Iran today is a land of dashed hopes. Nearly 18 years after its inception, the Islamic Republic is in grave trouble. The regime's mismanagement of the Iranian economy, its restrictive and bothersome social policies, and its unbridled corruption have severely undermined people's faith in the revolution. Disillusioned, disgruntled and destitute, Iranians in increasing numbers, including those who at one point constituted the revolution's most ardent supporters, have come to assume negative attitudes towards the theocratic system.
The severe decline in the regime's levels of support and acceptance has heightened the prospects for political instability inside Iran. This study will examine the manner in which such instability is likely to manifest itself. It will be argued that, despite the regime’s numerous defects, the potential for revolution remains low, since organized opposition is ineffectual and fragmented, and the regime appears to be in firm control of its awe inspiring internal-security apparatus. If the need arises, the regime's leadership is unlikely to shrink from using this apparatus to effectively demolish any incipient organized political mobilization against it
Given the level of dissatisfaction with the system, what threatens the regime most is the outbreak of spontaneous uprisings and riots. But unless the riots occur simultaneously in most of Iran's urban centers, they are likely to be crushed by the security forces. If the riots spread and assume the form of a mass movement (which is unlikely, barring a highly unpopular and destabilizing move on the part of the ruling elite), then they may lead to regime paralysis and one or more of the following possibilities: open warfare among the various branches of the armed forces, an outburst of nationalistic uprisings and secessionist movements by ethnic minorities, or a military coup d’état. It is the contention of this study, however, that given the nature of the present regime and the frailty of the opposition, political instability in Iran is not likely to take the form of a mass movement in the foreseeable future.
A FRAGILE POPULAR BASE
Perhaps one of the most important distinguishing features of the 1979 Iranian revolution was its enormous popular base. According to the estimates of analysts who were closely monitoring the Iranian political scene during the revolutionary process, about eight million people, approximately one-fifth of the entire Iranian population at the time, demonstrated against the still formidable regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi on a religious holiday in December 1978.1 However, soon after the triumph of the revolution, when it became evident that the forces associated with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had clearly gained ascendancy in the post-revolutionary power struggle, the grand coalition that had managed to topple the shah's regime began to crumble. As a result, active support for the new regime dwindled to a highly committed core.
What is noteworthy about the recent history of the Islamic Republic is the continued erosion of both the scale and scope of social support for the regime, even among many of its erstwhile dedicated supporters. In an interview with a German newspaper shortly before his death in January 1995, Mehdi Bazargan, Iran's first post-revolution prime minister, asserted that the theocracy had the support of less than 5 percent of thepopulace.2 Similarly, a veteran Iran expert, citing anecdotal evidence, has recently estimated that not more than 1.5 to 15 percent of the population can be regarded as supporters of the regime.3 In explaining the delegitimization of the ongoing system, primary weight is generally accorded to the ruling clerics' gross ineptitude in managing the Iranian economy, their increasing repressiveness, as well as the blatant abuse of power and privilege on the part of many in their ranks.
The revolution had promised to create an economically developed and independent Iran in which the fruits of economic growth and prosperity were to have been combined with equity and social justice. Civil liberties as well as the right of citizens to petition their government through the formation of voluntary associations and political parties were supposed to have been assured. Above all, however, both government and society were to have become morally uplifted through piety and strict compliance with the dictates of Islam.
In fact, precisely the reverse has occurred. The revolutionaries have reneged on all of their promises. Average per capita income in Iran today is only a quarter of what it was in 1979, the year in which the revolution took place.4 This is in part due to the ill-advised demographic policies pursued by the regime during the early phases of the revolution, which have resulted in the virtual doubling of Iran's population. A bloated and corrupt public sector, combined with a climate of political uncertainty, has served to diminish confidence. As a result, investors, both domestic and foreign, have largely refrained from investing in the economy. The decline in the price of oil and the burden of a massive debt (officially estimated at $28 billion) have further undermined the economy. Living standards have become severely eroded, and maldistribution has worsened, as inflation has soared (100 percent) and unemployment increased (close to 30 percent)5. In the course of the last four years, spiraling prices and appalling living conditions have caused the urban poor, whom Khomeini had promised to lift out of grinding poverty, to engage in seven spontaneous uprisings.
This is not all. Disappointment in the political realm has been just as devastating. Civil liberties have been trampled upon, and the murder of political dissidents both inside and outside the country has continued.6 Strict official censorship has been imposed on domestic publications, broadcasts and movies, and effective measures have been introduced to encourage self-censorship. Recently (December 1995), a U.N. panel voted to condemn Iran's human-rights compliance. The U.N. resolution cited the following factors as especially noteworthy: "...the high number of executions, cases of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, ...lack of adequate protection for religious minorities, ...excessive force in suppressing demonstrations, restrictions on the freedom of expression, thought, opinion and the press and the widespread discrimination against women."7 In a related report, the U.N. Human Rights Commission has estimated the number of Iran's political prisoners to stand at 19,000, indicating that the Islamic regime is one of the most repressive in the world.8 Although the formation of political parties is sanctioned by the regime's constitution, they have officially been banned. Labor unions have been severely curtailed and voluntary associations brought under close supervision.
