The largest pro-reform demonstrations since the summer of 1999 roiled Tehran on December 7-10, as student protesters press ahead with plans to hold campus referendums on the legitimacy of unelected bodies of conservative clergy that wield great power in the country’s political system. On December 7, Iranian security forces and members of the hard-line conservative Baseej militia reportedly attacked a crowd of 10,000 demonstrating in solidarity with the students outside the Tehran University gates, while leaving the 2,500-strong campus rally unmolested. Smaller crowds kept up the demonstrations in succeeding days, amid further Baseej assaults. The student-led protests, this time sparked by the deeply unpopular death sentence handed to history professor Hashem Aghajari for his comments critical of Iran’s clerical establishment, have reasserted a role for Iranian youth in the complex and tumultuous struggles unfolding over the political future of the Islamic Republic.

A major problem in Western media coverage of these struggles is their over-simplification into a cliched confrontation between “reformists” and “conservatives.” This paradigm fails to explain the current state of affairs in Iran. Certainly, divisions in Iran’s ruling establishment were greatly sharpened by the resounding victories of President Mohammad Khatami, and the “reformist” Second of Khordad Front loosely associated with him, in the elections of 1997 and 2001. The judiciary in particular has resisted and repressed developments like the lively pro-reform press that flourished after Khatami’s first electoral triumph. But the divisions in the Iranian regime do not break down neatly along reformist and conservative lines. In fact, one of the key bottlenecks in Iran’s political development lies in the fact that the factions favoring political liberalization are at odds with economic liberalization and the faction that promotes privatization and free-market economics is distant from views such as political pluralism.

The resulting welter of deadlocks and compromises has frustrated those inside and outside Iran who hoped that the self-styled reformist politicians would bring a rapid and comprehensive transformation of the Iranian polity. But the very need of the multiple factions to build consensus means that Iran’s leaders are not necessarily “sitting on a time bomb,” as a recent Newsweek headline posited.

“Exhausted” Society

One should remember that it was the Iranian people—specifically, the electorate—that injected the current of reformism into Iranian politics in 1997 and has kept it alive until this day. At present, however, it is more and more obvious that Iranian society has embarked on a path of depoliticization. The difficulties faced by the reform movement in the past few years have disillusioned the people, disinclining them to remain involved with the country’s political dynamics. Factional infighting has “exhausted” society, in the words of parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, one of the most outspoken leaders of the Second of Khordad Front. The majority of the Iranian middle class—the group Western observers normally expect to spearhead social change—has a direct interest in political stability, due to opportunities created by fast-paced urbanization, investment schemes attractive to small investors and the growth of small and medium-size private-sector industries.

Despite its apparent dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reform in the country’s political structure, Iranian society does not appear bent on forcing change at this stage, favoring instead a gradual process. It remains to be seen whether popular disgruntlement with reformist politicians will reduce participation in the parliamentary elections approaching in February 2004 or the presidential elections of 2005. But it is clear that the perceptions of Iranians under 30—who constitute 70 percent of the population—will be crucial in determining the turnout. Therefore, the country’s numerous political factions are under pressure to respond somehow to the growing needs of Iranian youth.

Interlocking Factions

Rather than two diametrically opposed camps, one can distinguish six different currents present within the ruling establishment. A hard-line left, composed of labor unions and other groups with a revolutionary ideology, is mainly concerned with the social justice values of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. These forces have successfully guarded early revolutionary policies such as subsidies for staple goods and worker-friendly labor laws. “Ultra-reformists” led by Saeed Hajjarian and Reza Khatami focus chiefly on political freedoms and democratization. Emerging from the hard-line left is a moderate left that has revised its views and become the main force behind political and cultural reform. This group’s champion is President Khatami.

On the right, a group of technocrats has developed a free-market economic vision in the 1990s, based on a more liberal political framework. The key figure in this current remains former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is at the head of a group of clerics known as the “cultural conservatives,” who concern themselves mainly with cultural policies rather than economics. This group has relaxed its conservatism somewhat based on the actual experiences of the Islamic Republic. Finally, hard-line conservatives rally around the monopolistic view—brooking no compromise on clerical control over all aspects of politics and society—that unites arch-conservative clerics and interest groups inside and outside the ruling establishment.

Though the balance of power among these sometimes interlocking factions is constantly changing, the experience of the past five years has shown that none of them can efficiently control the political affairs of the country from the parliament. Managing Iran has always required compromise solutions between the key stakeholders. For this reason, supra-parliamentary bodies such as the Supreme National Security Council and the Expediency Council, where representatives of all major factions hold seats, carry heavy weight in the post-revolutionary political structure. Not all the deliberations of these bodies are riven by conflict.

