Irans"Crisis of Legitimacy" Could Prompt Authoritarian Political Alternative
August 29, 2003
The political gridlock caused by infighting between conservative and reformist forces in Iran has fostered what analysts in Tehran characterize as a "crisis of legitimacy." Growing popular apathy towards the political process is preparing the ground for a possible authoritarian alternative, some observers go on to warn.
Payman Morteza, a 26 year-old graphic designer, is one member of Irans legion of disillusioned. Morteza recalls how he was optimistic about Irans future after attending a 1997 campaign rally for the reform-minded cleric Mohammad Khatami, who went on to capture the presidency. "He spoke of freedom, of individual choice, of toleration," Morteza said. "It was an entirely new language for the Islamic Republic. We were so accustomed to hearing talk of revolution and sacrifice and foreign enemies."
Morteza, along with a group of friends, began campaigning for Khatami in his neighborhood. "We went into shops. We talked to people. We said: this man is different. Please vote for Khatami."
Today, six years later, Morteza like many Iranians has soured on Khatami and the reform movement, frustrated by the slow pace of change and the largely successful conservative resistance to reformist proposals. That frustration is now translating into apathy with politics.
"The reformists have been ineffective. ... I wont bother voting in the  Parliamentary elections or the  Presidential elections. Whats the use? The conservatives have the real power anyway," Morteza said.
Conservatives who still control the key levers of power, including the instruments of coercive force recently mounted an aggressive assault on the tottering reform movement. They blocked reformist legislation that would liberalize Iranian elections, jailed or effectively silenced leading reformist figures, chilled pro-democracy students with violent crackdowns in recent demonstrations, and sent a clear message that they do not intend to give up power lightly. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Developments in 2003 have stirred concern among political analysts about a brewing crisis. This "crisis of legitimacy" the exact phrase used by several analysts in interviews with EurasiaNet -- threatens the countrys grass-roots democracy movement and could shift popular sentiment toward outside calls for regime change, or strongman alternatives, they said.
"The defeat of the reform movement has de-legitimized the government," said Morad Saghafy, editor of the prestigious Goft-o-Gu intellectual quarterly. "Before Khatamis election, many people felt distant from the government. The reform movement brought millions of Iranians back to the regime and gave them hope that the Islamic Republic could change. The reformist failures have made many people think that the system is un-reformable. It is a double loss for the Islamic Republic."
On university campuses, in corner shops, in tree-filled parks, and wherever else Iranians gather, a blistering cynicism infects the air. "All those mullahs are the same," huffed one elderly shopkeeper in a small supermarket on Tehrans busy Shariati Street. "They are all corrupt thieves." A shopper disagreed: "I dont think the reformists are thieves. I think they tried, but clearly the conservatives have all the power and dont want to give it up. So, why should we back the reformists?" Another shopper pipes in: "This system needs to be uprooted entirely. We need an entirely new regime."
Such exchanges and talk of "regime change" have become common among a people who are also frustrated by a stagnant economy, double-digit inflation, and chronic unemployment. What worries many pro-democracy analysts is that, given the despair about the lack of change, Iranians may now seek what reformists describe as unpalatable options.
"These are precisely the kind of conditions that make Iranians long for a strongman, not a democrat," explained one journalist, who asked not to be named. "Thats why there is Reza Shah nostalgia among middle-class Iranians," he said, referring to Irans first Pahlavi king (1925-41), who is generally remembered as an iron-fisted modernizer. Books about the former king and the Pahlavi dynasty in general sell briskly, booksellers say.
Even a few intellectuals have succumbed to the "strongman" theory. At one reception, a well-regarded historian turned to a Tehran-based political analyst and said: "Why not have a strongman? This place is such a mess that we could use a modernizing autocrat."
Ali Reza Alavitabar, a reformist publisher and academic who has been in and out of jail for his pro-democracy views, worries about such talk. "In the past six years, we have built a strong, grass-roots democracy movement," he explains. "The democratic spirit that we have instilled over the past six years have fundamentally changed the contours of the political debate, and the mindset of the average Iranian. We must continue to move forward in this direction."
Morad Saghafy agrees. "We have far more democratic-minded people in Iran today than we did six years ago and, of course, far more than we did before 1979. All of the newspapers articles, the speeches, the voting, have had an effect," he said. "This is critical because you cant impose a democracy; you need democratic cadres."
Still, Alavitabar, Saghafy, and others admit that the conservatives have made it almost insurmountably difficult to proceed. "Politics has died," Saghafy says. "We are now simply witnessing the exertion of power."
Some Iranians have already begun looking for outside assistance. The leading pro-democracy student group, Daftar-e-Tahkim-e-Vahdat, wrote to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, seeking UN assistance in its struggle. The letter crossed an unwritten "red line," prompting the detention at gunpoint of several leaders of the organization. (They have been freed recently, "admitting" the error if their ways). [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Talk also swirls of an American "solution." Vanna Vanucci, an Italian journalist and long-time Iran observer, was stunned when she repeatedly heard from Iranians during the US war with Iraq: "When will the Americans liberate us?"
Recently, Hossein Khomeini, a mid-ranking opposition cleric and grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spoke positively of what he called "the American liberation of Iraq" and suggested that many Iranians would welcome American involvement in "Irans liberation."
When pressed, many Iranians admit to fearing the prospect of a US-engineered attempt to topple Irans existing political order. Concerns about Washingtons intentions and abilities are only growing as they witness the US troubles in reconstructing neighboring Iraq. The US woes are documented in exhaustive detail nightly on Irans state-run television news.
Mehrdad Serjooie, an Iranian journalist, puts it this way: "People want more political freedoms, more social freedoms, and a better economy. They just dont know where or how they will get these things. People are searching, wondering, and many are simply retreating, leaving their destinies to the winds of fate." The trouble is, say many analysts, the conservatives are effectively controlling the direction of those winds.
Editors Note: Afshin Molavi, a Washington-based journalist and frequent EurasiaNet contributor, recently returned from a three week reporting trip to Iran. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav082903.shtml
DoctorZIn keep up your wonderful work. I had the previlege to meet and be friends with a few Iraqis who have fought for their freedom for over 20 years. Now their country is free from that mass murderer. I hope that Iran will be next. Because my country is also is the same plight, but much worst. I look forward to the day when China will be free as well.
"Today, six years later, Morteza like many Iranians has soured on Khatami and the reform movement, frustrated by the slow pace of change and the largely successful conservative resistance to reformist proposals. That frustration is now translating into apathy with politics.
"The reformists have been ineffective. ... I wont bother voting in the  Parliamentary elections or the  Presidential elections. Whats the use? The conservatives have the real power anyway," Morteza said."
This attitude, though understandable to an extent, needs to be changed . Iranians need to participate in these elections, and not allow the current regime to walk-away with the elections. They need to put their numbers to work for them, and have the largest turn-out they've ever had. There are tens of millions.
UNITE and get rid of the murdering SOB's.