As neo-conservatives inside and outside the Pentagon step up their rhetoric against the Islamic Republic of Iran, internal polarization in Iran also seems to be reaching a breaking point. Hardliners in the Iranian regime have managed effectively to block most significant attempts at reforming governance over the past four years. The inability of the elected reformers to deliver on most of their campaign promises, coupled with mismanagement of the civic and economic spheres under their direct control (such as the Tehran municipality or the oil sector), has disillusioned the public. With the US reportedly moving toward an explicitly confrontational posture toward Iran, different factions within the regime, as well as outside political forces and significant segments of the population, seem to have concluded that the current deadlock must be broken — one way or another.

The stakes are very high. If the democratic movement in Iran, embodied in elected representatives as well as those outside the regime committed to non-violent reforms and national reconciliation, can resolve the current impasse, Iran has a chance to be a model of a radical, revolutionary Islamist state successfully making the transition to an inclusive and functionally secular democracy. Washington hawks present the alternative of overthrowing the regime through a “popular uprising” — really a civil war — and restoring the Pahlavi monarchy, following a referendum. Iranian hardliners could resort to open domestic repression or total blockage of the reform movement. Either of these alternatives could engender chaos and civil strife that will make the current scene in Iraq pale by comparison.

Targeting Tehran

In May 2003, the US accused Iran of harboring al-Qaeda masterminds of the bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia, of openly supporting “terrorist organizations” like Hizballah in Lebanon and of pursuing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. To anyone who followed the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, this list of accusations sounds ominously familiar. The known exaggerations and outright fabrications in the case against Iraq should encourage the press and international organizations like the Security Council to demand concrete, convincing proof from the Bush administration before taking these allegations against Iran seriously.

Many of Washington’s claims about Iran’s weapons of mass destruction seem to have originated with the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MKO), based in Iraq and formerly allied with Saddam Hussein, and its civilian front organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The MKO, whose numerous attacks killing Iranian civilians earned it a spot on the State Department list of terrorist organizations, was briefly disarmed by the US in early May, but has apparently been allowed to maintain its presence in Iraq. [1] A battle over the MKO’s future is certainly going on inside the administration. Pro-Israel commentators Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson, perhaps reflecting the Pentagon hawks’ point of view, argue that it is “silly to call the MKO terrorists” because they attack Iranian targets, putting them on the same side as the US. Clawson and Pipes call for the MKO to be removed from the terrorist list, rearmed and used to intimidate the Iranian regime, uncover Iranian infiltrators and agents in Iraq, and provide otherwise elusive “intelligence” on Iran. [2] Through its front in Washington, the MKO has obliged this confidence by charging that 14,000 troops and 2,000 clerics in civilian clothes have infiltrated Iraq from Iran, that Iran has chemical and biological weapons and that Iran is developing nuclear capabilities in two undeclared facilities west of Tehran. [3] Some of these claims may be true, but to date no convincing evidence has surfaced.

The White House canceled a high-level review of Iran policy scheduled for May 27, and it has not been rescheduled, reflecting the intensity of internal debates pitting hawks in the Defense Department against the State Department and the National Security Council. But the general contours of the Bush administration’s position on Iran emerged in July 2002, when Bush spoke tersely of the “unelected people who are the real rulers of Iran [whose] uncompromising, destructive policies have persisted and frustrated the desire of the population for freedom and reform.” Despite his declaration of friendship for the Iranian people, Bush’s statement included no mention of the elected government, hinting that the administration was dismissing the reform and democracy movement as irrelevant and targeting the Iranian regime as a whole. [4] A bipartisan group of senators and congressmen, led by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), joined the fray, calling for regime change in Iran. While the press reported significant State Department unhappiness over the policy shift, by the end of the summer of 2002, the administration adopted a unified posture of confrontation toward Iran.