Most depressing of all, however, has been the fate of virtue and morality. Venality is universally believed to be far more widespread now than it was during the shah's rule. It seems that little can be accomplished in Iran without bribing a bureaucrat. Conversely, much can be achieved when the proper bribe is paid to an appropriate authority. "Even the Revolutionary Guards who run the morality enforcing Komitehs can be bought."9
Recently, even President Hashemi Rafsanjani acknowledged the uncovering of 106 cases of corruption, including sums exceeding $1.5 billion.10 The country's biggest corruption scandal since the Islamic Revolution involves eight well-connected businessmen, including Morteza Rafiqdoost, the brother of Mohsen Rafiqdoost, the former leader of the Revolutionary Guards and the current head of Iran’s largest conglomerate, the Foundation of the Oppressed. The accused have been charged with manipulating approximately $400 million from a state-owned bank. Rafiqdoost's involvement serves to verify suspicions that corruption has become widespread among the nation's ruling elite. Such depravity on the part of the mullahs and their associates, whose purity and piety have traditionally been assumed, has appalled the citizenry.
PROSPECTS FOR REGIME CHANGE THROUGH REVOLUTION
Such sociopolitical and moral crises have resulted in the progressive alienation of most of the nation's significant social forces from the theocratic regime. However, while widespread dissatisfaction may create the basis for revolutionary action, by itself it is insufficient to bring about a revolution. As Leon Trotsky observed, ''The mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection; if it were, the masses would be always in revolt."11
Before examining Iran’s prospects for revolution, it is first essential to provide a working definition of the concept of revolution. Regrettably, the term is often loosely used to refer to any type of regime change, and it has come to mean different things to different people. Revolution, as it shall be defined in this study, is the collapse or overthrow of the established political system in part due to popular uprisings and its replacement by a system distinctly different from the previous one. Revolution is a process, and it entails fundamental political, socioeconomic and ideological transformations.
The revolutionary overthrow of an existing regime is caused by the confluence of two sets of interrelated variables: the regime's internal defects and vulnerabilities the coordinated action of the social groups and individuals opposed to it.12 Carrying out a successful revolution requires the conscious exertion of revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of the existing order. Ultimately, the relationship between popular dissatisfaction and the regime's downfall is dependent upon the skills of revolutionary leaders and the (in)competence of the power holders.
Although the Islamic Republic is riddled with numerous weaknesses, these shortcomings are not as severe as those that plagued the regime of Mohammad Rem Shah Pahlavi prior to the 1979 revolution. More significantly, the forces that are opposed to the present regime remain hopelessly fragmented. organizationally weak and bereft of any charismatic leaders or unifying ideologies. In all likelihood they are incapable of orchestrating the coordinated action necessary to dislodge the regime. Effective coordinated action entails, above all the formation of a broadly based revolutionary coalition of the opposition groups that represent the society's major classes. Nations such as Iran, which are at a middle level of economic development, and in which urbanization and specialization have become relatively widespread, are unlikely to undergo a successful revolution without the coalescence of their opposition groups.13 It is important to bear in mind that the shah's rule lasted 37 years in large part because he was able to keep the opposition forces from becoming united. The shah was depose.cl when his diverse opponents. many of whom had absolutely no interest in establishing an Islamic theocracy in Iran, wholeheartedly submitted to the charismatic leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini in order to overthrow the Iranian monarchy.
During the revolutionary process, the role and personality of Khomeini in holding the revolution's disparate supporters together became all the more important, since the movement's ideological appeals were highly incoherent and diffuse.14 The ideology that justified the Iranian revolution was succinctly summarized by Khomeini when he repeatedly stated, referring to the shah, 'This man must leave." It was thus left to Khomeini to stubbornly and courageously reassure his followers that the hour of deliverance was at hand and that they should not waver from the path of revolution.
Today's Iranian opposition forces are similarly composed of a variety of groups with a multiplicity of divergent ideologies. But none of the opposition leaders today can even remotely approximate Khomeini in terms of charismatic and popular appeal. Moreover, there is a fundamental question as to the extent to which any of the existing opposition groups represent Iran's major social classes. To understand why Iran's present opposition forces are probably incapable of comprising an effective and wide-ranging multi-class revolutionary alliance, it is necessary to examine their leadership, ideology and likely level of support.
There are a number of opposition groups, ranging from absolute monarchists to communist revolutionaries, seeking the demise of the present political system in Iran. Most of these operate in exile, while within the country there remain several quasi anti-establishment organizations. None of these groups poses a serious threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic.
A. The best organized and probably the most dedicated of all the opposition groups operating outside Iran is the Sazeman-e Mojahedin-e.Khalq (the Organization of the Crusaders of the People). It was founded in the l960s as a guerrilla group, dedicated to the perpetration of terrorist activities against centers of state power in order to demonstrate the vulnerability of the shah's regime. The group's guerrilla actions, which included the assassinations of American military and intelligence officials stationed in Iran in the 1970s, were also designed to incite the Iranian people to rise up against the monarchy. Although the Mojahedin's tactics proved highly ineffective in prerevolutionary Iran, the group did come to play an active role in the early phases of the Iranian revolution by firmly allying itself with Khomeini. But the Mojahedin, who were never trusted by Khomeini and his clerical followers, soon fell out of favor with the regime. In the ensuing power struggle, the regime, alarmed by the group's Marxist leanings as well as its schemes to overthrow the theocracy, declared war on the Mojahedin and brutally destroyed the organization and most of its members within Iran. As a result Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the group, and his remaining loyal followers were forced to flee Iran in 1982. They first went to Paris and then, in 1986, to Iraq, where they are currently based and from whose territory their small army wishes to liberate Iran. To cultivate the support of influential foreign governments. particularly the United States, and to make themselves more palatable to the Iranian populace, the Mojahedin have recently announced their conversion to the principles of liberal democracy. However, serious lingering suspicions remain as to the extent to which they have actually renounced (or are willing to renounce, if they obtain power) their previous ideology.
