Dr. Amuzegar, minister of commerce and finance in the shah’s regime, is currently an international economic consultant.
During the Cold War, Muslim intellectuals in the Middle East and North Africa did their best to portray Islam as a "third way" between Karl Marx's proletarian utopia and Adam Smith's capitalist bliss. The overall reaction, even among countries allied with neither camp, was one of indifference, if not disbelief. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, however, Islamic fundamentalism has been depicted as a serious challenge not only to the established Western-oriented order in many secular Muslim countries, but to the West itself. Concern over this threat has sparked a global debate on the nature and implications of Islam as a new political force for change.
Stripped of its emotive and prejudicial ramifications, the debate revolves around five main issues: Is Islam compatible with Western democracy? Will Islamic fundamentalists once in power tolerate or reject native cultures? Can a modern economy be managed by an Islamic theocracy? Does Islamic militancy pose a threat to non-Islamic societies? And, finally, is Islamic fundamentalism a solid trend or a passing phenomenon?
Those troubled by the militancy of radical Islamic groups find political Islam antidemocratic, absolutist, narrowly focused and anti-Western (particularly anti-American). The Islamic Sharia, or code of conduct, while avowedly subject to wide interpretation, is seen as clearly opposed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, democratic governance, religious tolerance, ethnic diversity and political pluralism. Minorities under Islamic rule are said to enjoy protection at best, not equal status. Since Islam is a polity ruled by God, disobedience toward God's surrogate rulers is seen as not only a sin against the Almighty but a crime against the state, leaving no room for criticism, disagreement or dissent — features that are essential to liberal democracy. Sophisticated analysts acknowledge Islam's theological heterogeneity, compatibility with modern science and technology, and lack of a conspiratorial nucleus. But they still find Islamic fundamentalism a threat to Western security, legitimacy and way of life. Islamic movements are believed to be bent on a holy war against democracy, modernization, secularization and humanism. More ardent foes regard radical Islam as essentially violent, coercive, intolerant and terror-linked. Moderate political Islam is in turn viewed by some as oxymoronic. They believe that Islam is bent on changing fundamental aspects of national culture and long-standing ethnic traditions. The West is, accordingly, urged to confront the Islamic menace firmly and, if necessary, by force.
Defenders in and out of Muslim countries claim Islam to be a vital source of inspiration, with deep spiritual content. The tolerant, moderate, progressive Islamic majority is said to oppose terroristic militancy and favor the establishment of peaceful and farsighted Islamic entities. Unlike international communism, Islam is denoted not as a menacing global ideology threatening the West or an esoteric belief competing with Western democracy, but as a rich and effective means of mobilizing people toward a compelling moral and religious society. As part of a worldwide religious revival, the Islamic resurgence is described as a movement away from what Zbigniew Brzezinski terms the West's "permissive cornucopia" or a system of unbridled materialistic self-indulgence. In this view, militant fundamentalists are considered anti-Muslim rebels against whom true Islam is currently on the defensive. Islamic parties that may come to power through democratic elections, it is believed, cannot a priori be expected to impose an intolerant, undemocratic order on society. Furthermore, any Islamic takeover of existing governments in the Middle East and North Africa is depicted as a "transitional phase" in the process of transformation from an old and decadent order to new democracy, a phase that is inherently short-lived. As Islamic rulers prove unable to "deliver the goods," it is argued, the unbearable burden of coping with mundane socioeconomic problems will inevitably lead them to seek coalitions with other groups, thus paving the way for the emergence of secular opposition governments. The West's long-term real interests, therefore, are seen to require maintaining friendly relations with the new Islamic governments; encouraging democratic and liberal elements in Muslim countries; expanding trade and investment relations with them; and, instead of pressuring them into isolation, helping them integrate with the world community.
These contradictory interpretations and recommendations, baffling as they are to an uninitiated observer, prove most frustrating to Western policy strategists who must devise appropriate plans for different eventualities. Uncertainty as to what Islamic fundamentalists might do once they gain power could lead either to a costly confrontation with the Muslim world resembling a new Cold War, or a false sense of security verging on equally costly indecision.
