The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi, a courageous human rights lawyer, has focused renewed attention on the deep divisions and tensions within Iran. How these work out, and how Iran defines its role in the world, will have a critical impact on a range of wider security issues, from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the future of nuclear non-proliferation.
Over recent months, speculation as to the direction of the Islamic Republic has been fuelled by the stiffening deadlock between conservatives and reformists, threats of resignation by the beleaguered president and reformist parliamentarians, and heightened activism by the student protest movement. The commotion is undeniable, as is the depth of popular dissatisfaction with the regime as a whole; measures contemplated by the conservative establishment are unlikely to resolve what has become a crisis of legitimacy. But for now, international policy-makers need to recognise that internal paralysis is a far more probable outcome than radical change.
Popular dissatisfaction is palpable and has grown markedly since ICG’s first report on Iran. Steadily eroding standards of living, a stalled reform movement and the restrictions on social and political freedoms have combined to leave much of the public dispirited and disconnected from its rulers. The average Iranian has yet to experience the benefits of the apparent recent macroeconomic improvements and significant GDP growth. Indeed, although the country possesses vast oil and natural gas reserves, some Iranian economists estimate that nearly 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Anger is chiefly directed at the conservative establishment. For most Iranians, it has become ever more clear during President Khatami’s unfulfilling six-year tenure that authority ultimately lies in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the twelve-member Islamic Guardian Council and the various security organisations, and that this bloc is largely immune to pressures for reform.
Discontent also increasingly is being directed at the reformers themselves. The mood of hope that followed Khatami’s first election in 1997 has long since dissipated, and Iran’s restive young populace has all but given up waiting for the rhetorical commitment to reform to turn into reality. Reformers are seen as ineffective in blunting the power of the conservative clerical establishment, incapable of addressing the nation’s economic woes and hindered by their own internal divisions. The sharply lower turnout in the last round of municipal elections – from 60 per cent in 1999 to less than half that percentage in 2003 – is one powerful indication, and it led to the first electoral blow to the reformists since Khatami was elected president. Student protests persist, but they remain contained; most of the public is reluctant to challenge the state security services directly, sensing both that the regime would not hesitate to resort to violence and that, for the time being at least, there is no readily available credible political alternative.
Ironically, the Iranian revolution is being hurt by its success and helped by its shortcomings. The demographic bulge – 70 per cent of Iranians are under 30 and 50 per cent under twenty - was encouraged by Ayatollah Khomeini, who called on families to have many children in order to give rise to a robust Islamic society. These “children of the revolution”, who are struggling to enter university and find jobs, present the sharpest challenge to the regime. At the same time, the revolution’s failure appears to have turned many Iranians away from radical political activity. Scores of interviews conducted by ICG suggested growing cynicism and an alienation from things political that is expressed in voter disaffection, suspicion of political pretenders and opposition groups, and even an abstract hope among some that the outside world, in particular the U.S., can somehow help ameliorate their condition. Lack of faith in the rough game of politics and a marked distaste for violence make change all the less likely in the face of a regime that appears able and willing to resort to both.
At this point, the only further liberalisation that the Islamic Republic is likely to embrace is economic. Aware that economic discontent poses the greatest threat to regime stability, the conservative establishment appears to be considering gradual economic reform and openness. But the long-term prospects of such a strategy are uncertain at best. There is no simple cure for the country’s endemic economic mismanagement, as Iran’s own economists readily concede. Moreover, in the words of Taha Hashemi, managing editor of the daily newspaper Entekhab and adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei, “in Iran you cannot separate political, cultural, and economic issues”. The Islamic Republic’s stability ultimately will depend not on economic improvement alone, but also on substantial political and cultural reform. For now, this appears to be a project beyond the regime’s willingness or capability.
The belief held by some that the long-entrenched contradictions between theocratic and democratic rule, between regime policies and citizen demands, can rapidly be resolved through political upheaval is not borne out by in-country research and discussions with Iranian politicians, political activists and ordinary people. While change almost certainly will come to Iran, it more likely than not will come slowly, from a prolonged internal process; the first stage might well see the rise of conservative pragmatists, eager to maintain the fundamentals of the regime while opening up to the West in order to improve the economic situation.
Some reformists have expressed the fear that international engagement leading to a deal with the conservative establishment will only prolong its tenure. The current polarised international environment makes abrupt internal change the less probable, however, and a judicious approach by the international community the more imperative. In dealing with some of the most pressing security issues of the day – notably Iran’s nuclear program, but also the future of Iraq and Afghanistan – neither the United States nor its European partners have the luxury of waiting for a more open and reform-minded regime. In the short term, their twin goals – regional security and domestic Iranian reform – might well be at loggerheads, but there is no good alternative to serious diplomacy aimed at tackling today’s urgent security issues by genuinely addressing Iran’s legitimate security and economic concerns.
This does not mean that the international community should walk away from its efforts to promote political reform and more respect for human rights. The loss of faith by Iranians in the reformers has meant that there is much less concern now than there was at the time of ICG’s first report on Iran, in August 2002, that strong external criticism would undermine the reform process by forcing its sympathisers to close ranks with the conservatives. Many Iranians now place significant hope in vigorous external endeavours to press Iran on human rights and political reform, and the Nobel Peace Prize for Shirin Ebadi should give such efforts – both in Iran and abroad – a more prominent and effective platform. Iranians also make clear, however, that expanded people-to-people contacts and economic exchanges would help enlarge personal freedoms, a message at odds with Washington’s restrictive and counterproductive practices.
Amman/Brussels, 15 October 2003