Downward Spiral

Shifts in Washington responded to events on the ground. A series of public protests had rocked Iran’s political scene in Iran in the early summer. On July 3, President Mohammad Khatami warned of “grave new developments” and an internal coup d’etat against the reform movement. Khatami was referring to proposals floated by conservatives to enable the Expediency Council, a powerful extra-constitutional body headed by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, to take on added executive and legislative functions, while the conservative Council of Guardians had begun opening up offices in electoral localities to gather information for screening candidates for the coming parliamentary elections. These tactics were aimed at eroding the president’s powers for the remainder of his term and at preventing influential reformers to stand for office. The hardliners’ measures triggered a spiral of attack and counterattack that, by the end of summer, had polarized the Islamic Republic to an unprecedented degree.

Hashem Aghajari, a prominent political activist and university professor, was imprisoned and later condemned to death for a controversial speech he made on the theme of Protestantism in Islam. The speech was a thinly disguised attack on the ideological foundation of the political system of the Islamic Republic and the role it assigns the “Supreme Leader” as the undisputed head of the country. Conservative attacks on Aghajari prompted protests by students and reformist organizations, as well as a scathing riposte from Ayatollah Jalal Taheri, the highly respected Friday prayer leader in the city of Esfahan. Taheri’s open letter of resignation on July 10, addressed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused the conservatives of corruption, abuse of power and betrayal of the moral and egalitarian ideals of the 1979 revolution. The next day, the reformist journalist and politician Abbas Abdi published an op-ed criticizing Khatami for his failed political tactics which had led to paralysis in decision-making. Abdi urged Khatami to stop being indecisive and publicly name those who were sabotaging the reform program that the electorate had voted for on several occasions. Should this transparency fail to break the deadlock, Abdi argued, the reformers owed it to people who had voted them into office not to continue with the false illusion that further progress was possible under these circumstances. They should resign and leave the conservatives to face the wrath of the population and of external enemies. Abdi’s article, coming in the wake of Taheri’s letter, caused a furor among conservatives who began accusing Abdi and the reformers of betrayal, using the expression khorouj az nezam (leaving the system), an expression alluding to the seventh-century rebellion of the Kharijites against Imam Ali, the fourth caliph and, to Shi‘i Muslims, the most important Muslim leader after Muhammad.

Bush’s statement, issued on July 12, appeared to express the conclusion of the administration that public criticism of Khatami by his close allies and student restlessness meant that all factions within the Islamic Republic had lost their legitimacy. Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush’s point man for Afghanistan, Iraq and apparently Iran as well, delivered a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on August 2 which identified Khatami and the elected faction of the Iranian regime as “ineffective.” Khalilzad spelled out the new administration consensus: “It’s a dual track policy based on moral clarity: tell the world specifically what is destructive and unacceptable about Iran’s behavior — sponsorship of terror, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and repression of the clearly expressed desires of the Iranian people for freedom and democracy — while laying out a positive vision of partnership and support for the Iranian people.” Michael Rubin, then of the American Enterprise Institute but now working for the Pentagon, interpreted the speech thusly: “What [Khalilzad] was saying was, we are calling for regime change, but we trust the Iranian people to do it for themselves. The Islamic Republic is incapable of reforming itself, and the United States will stand with the people.” [5] This openly imperialist policy was to be disguised in the rhetoric of “public diplomacy” where you “tell the people you are on their side.” [6]

Later in the fall, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reiterated that the administration was counting on a popular uprising to bring about early overthrow of the Iranian regime. [7] Richard Perle, then still chairman of the Defense Policy Board, goaded the administration from without, declaring that the US was prepared to attack Iran, Syria and Lebanon once Saddam Hussein had been deposed. [8] Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also called for the invasion of Iran “the day after Iraq is crushed.” [9]