Sharing many common features with the writings and declarations of Ali Shariati, anon clerical Islamist theoretician, this ideology was devised through the merging of certain aspects of Shia Islam with those of Marxism. Shariati believed that true Muslims, instead of concentrating on the ceremonial and ritualistic aspects of their religion and preparing themselves for the hereafter, must emulate the example of Imam Hussein, who sacrificed his life in the struggle against tyranny and injustice. Shariati maintained that the forces of injustice in the modem world were embodied in arbitrary despotic rule as well as imperialism and exploitative capitalism. Echoing the arguments of Shariati, the Mojahedin held that ''it is the duty of all Muslims to continue (Imam Hussein's) struggle to create a 'classless society' and destroy all forms of capitalism, despotism, and imperialism."15 Moreover, the Mojahedin claimed that true believers do not require any guidance from the ulama (religious leaders), who are held in contempt by the Mojahedin as agents of tyranny and exploitation, either during the struggle for the achievement of the just order or after its realization. Consequently, they "developed a line of argument whose logical conclusion was to make the whole religious establishment redundant."16
This type of ideology is considered anathema by the Iranian clerical establishment, even those who do not support the concept of velayat-e-faqih (rule by the Islamic jurist), merchants. ba7.aaris, most of the professional classes and the business community. It might appeal to some segments of the intelligentsia, students and the poor. By themselves, however, these groups are incapable of overthrowing the present regime.
Moreover, whatever levels of support the Mojahedin might have had within the Iranian population became severely undermined when they decided to seek refuge in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. The extent of the ordinary Iranian's level of animosity towards the Mojahedin was amply demonstrated in the final months of the war when the inhabitants of a small border town slaughtered, before the arrival of Iranian armed forces, the Mojahedin fighters who had come from Iraq in order to "liberate" them.
The Mojahedin seem to be operating under the delusion that by acting alone, without establishing cross-cutting alliances with other opposition forces, they would be able to overthrow the well-entrenched clerical regime, just as Chairman Mao was able to destroy the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. Yet the Mojahedin do not disclose the number of soldiers in their liberation army. Instead, they assure inquiring journalists that they have sufficient forces "to topple the present regime." But a former member who recently fled Iraq maintains that the group currently comprises fewer than 700 fighters. Providing a significant insight into its narrow-mindedness and dogmatism, the group's response to those who criticize its wishful thinking is to dismiss them as pro-Khomeini traitors. According to a former Mojahedin member who is currently a human-rights lawyer, "(The Mojahedin) attack all groups and exiles who don't agree with them."17
Usually disagreement with the Mojahedin is most ardently directed against their decision to collaborate with Iraq. Residing in Iraq has not only largely destroyed the last vestiges of the Mojahedin's credibility, it has also turned them into potential pawns. The Mojahedin have to operate under the close supervision and scrutiny of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who might eventually decide to use them as a bargaining chip. If the relationship between Iran and Iraq improves, it is likely that the Mojahedin could be exchanged for the Iraqi opposition forces who are currently based inside Iran.
Despite their numerous shortcomings, however, the Mojahedin seem to have mastered the art of self-promotion and lobbying in Western democracies. The changing of their name to the National Council of Resistance as well as their adoption of a neo-liberal ideology seems, in part, to have been propelled by the desire to acquire greater external support. Indeed, their strategy has borne some fruit They have been quite successful in persuading a number of American senators and congressmen of the righteousness of their cause and their capacity to overthrow Iran's theocratic regime. In a letter addressed to Rajavi in 1993, Senator Howell Heflin (D-AL) commended the Mojahedin's political arm for representing "all those who truly believe in freedom and human rights," while in 1994, majorities of both houses of Congress endorsed the Mojahedin's attempt to bring "freedom and democracy" to Iran.18 Apparently, the congressmen were unaware of the Mojahedin's involvement in the murder of American citizens in Iran, its previous staunch anti-Western ideology, and its wholehearted support for the taking of American hostages.
There are indications, however, that support for the Mojahedin in the U.S. Congress will probably decline soon. In a report issued on October 31, 1994, the State Department refers to the Mojahedin as a terrorist group and maintains that they do not constitute a desirable alternative to the present regime.19 Nor are they a viable alternative. Increasingly isolated and declining in numbers, in both the Iranian and international communities, the Mojahedin have metamorphosed into a cult, extolling the virtues of their "infallible" leaders.
B. The monarchists constitute another opposition movement bent on destroying Iran's Islamic theocracy. Operating solely outside Iran, this group attracts a rather large following among Iranian expatriates, particularly those residing in California (mostly Los Angeles) and Germany. The challenge that the monarchists pose to the Iranian regime is even more insignificant than the threat of the Mojahedin, since the monarchists are divided among themselves and unorganized. Furthermore, although they surely desire to go back to their country and to revive the monarchy, they have not demonstrated the levels of resolve and commitment expected of revolutionaries or counterrevolutionaries in pursuit of their objective.
