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It's over
Conservatives are fighting a losing battle

By Kamran Qezelbash
November 30, 1999
The Iranian

For those of us looking at events in Iran from abroad, it's hard to understand how a cleric like Abdollah Nouri has been sent to prison by an Islamic court. Nouri was Ayatollah Khomeini's representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. He was President Khatami's minister of interior and vice president. How could someone like him end up in Evin prison -- the place which until recently was reserved only for remnants of the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic's most bitter enemies? In effect those who brought on the 1979 revolution are now turning against themselves.

But all the pushing and shoving in Iran, including Nouri's incarceration, the student uprising last July, the shutting down of opposition newspapers and the bitter fights over the upcoming Majlis elections, or even the chain murders of dissidents, should not be a cause for concern -- that is if you think the country is moving backward. In fact every attempt by the conservatives to counter the march toward liberty has exposed their lack of popular support as well as their diminishing influence on the course of events. They have lost the initiative. They are reacting to a wave they cannot control.

Nouri is not the only revolutionary who has abandoned his extremist views. Khatami is another. We have seen what his impact has been, even though he has done little other than speak about freedom, tolerance and peace with the world. Abdolkarim Soroush, once known as Iran's Islamic theoretician, has been attacking the very foundations of Islamic theocracy for years. Many former students who took over the American embassy in Tehran have come out and said that what they did was wrong and they are sorry -- not in so many words, but we could read between the lines. There are many other prominent and mid-level revolutionaries who have had second thoughts about the direction of the revolution and their role in it.

Discontent deepens as you look down the pyramid. Go to any newsstand and you will see dozens and dozens of newspapers and magazines calling for reform and greater freedoms. The anger among youth was evident in the July student uprisings. And in the last two elections -- for president and local councils -- the masses showed their hunger for change. If they have their way, they will vent their frustration once again in Majlis elections in February.

Secular writers and artists are thriving. The film industry with its subtle critical eye on the establishment, has become world renowned. Pop music is everywhere, much of it sanctioned by the government itself. Private parties where men and women mingle, dance and drink alcohol are common. More than half the population was born after the revolution, which means it does not care about how bad the Pahlavi dynasty was. It wants answers from the current regime.

And by the way, can this battered, neglected and mismanaged economy provide jobs for the young population? Unlikely. So here's the situation in a nutshell: No jobs. Not enough universities. No freedom. No hope. Can the situation be any worse? Who is going to be blamed for this? The conservatives more than anyone else. But do they care?

On the surface, the small minority of clerics and their followers refuse to accept the stark realities. They do not want to let go of the past. They cannot see that they can no longer rule against the wishes of people. They are unprepared to face the fact that the election process instituted in the constitution of the Islamic Republic is slowly but surely reducing their power and influence. They do not like it. They do not want it. They will fight it.

However, the most reactionary factions of the Islamic Republic have made a significant shift in tactic: Their enemies no longer face certain death. Instead the courts are being used to impose long prison sentences against critics. More and more we are seeing the rule of law, be it tyrannical law, which is better than no law at all. In the long run laws can be challenged or changed. But more importantly, if a critic knows that expressing unpleasant words will not cost his or her life, prison becomes an acceptable risk and the culture of criticism will spread. And it is.

This has become a serious dilemma for the conservatives: The inability to effectively silence an opposition that is spreading fast and getting louder. They seem determined to hang on to their vast powers in the security network as well as in the bazaar and the rest of the economy through the infamous bonyads. But how and for how long? Will they hold on at any cost? Will they resort to violence? Will they be willing to kill thousands as Khomeini did? They cannot, even if they wanted to. Khomeini had popular support. His successor, whom the conservatives count on, does not. Therefore Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has chosen to tolerate the moderate president and has backed him at key junctures.

This is an uneasy alliance that may not last. But what are the choices? The conservatives can dismiss the president, call off the Majlis elections, mobilize their supporters in the basij, declare martial law and go back to the days of mass executions and exterminate their opponents. Or they can continue on the same basic course since Khatami's election: gradually leave their bunkers and allow the reformists to lead Iran in a new direction -- a sensible direction that won't be pretty but more in line with the wishes of the people.

Are the conservatives out of their mind? Would they prefer chaos and bloodshed? Do they want to lose their comfortable homes and expensive cars and profitable factories and lucrative trade with the outside world? Khomeini did all that for a cause he believed in. Those who pretend to be his staunch followers have no honorable cause, no guts, and no popular support. It's over.

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