Sunday, January 14, 2007

Youth Movement: Iran's New Generation will be more Moderate--William O. Beeman

Article published Jan 14, 2007

Youth movement Iran's new generation will be more moderate

By William O. Beeman

The Providence Journal

The recent election in Iran signals change in the Islamic Republic. The rising generation of Iranian youth, along with the increasingly important population of politically active women, is making itself felt in a dramatic way. It is this combination -- youth and women -- that will lead Iran in the near future.

The new political landscape is not yet at full strength -- that will occur in about five years as the post-revolutionary population matures. If left to its own devices without foreign interference, Iran would undoubtedly be more democratic, more liberal, more secular and more positively disposed toward the West than ever before.

The elections that chose the members of local municipal councils as well as the Assembly of Experts, which monitors the actions of Iran's Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, resulted in losses for the extreme conservative elements in Iran's political spectrum and a resurgence of moderate and reformist candidates.

Many commentators have had difficulty interpreting the election results. It becomes easier, however, once the Iranian political landscape has been properly laid out.

The dominant group in Iranian political life is what I call the post-revolutionary hard-line conservatives. This is the group who came to power under the aegis of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The current Iranian spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, and his supporters make up the bulk of this group, which currently dominate the government. Often identified in derogatory fashion as the "mullocracy,'' it is no longer dominated by clerics.

Challenging this establishment for power are three groups. First are a number of moderate conservatives -- individuals and factions who have posts within the conservative establishment who are vying for power. Chief among them is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a former president who ran for a second nonconsecutive term against current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2006 elections. Hashemi-Rafsanjani currently heads the Expediency Council, which mediates between the spiritual leader and the parliament. Another contender for power is the current mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, who also ran for president.

The second group consists of the Reformers, who, under President Mohammad Khatami, the last president, made strong gains in modifying the hard revolutionary line of the Khomeini conservatives. They were voted out of office by a public disgruntled because they could not take their reforms far enough. They were also prevented from seeking election by the conservatives who, under the constitution, have the right through a body called the Council of Guardians to remove "unsuitable'' candidates from elections. Former parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, who came close to being in the presidential runoff last year, is part of this group.

The third challenger group might be called the revolutionary reactionaries, headed by current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This group is disgruntled for many reasons. Many are veterans of the Iran-Iraq War. They have never achieved real power in government, though they maintain a certain control in local politics. They reject the idea of clerical rule and want Iran to return to the ideals of the original revolution -- particularly in economic reform. They view the current conservative rulers as corrupt and venal. President Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric is aimed at energizing this group and attracting new followers to its philosophy. He is too weak to effect the religious conservative rollback in laws involving public behavior, or in redistribution of the nation's wealth -- one of the hallmark goals of the original revolution.

Unfortunately for both the reformers and the revolutionary reactionaries, they have very little power. President Khatami and those who represent his political stance are regularly vilified in the press and in public rhetoric. Though President Ahmadinejad has the bully pulpit at his disposal to launch whatever attacks he wishes on Israel, the United States or those who oppose Iran's nuclear-energy program, in fact he has very little actual power. Under Iran's governmental system the president has no control over the military, foreign policy or Iran 's nuclear program. Therefore, his words are empty.

Iran, however, does have a real, functioning electoral system, despite denigrating remarks made by the Bush administration. President Ahmadinejad hoped to increase his power by forming a political party and running candidates who would represent his philosophy. The reformers also ran candidates to challenge the conservatives.

Now that election returns are in, it seems clear that the voters have favored the reformers, and the moderate conservatives in both the local elections and for the Assembly of Experts. Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters came in a distant fourth in all aspects of the election. This is certainly a setback for his political ambitions, and it should help Westerners to put his extreme remarks in perspective: Clearly Iranians don't buy them any more than forces in the West.

The trend among Iranian voters is thus in the direction of change away from the conservatism of the past. This has been the general direction of Iranian politics, and it will undoubtedly continue.

The one issue in which all Iranians are united, however, is the right for Iran to develop its nuclear-energy capabilities. This is a matter of national pride in Iran, where it is seen as an aspect of modernization. There is no strong evidence that Iran is pursuing a weapons program. The United States is foolish to continue to antagonize the Iranian people by threatening attacks, sanctions and other hostile actions based on this one-note foreign policy.

A policy of talking to Iran, engaging in diplomacy and working toward reasonable mutual solutions to regional issues of mutual concern will pay off in the long run when Iran's new generation comes to power.

William O. Beeman is a professor of anthropology and Middle East Studies at Brown University and the author of "The Great Satan vs. The Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."

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