To be sure, nobody knows whether Islamic winners would abide by democratic norms of behavior. No one, including the Islamic agitators themselves, can predict what might happen in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and elsewhere if Muslim extremists come to power whether through bullets or ballots. Would they respect minority rights, and give up power if later defeated at the polls? Or would they revert to a new dark age of obscurantist and fanatical rule, imposing their will and values on others? Would they remain law-abiding members of the international community or defy the West and Western allies by their overt or covert transgressions?
Is Iran's Present the Wave of the Future?
In the search for answers to some of these questions, Iran's post-revolution experiment with Islamic governance may provide a fairly good clue as to what an Islamic state may or may not be able to do once in power. Iran's Islamic Republic is the modern world's first and most celebrated example of conversion to theocracy. Critics and supporters of Islam both cite Iran as an example of an Islamic government in action. The country is called by some a moderate force for stability in the region, and by others an "international outlaw" and a "dangerous state."
The five basic questions mentioned above may be posed in the Iranian case as follows: Does Iranian rule give any indication of the compatibility of Islam with Western democracy, as supporters claim? Has the regime been able to radically Islamize Iranian society or impose fundamental Islamic values on the Persian culture, as the critics expect? Has the theocracy been able to solve the country's immense politico-economic problems, as originally promised? Is Islamic Iran a direct or indirect threat to its neighbors' sovereignty or interests, as is often argued? Finally, can the regime withstand the threats to its survival?
Democracy's Litmus Test
Iran's current Islamic government gained power in 1979 after successfully eliminating all of the secular coalition partners who took part in a nationwide revolution against the Pahlavi monarchy. Overriding the demands of the radical left and the liberal center, the framers of the 1979 constitution, under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's strict orders, opted for an Islamic republic and a theocratic state. The ayatollah himself enjoined the jurists from using the term "democratic," which he denounced as a Western concept.
The Islamic regime and its supporters in the West now often cite periodic elections for members of the Majlis (national consultative assembly), for the president of the republic and for members of other political bodies as proof of democratic rule in Iran. This claim is also frequently buttressed by reference to occasional criticism of the government in the Majlis and the press. The regime's political nomenclature, too, includes such democratic concepts as the constitution, people's rights, separation of powers, political parties, government's accountability to the elected representatives, etc. Yet, upon reflection, it would not be difficult to conclude that while some of the necessary conditions of democracy (e.g., the ballot box) may exist in the Islamic Republic, the sufficient requirements (e.g., a civil society, individual liberties, a free press, an independent judiciary, and the separation of mosque and state) are clearly absent.
In Iran's [Shia] Islamic theocracy, absolute sovereignty over the world and man belongs to God (Article 56 of the 1979 constitution) and through Him to Prophet Muhammad, his descendant imams, and the Islamic jurist (vali-e-faqih). In the absence of the Hidden Imam, as God's last designated surrogate and Lord of the Age, the governance and leadership of the nation devolves upon the just and pious faqih, who rules over and supervises the legislative, executive and judicial powers (Articles 5 and 57). These powers, while separate and independent of each other, all emanate from the faqih himself, and are subject to confirmation by him as the Supreme Leader. The Majlis, as a legislative assembly, consists of the "selected" representatives of the people, but it may not always represent the people's will. While presumably symbolizing popular expression and reflecting popular needs, Majlis laws derive their legitimacy only in the observance of divinely inspired edicts. The majority vote is subordinate to God's will: It is legitimate and valid only when it conforms to the official religion. All legislation is subject to a veto by the Council of Guardians if not in conformity with Islam (Article 72). While there is a provision for amending the constitution, there is no possibility of changing the Islamic character of the regime, its republican mode of government, the supreme power of the faqih, or Shiism as Iran's official religion — features that are deemed irrevocable and unalterable "forever."
In the Iranian Islamic jurisprudence, human rights are not universal, absolute, inalienable or free from the Shia belief system. Individual freedoms exist only within the context of duties before God (Article 20). Respect for individual dignity and liberty is not inherent, but a function of Shia ideology and dogma. Thus, Muslim and non-Muslim citizens do not enjoy the same political or civil rights; nor do women. In the 1979 constitution's chapter on the Rights of the People, equality before the law is guaranteed only in conformity with Islamic criteria. Rights to life, property, dwelling and employment are theoretically valid, but they may be denied by law (Article 22). Freedom of the press, speech and publication are recognized except when detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam (Article 24). Political parties and associations are permitted as long as they do not violate Islamic edicts or the Shia basis of the Islamic Republic (Article 26). Habeas corpus and protection against censorship, torture and arbitrary arrest are guaranteed only to the extent permitted by law.