Consensus and Conflict

Wide-ranging consensus prevails among the key factions that national security is the top priority for today’s Iran, especially given current regional tensions. The concept of a “national interest” in security matters, wholly detached from the ideological considerations that animate debates on other matters, has emerged. Iranian policymakers agree that the country should concentrate on keeping good relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors, as well as with Europe and Asia. Based on a consensus among top decision-makers, Iran and the European Union are about to start negotiations toward a trade and cooperation agreement which also provides for talks on political development and human rights. By contrast, there is continued debate and disagreement on the necessity and future of relations with the United States, meaning that confusing messages about Iranian-US ties are sent out from Iran. For the time being, few deviate from the official line that the US needs to prove its good will before Tehran will make overtures of its own. The prospective US attack on Iraq and any further antagonistic pronouncements about Iran from Washington would certainly have an impact on consensus building over foreign policy. While Iran will continue to reach out to other Persian Gulf countries, much of its regional role depends upon the outcome of the US-Iraqi confrontation.

Consensus also holds that economic conditions need to be improved and jobs created—hence, the current focus of state institutions on reforming the economy. Privatization and increased efficiency in the state sector will be among the key programs and to enhance economic performance and also to reduce the scope for corruption.

But there continue to be major disagreements over how economic reform can be achieved, in light of Iran’s revolutionary commitment to “social justice” and the state-centered economic policies of the past two decades. On political and cultural issues, there are sharp divergences among the factions, especially regarding the pace and nature of political reform. These disagreements were less significant as long as the nation was unified by revolution, war with Iraq and post-war reconstruction. But in the 1990s, it became clear that new rules of the game were required.

Chinese Model

Khatami’s initial strategy to find a common denominator for the political factions was to state that the constitution laid out the political agenda for Iran. But the stalled progress of reform over the past few years has underlined the inadequacy of this strategy. The unelected Council of Guardians retains the ability to bar candidates from running for election and to reject legislation passed by Parliament, while the president lacks the authority to enforce the constitution’s provisions. In response, in September 2002 Khatami presented to Parliament the so-called twin bills which address precisely these two issues—the first would curb the powers of the Council of Guardians, while the second would enhance presidential powers. Should these bills become law, Iran’s political system would enter a new stage in which the president and the supreme leader, who can intervene in all manner of judicial and legislative decisions, would enjoy a dual sharing of power. Interestingly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei recently called the constitution the main charter of the Islamic Republic, and advised state officials to use “legal channels” to settle their disputes. These “legal channels,” however, would remain limited should Khatami’s bills be blocked by the Council of Guardians or the Expediency Council.

Given this standoff, for the time being Iran’s top leaders feel they have no choice but to stick to a Chinese model of reform: Iran’s new initiatives will remain in the areas of foreign policy and economic policy, while political and cultural reforms will stay on the back burner. The Chinese model seems to have the blessing of Khamenei, Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Khatami and Karroubi alike, though the latter two have some reservations.

Two important factions disapprove of the Chinese model: the ultra-reformists and the hard-line conservatives. Clearly, the former faction is unhappy that the hoped-for political liberalization of the country does not seem feasible at present. Their discontent is reflected in the student demonstrations and other protests, as well as in their calls for Khatami’s resignation. The hard-line conservatives are opposed to any type of reform that could sabotage their position. Economic reforms such as breaking of monopolies, liberalizing imports, promoting foreign investment, unifying the exchange rates and increasing controls on smuggling have hurt vested interests that back the hard-liners.

Not About to Collapse

The centrist consensus behind the Chinese model and corresponding opposition from the factions furthest left and furthest right will characterize Iran’s political scene for some time to come. While the centrist consensus may try to further marginalize the opposing currents, for the time being the balance of power is such that the ultra-reformist and hard-line conservative forces will have the ability to undermine the political process. In the absence of an intense regional crisis over Iraq, Khatami’s two bills will likely pass over the next three months, potentially pushing the final decision to the Expediency Council. If allowed to stand by the supra-parliamentary bodies, the bill on presidential powers might introduce new instruments to contain the hard-line elements—perhaps enabling the president to suspend politicized judicial verdicts such as Aghajari’s death sentence—but in any event this will take time.

Meanwhile, the forces on both ends of the political spectrum are likely to push forward with their agendas. Peaceful student protests against the lack of political liberalization will proceed, even as interest groups supporting the hard-liners place more obstacles in the path of reform. The student protests, while dramatic and important for long-term political consciousness, do not appear destined to turn into a mass popular uprising, due to Iranian society’s preference for evolutionary change. Political reforms will only be enacted at a sluggish pace, as they require consensus-building efforts on a larger scale than does privatization of the economy. The consolidation of the centrist coalition could pave the way for quicker, though limited, progress.

As student protests and government crackdowns continue, some advance the weak analysis that the Islamic Republic of Iran is about to collapse. The Islamic Republic is a highly adaptable regime which has matured over the past decade. Iran’s failure to evolve into a Western-style democracy does not mean that the current regime is not sustainable. Indeed, the backbone of the post-revolutionary system’s sustainability might be the fact that it continuously looks more fragile than it really is.

How to cite this article:

Bijan Khajehpour "Protest and Regime Resilience in Iran," Middle East Report Online, December 11, 2002.

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