New Dog Or New Tricks?

What is left of the Islamic reforms in Iran? Could the Islamic reform agenda be revived under a different name using new tactics? If it did, would it be a new dog or just new tricks? The decidedly preposterous new proposal of “radical reforms” heard echoing throughout certain intellectual quarters in and outside of Iran would be unworthy of mention, were it not for its clear reflection of the paralysis and political dementia that has afflicted Iran’s Islamic intelligentsia.

The radical reform agenda coalesced after the shock of an unprecedented mass boycott of parliamentary elections by impatient and desperate Iranians. A spontaneous collective action that sent cold shivers down the spine of the spiritual leader, his gang of Mafia bosses and their paramilitary support network. The negative vote was another nail in the coffin of President Khatami’s government and its reform agenda. The drowning of Khatami became so apparent that many apologists and reform ideologues started to jump ship.

Equally important to Khatemi’s government was the US invasion of Iraq, a war with clear implications for the reformists. The US policy of appeasement towards Khatemi reformists and other assortments of mellow Mullahs was over. A combatant ultra right gang in Washington, energized by September 11 and its aftermath was hard at work redrawing the maps of Middle East.

The new alignments did not bend enough to include Islamic state sponsored terrorism with a human face. In fact, the message was so clearly communicated, that religious reformists could only envision two widely opposing alternative to the status quo as far as US foreign policy was concerned. In their traumatized and distorted view, US would either invade Iran or shake hands with and make concessions to the right wing conservative rival. The reformists could not envision any other US strategy since plans of supporting them were abandoned.

In their rush to reinvent themselves and to rescue the remnants of a bankrupt reform agenda the religious intelligentsia has chosen to stay blind and deaf to the expressed will of an Iranian majority that appears emboldened by the illegal and tragic US invasion of Iraq. Such negligence is new for the Islamic reformers. Historically they had listened to the plight of the masses, arguably more so than their secular counterpart. It was, after all, a secular National Front politician named Shapoor Bakhtiar, who tried to rescue the previous regime from revolution in 1979.

No one from the Islamic front, including Nehzat Azadi and other Islamists, would take the bait. They often knew the streets and the popular sentiment and took great personal risks to express it. It was none other than Mehdi Bazargan, who dared to write an open letter to Khomeini asking him to end the bloody war with Iraq at the time when the Imam was bent on removing Saddam Hussein from power no matter the cost. It was also Bazargan and Nehzat Azadi who first warned about the impossibility of sustaining the regime after Khomieni’s death. The present insensitivity is a clear break from a tradition that strived to be in touch with the aspirations of the people.

Apart from its historical context, the “radical reform” proposal expressed thus far is vague and confusing. The attempts to link such an agenda to more popular faces like Akbar Ganji, the jailed journalist and outspoken author of The Republican Manifesto, are in vain. Since his imprisonment most pro-Khatami reformists distanced themselves from him and some openly criticized him for going too far and throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Additionally, the position that Akbar Ganji has taken visa vie the Islamic Republic, namely the disposal of the word “Islamic” from “Islamic Republic” and an argument that an Islamic Republic cannot be reformed is far from the aspirations of Islamic reformers.
Even more problematic is the attachment of the word “radical” to the allegedly new reformist agenda. The lack of a clear sense of strategy and direction is evident when the “radical reform” proposal is compared to that of Khatami and his strategist par excellence Saeed Hajjarian.

Khatemi’s reform agenda was based on two factors, the grass root pressure from below expressed by people’s vote of confidence and gradual concessions imposed on the hard line leadership from above by virtue of the presence of a popular President in the power structure. It was understood that the resultant concessions would progressively create wider openings and carry the system through a democratic transition. Failure of this strategy is not a secret to anyone today. But at least Hajarian had a strategy.

The “radical reform” proposal has no strategy for dealing with the brutal paramilitary power structure. It hinges on civil disobedience, mass protests, and strikes alone. This mass resistance and confrontation is supposed to magically and non-violently convince the power holders to agree with a reformist agenda.

It is not clear how the reform agenda is advanced if the security forces continue to attack and destroy activists as they did in the case of University of Tehran protest or respond as usual with brutal beatings, tortures and mass executions. It is even less clear why people would choose the “radical reform” agenda and try to preserve a modified version of the regime if they are successful in their mass action and can defeat the vicious paramilitary forces in the streets by self-sacrifice. If history offers any lessons here it is the misfortune of Shahpoor Bakhtiar, the last reformer of the old regime. Once the security apparatus was dismantled the mass movement that made him Prime Minister buried him along with what was left of the Monarchy.

The “radical reform” proponents advocate mass action but mass actions are successful when there is a clear vision and alternative. The reformists cannot offer a vision without Islam (As Ganji did from inside prison) and have no concrete plan for dismantling a regime of corruption, torture, and execution. Yet they expect people to take maximum risk and act in a revolutionary fashion by taking to the streets (hence the word radical). They expect people to pay a heavy price for an ambiguous outcome in which the Islamic Republic survives and the paramilitary forces and spiritual leader are allowed to follow a watch and wait strategy.

The “radical reform” agenda is based on a number of dangerous assumptions. It presumes that a majority of Iranians feel strongly about Islam and that Iranian’s belief in Islam translates into political support for an Islamic Republic despite two decades of suffering. But most important and perhaps most baseless of all these assumptions is that the Islamic Republic can be reformed. To date we have no evidence to support such hypothesis. We do know that the attempts at democratization of the Soviet systems were the cause of the regime’s demise and that not all despotic regimes have been able to be reformed.

A febrile imagination and lack of reason characterizes this latest adventure of Iranian religious intellectuals. It reminds me of the brilliant description of Aramesh Doostdar in his landmark study about Iranian culture, the Dim Luminaries (Derakhsheshhayeh Tireh), where he describes “intellectuals born from the belly of the clergy” and their toxic effect on our culture. But today, there is no venom left in this particular snake.

The end of Khatami era inevitably marks the end for the Islamic reformers. Their benign appearance, shallow propositions and irrational agenda do little to ignite the imagination of the younger generation. They do not pose a serious threat to the future of a democratic Iran. Ironically this is the main accomplishment of Khatami and company.

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