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Reform or revolution, Iran's hard choice
By Tomaj Keyvani

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

There's great uncertainty about the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Internal unrest and power struggles combined with external threats from the United States and a neighborhood in disorder make most experts believe that some kind of change is coming. The only question is, how?

The scenarios are many, from peaceful reform to a violent revolution, or even the possibility of a US invasion, although the latter is less likely as the Americans are under constant attack in Iraq and in search of a seemingly uncatchable enemy in Afghanistan. The question is, then, reform or revolution?

To answer this we can search for clues in the 1979 Islamic revolution that threw out the monarchy, and even though many things have changed in Iranian society and politics since then, there exist some pre-revolutionary factors that have remained quite static through history.

One of these is the importance of the economic well-being of the nation and its people. The period close to the 1979 revolution was characterized by economic recession, high inflation and high (and rising) unemployment after the economic boom in the 1960s and early 1970s. Together with the extremely unequal distribution of the wealth from oil, this was one of the major reasons for the civil unrest that developed into a revolution.

The Iranian economy is doing fine at the moment, although I wouldn't call it a boom. The economy has had significant growth since the late 1990s, with an average gross domestic product (GDP) increase of 5.7 percent over the past three years, and a steady diversification away from oil dependence.

But the growth has been possible to a large degree because of a relatively high oil price and increased domestic consumption, something that probably will change as Iraq gets its oil production up and the Iranian domestic market is satisfied. The trade surplus that Iran has had during the past years, with which the government has succeeded in building up the oil stabilization fund (enough for 10 months of imports), is predicted to change to a deficit during 2004 as a result of the fall in the price of oil. And similarly, the surplus of 2.1 percent for 2003's budget is estimated to shift to a 3 percent (of GDP) fall.

Summing up, one can see a change in economic trends to the negative, and adding the unemployment rate of 20-25 percent to this, with a need for about 900,000 new jobs each year, (currently 450,000 new jobs are created each year), this points to further discontent, especially among the youth. And similar to the 1970s, economic gains are going to a small elite and an extreme inequality exists between rich and poor, with the clerics in power standing on top of the ladder, something that is not unnoticed by common people.

This split between the clerical leaders and common people is becoming more and more visible, and besides their economic position, the clerical elite gain from several privileges in today's Iranian society. They are alienated from ordinary people in the same way that the Shah and the elite around him were during his last years in power. The widened gap between social groups was then maybe the most important reason for poor people to join the revolutionary movement, and certainly this can be shown to be true for 2003 as the differences are becoming more visible on the streets of Tehran.

Something else that's becoming more visible is the Western fashion worn by the youth and MTV music played on their stereos. Although this is in complete contrast to the 1970s youth, the struggle is basically the same today, and teenagers born after the revolution are fighting against a cultural dominance in the same way that their parents or older brothers and sisters did back then. In the 1970s it was the Shah's aggressive and untactful introduction of Western ways of living, and now it's against a maybe even more aggressive and untactful conservative Islamic cultural dominance. Both were and are disrespectful intrusions into ordinary people's lives, and as the experience of the 1970s showed us, the youth are likely to change their situation. Whether they do that slowly through reform or a fierce revolution is to be seen.

The trigger point is whether the clerical leadership will allow the people to have real political power or not. The student uprising a few years ago was calmed down to a degree by the belief that the more liberal President Mohammed Khatami would reform the system, and as we know, he was, to put it mildly, not too successful. Public discontent was a direct result, with a sharp decline for the reformists at the municipal elections this year. For example, there was only a 12 percent voter turnout in the capital Tehran. Besides criticizing Khatami's failures, people blame hardcore right-wingers in the government for refusing to allow changes in the system, and a feeling that legal political activity is useless is manifest throughout the populace.

This situation existed in a similar manner during the Shah's rule and was the main reason for otherwise peaceful intellectuals to revert to violent forms of politics, thus creating guerrilla militant actions that in turn resulted in even more oppression from the Shah's side. Even though the creation of guerrillas is unlikely in the present situation, the feeling that political action within the framework of the Islamic Republic is useless will lead to a radicalized opposition.

After the recent clashes between reformists and conservatives, many people believe that political activity is useless as they see their efforts in parliament (majlis) being reduced to nothing by the spiritual leader and the Guardian Council's veto rights, their leaders being arrested by a right-wing judiciary and murdered by conservative militias, their newspapers closed down with the editors facing charges and their demonstrators being beaten up and arrested. All these things have proved to people that the conservative leadership is not ready to give up supreme rule, and further desperation is likely. These same things happened during the 1970s, and back then the people responded by revolting and creating a new order.

But there are as yet no real signs that the same fate awaits the Islamic Republic. There can be several reasons for this. One of the strongest attributes of the Islamic Republic is that, unlike any other ruler or government (with the exception of the 1906 constitutional rule) in Iran's history, it was chosen by the people. In contrast, the Shah was appointed to take over by the British and Russians after his father's forced abdication by the very same. The Islamic Republic was voted for by an enormous majority of the people after the revolution in 1979, and this gives it a certain legitimacy no other Iranian rulers have had before.

Another difference between the Islamic Republic and the Shah is that the Shah was considered a puppet of the West who not only sold out the country to the Americans but also ignored Iranian traditions and culture. The Islamic Republic is not considered to be selling out the country in the same way, rather ruining it, and although people in general despise the conservative form of Shi'ite doctrine the elite stands for, no one can deny that Shi'ism has firm roots in Iranian history.

The third reason a revolution is unlikely, and maybe the most important one, is that the opposition has no answers to what or who will replace the Islamic Republic, and as long as people don't have an alternative to fight for they will have difficulty organizing themselves.

Whatever happens, one can be certain that any US military pressure on Iran will lead to less space for reformists to act on the internal scene, as Iranians are likely to forget internal problems and focus on the external threat in the same way they did during the Iraqi invasion of Iran. This would in turn lead to the conservatives getting the time they need to consolidate their power and purge the internal ranks in the same way they did in the long war of 1980-88.

Tomaj Keyvani is studying for a master's degree in Middle East studies at Uppsala University, Sweden. He can be contacted at

(Copyright Tomaj Keyvani.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.
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