed every word of a newspaper editor's trial
for political heresy -- and the culture minister's impeachment debate and
the Tehran mayor's corruption trial before that. The tribulations and triumphs
of these leading voices for reform were as fascinating to her as her TV
These were the people who went to the polls Friday in the first round
of the Iranian elections for parliament: women tired of restrictions large
and small, the unemployed young and average Iranians inspired by the promise
Dissatisfaction among Iran's citizens spans the traditional divide between
its secular elite and religious majority. It runs deepest among young people,
who helped elect Mohammad Khatami president in 1997. Their votes Friday
catapulted a reformist majority into parliament, opening the way for Khatami
to turn Iran into a kinder, gentler theocracy.
Unfortunately, supreme power in Iran is centralized in Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khamenei has lost
control of parliament, but he controls the courts, the military, radio
and television, leading to a tug-of-war characteristic of today's Iranian
Nowhere is the tug-of-war more vividly illustrated than in the battle
for a freer press. Clerical courts close down newspapers almost as fast
as Khatami's culture minister licenses them. For every Khatami gain, there
is a backlash from conservatives, and the elections are likely to be no
Tentative, tenuous relations
This divided rule has the broadest implications for Iran-U.S. relations.
As long as Iran is bound by Khomeini's legacy of a supreme leader, Khatami
cannot hope to renew diplomatic ties. The best the two countries can hope
for in this era of revolutionary transition is de facto relations clothed
in obligatory anti-American rhetoric. Khatami will be permitted to achieve
dialogue, trade and cultural exchanges. Khamenei will prevent diplomatic
ties and a conciliatory stand on the Mideast peace process. Relations will
improve, but slowly.
The reality that often eludes observers of Iran is that its clerical
rulers, while adept at wielding fanaticism, are boundlessly pragmatic.
Canny operators in a centuries-old Iranian tradition of the politics of
survival, they recognize that the rhetoric of martyrdom and death to America
has lost its resonance.
More than half of Iran's population is under 25. These children of the
revolution grew up with the annual black banners offering condolences on
Khomeini's death, airplanes lifting off only after a prayer for Iran's
war "martyrs," the call to prayer piped into department stores.
But the "Khomeini is Leader" slogan scrawled on a wall has less
meaning to them than the phone number of the plumber scribbled next to
it. Young Iranians are interested in pizza parlors and the Internet and
a job that pays enough so they can get married and live on their own.
So it is no accident that the conservatives' Newt Gingrich, Majlis speaker
Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, did not run for reelection, but former president
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani did. Rafsanjani's party is in the reformist
coalition, but his name headed the conservatives' list of candidates. Conservatives
no longer hope to stem the tide of reform; they hope to co-opt it. But
Rafsanjani's poor showing in the elections makes that unlikely.
Key revolutionary values remain
This is not to say that the masses who walked barefoot behind Khomeini's
body at his funeral have turned against him. Iran remains a country where
the name of God is said with reverence. The central revolutionary values
of Islamic covering for women, freedom from foreign (especially American)
influence and an Islamic Republic still hold among the Iranian majority
who have kept the clerics in power for 20 years.
But Iran's reformists are led by clerics like Khatami and Nouri, who
offer Iranians a chance to voice their disaffection and pursue democratic
ideals, and do it all in the name of God.
The Shah tried to purge Islam from Iran, and it was his downfall. Khatami,
however, seeks to bring both Iran and Islam into this millennium, in the
process taming Iran's revolution into a mature evolution. That's why, conservative
backlashes notwithstanding, change in Iran is ultimately inexorable.
-- Gelareh Asayesh, a journalist in St. Petersburg, Fla., is the author
of Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America.