The monarchists disagree vehemently on the type of monarchy that should be reinstituted in Iran. One faction favors the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, arguing that the king should serve merely as a figurehead and reign but not rule. This faction holds that monarchy, which has a 2,500 year history in Iran, can serve as the only centripetal force capable of keeping the country's highly diverse and heterogeneous population together. Another faction. sometimes referred to as the Shahollahi sect, maintains that the only form of government suitable to the Iranian national character is absolute monarchy. Still another faction contends that an absolute monarchy should initially be installed immediately after the demise of the theocracy in order to resolve the multitude of tenacious problems afflicting the nation. But once these problems have been ameliorated, they argue that the monarch must then loosen the lid of oppression and gradually transform the system into a constitutional monarchy. There are still other factions that subscribe, with more or less intensity, to different variations on these themes.
The pretender to the throne, Prince Reza Pahlavi has maintained, to the consternation of many monarchists, that although he personally favors a constitutional monarchy, he would abide by the will of the people. If, after the destruction of the present system, the people of Iran decide in a referendum that he should serve as a royal ceremonial head of state, then he will become the shah of Iran. While this is an admirable statement, it is not the type of inflammatory rhetoric one would expect to hear from a revolutionary leader. "Revolutions are not for those who are filled with self-doubt and moral skepticism. Revolutionaries see the world in shades of black and white,"20 and are endowed with what Dostoevsky referred to as a ''fire in the mind." Reza Pahlavi, although an intelligent and articulate man, appears to many of his critics to be bereft of the type of uncompromising and charismatic qualities associated with revolutionary leaders.
Although there are signs that the people of Iran are increasingly nostalgic for the Pahlavi era, it is unclear whether they are willing to undergo the sacrifices necessary to reinstitute the monarchy. Prince Reza undoubtedly has a potential base of support within Iran. However, given their disunity, disorganization and lukewarm commitments, the monarchists, even if they join forces with the liberal opposition. will face great obstacles in bringing down the present regime.
C. The liberal opposition, which also operates primarily from overseas, comprises the followers of the deposed Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who was instrumental in nationalizing the Iranian oil industry in the early 1950s. In 1979, the leadership of this group, by subordinating itself to Khomeini, helped to deliver the majority of Iranian intellectual and professional classes to the side of the revolutionaries and thus played a significant role in the demise of the monarchy. The liberals, apparently engaging in self-delusion and wishful thinking, thought that Khomeini would acquiesce in the establishment of a Western-style democracy in Iran.
In spite of their monumental miscalculation. the liberals have not lost their penchant for parliamentary democracy. Expressing their support for political participation and contestation, they maintain that a system guaranteeing free, fair and competitive elections as well as civil liberties should be instituted in Iran. This vision is still quite popular among the Iranian intelligentsia, new middle classes, certain segments of the bazaaris and even a few clerics.
But its achievement is likely to remain elusive, since the liberal opposition is also disorganized. The leadership of this group has splintered into two different factions. One group is led by Admiral Madani, a congenial yet uncharismatic man. The other faction is led jointly by Ahlm Shakeri and Manucher Razmara. Shakeri and Razmara have succeeded Shahpur Bakhtiar, the shah’s last prime minister, who was brutally murdered in Paris in 1991, as leaders of Nehzal-e-Moghavemal-e Meli ( the National Struggle Movement). At the time of the revolution, Bakhtiar was the only leader of the liberal opposition who refused to submit to the leadership of Khomeini, attempting to transform the monarchy, rather than subvert it But he was immediately abandoned by other leaders of the group. After the revolution, Bakhtiar fled to Paris and founded the National Struggle Movement in order to overthrow the Iranian theocracy. The Iranian regime, which must have considered Bakhtiar a potential threat, was undoubtedly involved in his 1991 murder. Yet Bakhtiar's successors, who are purported to dislike one another, are unlikely to forgo their personal differences and unify the liberal opposition, let alone create common cause with the other opposition groups, including remnants of the left-wing opposition.
D. The leftists pose the most insignificant threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic. With the demise of the Soviet Union, their ideologies have become largely discredited, and they have been further weakened by internal feuds. Moreover, they lack any recognized leaders and are largely unorganized. The national Iranian Communist party (Tudeh) was essentially destroyed in 1983, when over 1,000 of its members, including the influential secretary general of the party, Nurreddin Kianouri, were arrested by the authorities of the Islamic Republic. “On April 30, 1983, Kianouri reported on Iranian television that he had maintained contacts with Soviet agents since 1945 and that Iranian members of the Tudeh party had been delivering top-secret military and political documents to the Soviet embassy in Tehran.”721 Kianouri's admission demolished the credibility of the Tudeh party beyond repair. The other major extreme leftwing party, Sazeman-e Chirikha-ye Fadayan-e Khalq (the Organization of the Guerrilla Crusaders of the People) was also largely destroyed by Khomeini shortly after the revolution.
E. There are a few other organizations and political parties operating from overseas and seeking the demise of the current regime. Because for the most part they lack organization and popular appeal, they will not be examined here. Apart from the groups outside Iran, there are a few quasi-opposition movements operating under the scrutiny of Iranian authorities. As they are closely monitored by the regime, they are unlikely to threaten the stability of the system. In fact, the regime considers these groups so harmless that it allows them to be regularly interviewed by foreign correspondents so as to demonstrate the theocracy's commitment to pluralism and freedom of expression. If these groups become too emboldened in their criticisms of the system, however, they will immediately be silenced by the regime's effective repressive apparatus.
