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The decline of religious fundamentalism in Iran

By Sadegh Zibakalam (source:

During the past three decades the rise of militant Islam has in many ways dominated political events in the region. The consequences of Iranian religious radicalism can be observed in the Persian Gulf region, in the Arab-Israel conflict, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Although Iranian Islamic militancy appears to be as dominant as ever, this may not be the case during the next decade.

The main reason for this conjuncture lies with the present Iranian government headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, who came to power in July 2005. Ahmadinezhad's rise to power was indeed a watershed in post-Islamic revolution Iran. His presidency marked a new political configuration in the Islamic republic. Hitherto, although the Iranian regime was described as radical and Islamic, it was far from a united political group. It consisted of diverse currents that all described themselves as Islamist. They included hardline conservatives on the "right", the "left", the pragmatists headed by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the moderates and those who with some qualification could even be described as "liberal". During the reign of the late Imam Khomeini the left had the upper hand. After his death, the pragmatists headed by Hashemi Rafsanjani held the center stage; then it was the turn of the moderate-liberal currents headed by the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. No matter who had been elected as Iran's president, all the other currents were, albeit to various degrees, present in the government.

The elections of July 2005 and the rise of Ahmadinezhad to power changed that political complexion. The conservative hardliners purged almost all the other currents from power. For the first time since the emergence of the Islamic republic in 1979, one particular political group dominated the main three branches of the Iranian political establishment.

This group, which with some justification has become known as the hardliners, has tried to change much of Iranian domestic as well as foreign policy. At the international level, Iran's stand on its nuclear program has become much more uncompromising. The Islamic regime's anti-western and anti-American attitude has intensified, as has its anti-Israel approach. Instead, Tehran has tried to establish ties with anti-American regimes in South America and elsewhere. Internally, the hardliners have intensified the state's role in the economy and curtailed political freedom and have tried to expand the country's military capabilities.

We come now to the main point of our thesis: the anticipated demise of militant Islam during the next decade. Given the widespread grip on power that the hardliners have maintained since 2005, why should their power decline in the future? The short answer lies with the performance of the hardliners since they came to power three years ago. They have alienated much of the country's intelligentsia. Students, university graduates, professionals, intellectuals, writers, journalists, artists and many similar social groups have turned increasingly critical of the hardliners' overall policies during the past three years. Civil servants, the urban middle class and the politically powerful bazaar merchants have increasingly turned against the hardliner government of Ahmadinezhad.

Politically, too, the hardliners have been in retreat. The reformists, the left, the so-called liberal-religious nationalist groups such as "nehzat azadi", Hashemi Rafsanjani and his influential political groups, all now oppose the hardliner government. In fact, Ahmadinezhad's policies have turned many conservatives as well as more moderate and pragmatist hardliners against his government. There is yet another powerful and influential group that has become openly critical of the hardliner president and some of his decisions: during the past two years, a number of senior clerical leaders have voiced their opposition to some of Ahmadinezhad's decisions.

Last but by no means least is the Iranian parliament, or Majlis. The 300-member assembly that was inaugurated in July 2008 elected Ali Larijani by a large majority as its speaker. Since the conservatives have a considerable majority in the present majlis, Larijani's election was an implicit message of defiance to President Ahmadinezhad. Larijani was until last April head of the High Council of Security Affairs, a powerful body that is responsible for the country's military and security issues, including conducting negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Larijani was critical of Ahmadinezhad's radical approach regarding Iran's nuclear program. He preferred a more moderate stand, searching for compromise with the West on the nuclear issue. Ahmadinezhad dismissed Larijani, thereby eventually paving the way for Iran to adopt a more militant and confrontational approach vis-a-vis its nuclear program.

Here we must address two important questions about the hardline government of Iran. First, given his formidable internal opposition, where does Ahmadinezhad get the support to survive and even to contemplate another term? Second, what are the reasons for so much opposition?

The bulk of Ahmadinezhad's support comes from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the various institutions he leads, including the powerful Revolutionary Guards, the Baseej, the national Iranian Radio and Television and government-run newspapers, as well as a number of religious and political leaders close to him. The widespread opposition stems from Ahmadinezhad's overall poor performance. The country suffers from rampant inflation; unemployment hasn't come down, nor has endemic corruption and the country's brain drain continues--witness the queue of Iranian professionals outside western embassies in Tehran, seeking to emigrate in spite of the fact that the country's oil revenues have quadrupled during the past three years.

It was against this irony that Hashemi Rafsanjani, the leading moderate Iranian leader, warned last month that the failure of the present government would not simply constitute the defeat of a particular political group but rather would be interpreted as the failure in practice of radical Islam when it had all the power at its disposal.- Published 6/11/2008 bitterlemons-international

About the author: Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of Iranian studies at Tehran University.

Published 11/6/2008

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