In practice, freedom of speech, assembly and political association (including the much-publicized "free" debates in the Majlis) are allowed only as long as the inviolability of the Islamic tenets, the irreversibility of the revolution, and the absolute sovereignty of the faqih are not questioned. Private property is sanctioned under certain stringent conditions, but free enterprise (as the so-called economic counterpart of democracy) is considered a Western concept and alien to Iran's independent Islamic venue.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which the shah's government was a signatory) is branded a cultural imperialistic ploy of the West; its observance must therefore be subject to Islamic laws. Embracing Islam and practicing Shiism by non-Muslims are welcomed and encouraged. But renouncing the Islamic faith or engaging in derogatory behavior against Islam by Muslims entails harsh penalties, even death. Religious minorities, i.e., Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews, are allowed religious freedom, and given their own separate, token representation in the Majlis, but they are deprived of high governmental, and all judicial, positions. The Bahais, as followers of a renegade Islamic sect, are considered apostates and frequently persecuted on charges of disloyalty. Observance of religious holidays, the Islamic dress code, prohibition against alcohol consumption, dietary rules and other ordinances are mandatory.
The judiciary, as the principal protector of individual rights, executor of law and order, and the ultimate guarantor of democracy itself is constitutionally independent of the other two branches but still subordinate to the Supreme Leader, who alone has the power to appoint and dismiss the Chief Judge. It is also a male bastion, as women are not allowed to serve as judges and are not treated equally before the law as witnesses or as plaintiffs in marital disputes. Judges are not removable or transferrable without their consent except when it is in "the interest of society" at the pleasure of the Chief Judge. There is no appeal procedure from many judicial verdicts.
A curious feature of Iran's present regime can be seen in its convoluted political configuration. Iran's Islamic Republic is a religious oligarchy of intricate, overlapping relationships among the leading clerics, who function in an exclusive, close-knit process of mutual loyalty and support. At the apex of the political pyramid is the Supreme Leader (rahbar) who is the spiritual guide of the nation, the official head of state, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and, as vali-e-faqih, the protector of the faith. He is constitutionally elected for life by the Assembly of Experts, who are elected by the people. But all candidates for the Assembly of Experts must first be approved by the 12-member Council of Guardians composed of six clerics (faqihs) and six lay jurists. The Council is the highest constitutional court of the realm; it has veto power over all legislation and supervisory responsibility over all elections. But half of the Council members are directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, and the other half — the lay lawyers — are elected by the Majlis from among individuals nominated by the Chief Judge. The Chief Judge, however, is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader. And, Majlis deputies, who are to elect the six lay jurists, are men and women who, before standing for popular elections, must be pre-screened and approved for their religious and revolutionary qualifications by the Council of Guardians. In this merry-go-round all major players thus owe their positions to each other in one way or another: the Supreme Leader to the Assembly of Experts; the Assembly of Experts to the Council of Guardians; the Council of Guardians to the Supreme Leader and the Majlis; and Majlis deputies to the Council of Guardians. The president of the republic, too, must first be anointed by the Council of Guardians, and, after popular elections, confirmed by the rahbar, who is elected by the Assembly of the Experts where the current president sits as vice-chairman.
The formal checks and balances that are stipulated in the constitution between the three so-called "independent" branches of government are just that — formal and abstract. The heavy hand of clerical absolutism actually moves the ship of state; the rahbar or vali-e-faqih is constitutionally at the helm. All other facets of Iranian politics take their cue from the top in a pseudo-democratic manner. For instance, a deadlock between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians — when deputies vote for successive versions of a particular bill and councilmen veto them — is resolved by the Council on the Expediency of the (Islamic) Order (CEO), a group representing all three branches of the government. But it is the Supreme Leader who ultimately determines the Council's membership and agenda and the president of the republic who conducts its affairs as chairman. Any revision of the constitution must also be initiated by the rahbar after consultation with CEO members whose majority he himself designates. Any amendment to the constitution must first be approved by a special council whose majority membership is appointed by the Supreme Leader directly or indirectly.