One such group is the Nehzat-e Azodi (Liberation Movement), founded by the late Mehdi Bazargan, Iran's first post-revolution prime minister. The movement is currently headed by Ebraheem Yazdi, who served as foreign minister in Bazargan’s Cabinet [See Yazdi's remarks to the Middle East Policy Council in Middle East Policy, vol. III, No. 4, April 1995.]. The Liberation Movement is dedicated to the principles of liberal democracy, so long as they operate within an Islamic framework. Yazdi has made it clear that his organization is not interested in the revolutionary overthrow of the existing system. He has repeatedly asserted that he is merely interested in reforming the ongoing system through the initiation of liberalization and democratization policies. But the regime has persistently restricted or refused to allow candidates associated with the Liberation Movement to stand for parliamentary elections.
Another quasi-oppositional force operating inside Iran is Hezb-e Melat-e Iran (the National Party of Iran). The group is headed by Dariush Foruhar, a liberal democratic crusader associated with Mossadeq. Foruhar is a courageous and relatively charismatic revolutionary who has not concealed his contempt for the present regime. He has recently been extremely forthright not only in his condemnations of the regime's policies, but of the regime itself. He is therefore kept under very close surveillance. "If the first test for the revolutionary is his willingness to die for his cause,''22 then Foruhar might very soon be given an opportunity to pass this test.
Another individual who has recently attacked the regime quite vehemently is retired Brigadier General Azizollah Amir Rahimi, who the military police immediately after the revolution. General Rahimi has not attempted to create a political party or movement, but has instead circulated a series of open letters severely criticizing the regime, its policies and the ruling elite. In one of his letters Rahimi states that the rulers of society should be composed of that society's most intelligent, educated and competent individuals. But the current rulers of Iran, Rahimi maintains, comprise the nation's least educated, intelligent and competent citizens. Maintaining that Iran is teetering on the edge of the precipice, Rahimi states that "the clerics who have ruled the country for years are responsible for this misery. The only way to save the country is through deep changes in the way the country is run. If Rafsanjani is not capable of doing this, he should concede to a national salvation government" Rahimi then calls on the mullahs to willingly relinquish power and allow for free and competitive elections, unrestrained by the vetting procedures of clerical institutions. He also urges the regime to free all political prisoners and reinstate all the military officers purged since the revolution.23 Shortly after the circulation of this letter, Rahimi was imprisoned for several months. He appears to have become far more circumspect after his release.
There are also individuals from within the ruling clerical establishment who can best be described as the loyal opposition to the theocratic system. With the legitimacy of the system increasingly in peril, even some thoughtful politicized clerics have come to contemplate whether a partial retreat from power on the part of the mullahs would be salutary for the long-term survival of the theocracy. The most prominent member of the regime to have entertained such an idea is Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-kani, the influential former secretary general of Tehran's Combatant Clerical Association, a fraternal organization with religiously conservative leanings whose members comprise most of Iran's present key decision makers. While in London in 1994 in order to seek medical treatment for his heart condition, Kani is reported to have declared that Iran's next president should not be a cleric.24 Kani's declaration is noteworthy since it indicates that members of the ruling elite are well-aware that the revolution is faltering and thereby undermining their once irreproachable position.
Since returning to Iran, however, Kani has recanted his earlier pronouncement In a speech delivered in Tehran in December 1995, he declared, 'The statement that the clergy, in order to save their purity, must retreat from the scene [i.e., retreat from power] emanates from the mouth of the U.S." Kani went on to say that if the Almighty had deemed it appropriate to entrust the reins of power to mere politicians, then the Prophet of Islam and Imam Ali would never have acceded to become leaders of the Islamic community.25 Kani's reversal indicates that a general consensus has emerged among the top echelon of the ruling elite on the necessity of acting in concert to ensure the continuation of the cornerstone of the present regime's constitution, namely Khomeini's concept of velayat-e-faqih, or the guardianship of the jurisprudent This concept, which constitutes an innovative reformulation of centuries-old Shia thinking justifies the role of the jurist (faqih) as the paramount leader of the Islamic community.
Today, repulsion against the imposition of such an order is becoming increasingly widespread even among the religious intelligentsia, who claim to believe in the theocratic system. This group wishes to reform the present system so as to make it compatible with pluralism and democracy. The movement is being spearheaded by the Islamist philosopher Abdul Karim Soroush, whose writings and pronoW1cements provide the most systematic and articulate depiction of the religious intelligentsia's vision of the proper political order. A former revolutionary theoretician, Soroush propounds a type of historicist understanding of Islam. Arguing that there is not, nor ever has been, a single absolute interpretation of Islamic precepts and doctrines, Soroush maintains that neither one nor a group of clerics can claim to provide the true interpretation of Islam. Since understanding of Islam is relative, competing paradigms should not be silenced. Moreover, the clergy should not impose their interpretation of the Sharia ( Islamic law) on the masses. People should not be forced to practice Islam but should be free to willingly submit to God.26
Such an interpretation can readily lend itself to the reconciliation of Islam with a version of liberal democracy. Yet Soroush goes further. In what appears to be an implicit argument for the separation of church and state, he maintains that religion should never be turned into an ideology. According to Soroush, ''using religion as an ideology makes it intolerant and authoritarian. Government and economics are the province of intellect and reason, not religion." If religion assumes ideological connotations, it is boW1d to make itself vulnerable to the charge of being responsible for the ills of society. Moreover, the clerics should be financially supported neither by the state nor by people's contributions, nor by any gains from political office. To retain their purity and independence, they should earn their livelihood through hard work. "Religion is for the lovers of the faith, not the dealers of the faith."27
Although Soroush regards himself as a patriotic believer in the Islamic revolution, his ideas are regarded as highly dangerous by the clerical regime. Indeed, Kani's reversal seems to have been prompted by the desire to completely dissociate himself from Soroush, since Soroush's implied call for the separation of religion and politics poses a fatal challenge to the underlying principle of the regime, the doctrine of velayat-e-faqih. Soroush, therefore, in the course of the last few months, has been maliciously attacked, both physically and verbally, by the regime's leading figures. He has been made persona non grata, and has been virtually banned from publishing. lecturing or granting interviews. In fact, Seyyed Ali Khamenei Iran's spiritual leader, has considered the threat posed by Soroush sufficiently important to personally respond to it In an obvious implicit reference to Soroush, Khamenei recently publicly declared: "If someone confronts the clergy, he gladdens Zionists and the Americans. They want the clergy to cease to exist. This kind of talk is sedition. The Islamic system will slap these people hard in their face."28
Khamenei's utterances make it clear that if Soroush persists with his current line of argument, he will, undoubtedly be eliminated. On the other hand, if Kani, or anyone else from within the present system, reverts to Kani's previous position, they will be severely and swiftly silenced. In fact, their plight will probably come to resemble that of the clerics who have publicly expressed disagreement with the concept of velayat-e-faqih, or those who have fallen out of favor with the ruling elite.
