Power struggle in Iran

Posted in Iran , Broader Middle East , Asia | 11-Feb-04 | Author: Dieter Farwick

President Mohammad Khatami
The upcoming parliamentary elections in Iran on February are provoking the deepest crisis of the Islamic Republic since it was founded 25 years ago. The elections are not a competition between individual politicians and their respective parties, but rather a display of the fundamental rift between the ultra-orthodox clerics under the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian Armed Forces, and the so-called "reformers" under President Mohammad Khatami, who came into office in 1997.

What is the current political situation in the Islamic Republic? The war in Iraq has changed the geostrategic and geopolitical neighbourhood for the Iran. The country has lost its biggest and direct threat - Saddam Hussein. The emerging stabilisation of the eastern neighbour Afghanistan is an additional advantage. The western neighbour Iraq is strong enough to discipline the Kurds´ ambitions for their own state "Kurdistan." This is in congruence with the United States´ plans to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state on the territory of Iraq. The presence of American soldiers in the North - in the Central Asia republics of the former Soviet Union - might be of some concern to the Islamic leadership in Tehran. The country continues to have strong interests in the North, especially in the Caspian Sea with its rich resources of oil and gas.

The United States´ resolve to change the regime in Iraq by all means, including military operation, was a lesson for Iran. The American "Blitzkrieg" and the political pressure from some European countries forced Iran to sign an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency allowing surprise inspections of the country´s nuclear facilities. The future will show the value of this agreement.

Because of the Shiite majority in Iraq, the Shiite leaders in Iran have some influence on the future developments in Iraq. The Shiite connection has led to a very cautious ditente between Iran and USA. The rhetoric on both sides has softened. USA does not speak any longer of the "axis of evil" and Iran no longer calls USA "satan." The Iranian government allowed USA to help the country after the terrible earthquake in Bam. The Iranian Ambassador to UN had a lunch with American politicians in Washington after having received a permission to leave New York. A group of congressional staffers will travel to Iran to prepare a trip of American politicians later this year.

The USA has great interest in not provoking Iranian Shiites to get engaged too much in Iraq. The "coalition of the willing" wants to avoid another theocracy in the region of "Greater Middle East." Iran realizes this fear and avoids open backing of "radical" Shiites in Iraq.

All in all, the geostrategic and geopolitical scenario has become quite comfortable for Iran. That is not true with the internal situation. In spite of the high prices of crude oil - which forms about 87 per cent of Iranian exports - the economic and social situation is deteriorating. The rate of unemployment is about 16 percent and the illiteracy rate is about 16 percent for men and 30 percent for women. This environment hurts especially strongly the young people who form about 30 percent of the 65 million Iranian population.

Iran and the neighbours
The difficult domestic situation prior to the elections has caused the orthodox establishment to postpone any reforms in the electoral process. This is especially true for the hard-line "Guardian Council," which is composed of 12 members and holds the real power in Iran without any democratic legitimacy. The Council blocked and disqualified about 3,000 of the 8,000 candidates for parliament. It even eliminated from the race 87 members of the present parliament, including the younger brother of President Khatami who held the number two position in the parliament.

The political reaction to the Council´s decisions was swift. A number of the 290 parliamentarians went on strike and one third gave up their seats. There were calls for suspending the elections which were seen as an attempt "to cover the ugly body of dictatorship with the beautiful dress of democracy" according to the lawmaker Moshen Mirdamadi. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was asked to overrule the Guardian Council but he could not and did not succeed. There was only a modest revision of the Council´s decisions.

Another factor weighing in the elections is the frustration and disappointment of a large part of the electorate with President Mohammad Khatami. He did not deliver what he promised before the last elections, which brought him a vast majority. Some allege that he did not fight for his sound political programme. To be realistic, however, one has to acknowledge that his chances to implement significant reforms were slim with the religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council blocking any significant changes in their determination to hold on to power.

The parliamentary elections are now called a national duty. They will take place as planned unless something extraordinary happens in the next few days. These elections, however, will not be democratic, nor free nor fair. The results will most probably weaken the "reformers," yet the hard-liners will only gain some time. The fundamental political problems in Iran will remain. The "rebellion" of the students last year symbolised the need for change. The hard-liners are not willing and capable to accept and run Iran as a "modern society." The people will pay a high price for a longer period of "de-facto" dictatorship with some democratic camouflage.

A regime change will eventually come in Iran. Yet despite the hope coming from the regime change in Iraq, the reality is that the change has to come from the Iranian people themselves. The rest of the world should follow very prudent policies and diplomacy to transform the Iranian theocracy in a real democracy. An implosion or explosion of Iran is in nobody´s interest in this volatile region. Further success in enhancing security and stability in the "Greater Middle East" - i.e. in Afghanistan and Iraq - will have positive impact on the future development of Iran.