Washington Ups the Ante

Despite this evidence of long-standing Bush administration resolve to target Iran, egged on by the neo-conservatives, the timing of the present escalation in Tehran-bashing rhetoric is curious. There may be two reasons why the US has decided it is time to up the ante. At the end of February 2003, reformist candidates suffered a setback in local elections, the first elections in the post-revolutionary era when the hardliners had little control over vetting of candidates, despite their earlier plans to do so. Independent and opposition candidates participated on a previously unthinkable scale. Though reformers won two thirds of seats nationwide, voters in large cities stayed away from the polls, for the first time handing a resounding defeat to the reformers, as well as other opposition figures, in these important districts. Only 11 percent of eligible voters in Tehran voted and all 15 city council seats were won by conservative candidates. The US, as well as hardliners in Iran, seem to have concluded that more than half the population has become apathetic, no longer believing that supporting the reform process will lead to significant political change. For the hardliners in Iran, who have virtually no hope of increasing their set number of committed supporters (between 8-12 percent of the electorate), any loss on the part of reformers is a boon. For the Bush administration, any rise in political apathy in Iran implies that the regime that cannot be defended on the basis of popular support and democratic legitimacy.

The second reason for the current belligerence toward Iran has to do with Iraq. The speed of the occupation of Iraq “shocked and awed” friend and foe alike, but the Panglossian scenario whereby the Iraqi masses would pour into the streets to welcome their liberators never materialized. Instead many Iraqis, brutalized and impoverished for years by Saddam Hussein and the UN sanctions, looted infrastructure carefully spared during the precision bombing, under the indifferent eyes of US soldiers more concerned with guarding oil installations. The general chaos and the rise of Shi‘i religious parties, it seems, have led the US to fear that Iranian influence over the Iraqi Shi‘a may disrupt American dreams of building a civilizational outpost and permanent military base in the Middle East. New US viceroy L. Paul Bremer voiced this fear when he accused Iran of trying to replicate the model of Hizballah in Iraq by creating grassroots welfare networks, and eventually arming them.

Paradoxically, now that the occupation of Iraq has run into trouble, the neo-conservative policy of diplomatic pressure and covert action for toppling the regime of Iran appears to have won the upper hand. These ideologues have been maneuvering to line up the former crown prince, Reza Pahlavi, as an Iranian Ahmad Chalabi who can boast of popular support within Iran. A coalition of Jewish groups (primarily Iranian Jews), neo-conservative hawks and Iranian monarchists are calling for a referendum to be held in Iran after the regime is toppled, to allow people to decide what kind of regime they want. This coalition has facilitated Reza’s meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as President Moshe Katzav and Shaul Mofaz, the defense minister, both of the whom are of Iranian origin, and energetically lobbies on Reza’s behalf with the Bush administration. [10] Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, former CIA director James Woolsey, former Senator Paul Simon, former AIPAC director Morris Amitay and others have set up a “Coalition for Democracy in Iran” which calls for military intervention to facilitate a referendum.

In late May, a proposal to allocate an initial $56 million for efforts to topple the regime in Iran was making the rounds in the Senate, with Brownback’s sponsorship, while Rumsfeld reportedly spearheaded efforts to commit the administration to “regime change” for Iran. [11] But what exactly does “regime change” mean in Iran? What kind of “popular uprising” do the neo-conservatives have in mind? The term implies, falsely, that popular discontent in Iran is about to spontaneously generate armed resistance to the regime. Outside intervention and agitation will certainly be required to produce their “uprising.”

Hardliners Challenged

Facing internal and external threats, those committed to non-violent and democratic reforms have worked to create new coalitions, within and outside the regime. In the last weeks of May, a number of open letters, some of which are directly addressed to Khamenei, by parliamentary deputies, political and cultural activists, student organizations, the Participation Front Party and a large group of secular democratic republicans abroad have urged the hardliners to take responsibility for the blockage of the political reform process. The most harshly worded text, signed by 135 parliamentarians, calls on Khamenei to “drink from the poisoned chalice” (Khomeini’s term for accepting the Iran-Iraq ceasefire in 1988) while there is still time, by apologizing to the public for ignoring and subverting their votes, and by taking steps to ensure that the obstruction of the reform movement will not continue.