Most of Iran’s grand ayatollahs are now dead. But in their lifetimes none of them referred to Khomeini as imam, a title that in Iran has been reserved for the twelve direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and leaders of the Islamic community. Khomeini's notion of an omnipotent religio-political leader who can, if the need arises, even order the violation of the Sharia, was rejected by eleven of the twelve grand ayatollahs living in 1981.29 Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was designated as Khomeini's successor until being rejected in 1989, was the only grand ayatollah who approved Khomeini's insistence on merging spiritual and temporal powers. Since his rejection, however, Montazeri has been placed under house arrest In an unprecedented event in the history of Shia Islam, the late Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari was publicly humiliated and demoted by Ayatollah Khomeini, when the fom1er dared to disagree with Khomeini's interpretation of Islam.
At present, Ayatollah Haj Hassan Ghommi in Mashad and Ayatollahs Zanjani and Shirazi in Qom are under virtual house arrest because of their refusal to sanction the velayat-e-faqih concept Most recently, Ayatollah Rohani was placed under house arrest, not because he does not sanction the guardianship of the jurisprudent, although there are indications that he is becoming increasingly disenchanted with the present system, but because he had issued a decree that was in disagreement with certain declarations of the present leader.30
The theocratic regime’s total control over Iran's religious institutions is extremely significant in terms of the regime's survival. It should be recalled that in prerevolutionary Iran the mosque constituted the only significant institution in civil society that had been allowed to remain autonomous from the encroachment of the highly centralized state, which at the time had become virtually synonymous with the shah. During the revolutionary process, it was the Shia hierocracy which was most instru mental in inciting, organizing and directing the masses in anti-shah demonstrations.
Now, however, a vast proportion of the hierarchy itself dominates the state, and this domination provides the regime with certain benefits. First, the regime can now effectively control all institutions of civil society, including the mosques, something the shah was never able to do. Second, instead of the exclusive leadership of the shah, the hierocracy provides the regime with a more collective leadership. Although the collective leadership of the mullahs, with their pervasive factionalism, has inhibited the formation of cohesive foreign and economic policies, it has, at the same time, provided them with an advantage. The shah's regime became particularly fragile and vulnerable to revolution when he broke down emotionally and became increasingly weak and indecisive. In prerevolutionary Iran, as in other neo-patrimonial regimes that have undergone revolutions, the paramount leader alone served as the glue that bonded the system together. Consequently, "the fabric of authority unraveled quickly when the power and status of the man at the top [ became ] undermined.''31 Ultimately, the shah’s inability to whole heartedly commit himself to the survival of his regime resulted in the disintegration of his formidable security forces, thereby allowing the revolutionary coalition to achieve an unexpectedly swift victory.
The collective leadership of the mullahs, however, assuming that they will continue to temper their factional differences in times of crisis and that their coercive apparatus will remain loyal to them, makes the survival of their regime less dependent upon the decisiveness of one or a few individuals. Indeed, much of the top leadership of the Islamic Republic can be removed without seriously jeopardizing the system. The theocracy's collective leadership also guards it against making the type of mistake which provided the immediate cause for the spark of the Iranian revolution. While the shah's indecisiveness and lack of resolve contributed to his inability to promptly respond.to popular mobilization in order to save his throne, ironically it was his decision to reform his rule that impelled the start of this mobilization in the first place. The shah's curious and arbitrary decision to liberalize his regime created a permissive political environment that enabled the Iranian civil society to organize against his rule.
The present regime is in some respects more tolerant than the previous one. Iran's parliament today is a far cry from the rubber stamp that existed during the rule of the shah. In general, critical opinions, even those directed towards leaders, are tolerated so long as they do not question or threaten the survival of the system. But Iran's clerical rulers are extremely careful to ensure that the parameters they have set in order to limit people's freedom of expression and action are not transgressed. Knowing that liberalizing the system entails setting into motion forces that might undermine their rule, the mullahs are unlikely to commit the mistake of the shah and Gorbachev by suddenly loosening the lid of political oppression.
