GOVERNED BY GOD
In Iran, a Quiet but Fierce Struggle for Change
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
Published: February 15, 2004
IRAN is embroiled in one of the most serious crises it has faced since clerics seized the palaces of kings in Tehran and declared an Islamic republic a quarter century ago.
To protest the rejection of the eligibility of thousands of candidates in parliamentary elections this month, more than a third of parliament has resigned, and the reformists have vowed to boycott the election.
But it is a curious crisis. While parliament may not survive in its current form, there have been none of the street protests that rocked the big cities in 1999 and have occurred sporadically ever since. This is certainly not a repetition of the strike and riots that crippled Iran's economy and political system in 1978 and brought down the monarchy a year later.
During a tense sit-in by dozens of parliamentary deputies that started in January and ended this month, people went about their business on the streets outside.
High oil prices have alleviated some economic pressure, and a relaxation of some social restrictions has given young people more personal freedom. Many voters have grown so fed up with political infighting that they have tuned out the election and claim not even to know its date.
"The conservatives know they face no serious challenge," said Saeed Leylaz, an economist. "They know that people will not come out into the streets for the cause of reform."
Still, even if ordinary Iranians are in a quiescent mood, many still resent the idea of one-man rule - rule by a cleric rather than a shah, but one man just the same.
Hamid-Reza Jalaeipour, a 46-year-old sociologist and former newspaper publisher, is emblematic of those who fought for the revolution, served in the early years of the Islamic republic, and now regard Islamic rule as a failure. Though he still struggles to build democracy, he said he would not want to go through a second revolution. "They used to say that the shah wanted to make society secular," he said in an interview. "Twenty-five years later the society is much more secular. The mosques are empty."
As for the standoff in the election, Mr. Jalaeipour, who published a newspaper until the government banned it, said the effort to bar reformist candidates was part of a long-term strategy by hard-liners to change Iran from a republic to "a kind of fundamentalist Islamic monarchy."
So widespread is the belief that Iran has returned to the repression of the monarchy that for over a year student protesters have been calling Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the spiritual leader and the country's most powerful person, "Shah" Khamenei. A joke in Tehran about Reza Pahlavi, the late shah's son, who leads a political movement from his American exile, goes: "Why don't we need a new king?""We already have one."
Insults and jokes reflect the extent to which Iran has changed since the early days of the revolution. Contempt for clerics once was punishable by a prison term if expressed too openly; today this criticism is expressed in speeches, lectures, academic treatises and demonstrations.
Four years ago, Mohsen Kadivar, a midlevel cleric who was highly critical of repression by the top rulers, was sent to prison for 18 months. Today, he has returned to university teaching and public speaking. He is head of the Society for the Defense of Freedom of the Press. In recent days, he has publicly called on his fellow cleric and reformist, President Mohammad Khatami, to resign rather than accept an unfair election.
The most popular entry in the current annual Fajr film festival is "The Lizard," a comedy about a thief who disguises himself in a cleric's stolen turban and robe. When called on by his congregation to give a sermon, he uses lock-picking as a metaphor for finding the key to God's heart.
The celebration last week of the 25th anniversary of the revolution was much more muted than anniversary festivities of just a few years ago. Efforts to rekindle the revolutionary hatred of the United States have failed. The American embassy complex, which was seized in 1979 by Iranian militants who took its diplomats hostage, was reopened in 2001 as a museum dedicated to the "crimes" of the United States. A few weeks later it shut down for lack of visitors.
If the current impasse has changed anything, it has made obvious a fault line that has existed since the creation of the Islamic Republic. "Islamic'' implies the rule of God; "republic'' means the rule of the people. Arguments among the framers of Iran's constitution over secular versus Islamic law and the distribution of power in the government were so fierce that the framers just wrote in the contradictions. The elected president, elected parliament and judiciary were made part of a theocracy whose ultimate authority was a "supreme leader'' - a cleric who controls the police, the military and other institutions of power.
That arrangement, and the current crisis, can be seen as a continuation of a built-in conflict between authoritarian rulers and parliaments that dates to 1906, when a sit-in of 14,000 Iranians supported by bazaar merchants, clerics and a reformist press forced the monarchy to agree to create a parliament, hold elections and accept a constitution modeled on that of Belgium.
The alliance between clerics and secularists unraveled, and a new absolutist monarchy, of Reza Shah, in the 1920's crushed the effort to create constitutional government.
Three decades later, Iran experimented with democracy again. Mohammad Mossadegh, an elected prime minister, challenged the authority of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the new king and Reza Shah's son. When the shah tried to dismiss Dr. Mossadegh in August 1953, the prime minister's followers took to the streets and the shah fled, only to be restored by a coup backed by the United States and Britain.
So there is a pattern much older than the Islamic republic: Autocratic rule establishes itself, followed by outbursts of discontent that end either with modest reform or a new spike of repression.
The current impasse began after a decision of the 12 clerics and jurists, who sit on the supreme leader's Guardian Council, to ban more than 2,000 reformist candidates. In the last election, four years ago, the council banned some reformists, but their bloc swept into office anyway. This time, the council is taking no chances.
Those banned include Mohammad Reza Khatami, the deputy speaker of the parliament until he resigned, and brother of the elected president, Mohammad Khatami.
Asked early this month if the reformists had failed, Mohammad Reza Khatami said: "If failure means not having a free and fair election, then yes, we have failed." Then again, he has vowed to fight and has called on conservatives to open the way to democracy and "save themselves from being overthrown."