There is little chance that the hardliners will heed these challenges. Indeed, they may carry out sudden wholesale repression to completely close the relatively open public sphere, and once they have consolidated their domestic gains, offer the US any number of significant compromises to ensure their own survival. The Bush administration may be hoping for such an outcome, since it will then face a completely delegitimized regime, both internationally and domestically. But this scenario may cause irrevocable harm to the democratic movement in Iran, whose greatest achievement has been developing and instilling the political culture of tolerance and insisting on greater accountability of political power.
Increasingly, the recent open letters, written by reformers and democrats of various persuasions, religious and secular, liberal and left, inside and outside the country, official and unofficial, converge upon a common set of demands and prescriptions. [12] These positions include acceptance of the popular will as the ultimate and sole source of political authority, equal rights of citizenship for all, regardless of gender, sect or political affiliation, the importance of preserving national integrity and security above personal or sectarian political interests, and the call for national reconciliation.

Despite their serious shortcomings, the elected reformers have shown commitment to democratic change on numerous important occasions. The list of legislation passed by the parliament, and rejected by the Council of Guardians, includes bills to liberalize the press, require the presence of juries at all trials, ban torture, ban the criminalization of political opinion and release political prisoners, ensure equal rights for women in divorce courts, ensure equal rights for recognized religious minorities in courts, allow the elected president the power to enforce the constitution, stop the vetting of candidates by the Council of Guardians, allow greater local autonomy to elected councils, relax foreign investment rules, allow the private sector greater protection and support and so on. The Participation Front, the main reformist party whose members hold the greatest number of seats in the parliament, announced at its annual congress in July 2002 that its aim was to make all positions of power in the Islamic Republic elected by popular vote, a direct challenge to the unelected bastions of conservatism — the judiciary, the Council of Guardians, the Expediency Council, radio and television, the national security council and the Leader himself. Though the reformers lost in the most important cities in the February elections, they announced the exact results immediately and without any distortion and acrimony, setting a very important precedent in Iranian politics. In the subsequent analysis of the electoral defeat, the Participation Front was very forthright in its self-criticism, including its failure to redeem the trust of those who elected them. Its final assessment was that political apathy was the gravest danger for the democracy movement.

Other independent reformist figures have been going even further. Alireza Alavitabar, in an article titled “Playing Chess with a Gorilla,” claimed it is impossible to rationally deal with the conservatives, who do not understand nor respect the rules of the political game. Power can only be countered with power, and the present theocratic system is unreformable. Alavitabar concluded that the reform movement needs to engage in a long-term strategy to change the Islamic Republic in three steps: first, to force the conservatives to become accountable for their deeds; second, to push for a more democratic interpretation of the existing constitution by changing the balance of political forces; and last, to press for a “complete (de facto secular) democracy.” [13]

Iran is engaged in an internal transition to democracy. The greatest threats to this difficult process are the Iranian hardliners and the Bush administration’s belligerence. If the Bush administration is serious about spreading democracy in the Middle East, or in containing the meddling of Iranian hardliners abroad, it should declare that it will not stand by and allow the democrats and reformers who have been elected by the Iranian public to be persecuted, imprisoned and threatened. Unequivocal support of the democrats in Iran, despite their real differences of opinion with the Bush administration, would induce quicker retreat from the hardliners than any number of military threats against the nation as a whole.


[1] Daily Star, May 20, 2003.
[2] Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson, “A ‘Terrorist’ US Ally?” New York Post, May 20, 2003.
[3] Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 2003 and Guardian, May 16, 2003.
[4] Washington Post, July 23, 2002.
[5] Washington Times, August 3, 2002.
[6] Jackson Diehl, “Public Diplomacy to Change View of US,” Washington Post, August 3, 2002.
[7] Financial Times, October 31, 2002.
[8] Toronto Sun, November 10, 2002.
[9] Guardian, November 5, 2002.
[10] Forward, May 16, 2003.
[11] Financial Times, May 30, 2003.
[12] Most of these statements are accessible online in Persian at and
[13] Emrooz, November 6, 2002. [Persian]

How to cite this article:

Kaveh Ehsani "High Stakes for Iran," Middle East Report 227 (Summer 2003).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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