Middle East

Iran's Bitter Ballot

Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution 25 years ago seemed calculated to change conditions in Iran completely. The will to be rid of the corrupt tyranny of the hated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had seized almost all levels of the population and political currents. In Iran, the return to the religious and sociological roots of an advanced Islamic civilization forged ahead and ended the monarchy.

The new rulers, however, soon showed their hypocritical and reactionary side: Their belief in a policy sanctioned by religion led to a form of rule over the very people who had put them in power and submission to the divine inspiration of self-appointed elite. In its systematic persecution of political enemies, the mullah regime equaled in every way the perfidy and precision of the shah’s regime. The religious power elite created a system of absolute rule. Freely elected institutions such as the state president, government, and Parliament are fake-democratic fig leaves and, in fact, paper tigers. People continue to be denied freedoms that are vital for the development of a modern civil society. The Iranians long ago unmasked the “blessings” of the revolution.

With the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and with the capture of the 2000 Parliament, the reform forces pushed through changes with the impatience of youth. Their fight must be viewed today as having failed, however, because it received no support, either from abroad or from the so-called reformers, whose plans are defeated with great regularity by the veto of the Guardian Council. The population, therefore, now greets its “reformers” with the supreme punishment: indifference. Now the parliamentarians are grasping for the last means of arousing the people in order to win them over to their cause once again: giving back their mandate. It is too late, say many.

Moreover, the resignation of their mandates by the reformers results in a Parliament that is indeed illegitimate but strictly conservative—a further victory for the narrow-minded religious dictatorship. Even if it means loss of face, for the guardians of the Islamic Revolution what is most important is maintaining their power at any price; they are indifferent to their international reputation. The conservative power fanatics have already demonstrated this with the arbitrary and completely absurd exclusion of thousands of candidates from the parliamentary elections, including 80 deputies already serving. The election, if it takes place, has degenerated into a farce, a carefully staged jamboree.

No light anywhere, no hope—in Iran a mentality of  “more of the same.”  The people reject the mullah regime, it is true, but they do not hate it to the same degree that they hated that of the shah. The aversion is not enough for a new revolution. Neither the “reformers” nor the people in the street are seeking a big confrontation. They fear a new toll in terms of lives to add to their already violent history and are adapting to a tightly structured power system in which the opposing camps treat each other in a civilized way to some degree. It is a modus vivendi based on the lowest common denominator. The people no longer expect anything from the once promising president. He defined the boundaries of his office too narrowly from the outset and concerned himself more with the preservation of the Islamic Republic than its structural reform.

That leaves Iran with a dictatorship veiled in religion, and neither the will to reform nor a new public consciousness has been able to change any of that so far. The country will never be a state structure free of religion, and Islam will remain an elemental component of all spheres of life.

Yet a slow but steady metamorphosis is taking place. The task of Europe and the United States is to support this through well-targeted diplomatic contacts and economic cooperation tied to conditions. The conservative establishment is carrying out its rear-guard fight in the courts and mosques—a battle against time that is bound to fail. But it will last a long time.