Moreover, unlike the shah, Iran's clerical rulers, despite their numerous other flaws, are not vulnerable to the charge of being beholden to foreigners. The shah's rule was undermined in part because of his close association and perceived subservience to Western powers, particularly the United States. More significantly, the shah's unwillingness to respond decisively to the mass mobilization against his rule was motivated, in some measure, by his obsession with projecting a favorable image of himself to the foreign press. The shah's position was also compromised due to confusion on the part of the policymakers in the Carter administration. who sent him contradictory signals on how to respond to Iran's revolutionary upheaval. The present regime, on the other hand, is unconcerned about the opinions of U.S. officials and journalists. Moreover, it has absolutely no compunction about resorting to overwhelming force and state-sponsored vigilantism if its survival demands that it should act energetically.
In contrast to the shah, who was hurt because of his closeness with the United States, the present regime has been damaged because of the mutual hostility between it and the U.S. government Just as there are sharp cleavages within the Iranian regime on how to deal with the United States, there are divergent views in the U.S. government on how to respond to Iran's challenge to stability in the Middle East. Several congressmen and senators, most notably Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, have recently explicitly called for covert U.S. action aimed at overthrowing Iran's theocratic regime. However, both the Clinton administration and many Senate Republicans believe that such a policy would be unworkable. They also maintain that it would inhibit the United States from persuading its allies to follow milder measures aimed at isolating Iran. Moreover, some U.S. policymakers are concerned that, given the ineptitude of the existing Iranian opposition forces, the collapse of the present regime might lead to the fragmentation and possible dismemberment of Iran. Such a prospect would constitute a calamity, since it would probably result in further destabilization in the Middle East and Central Asia
It has been reported that the administration and Congress have agreed to a compromise measure to ask the president, at his discretion, to impose sanctions on foreign companies that invest at least $40 million per year in Iran's oil and gas industry and to set up a $20 million fund directed at "moderating" Iranian behavior.32 The United States is particularly concerned about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support for terrorism and its hostility towards the Arab-Israeli peace process. Such measures, however, are more likely to create rifts between the United States and its allies than to either reform or transform the well-entrenched Iranian regime. Rather than undermining the authority of Iran's ruling clerics, U.S. policy provides the mullahs with a convenient scapegoat.
SPONTANEOUS UPRISINGS: POLITICAL RAMIFICATIONS
It can be seen that Iran's opposition forces are fragmented, disorganized, leaderless and ineffectual, while the leadership of the Iranian regime has up to now been highly committed and repressive. The possibility that the opposition will overcome its numerous defects in the near future is highly remote. Therefore, Iran is unlikely to undergo a revolution. However, given the crises milieu in which Iranians have to operate, the likelihood of the occurrence of spontaneous uprisings is quite high. Since it will be up to the nation's motley security apparatus to crush such uprisings it is essential to assess the possibility of insubordination on the part of these forces.
Iran’s security forces are separated into the army (numbering 320,000), the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, 120,000), and the Basij or the volunteer militia (1,300,000 part-time and full-time members ). Each group has its own loyalties and structures. The IRGC was created shortly after the revolution to balance the influence of the army, which the revolutionaries did not (and do not) trust In 1992, the regime created an Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff in order to bring about greater integration between Iran’s armed forces, since confused lines of command were officially blamed for the country's lamentable performance in the war against Iraq. However, full integration has purposefully been kept elusive, so the potential for confusion as well as possible skirmishes or outright warfare between the nation's various military units has not been obviated.
The modem Iranian military does not have a history of autonomous institutional behavior. However, when the most significant riot in the history of the Islamic Republic occurred in August 1994 in the industrial city of Ghazvin, it became apparent that the Iranian armed forces, including the dependable Revolutionary Guards, were unwilling to intervene. The regime thus had to rely on the Basij and a special antiriot unit from Tehran to crush the revolt
The Ghazvin riot was an ominous warning to the mullahs, who appear to have gained valuable lessons from it Recalcitrant elements from the army and the IRGC have been purged The regime's antiriot forces have also been invigorated and reinforced. These forces recently acted with great efficiency to brutally suppress riots that erupted in April 1995 in Islamshahr and Akbarabad, two slums in close proximity to Tehran. The Ghazvin riot also exacerbated the regime's distrust and fear of the armed forces, prompting Khamenei who also serves as Iran's commander-in-chief, to select Dr. Hassan Firoo7.abad a veterinarian with no known military rank, as Iran's chief of staff. Firouzabadi has apparently had a long record of service with the Basij.33
The Basij, who are not eligible for either the army or the revolutionary guards, are renowned for their fanaticism and intense levels of commitment to the revolution. Since the Basij has proved itself capable of harshly crushing demonstrations, it has now been granted the primary task of enforcing internal security. There are reportedly up to 1,000,000 part-time Basiji members who can readily be mobilized in moments of crisis. In recognition of the Basij's increasing importance to the regime, its full-time manpower, having tripled since 1991, currently stands at 300,000. In addition, the organization's budget has increased by a factor of four.34 In all likelihood, the regime will be able to rely on the Basij and its specially trained and expanded antiriot forces to crush future spontaneous outbursts, provided such revolts do not assume the form of a highly popular and widely dispersed mass movement Given the regime's effective control of Iranian civil society and the ineptitude of the opposition, the occurrence of simultaneous, unorganized and uncoordinated uprisings in most of the country's urban centers and even some rural settings is highly improbable. It is not impossible, however, particularly if the regime embarks on an extremely unpopular move.