In this incestuous political process, the rahbar's theocratic power does not end there. The heads of various national bonyads — the semipublic religious and charitable organizations that produce and control a sizable (although never disclosed) portion of Iran's national income — are appointed by the Supreme Leader and are solely responsible to him. So is the head of the country's entire propaganda machine, the radio and television networks. In short, whatever "democracy" is practiced in Islamic Iran, it is by no stretch of the imagination of a participatory and pluralistic variety.
Islamization of the Social Order
Has the Islamic Republic rewoven the fabric of Iranian society? On the surface and in official descriptions, the metamorphosis of Iranian society is highly visible. But from the evidence at hand it would be difficult to conclude that a genuine and pervasive change favoring greater Islamic fervor has taken place. Endowed with an ancient culture and rich traditions, a great sense of national pride, and an extraordinary penchant for modernization and progress, the Iranian majority have, in fact, surprised both themselves and the new regime by their resistance to Islamic change.
Despite Iran's long and tumultuous history of alternation between authoritarianism and anarchy, with only a few brief periods of experimentation with Western-type democracy in this century, an awakened popular desire for personal freedom and social justice has proven hard to suppress. While much is made of the traditional devotion to Islam and Shiism, a unique popular ambivalence about religion is often noticeable. For the vast majority in Iran, there is a palpably ingrained faith in God, an adulation for Prophet Muhammad and his descendants, an enthusiasm for some evocative Shia rites and a concurrence with some Islamic symbols and idioms. Yet there is also a frequently subtle and covert resistance to ecclesiastic coercion, a lack of fealty to any one marjá (source of emulation), a resentment toward religion's undue infringements on private life and a strong enmity to Islamic thought control.
This ambivalence is clearly borne out by recent post-revolutionary history. While extensive superficial transformations have been introduced by the regime, the Persian national psyche has remained true to its rich and compelling traditional origins. Institutionally, a number of revolutionary organs have been created to implement clerical domination of the state and promote the Islamic agenda. The educational system, from kindergarten to postgraduate studies, has been radically revamped in the direction of Islamic doctrines, theological dogma and Iran's post-Islamic history. Preference has been given, in both university enrollment and academic faculty recruitment, to the commitment to Islam rather than intellectual prowess or professional expertise. Western values have been denounced in classrooms, Friday sermons, Majlis debates and press commentaries as decadent, hedonistic, oppressive, exploitative and imperialistic. Western and modem Persian music has been banned from radio and television. The press law has made illegal any publication of materials offensive to Islam, religious divines or the revolution. Broadcasts by state radio and television networks as well as domestic movies and publications are strictly censored to preserve ideological Islamic correctness. Satellite dishes are banned.
Yet despite these Islamization efforts and cultural engineering, Iranian society has continued to function in much the same fashion as before, not even remotely close to Ayatollah Khomeini's ideas and ideals. While state-sponsored demonstrations still display pro-Islamic and anti-American signs and slogans, the revolutionary fervor has been replaced by concern over inflation, unemployment, pollution, traffic congestion and daily discomfort. And except for some superficial and cosmetic changes in political symbols and economic idioms, basic social relationships show a great measure of continuity from the shah's time.
The most visible and by far the boldest success of the regime lies in the public enforcement of an Islamic dress code (veiled, ghost-like women, and tieless, unshaven men), the closing of bars and casinos, and separation of the sexes in public gatherings (including classrooms). Yet popular sentiment regarding symbols of modernity has hardly been altered. In private and away from the vengeful eyes of the vigilantes charged with "enforcing good and enjoining evil," individual conduct has been different. Private parties featuring the latest dance craze, high-stakes gambling, drinking, fashionable dress and other forbidden behavior are not only high society's open secrets; they are widely practiced by the nouveau riche and palpably envied by the majority of the population. According to foreign correspondents' personal observations, despite the expulsion of the so-called "Westoxicated" elements from the universities, government agencies and semi-public institutions, the popularity of all things Western has scarcely diminished. The demand for smuggled Western pictures, video cassettes, music CDs and bleached jeans seems virtually insatiable, and their underground market flourishes. Broadcasts by the BBC, the Voice of America and CNN are far more eagerly awaited by the public at large than the sermons on chastity or the joy of martyrdom. Even bazaar merchants and small shopkeepers, who are said to have spearheaded Ayatollah Khomeini's "anti-modernization" drive, openly complain about the lack of entertainment programs on domestic radio and television.