Some female candidates also have been barred from running; they include Zahra Eshraghi, the wife of Mr. Khatami and a granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution.
She has chastised her brother-in-law, the president, for not acting against his enemies "more aggressively," telling the Iranian student news service ISNA, "As a member of family I have told President Khatami that he should act in a way that our children will be proud to call themselves Khatamis."
The conservatives have used well-worn arguments to tarnish the reputations of their opponents, from calling the reformists American puppets to branding potential female candidates immoral because of what they wear. Ruhollah Hosseinian, a hard-line cleric, warned the reformers: "The Islam that coexists with drinking wine, gambling, looseness, bare-headedness and impiety is not Islam. You sent some girls with makeup to the streets to campaign for you."
Ayatollah Khamenei has struggled to appear above the fray, but without success. He failed to persuade the Guardian Council to reinstate more than a tiny percentage of the candidates they had banned, then insisted the election be held anyway.
The absence of popular protest has delighted conservatives, who are banking on a low voter turnout this Friday in hopes of regaining a majority in the parliament.
The reformers "were thinking if they staged a sit-in, the nation would respond to it," said Ali Akbar Nateq-Noori, the conservative cleric who lost the 1997 presidential election to Mohammad Khatami. "Well done to the people who did not respond at all!"
But the reformists still have hope. "Reform inside the government has died," Mr. Kadivar said in a speech at Tehran University Monday. "But reform outside the government and the establishment is developing." And this, he added, "is a new era." http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/15/weekinreview/15scio.html
In a statement issued in Tehran, the pro-reform society of the Islamic university professors denounced the February 20 elections as unlawful, because, it said, by eliminating competitions, a majority of the contests have already been decided. Ignoring the people's demands in the past few years has brought the democratic aspect of the Islamic regime under question, Georgetown University sociology professor and political activist Mehrdad Mashayekhi tells Radio Farda. Today, he adds, one faction says it would be happy if only less that 15 percent of voters turn out to vote. The regime, following what it considers the Chinese pattern, has moved to purge itself from any dissent, hoping to prop itself through better relations with the west. However, the positions of the US and EU on dialogue with Iran have been getting closer in the past two years; and the EU has announced that improvement in human rights is a condition of improving economic ties with Iran, he says. (Shireen Famili)
One cannot be too proud of the elections in which the people's trust in the government has been destroyed, reformist daily Aftab-e Yazd writes. Though the conservatives believe that they will win in the elections, but not a single reformist believes there is any benefit to behind-the-scenes negotiations between the two factions, reformist daily Yaas-e Now writes. President Khatami is being hammered by radical reformists, because he did not go along with their demands, conservative daily Resalat writes. The upcoming Majles will be neither reformist nor conservative. It will be dominated by independent MPs, conservative Mashhad daily Qods writes. (Amir Armin)
Thirty candidates started campaigning for Kerman's three Majles seats, editor of banned local daily Hadith Mohammad-Sadeq Taheri tells Radio Farda. Twenty-six of the candidates have declared themselves independent, while two are from the reformist faction and two from the conservative faction, he adds. The presence of reformists in the mix has created an atmosphere of real competition, he says, adding that no elections will be held in the earthquake-stricken Bam, according to the provincial governor. (Masoud Malek)
With the reinstatement of reformist candidate Dr. Mohammad Farokhi, competition between the two factions has heated up in the central town of Jiroft, local journalist Shahram Parsa-Motlaq tells Radio Farda. However, political alliances in this town are influenced by ethnic and tribal links, he adds. (Farin Asemi)
In the absence of major political figures, who have been banned from running in the elections by the Guardians Council, in Shiraz there is hardly any interest in the elections, local journalist Farid Yasamin tells Radio Farda. The candidates' slogans do not go beyond such clichés as bread, justice and housing, which do not reflect the real demands of the voters, he adds. (Jamshid Zand)
The reformist candidates who have been approved by the Guardians Council to run in the elections, such as moderate reformist MPs Elias Hazrati, Jamileh Kadivar and Majid Ansari, say that by dropping out of the elections the reformists should not leave the Majles to the conservatives. Their position reveals a growing rift in the ranks of reformists, as MPs Ali-Akbar Mohtashami, Fatemeh Rakei and Shams Vahabi, along with hundreds of reformist and independent candidates who pulled out of the competition, no longer see any benefit in political participation. Reformist MP Fatemeh Rakei, who has been banned from reelection by the Guardians Council, and is among the 120 MPs who resigned, said the MPs plan to prevent the Majles from reaching a quorum in its final months. (Siavash Ardalan)
There is no mention of the banned MPs and disqualified candidates in the Tehran press. The conservative newspapers played up the Supreme Leader's speech in their headlines, in which the voters were urged to turnout for the elections, but reformist daily Yaas-e Now's headline says the Participation Front has no candidate in these elections. (Arash Qavidel, Tehran)
Of 290 Majles seats, at least 190 will go to the conservatives, who are running unchallenged, Berlin daily die tageszeitung writes. The real power in Iran resides not with the Supreme Leader, but with the conservative clerics who, in addition to receiving all kinds of government subsidies and tax exemptions, control major economic levers, including widespread smuggling of goods and drugs, it writes. (Parviz Farhang, Cologne) http://www.radiofarda.com/transcripts/topstory/2004/02/20040214_1430_0131_0403_EN.asp