Iran May Yet Stop Taking Holy Orders
December 7, 1999
Iran may yet stop taking holy orders
Seen through the car windows as one is sped from ministry to ministry,
the crowds on the well-swept Tehran streets seem busy and purposeful.
One recalls similar visits to Eastern European capitals, and the same
impressions of order and solidity; but where are those regimes today? Is
Iran any different?
An evident difference is that Iran is a more open and pluralistic
society. There are obvious limits to free expression - the Baha'i are
heretics, atheism is inadmissible, Marxists are both anti-national and
anti-Islamic. But there remains a broad spectrum of avowable opinion, a
lively debate in the print media, and the fact that a popular electoral
Indeed, all eyes in Iran are focused on next February's election to the
parliament. This will provide a third electoral occasion for popular support
for reform to be manifested, following the unexpected and overwhelming
election of President Khatami in May 1997 and the success of reformers in
the elections for city and village councils in February 1999.
But Iran's is a "guided" democracy. All candidates for election have to
be approved in advance by the "Guardian Council" - six Shia clergy,
"just and acquainted with the needs of the time" - together with six
jurists "qualified in various branches of the law" chosen by the
parliament from a shortlist submitted by the head of the judiciary.
In February's local elections, a scrutiny procedure of this type
excluded many candidates. And the conviction by a religious court of the
former minister and leading reformer, Abdollah Nouri, is designed to
exclude his candidature for the parliament.
The reformers are fighting back with a law that requires the Guardians
to justify their decisions and gives rejected candidates a right of
appeal. Their fallback strategy is to swamp the Guardians with
candidates: in the Tehran local election in February, 4,200 candidates
presented themselves for election to 15 seats.
The electoral outcome of these trials of strength is unforeseeable; a
reformist landslide will almost certainly be prevented, but it is
probable that the "forces of conservatism" that dominate parliament will
Even then, reform faces many obstacles. In Iran's Constitution, state
institutions of a Western type are balanced by an array of "Islamic" and
"revolutionary" institutions through which the reform process will have
to be fought.
Alongside the state courts stand the religious courts, with formidable
jurisdiction over that large part of the Iranian political elite which
has clerical status.
Alongside the army there is the "Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps".
Alongside the parliament is the Guardian Council. And over all,
including the President, stands the "Leader", appointed for life,
But Iran's Islamic revolution is not a monolith: the leading reformers
have all emerged from the clergy; Khamenei increasingly seems to be
aligned with reform; within the Islamic structure there is the important
override mechanism of the "National Expediency Council" - empowered to
overrule the Guardian Council when it vetoes laws as being contrary to
Islam or the Constitution.
Through this institutional maze it is possible to discern the channels
along which the currents of reform may flow - President Khatami allied
with a reform majority in a new parliament calling in the powers of the
Leader and the National Expediency Council.
Against this prospect of peaceful evolution, however, there remains the
violent fringe in Iranian politics. Journalists and dissidents have been
murdered, and although this has resulted in purges of the intelligence
service, no public trials have yet taken place. A deputy in the parliament
recently commented that: "There are many brave and self-sacrificing youths
ready to blast open the breasts of those who conspire to bring down the
most holy Islamic system of government in the world."
Iran's clerical establishment must know, however, that change is
overdue. Half the population was born after the revolution of 1979 and
the young are increasingly restless. Unemployment is high and rising,
and per capita GDP is less than before the revolution. In the words of
Edmund Burke: "A state without the means of some change is without the
means of its conservation."
Robert Jackson is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Wantage.
He recently visited Iran with the first Commons delegation since the
revolution of 1979.
©Copyright 1999, Times Newpapers Ltd.
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