Iran without illusions.
The old man fingered his beard and frowned. "We can live with other nations and other religions," he mumbled solemnly, "if they don't try to make trouble for us." He sat silently for a few seconds, staring into a cup of cloyingly sweet tea and showing no inclination to continue. Suddenly, his furrowed face brightened. "But we are so very happy you have come to visit us!"
Ideological confusion reigns at the highest levels of Iranian society; the bloom is off both the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the era of "pragmatism" that followed it. In the past fourteen months the two rivals who aspire to the mantle of the late Ayatollah have seen their political legitimacy badly undermined by an increasingly disconsolate electorate. In presidential balloting on June 11, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had been projected to win a second term with over 90 percent of the popular vote, struggled to take 63 percent. His main challenger, a conservative former Labor Minister, won a surprising 24 percent, even though he was, like the other two candidates in the race, a relative political unknown. The results of the contest and the anemic turnout - 57 percent - shamed Rafsanjani into canceling a scheduled press conference on June 13, the day he was supposed to announce his triumph.
Ever since the death of the Imam four years ago, Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Khamenei have represented the two competing wings of the post-Khomeini political order. Rafsanjani, familiar to Americans as the man who collaborated with the Reagan Administration in the Iran/contra debacle, favors limited political and economic liberalization and better relations with the West. Khamenei, by contrast, calls up disturbing images of besieged embassies and blindfolded hostages. Outsiders felt certain that in the foreseeable future, the direction of Iranian politics would be determined in the tug-of-war between these two men. But the voters had a different idea. A year ago, after a round of parliamentary elections dealt a stunning defeat to candidates loyal to Khamenei, Western journalists predicted the final demise of Khamenei's "radicals" and the ascendancy of Rafsanjani's "pragmatists." Last month's results have sent the foreign press corps foraging for a new paradigm.
The roots of the current crisis are not difficult to discern. Workers and pensioners on fixed incomes stagger under an inflation rate of over 30 percent. The frenzied economic growth in the first years following the eight-year war with Iraq has withered, and jobs for Iran's burgeoning population are harder to find now than at any time since the revolution. Rafsanjani's infatuation with the World Bank and "free market" reforms has complicated matters; earlier this year, he unified the byzantine exchange rate system, which in effect sharply devalued the rival against the dollar. Overnight, the price of imported merchandise soared. The President has also shown a determination to but government subsidies on essential foodstuffs, a policy that is certain to hit hardest at the poor.
But the poor have not been accepting their fate passively. During last year's parliamentary campaign, riots that began in the holy city of Meshed in the far northeast of the country spread quickly to other major metropolitan areas, including Shiraz and Teheran. Witnesses report that rioters who torched government buildings and police stations also paused to burn pictures of Khomeini, Khamenei and Rafsanjani, an act of blasphemy that would have been inconceivable even a year earlier. The explicitly political nature of the unrest caused general panic among the Teheran elite and prompted Rafsanjani to hold off implementing several reforms, beef up security nationwide and order the execution of many of the presumed culprits.
Average Iranians may also be tiring of the costly practice of "exporting" the 1979 revolution, which has traditionally taken the form of subsidies to Islamic organizations battling Teheran's secular foes. Iran's sizable contributions to Hamas in the occupied territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, coupled with its penchant for gunning down dissidents in foreign capitals, have earned it a reputation as the worst of the regional troublemakers. (Egypt's President also insists that Teheran is backing his domestic opponents, an allegation he has never proved.) But there are subtle clues to a change in direction. When the Iranian Parliament (or Majlis) met on February 17 to approve Khamenei's extension of the fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie, a surprising thing happened. The Rushdie fatwa has long been considered an "apple pie" issue that no one would dare oppose, but in this year's vote a full third of the Majlis rejected the extension. Rafsanjani has repeatedly referred to the Rushdie case as a "religious" matter and thus not in his purview. Parliamentary representatives say that the opposition to the Rushdie death sentence is gaining strength and may actually prevail in the coming years. "The people are becoming more realistic," says the editor of a leading newspaper in Teheran. "They are no longer falling for empty slogans."
At an election-day rally on the campus of Teheran University, however, at least 3,000 people were on hand to chant the old standbys: "No East, No West, Islam is Best!" "Zionists Look Out!" and the ever popular "Death to America!" But there was a noticeable absence of verve among the crowd, like a jamboree of aging Freedom Riders who can still belt out a passable "We Shall Overcome" but whose political battles have left them depleted and resentful. Old Teheran hands say that in the years following the revolution a gathering such as this would have attracted ten times as many partisans. Bread and butter have replaced fire and brimstone in the consciousness of many working-class Iranians.
The decline of revolutionary zeal does not, however, necessarily betoken an era of moderation and neighborliness. For one thing, the Clinton Administration is in no mood to permit a rapprochement with Iran - either for itself or for its European allies. On June 8, Secretary of State Warren Christopher made clear just what Washington intends with its strategy of "dual containment" vis-a-vis Iran and Iraq. In a speech designed to slam the door on improved relations, Christopher admonished the Europeans to cut their military and commercial ties to Teheran. The speech is being viewed in Iran as a prelude to the latest bombing raid in Iraq, which no one doubts was directed at Teheran as much as Baghdad.
Washington's choice of confrontation instead of dialogue in dealing with the two most powerful states in the Persian Gulf carries risks that may come to haunt the Clinton Administration. If the radical mullahs in Iran who are trying to erase their past mistakes and reinvent themselves as "populists" succeed in winning the support of the restive poor, the prospects of political reform in Iran will be doomed for a long time to come. Erfan Parviz, executive editor of the daily Teheran Times, argues that demonizing Iran will strengthen the religious right. "Time has taught us many lessons," he says. "It has taught us that we should not see the world through slogans, because slogans will not feed the people. But you Americans will never forget the fifty-two hostages," a reference to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. "Until you forget the fifty-two, reform here doesn't have a chance."