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Restless under the revolution?

Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's visit to Europe marks a turning point in Iran's relations with the West. At home, despite the best efforts of right wing clerics, there has been a notable shift away from the strict theological rule imposed by Khomeini when he came to power 20 years ago. Could it be Iranians are growing restless under the revolution?

After 20 years of isolation, Iran is tentatively sticking its head above the parapet. President Mohammed Khatami was welcomed to Europe in March as a moderate with whom, many feel, they can do business.

Meanwhile, at home, in the first municipal elections to be held since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iranians have shown that they want to break free from the strict theological rule they have lived under for two decades.

Iran's faltering economy badly needs foreign investment, and Mr Khatami is still quietly working to improve his government's credibility and thus attract trade and loans. Carrying this new mandate, the president sought to break his country's isolation by visiting Italy, Germany and France last month. It was the first visit to Europe by an Iranian leader since 1979.

Despite a number of demonstrations, objecting to Iran's violation of human rights and the use of the death penalty - there were 310 executions last year - the visit was seen as successful by Iranians and Europeans alike. Many in the West are seeking dialogue with the Islamic republic instead of a continuation of the isolation imposed by the United States and encouraged by the hardline clergy in Iran.

Mr Khatami, who believes in the "dialogue of different civilisations", also met with the Pope; he too prefers "dialogue to isolation", as both the Vatican and the Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini told The Middle East.

The Iranian leader still faces huge resistance from hardline clergymen who are growing less popular, yet refusing to loosen their grip on power. Ironically the United States, which still views Iran as supporting terrorism, has gingerly sought to encourage reform but has not lifted its trade embargo. This plays into the hands of hardliners who still use the weekly Friday prayers and mass rallies to whip up anti-American feelings.

As he cannot openly flirt with the Americans, Mr Khatami is trying to widen the gap between European and American policies towards his nation.

Europe has proved far less diffident towards the growing body of moderates in Iran. In a move reminiscent of Italy's 1960s oil policies towards the Arabs, which were more sympathetic than those of the 'Seven Sisters' - the American and British-owned oil companies - Italy has taken a lead in seeking economic and political rapprochement with Iran.

"As you know, each visit strengthens a friendship that is very important to our country," Khatami told reporters after lunching with Italy's President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro.

For Italy, friendship is a diplomacy tightly entwined with economic interests. Just a week before the visit, the Italian energy group Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi and the French oil company Elf-Aquitaine signed a $1 billion contract to develop the Dorood off shore oilfield in Iran, a deal greeted with dismay in Washington.

Washington's sanctions on Iran were slightly modified by the 1996 law which requires the US Administration to impose sanctions on companies investing more than $20 million in Iran. Although there is a strong body of academics, Middle Eastern experts and even diplomats who want to improve relations with Iran, the memory of the US embassy siege in Teheran is still fresh in the minds of most Americans.

Last May, the Administration established a policy to waive sanctions in certain cases, and it recently granted a waiver to the French company Total, which signed a $2 billion deal in 1997 to develop an Iranian gas field.

Italian officials hope the State Department will follow that precedent with ENI. "Italy, of course, will be very careful to condemn any abuses of human rights or the democratic process in Iran," Signor Dini said. But he added that it is in everyone's interest to support modernisation in the Islamic Republic. "Iran is a big country, and its democracy and stability are important to the entire Middle East," he said.

Italians say their overtures to Khatami, who they view as a moderate intent on modernising Iranian society and loosening the grip of its fundamentalist clergy, will benefit the United States as well.

Responding to questions from the opposition parties regarding human rights abuses in Iran, Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema said that helping President Khatami, who has been immersed in a power struggle with the Islamic hardliners since he came to power 22 months ago, would help improve human rights in Iran.

On the eve of his departure to Europe, Khatami got a massive boost from the results of the first municiple elections since the declaration of the Islamic Republic in 1979. They showed a decisive victory for moderate candidates, who have won every seat in the capital and the vast majority of seats nationwide.

The news encouraged the Italians and like-minded Europeans, convincing them that dialogue and assisting Khatami is the best way to isolate hardliners and encourage moderates to go on reforming society in Iran.

It is clear Iranians have endorsed President Khatami's attempts at social, political and cultural freedoms and also his efforts to ease restrictions imposed by hardliners in the clerical government.

Former Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri, who was ousted from the cabinet last year by hardliners in parliament, headed the list of the new moderates, with almost 600,000 votes. The second highest vote winner in the Teheran council was Saeed Hajjarian Kashani, a former adviser to Khatami, followed by Jamileh Kadivar, sister of Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist religious scholar and writer who was arrested earlier last month for allegedly inciting unrest.

Some 25 million Iranians, or 65 per cent of the electorate, turned out to cast their votes. That is less than the turnout for the presidential poll in May 1997, but more than for the election for a religious assembly last October.

As in 1997 when Iranians turned out to choose Khatami and reject the clergy's candidates, young people (Iranians can vote from the age of 15) constituted the bulk of voters.

