Iran: Forcing "Middle Ground" Government?
Jul 08, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence


Student protests calling for reform in Iran came to a screeching halt in late June after 10 days of unrest. A large segment of the Iranian population wants to reform the country's 24-year-old Islamist regime, but that does not necessarily mean replacing it with a Western-style democracy. In studying the Iranian political landscape, it becomes clear that most reformers -- unlike the student protesters and their allies in some civil society groups -- are not in favor of doing away with the current system and establishing a liberal democracy. Instead, most Iranians want to curtail the arbitrary power of the traditional clerics and set up an Islamic democracy.


Calls for reforming the Islamist political system, such as those that culminated in 10 days of student protests in mid-June, have become ever more insistent -- both in and outside the country -- since the mid-1990s. The reform movement has matured over this period, and it has organized several waves of protests. However, the government thus far has been able to contain the movement with relative ease. Not only is this a measure of the government's power, but it also highlights the amorphous nature of the reform movement -- which lacks leadership, organization and direction, making it easy for Tehran to contain.

Officials in Iran's judiciary, which is a bastion of religious conservatism, estimate that 4,000 people were detained during last month’s demonstrations, which ended June 20. These protests were marked by unprecedented slogans targeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and fierce clashes between hard-line Islamist vigilantes and demonstrators.

Despite the number of arrests, these protests were relatively small, with only a few thousand participants. Western media, however, portrayed the protests as a possible step toward the overthrow of the Islamist regime. This perception likely stems from two things: the memory of the 1978-79 revolution in Tehran (one of the biggest news items to hit the Western press about Iran), and an imperfect understanding of the relationship between the modernists -- led by President Mohammad Khatami -- and the traditionalists, led by Khamenei. Outside observers see Khatami and Khamenei as opponents rather than competitors who agree on the rules of the game. In reality, neither the modernists nor the traditionalists are willing to let the system sink.

The most recent protests -- with many participants calling for an outright overthrow of the regime -- show that a small but radical faction that is increasingly disillusioned with Khatami’s potential to effect change has emerged within the overall reform movement. However, apart from student demonstrators, there was not much support among the Iranian masses for last month’s protests, which petered out relatively quickly. There are three possible explanations for this:

1) The government crackdown was severe enough to scare the protesters into giving up.

2) The protesters do not enjoy the support of the larger, mainstream reform movement, which wants to change the system rather than topple it.

3) With the United States surrounding Iran on all four sides, national security is a higher priority than reform for most of the population right now.

The presence of a large U.S. military force encircling Iran has kept the masses -- as well as the reformists -- from voicing any serious dissent. On the other hand, there simply is not enough widespread popular support for a complete overthrow of the current Iranian political system. Mainstream activists want to reform the current system from within, not to replace it with a more Western-style system.

Most Iranian reformists do not want to subvert the Islamist system; they only wish to curtail the arbitrary power of the unelected traditionalist mullahs. And the reform movement as a whole is not a secular movement. It is a moderate strand within Iranian Islamism that is trying to negotiate modernity with tradition, and hence advance a contemporary interpretation of Islam instead of applying medieval prescriptions to a modern reality. Most Western, and particularly U.S., observers tend to miss this distinction -- seeing a reform movement as intrinsically linked to a shift closer to Western ideas on governance, or as bringing about at least the possibility of an uprising against an oppressive (Islamist) government, which fits with the Western perception of Iran.

The various factions in Iran likely are conscious of this perception and tailor it to their advantage in their international dealings. Many Iranian officials give the impression that they are quite liberal when catering to an international audience. These attempts to present a less-than-accurate, moderate image of themselves reinforce the simplified understanding prevalent in the West.

This perception is guiding Washington's current attempts to foment unrest in Iran. U.S. government sources report that they expect a wave of demonstrations to sweep Iran on July 9 -- the anniversary of the 1999 student protests. Given that the sources claim to have foreknowledge that demonstrations are certain, it can reasonably be concluded that the unrest will be planned and orchestrated rather than spontaneous.

This does not mean that the U.S. administration wants to overthrow the government in Tehran -- at least not immediately -– since it still could serve some purposes for the Bush administration. Instead, Washington likely is attempting to rattle the Iranian regime by threat or by action, hoping to bring officials to the negotiating table for a quid pro quo on Iraq.

The question is whether the expectations of unrest will come to fruition, given the alignment of forces within Iran. Student leaders on July 8 reportedly pledged to defy an official ban on protests, but in light of all the factors at play, any demonstrations that do erupt are likely to be small and easily contained.

By attempting to stir up domestic problems for Tehran, the Bush administration likely is seeking leverage to convince the regime to help craft a solution to the guerrilla insurgency in Iraq. Since the U.S. administration views the Iraqi resistance as a mainly Sunni initiative, officials likely believe they can counter the uprising by bringing Iran to the table to use its influence with the Shiites. This plan seems plausible, considering that Shiites constitute a 60 percent majority in Iraq. By including Iran in the negotiations, the United States likely will avert the possibility that the Shiites -- who are growing restless with the U.S. occupation -- might join the mostly Sunni resistance movement.

Even if the United States solicits and receives Iranian assistance with the guerrilla war in Iraq, however, there remains the problem of the oversimplified Western view of the situation inside Iran. In essence, the issue is perception versus misperception. The reformist camp in Iran wants democratic consolidation, rule of law and civil liberties -- but most reformists and their supporters do not want to achieve these goals at the expense of the Islamic fabric of the regime. Instead, they wish to curtail the arbitrary and unbridled power of a clergy that is unique to Shiite Islam and Iran.