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For God's sake
Conservatives need more than divine intervention to stop reforms

April 20, 2000
The Iranian

Are the conservatives closing in against the reformist government of President Khatami? It certainly appears that way. Ayatollah Khamenei has lashed out against the independent press and denounced "American-style" reforms; leading reformist journalists have been summoned to the Revolutionary Court; the out-going Majlis ratified a law putting new limits on freedom of the press; reformist victories in the Majlis elections in at least eight cities have been overturned; election results in Tehran, where the reformists handed the conservatives their most embarrassing defeat, have been called into question; the Expediency Council has forbidden investigations against offices controlled by the leadership; and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards have openly threatened the reformist press with "Islamic violence."

None of this is surprising. Hardliners have been constantly speaking out against growing freedoms ever since Khatami was elected three years ago. Critics of the regime have been attacked, beaten, shot, killed, or thrown into jail, and reformist newspapers have been shut down regularly. But the pace and severity of the attacks against reform have increased considerably. Newspapers are filled with accusations and denials about an imminent coup. The power struggle has neared a climax.

The conservatives have lost the ability to rally the masses. They have been badly defeated in three consecutive national elections. In other words, they are unable to stop the process of reform through democratic means instituted in the constitution. Their only option is intimidation and the use of force. And they are using the courts and fundamentalist thugs to do exactly that. The Revolutionary Guards and Basij forces may be called in to suppress public resistance.

Reformists have plenty to worry about. Can they count on widespread resistance against the conservative onslaught? Will the masses defend their popular president at any cost? Does Khatami even have the desire to stand against the conservatives under the threat of force and at the risk of bloodshed? And if he does stand firm, will he be more successful than his mentor, Mohammad Mossadegh?

On the other hand the conservatives cannot be too sure of their strategy either. How far can they go in reversing reformist gains? How long can they last without popular support? Will they be able to survive another serious student uprising? Indeed, how long can they survive in the face of massive indignation for their fundamentalist, undemocratic ways?

Iran is a very different country than it was in 1953 or 1979. Mohammad Reza Shah got help from Washington and London to preserve his rule for more than two decades after getting rid of Mossadegh. And Ayatollah Khomeini had the support of the masses when he toppled the Shah. But today's conservatives have neither foreign nor domestic support. Surely they will need more than God's blessings to hold on to power, even with force.

Khatami and his supporters in the press have been symbols of the people's desire for change, for freedom, for democracy, and for an end to senseless extremism. What Khatami has been trying to do is to answer their call with constitutional means. This has meant a considerable measure of democracy and freedom of expression under the Islamic Republic alongside undemocratic institutions, including Velayat-e Faqih. It is an odd and unattractive combination, but it is an evolutionary step in the right direction.

In their war against reform, the radicals risk losing everything and taking the country down the road to ruin. Iran has already experienced a revolution, a war and 20 years of chaos and religious intolerance. Except for those in the far right and the far left, no one wants to see more bloodshed. Is it inevitable? Looking at Iranian history, the answer may be yes. We would rather have nothing if we cannot have everything. What Khatami has achieved is something; something that can be built on for a better future. Let us hope, for God's sake at least, his opponents see that, sooner rather than later.

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