The election was judged by observers to be the fairest since the revolution. Some of the liberals competing for office were pictured in their posters in Western-style suits, collared shirts and neck-ties - a clear sign to the electorate, since the neck-tie has been condemned by the clergy as a symbol of Western decadence.

Interestingly, it is the young who want to break free of the strict Islamic rules, more than the older generation who remember the more relaxed way of life before 1979.

Of 802 people detained by the Islamic vice squads, nicknamed the "lipstick brigade" - who arrest people for violating the Islamic code, including wearing make up - more than 80 per cent were aged under 20, which means they were born in to the Islamic Republic's culture. Yet it is they who have most firmly rejected its strict rules.

It is clear that this time the reformers have won the day, but those in the West who have been anticipating just such a turnaround in Iranian affairs would be advised not to put the champagne on ice just yet. The results are not simple to interpret.

Although the hardliners were routed, independent candidates won no seats in Teheran and the large city of Esfahan, proving that urban politics are still very much party politics.

The majority of seats in the capital went to the Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP), which is the core organisation of the 23 May Grand Coalition, established last year to challenge the mullahs. It is a truly pro-President Khatami party and he relies heavily on its support.

Noticeably the voters made a distinction between the IIPP and the the Construction Executives Party (CEP), which ran neck and neck with the Participation Party. The Executives are also pro-Khatami but work closely with the former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

There are over six million registered voters in Teheran, but less than 25 per cent bothered to vote. Observers say conservatives always win when the turnout is low, thanks to their effective networks for mobilisation which are ready and in place. This means that in places like Teheran conservative supporters could be in the minority.

It could also mean that the 'active', who come out for Friday prayers and pro-government demonstrations, and are normally regarded as supporters of the hardline conservative clergy, either did not vote together, or gave their votes to the reformist candidates.

In either case they seem to be disillusioned by the hardliners. However, the question of what happened to those outside the capital area who previously supported Khatami and the reform programme remains unanswered.

Away from the powerful propaganda machine of urban areas some independent candidates won a resounding victory. The largest vote collected in Quazvin was for Parisa Tirsahar, a young woman who campaigned as a representative of the younger generation.

In Mashhad, second place was won by an American-educated civil engineer, Mr Dorri, whose campaign posters showed his face clean-shaven, in direct defiance of the mullahs. In Shiraz it was a medical school professor who came top.

These snapshots reflect the changing mood throughout Iran. Engineers, doctors (some MDs and some PhDs), and female candidates did exceptionally well. Some seats were even won by students.

President Khatami hopes now to use the newly-elected city, town and village councils to decentralise authority and loosen the grip of the orthodox clerical establishment. The elections are a vehicle for transferring power from the revolution's old generation to the new one, said Mostafa Tajzadch, one of the president's close allies.

The reformers call themselves 'neo-Islamists'. They claim to have found the formula to reconcile Western-style pluralism with Islamic teachings.

This was the vision, they argue, of the late Imam Khomeini: a society where people at a local level could have a say in every aspect of running their lives, within an established Islamic framework.

The implementation of this vision, the reformers say, was delayed for eight years by a wax started by Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the hardliners did all they possibly could to stop the spread of participation at local levels, preferring to lead from the top.

But for the reformist neo-Islamists, the new thinking is all taking place in the name of Islam and the 1979 revolution - the surest way, they believe, to reach their goals. This approach worries the hardliners who cannot even accuse the reformists of betraying the teaching of Imam Khomeini.

Hence the hardliners crusade to bar neo-Islamists from standing for office, especially in Teheran. But many of the reformers slipped back into the race at the last minute. This drama highlighted their cause, bringing many previously unknown candidates to public attention, thus aiding their victory.

Among them was Ebrahim Asqarzadeh, a former radical who, as a student, helped to organise the attack on the American embassy in Teheran 20 years ago. Mr Asqarzadeh, who came fourth in the Teheran polls, now advocates a rapprochement with the United States. He was badly beaten up, late last year, by a gang of fundamentalists after he invited the hostages he once held captive to travel to Iran on a goodwill visit.

A conciliatory attitude towards America - by one who won his credentials by storming the American embassy in 1980 - is bad enough for the clerical authorities, but they can hardly tolerate the challenge when it is coupled with demands for full democracy within a theocracy.

The next challenge is the parliamentary election in 2000, when the reformers hope to put an end to conservative dominance of the assembly. But are the conservatives anywhere near ready to come to terms with the demands of the new generation?

Nationally, they still control and dominate major institutions, and ultimate authority lies with the senior religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Human rights organisations say that even under Khatami's presidency, progress has been slow. The State Department's report on human rights for 1998, which was published last month, agreed. "Systematic abuses included extra judicial killings and summary executions, disappearances, widespread use of torture and other degrading treatment," the report said.

Perhaps the end of year report for 2000 will be different.
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Comment:The visit by Pres Mohammed Khatami to Italy, Germany and France in Mar 1999 marks the end to the country's political isolation since the Ayatollah Khomeini-led Islamic revolution in 1979.
Author:Darwish, Adel
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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