Other signs of resistance to forced Islamization are also apparent. The ideological and financial difficulties of enrolling in domestic colleges and universities and the declining quality of education have driven up the demand for studies abroad. At the same time, the number of clergy in the Majlis has dropped from 45 percent in the 1980-84 assembly to a low of 18 percent in the 1992-96 session despite a thorough Islamic scrutiny of candidates and tight "management" of the elections. Attendance at Friday prayer meetings has been on a steady decline, maintained at a minimum level by various material incentives. Audience and viewership of state radio and television have notably dwindled. Despite years of incessant admonition against material wealth, luxurious living and consumerism, no dent has been made in society's yearning for "the good life." Tehran shops are stacked with imported goods of every variety. City billboards are covered with ads for everything from Dole bananas to Sony Walkmans, replacing revolutionary exhortations and anti-American graffiti. A frugal "consumption model," repeatedly demanded by Islamic radicals, has yet to be forged. High clerical leaders themselves are often criticized in the press for throwing extra-lavish wedding parties for their offspring.
In short, despite more than 16 years of Islamic proselytizing and promotion of Islam as the sole basis of political legitimacy, the society has successfully defied the regime's efforts to remake it in an Islamic image, except for certain deceptive facades. Iranian nationalism, the indomitable Persian spirit and the nurturing force of Persian culture have vied with Shiism as equal partners in forming the "moral basis" of government. Eighty years of secularization, modernization and Westernization since the constitutional reforms of 1906-11 seem to have immunized Iranian society against wholesale reindoctrination and fanaticism.
The Economic Performance Test
How has the theocracy coped with the country's economic problems? Have the mullahs been able to deliver the goods?
Islamic revolutionaries blamed the shah's government for undue reliance on oil exports for financing domestic needs; for unwise dependence on foreign capital, technology and markets at the neglect of national self-sufficiency; for the mistaken priority given to assembly-line industrialization at the expense of agriculture; for excessive exploitation of precious national resources (oil) to purchase useless military equipment and pursue nuclear technology; and, finally, for relentless encouragement of materialism, conspicuous consumption and greed.
By promising to reverse this "deviate" course, the people were assured of the dawn of an equitable and moral society imbued with growing economic independence, declining poverty, enjoyment of adequate basic needs and a clean environment. In an effort to reach these goals, the regime undertook to follow a new strategy aimed at making agriculture totally self-sufficient in one decade and turning it to a developmental "pivot"; reducing oil production and exports to a minimum level needed for the country's own requirements; increasing non-oil exports and revenues to finance domestic development and the defense budget; taxing the rich and redistributing income to deprived regions and dispossessed people; cutting military expenditures; guaranteeing employment for all; and designing a frugal and healthy consumption model to fight against waste, prodigality and luxury living.
Against this list of promises, the regime's performance, as candidly acknowledged by the leadership itself, has fallen far short of expectations. Thanks to a steady stream of oil-export revenues, the regime has been able to finance needed imports and subsidize both domestic production and consumption. Some development projects in transportation, irrigation, energy, petrochemicals and metals — all designed, initiated or under construction during the shah's reign — have finally been completed. But, based on the regime's own published data, none of the common, universal indicators of economic development (e.g., sustained growth, full employment, price stability, external balance or fiscal piety) has behaved satisfactorily. National output in real terms has barely risen above the 1979 level; per capita income is probably one-third less due in part to a much larger population. Unemployment is officially put at 11 percent but privately estimated to be at least twice that. Inflation, by government calculation, has run about 20-30 percent a year in recent years but is privately put at 40-60 percent. The Iranian rial has lost more than 90 percent of its value since the revolution. Balance of overall payments has been in deficit most of the time, and the budget has been perennially in the red.
The revolution's goal of "economic independence" is a long way off as Iran is now relatively more dependent on foreign markets, technology and investment than before the revolution. The lot of the poor has, if anything, further deteriorated as more families have fallen below the official poverty line. And environmental decay (air pollution, soil erosion, deforestation and water siltation) has worsened. Nor is Iranian society healthier, more cohesive, safer or less hedonistic than before. Drug addiction reportedly has afflicted more than 2 million people despite wholesale executions of drug dealers. Administrative inefficiency, pervasive corruption and fraudulent activities of different varieties at high echelons of the government have accompanied growing poverty and social discord. Conflicts and clashes have surged not only between the regime and its opponents but also among the clerical establishmentarians.
