Victory for the Mullahs

Iran’s hard-liners pulled rank and effectively killed the reform movement. Why no outcry from the West?

It appears one of the main snags slowing Iran’s rise to regional power has been resolved. The reform movement that overwhelmingly voted President Mohammad Khatami into power in 1997 and created political tension in a country ruled by conservative Islamic clerics has essentially been pronounced dead.

And what is most interesting about this development is the fact that the United States is unconcerned—perhaps even glad.

Mullahs vs. “Sheep”

Iran’s political system, created a quarter century ago by the Ayatollah Khomeini, is a theocratic republic cloaked in a sham parliamentary democracy. The people vote, but the religious leaders hold ultimate power. Under Iranian law, the ayatollah can trump the president on any action he wants. Any bill ratified by Iran’s parliament (the Majlis) can be torpedoed by the unelected 12-member clerical Guardian Council if it fails to comply with the Council’s interpretation of the Koran.

Thus, political tension is practically built into the system.

Members of the religious elite, who look down their noses at the popular masses, have choked the country through political, intellectual and cultural repression, quashing critical press and imprisoning or assassinating political opponents. Afshin Molavi, in his book Persian Pilgrimages, quotes hard-line Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi as saying, “It doesn’t matter what the people think. The people are sheep.”

Agitation has been building for years between the elites and these “sheep”—Iran’s increasingly young, moderate-thinking voters (about half of Iran’s 68 million people are under 25), who have put moderates into parliamentary office with decisive majorities since 1997. Despite holding sizable majorities in elected bodies during that time, moderates have been blocked from achieving anything, and frustration within the country has been rife.

The conservatives got especially tough in January, in anticipation of February’s parliamentary election, by disqualifying over 2,400 reform candidates, including 80 popular Majlis members. Despite protests and an attempted boycott of the elections, those loyal to the religious rulers won big—taking at least 149 of the parliament’s 290 seats.

Soon after, President Khatami publicly declared that his efforts at reform had come to an end. He felt so constrained and handicapped by the Guardian Council, he told Iranians, that they should not expect anything more from him.

It was a strong victory for Iran’s conservative religious leadership. The religious zealots could now carry on with their agenda unhindered, speaking with one voice for Iran.

Western Relief

Amazingly, rather than condemning these elections, Western diplomats actually expressed relief. Why? Because the reformists simply had been getting in the way.

These diplomats spoke of the exasperating powerlessness of the reformists. In a February 18 Agence France Presse (afp) report, one Western diplomat was quoted as saying, “Khatami has become irrelevant, and the reformers in the parliament even more so.” And yet, because they held offices, afp reported, “diplomats have been spending many frustrating hours at the negotiating table with interlocutors who openly admit to wielding no real power. The talks that matter have been in private, with regime hardliners” (emphasis mine throughout).

afp pinpointed two key areas of negotiation: Iran’s nuclear program and its harboring of al-Qaeda agents. “The reformists have never been in the loop on these kind of things,” said one diplomat from a close European ally of the United States. Another European diplomat, based in Tehran, stated, “Whenever we get to the brunt of an issue, the conservatives have the final say.”

Even Washington remained relatively quiet about the election. A February 23 article in the Wall Street Journal drew attention to this fact. It compared the “pluralist” Iranian society’s repression at the hands of the “fragile” Islamic regime to Poland’s repression by Communist leadership in the 1980s—it looked bad for a moment in time, but the resistance eventually ended up breaking communism’s back. “However, the coup in Iran today and the one in Poland are different in one critical respect: the West’s reaction. In contrast to the concerted efforts in the ’80s to aid Solidarity, few in the West—including the Bush administration—have shown much solidarity with Iran’s democrats.” Just when the hard-liners are consolidating their grip on power within Iran, the U.S. is turning soft.

Why? Why didn’t the conservatives’ power play produce a stiffening of America’s spine in opposition?

Simply because America has surrendered its authority to oppose this second member of President Bush’s proclaimed “axis of evil.” By relying on Iran for help in Iraq, America’s leverage against Iran has been fatally compromised.

Witness: America has struck deals with Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf and Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi that have yielded short-term gains in tracking down terrorists and purging wmd. But these deals have also strengthened the position of the autocrats within those countries. It appears that now the U.S., for short-term gains in Iraq, is providing similar support for the conservative government in Iran.

The Wall Street Journal described Iran’s conservative establishment as “fragile” and lacking legitimacy. But in reality, the subtext of this sequence of events is that Iran’s conservatives are here to stay. However shaky their legitimacy may be in the eyes of the electorate they have just manhandled, the rest of the world—most notably, and most regrettably, the United States—seems more than willing to make them a partner.