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Khomeini's leaden legacy.

Iran's President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani has angrily rebuffed the West, disappointing those who have seen him as the prime mover for reconciliation with the United States and Europe. This reflects a power struggle between so-called moderates and radicals in Iran's revolutionary hierarchy. More important, the ease with which Rafsanjani slips into hardline rhetoric emphasises the extent to which he, too, remains in the long shadow of Ayatollah Khomeini.

AT A HASTILY organised press conference at the end of January President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani struck an uncompromising tone in his references to the outside world. The timing was significant in that it marked the 14th anniversary of the revolution which overthrew the Shah.

If the United States wanted better relations with Iran, Rafsanjani declared, it would have to unfreeze assets frozen after the revolution. This was a challenge which Rafsanjani evidently did not expect Washington to take up. Just to be on the safe side, he seemed to discourage them from doing so. "If the US tries to put aside its imperialist policies," he declared, "we see no impediment to establishing a relationship. But I think they will find it difficult to do so."

Elaborating on his theme (suitable, presumably, for the occasion), Rafsanjani stressed Iran's victimisation at the hands of foreign powers. "It is the US that has oppressed us before and after the revolution" as a result of their "imperialist attitude", he announced. If Iran had harmed other people in the past, he said with a sanctimonious note, "then we should also change".

Implicit in the remark is the assumption that Iran is not doing anything to pose a menace. Rafsanjani brushed aside suggestions that the country was interested in "exporting revolution". He dismissed allegations that Iran had aggressive intentions towards its neighbours as "devilish publicity", contrasting the value of Saudi Arabia's order for Tornado combat aircraft with Iran's total defence budget for "two to three years".

The injured defensiveness, however, sat uneasily with Rafsanjani's apparently provocative reaffirmation before foreign journalists of the death sentence pronounced by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989 against Salman Rushdie, the British author of The Satantic Verses. "Nothing can change the fatwa |pronouncement~ because the leader of the revolution is now dead and he cannot change the verdict," Rafsanjani stated. "Only the person who issued it is the person who can change it."

Rafsanjani's outspoken hardline attitude came as something of a surprise. Only a few months ago he was reportedly so eager to seek better relations with the West that he considered sending a message of congratulations to President-elect Bill Clinton. He is known to be eager to encourage Western investment and technology transfer to Iran. So why the harshness of his language?

One theory is that Rafsanjani is being outmanoeuvred in the intricate world of Iranian politics by his radical critics. Only days before Rafsanjani's press conference, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as Iran's spiritual leader, thundered that there could be no reconciliation with the "enemies and arrogants" in the West, describing the Americans (in the pointedly familiar term of Khomeini's) as "wolves". Iran, he declared, should not sacrifice its revolutionary principles for the sake of aid or technology.

In recent months, Khamenei has been strongly critical of the United States. Rafsanjani has warned against expecting the United States to disavow its endemic hostility. The difference in phraseology is subtle, the former desperately anxious to emphasise Iran's rejection of all things Western, the latter keen to make it known that the gulf between the two sides is basically of America's making. But the fact that both feel obliged to express their views in terms of the antagonism which divides Iran and the West is indicative of the enduring legacy of Khomeini.

Rafsanjani has not lived up to hopes of instituting a "post-Khomeini" era of the Iranian revolution since 1989. He was elected president that year in a bid to provide the clerical regime with a modern management of affairs, particularly in the economic sphere, which might end Iran's isolation from the rest of the world while retaining its revolutionary purity at home.

Elections to a new majlis, the national assembly, took place in April last year, and seemed to guarantee Rafsanjani's stamp on government. Appearances proved illusory. The very next month, the city of Mashhad erupted in riots which have afflicted Tehran and several provincial cities. Protestors were demonstrating against all the social and economic grievances which have grown out of the revolution and which Rafsanjani's reforms were meant to tackle. The response of Islamic courts was to mete out summary executions.

At the same time, the supposedly compliant majlis has turned out to be as disputatious and immobile as its predecessors. Far from bringing the regime's policies closer into tune with economic realities, it has maintained a religious respect for the tenets of the revolution. Nowhere was this more amply demonstrated than legislation giving the basijis, the "volunteers" drawn from the poor and the peasantry, a right to 40% of university places, for which by their very nature they are particularly unqualified.

Such a kneejerk return to the populist roots of the revolution, regardless of their practical repercussions, flies in the face of any reforms which Rafsanjani might wish to implement. On the economic front, he has attempted (and so far largely failed) to invigorate the economy.

But economic liberalisation implies a loosening of political and cultural control which Khomeini's clerical successors are unwilling to face. In retrospect, Khomeini so dominated the revolutionary regime which he brought into being that he suffocated dissent. Economics, he once notoriously said, was a "matter for donkeys".

Even he, however, towards the end of his days, recognised that some accommodation had to be made between the principles of theocratic government and the demands of a viable economy functioning in the modern world.

Had he survived, Khomeini might have been able to give the imprimateur for Rafsanjani's reforms. His successor, on the other hand, is a man of considerably less stature. Ali Khamenei, the spiritual guide who was pushed forward to take over Khomeini's mantle, was not even an ayatollah, let alone a grand ayatollah, when he assumed his predecessor's place. His elevation to the leading ranks of the clerical hierarchy was greeted with astonishment.

It is perhaps notable that one of the few voices raised in protest has been that of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, once Khomeini's chosen successor who was forced to step aside as he became increasingly outspoken at the abuses of the regime. Since his dismissal, he has retired to teach religious students in Qom.

Earlier this year, he inveighed against the "three or four boys" (a reference to Rafsanjani, still a relative junior in the religious ranks, the upstart Khamenei and Khomeini's son, Ahmed) who, he claimed, were undermining the credibility of Shia Islam's highest offices. The reportedly enthusiastic reception with which his outburst was received testifies to widespread disillusionment with the present leadership.
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Title Annotation:Islamic fundamentalists rule Iran's politics
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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