On specific promises, too, the regime admits its glaring shortfalls and wholesale policy reversals. Agricultural self-sufficiency has missed the 1990 target, and it is highly doubtful it will be reached soon. Domestic energy policy has shed its early emphasis on minimum oil exploitation and the cancellation of the nuclear-power program. Instead, the government is now desperately trying to raise domestic oil-production capacity towards the pre-1979 levels and has provoked Washington's wrath by attempting to rebuild a nuclear-energy complex that it disdainfully abandoned in 1979. Reliance on oil revenues for defense and development needs is now greater than ever before. Military expenditures are again on the rise. Capital-intensive investments in metals, petrochemicals and power projects have kept the goal of full employment a distant dream. And no "consumption model" has ever been devised.
A Threat to the Non-Islamic World?
The perception in the West, reinforced by partly self-serving claims from certain countries and quarters, is that Iran is the civilized world's number-one enemy. Tehran is accused of fomenting a global conspiracy aimed at assisting Islamic extremists politically, logistically and financially against secular or Western-oriented Muslim governments. Although many informed analysts regard these claims as highly exaggerated and Tehran steadfastly denies any territorial ambition or involvement in terrorist activities abroad, the allegations and concerns continue.
No one disputes that Iranian and Western (particularly American) interests in the region do not always coincide. The Islamic regime sees U.S. military presence in the region as a threat to its own survival. Radical Iranian clerics are opposed to U.S. support for Israel and to the Middle East peace process, regarding the Jewish state as illegitimate and vowing to destroy it. The Islamic Republic envies Israel, its perceived nemesis, for the latter's conventional and nuclear military strength. Being the largest, most populous and potentially a strong military/industrial power in the Middle East, Iran legitimately aspires to be a major, if not dominant, regional player.
The United States, however, holds strong reservations about virtually every one of these positions. Washington sees Iran as an "unfriendly tyrant," an extremist and rejectionist state with aggressive, expansionist and hegemonic intentions toward its neighbors. Iran's military buildup is considered beyond its legitimate defense needs. The Islamic state's alleged efforts to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities are seen as a means of facilitating the export of Islamic revolution by violent means. In a word, Iran is thought ultimately capable of challenging U.S. interests in the Gulf.
Despite these clear and avowed conflicts of interest, the possibility that Iran could mount a real or sustained military or foreign-policy challenge to the West, now or in the immediate future, remains doubtful. Iran still feels exhausted from a costly, devastating war with Iraq; its modernizing and replacing of lost weapons is hampered by an insufficient supply of hard currencies. Its decimated armed forces are not organizationally modem. The economy suffers from severe internal and external imbalances. There is virtually no indigenous research matching the West's. The military budget, although reportedly on the rise in recent months, is one of the lowest in the region by almost any criterion. Under no conceivable scenario can Iran alone pose a serious military threat to Western interests in the region.
The possibility of a collective Islamic challenge — i.e., some 40 countries with a Muslim majority banding together under Iran's leadership to challenge the non-Muslim world — is even more absurd. Shiism, Iran's brand of Islam, is adhered to by less than 15 percent of the world Muslims. Tehran is in recurrent rows with other Muslim countries (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian group). Ayatollah Khomeini's dream of a global, borderless Dar-al Islam has now reverted to a fiercely nationalist concept of a majestic Iran whose every inch of territory must be defended against all outsiders and, conspicuously, its Muslim neighbors to the south. No Muslim country in the world has been willing to accept Iran's leadership on any diplomatic position, much less a holy war against the West. Even Syria, Libya and Sudan, whom Tehran can still call its friends, do not see eye to eye with the Islamic Republic on all issues.
