Three possibilities following the student protests
By Mark J. Gasiorowski
July 15, 1999
Mark J. Gasiorowski is a political science professor at Louisiana
State University who recently visited Iran. He posted his views on the
student protests in Iran on the Gulf 2000 alias. Also see latest
photos from Iran.
I don't think President Khatami is in danger of losing his popular support
in the foreseeable future. I spent most of June in Iran, and while I did
hear a certain amount of discontent expressed about Khatami from people
who had voted for him, it was not very significant. The honeymoon is certainly
over -- especially with the events of the last few days -- but Khatami
remains very popular and there is no other figure capable of leading the
I think Ayatollah Khamenei certainly cannot sit back and play on the
dissatisfaction that has emerged. Even if the student demonstrators are
crushed in the next few days, Khamenei and the conservatives now have a
major problem on their hands. If they do not make major concessions to
the students' demands, the unrest that we have seen in the last few days
will almost certainly reemerge, and it may well spread beyond the universities.
If so, the conservatives will be forced to rely increasingly on repression,
transforming the populist Islamic regime that has existed since the revolution
into an Islamic dictatorship. This may work in the short term, but in the
long term I believe it is simply not viable. Iran is not China, and the
Tienanmen Square approach just will not work there.
Economic conditions are rather peripheral to this, in my view. University
students in Iran (especially those at Tehran University) are not as badly
affected by economic conditions as the poorer strata of society, who have
not participated in the events of the last few days. Moreover, the slogans
raised by the students have focused on political freedom rather than economic
conditions. I would add that while oil prices have gone up sharply in recent
months this has not yet had a positive effect on living conditions in Iran.
Inflation remains problematic, employment prospects for many young Iranians
remain grim, and the dollar continues to soar.
Though active unrest has spread from Tehran University to universities
in many other cities, I have not seen much evidence that it has spread
beyond the universities, either to the middle class or to the urban lower
class. I think active unrest could well spread to the middle class and
to much of the urban lower class if campus unrest persists in the coming
days or if it reemerges in the coming weeks or months, with the 70% of
Iranians who voted for Khatami in 1997 siding with the students. If this
occurs, the conservatives will have a grave crisis on their hands.
I have seen no evidence of disloyalty among the security forces. After
Khatami's 1997 election, many people in Iran said that districts with large
concentrations of military personnel and even revolutionary guards had
voted strongly for Khatami, suggesting that the security forces are not
strongly supportive of the conservatives and might therefore disobey orders
if a major factional confrontation were to emerge. This has not happened
so far, and, in fact, there seems to have been considerable cooperation
between the security forces and Ansar-e Hezbollah. These trends should
certainly please the conservatives and worry the reformists.
Looming just over the horizon are the February 2000 parliamentary elections,
where the stakes will be much higher than those involved in the present
crisis. It's a safe bet that the students, having tasted blood in these
last few days, will be watching the run-up to those elections very closely
and preparing to return to the streets if they are manipulated. They are
likely to respond in a more-organized fashion next time (the current unrest
seems very spntaneous), and they may well be joined by many non-students.
How the two factions navigate these elections will certainly have a crucial
impact on Iran's future.
There are three basic directions Iran can go from here: (1) an Iranian
Velvet Revolution, with the reformists prevailing; (2) a Tienanmen Square-style
crackdown and victory (in the short term) by the conseratives; and (3)
a continuation of the gradual liberalization that has been occurring for
the past 10 years.
The danger in the current situation is that the conservatives will choose
option (2) because they think option (1) is otherwise inevitable. Given
the balance of forces prevailing in Iran, I think option (3) is the best
for all sides. President Khatami's recent statements calling for an end
to the unrest suggest that he shares this view. Whether he and other reformists
can persuade the students of the danger of option (2) occurring and the
importance of accepting option (3) is now the crucial issue, in my view.
I would not even hazard a guess at this point about whether this will occur.
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