A more imminent real threat, however, may come in the form of covert political subversion or assistance to native uprisings in susceptible Muslim countries. Tehran has, in fact, been frequently accused of fomenting anti-government insurgencies in the Middle East and North Africa. While the regime admits only to offering "moral" support to Islamic "freedom fighters" in oppressive systems, and denies any involvement in subversive actions anywhere, neither the mischief some of its rogue elements may have engaged in, nor the possible copy-cat effects of its early revolutionary actions against the shah, can be ruled out. Nor should the incalculable damage caused by virtually "costless" acts of sabotage (e.g., blowing up an airplane or bombing a large office tower) by its sympathizers be ignored. Yet, in all such cases where the Iranian clergy's hand may be clearly identified, a large part of the responsibility should be placed on festering local inequities, injustices and indifference, not on foreign instigators. The most Tehran can do in such foreign adventures, if any, is to ignite the fuse on the powder keg; it can neither plant the seeds of internal discontent nor initiate the causes of local grievance.
The Survival Test
The final hypothesis to be tested is the issue of endurance. Can Iran's Islamic Republic cope with internal and external challenges to its survival?
The Islamic leadership in Iran, and its supporters abroad, are doing their utmost, with words and deeds, to present the regime as a strong, fiercely independent and leading member of the Islamic world, confident of its own future and the days when Islam will peacefully conquer the hearts and minds of people everywhere. Yet, a continuing struggle for power within the clerical oligarchy since Khomeini's death — as evidenced by open or veiled friction between the Supreme Leader, the president, Majlis deputies, the judiciary and the independent ayatollahs not affiliated with the government — gives strong indication that the regime itself has not been able to establish, once and for all, its quintessential principle of the velayat-e faqih (a polity led by the supreme Islamic jurist) as the moral basis of Islamic government. A series of clearly anti-clerical acts by the people at large, mostly in private but occasionally in the open, also attests to the still shallow imprint of Khomeinism on Iranian politics. Civil disobedience, bureaucratic shenanigans, flagrant evasion of taxes, the ingenious thwarting of unpopular rules and even occasional defiance of authority through riots and demonstrations all point to the regime's increasingly fragile popular base. The religious content of the 1979 revolution, too, is being increasingly eroded by burgeoning sociopolitical movements towards the creation of a civil society where Iranian nationalism is expected to supersede Islamic unity and solidarity.
The leadership, discreetly worried about growing popular dissatisfaction, has launched an aggressive campaign of damage control. The regime's obvious and admitted failures are routinely blamed on such extraordinary (and presumably uncontrollable) factors as the lingering effects of the shah's "decadent" policies, the "imposed" war with Iraq, Washington's acts of "aggression" against Iran, Western sanctions, oil-market weakness and natural disasters. The clerical spin doctors have also adopted two further lines of defense. First, in sympathy with the Shia glorification of martyrdom, Iran is depicted as a valiant nation beleaguered by Western trade and credit restrictions, victimized by the biased Western press and vilified by enemies of Islam ("Zionists and imperialists"). Second, foreign criticism of the regime is rebutted by giving an Orwellian twist to all objective reality. Thus, while foreign observers describe the current economy as a shambles, the president claims that economic progress in the past five years has been unprecedented in Iran's last 2,500 years of history since the Medes. While the Supreme Leader has banned "ideologically corrupt" candidates from the Majlis, Iran is still called a "well-rooted" democracy by President Rafsanjani. While various watchdog groups routinely report flagrant human-rights violations in Iran, the supreme leadership claims the people's current freedom in Iran to be "unprecedented in history." While a hapless journalist is given a long prison sentence for publishing a caricature of Ayatollah Khomeini, the head of the judiciary claims that no one in Iran is prosecuted for exercising freedom of speech or expression. While punishment for the so-called Islamic offenses has been brutally stiffened in recent years, Iran's civil and criminal codes are declared the "most progressive" in the world. Where women are deprived of their many common universal rights, the head of state speaks of the Islamic woman as a "world model" of dignity, morality and pride. And a female deputy in the Majlis glorifies hejab (the veil) as the most outstanding symbol of feminist liberation.
This line of propaganda, never widely effective among the majority of informed citizenry, is now being further undermined by mounting economic hardships and growing social inconveniences. As the regime is forced to make more and more mid-course corrections, the latter are bound to become the catalyst for further decentralization of authority, heightened popular participation in decision making and greater freedom of expression, not only in economics but in politics as well. For an oil-based country such as Iran, economic survival in an eventual oil-less economy is contingent upon preparation for keener international competitiveness and greater integration into the global economy. But any such successful integration is bound to intensify popular demand for political freedom and social deregulation. The rising strength of the middle class, the eye-opening effects of new information technologies on the technocratic elite, and the homogenizing impact of foreign contacts on the national lifestyle (the universalization of music, films, food and fashion) are, in turn, bound to bring the Islamic conception of the state into question. As the people's innate distaste for self-delusion grows, pressures for change will become irresistible.
Pointers for the Future
Looking into the future of Islamic fundamentalism through the prism of Iran may not provide satisfactory answers to all the questions raised before. Nor can it offer omnibus guidelines for a Western policy position. Country conditions are different; so are Islamic militant groups. The outcome in a given country may be less — or more — explosive than Iran's. Fundamentalists may win peacefully or by other means in some highly vulnerable countries, and the resulting restrictions, brutality and chaos may exceed or lag behind Iran's. But the Iranian experience still provides some relevant pointers. First, an Islamic regime may use certain democratic institutions (periodic elections, limited official tenure, separation of powers, etc.), but a Western participatory democracy is not compatible with radical Islam. Second, the extent of Islamization and cultural engineering will depend on the strength of ethnic traditions, with younger and less entrenched societies probably being easier to influence than well-established cultures. Third, success in managing the economy is contingent upon the stage of domestic development and the extent of integration into the world economy: an export-led and import-dependent economy is, as a rule, more difficult to manage under strictly Islamic scriptures than a fairly self-sufficient rural entity. Fourth, an inherent threat to the West from an Islamic regime would be exceptional. The Islamic Republic, since its inception, has enjoyed close and profitable trade and exchange relations with almost the whole world. Sabotage, terrorist assaults and acts of violence against Israeli and American interests may continue by certain militant Islamic factions; but a serious military or security challenge would seem rather farfetched. Finally, an Islamic fundamentalist state would be easy to establish but so too would be its eventual transmutation. The people's free spirit and their instinctive preference for progress and prosperity over retrogression and deprivation are bound to pave the way for the emergence of a more moderate, secular government. History shows systems that ignore human proclivities will not work, and systems that are unworkable tend to implode. Islamic fundamentalist regimes are no exception.
 See, for example, S.P. Huntington, "The Coming Clash of Civilizations," The New York Times, June 6, 1993; and Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
 For an eloquent presentation of some of these views see Judith Miller, "The Islamic Wave," The New York Times Magazine, May 31, 1992, and "The Challenge of Radical Islam," Foreign Affairs (Spring 1993).
 See for example, Martin Kramer, "Islam vs. Democracy," Commentary, January 1993.
 See Bernard Lewis, "Islam and Liberal Democracy," The Atlantic Monthly, February 1993.
 See B.R. McCuinn and Gad Yaacobi, "Letters to the Editor," The New York Times, March 22-23, 1993.
 For example, Robin Wright, "Islam, Democracy and the West," Foreign Affairs (Summer 1992); L.T. Hadar, "What Green Peril?," Foreign Affairs (Spring 1993); and N.R. Keddie, "Arguments for Islam," The New York Times, April 29, 1993.
 Zbigniew Brzezinski, Out of Control (New York: Scribners, 1993).
 Mohammed Arkoun, Rethinking Islam (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).
 For support of these views see John Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); and E.W. Said, "The Phony Islamic Threat," The New York Times Magazine, November 21, 1993.
 Sally Ann Baynard, "Fundamentalist Error," The Washington Post, August 29, 1994. For a policy of benign neglect toward Islamic fundamentalism, see E.G. Shirley, "Is Iran's Present Algeria's Future?," Foreign Affairs, May-June 1995.
 See Chris Hedges "With Mullahs' Sleuths Eluded, Hijinks in the Hills," The New York Times, August 8, 1994.
 See Geraldine Brooks, "Teen-Age Infidels Hanging Out," The New York Times Magazine, April 30, 1995.
 For the sources of these statistics, see Jahangir Amuzegar, Iran's Economy under the Islamic Republic (London: I.B. Tauris, 1993).
 All quotations are translated from various issues of the Persian weekly, Kayhan Havai, for the years 1993, 1994 and 1995.
 Words such as democracy, human rights, freedom, progress, dignity and liberation in the Islamic Republic's political vocabulary remind one of Lewis Carroll's Humpty-Dumpty telling Alice that "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."
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