If widespread spontaneous uprisings engulf Iran, then most of the nation's motley armed units may join forces to initiate a military coup d’état, or they may engage one another in warfare. Though highly unlikely, the occurrence of the latter political trajectory is likely to have a detrimental impact on Iran’s ethnic minorities, particularly the Azarbaijanies, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchies who inhabit the sensitive border areas of the country. These groups have historically become far more assertive and restive as the power of the central government has visibly declined.
Given the existence of mutually suspicious lines of command in the regime's coercive apparatus, however, the prospects for a coup d’état are quite dim. Chances for warfare between the various coercive units are also remote and likely to decline even further in the future. Khamenei will soon be afforded the opportunity to promote ultra loyalists to the highest echelons of the regular armed forces, as 3,000 officers and NCO's are fast approaching retirement age.35
Iran's Islamic theocracy is highly institutionalized and unlikely to be overthrown in the foreseeable future, either through revolution or a coup d’état Although dissatisfaction has become increasingly widespread among the Iranian population, this discontent is unlikely to eventuate in a revolutionary upheaval. Both the nature of the Iranian regime and the severe weaknesses of the existing oppositional forces tend to inhibit movement toward a regime change.
The nature of the present Iranian regime is essentially different from that of the shah and that of other pre-revolutionary countries in their middle stages of economic development Iran's collective and repressive leadership has proved capable of overcoming its factional differences at times of crisis. This variable is unlikely to alter in the foreseeable future. The opposition, on the other hand, has been disorganized, fragmented and without a unifying leader or ideology. These factors are also unlikely to change in the short term. But even if the opposition manages to miraculously transcend its shortcomings and become cohesive, it will still face the daunting task of challenging a highly oppressive regime.
Given people's mounting privations and the deplorable condition of the economy, however, occasional spontaneous demonstrations and riots will probably continue to erupt unabated. But such protests are quite susceptible to regime suppression and will continue to be squelched.
1 Richard Cottam, "Inside Revolutionary Iran," in R.K. Rarnazani, cd, Iran s Revolution: The Search For Consensus (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), p.3.
2 David E. Sanger, "Fear, Inflation and Graft Feed Disillusion Among Iranians," The New York Times, May 30, 1995, p. A6.
3 This assessment was made by Richard Cottam, an Iran specialist from the University of Pittsburgh, in a conference sponsored by the Middle East Policy Council held on May 2S, 1995. For an edited transcript see Ellen Laipson, Gary Sick, Richard Cottam, "Symposium: U.S. Policy Toward Iran: From Containment to Relentless Pursuit?," Middle East Policy, vol. IV, nos. I & 2, September 1995, pp 1-21, especially p. 10.
4 Lara Marlowe, "Revolutionary Disintegration: The New Embargo May Hurt, But the Greatest Danger to the Mullahs is From Their Own People," Time, June 26, 1995, p.43.
5 "Inflation Soars; Growth Sinks," Iran Times, January 26, 1996, p. 14; Jahangir Amuzegar, "Islamic Fundamentalism in Action, the Case of Iran," Middle East Policy, vol. IV, nos. I & 2, September 1995. See also Jahangir Amuzegar, "The Iranian Economy Before and After the Revolution," The Middle East Journal, vol. 46, no. 3, Summer 1992, pp. 413-425; "An Economy in Disarray," The Middle East, December 1994, p. 28; Homa Hoodfar, "Devices and Desires: Population Policy and Gender Role in the Islamic Republic," Middle East Report, vol. 22, no. 190, September • October 1994, pp. 11-17; "Tied Economy, Tied President," The Economist, July 16, 1994, pp. 37-38.
6 See " The Connection: An Exclusive Look at How Iran Hunts Down its Opponents Abroad," Time, March 21, 1994, pp. 51-55.
7 "UN Panel Knocks Iran Human Rights," Iran Times, December 22, 1995, p.15.
8 Hazhir Teimourian," Iran's 15 Years of Islam," The World Today, vol. 50, no. 4, April 1994, p. 70.
9 Marlowe, p. 42.
10 Cited by Ali Banuazizi," Iran's Revolutionary Impasse: Political Factionalism and Societal Resistance," Middle East Report, vol. 24, no. 191, Nov.• Dec. 1994, p. 8, Footnote #7. See also Colin Barraclough, "Iranian Poverty Fund Bankrolls Fun Parks And Much More," The Christian Science Monitor, February I, 1995, p. 9; "Iranian Foundation Head Denies Accusations of Corruption," The New York Times, January 8, 1995, p. 8.
11 Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution. trans. Max Eastman (New York: Monad Press, 1961), p. 249.
12 Said Amir Arjomand. "Iran's Islamic Revolution in Comparative Perspective:." World Politics. Vol. 38, April 1986. p. 383.
13 See Robert H. Dix, "Why Revolutions Succeed and Fail," Polity 16, 1984, pp. 423 - 446; Jeff Goodwin and Theda Skocpol, "Explaining Revolutions in the Contemporary Third World," Politics and Society, Vol. I, No. 4, December 1989, pp. 489-509.
14 Thomas H. Greene, Comparative Revolutionary Movements: Search For Theory and Justice (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1990), pp. 52-53.
15 Ervand Abrahamian, "The Guerrilla Movement in Iran, 1963-1977," MERIP Report, 86 (March- April 1980), pp.9-10.
16 Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin, p. 122.
17 Peter Waldman, "Anti-Iran Guerillas Lose Disciples But Gain Friends in Washington," The Wall Street Journo/, October 4, 1994, p. A2.
19 "U.S. Denounces Opposition Group," Facts On File, vol. 54, no. 2822, December 31, 1994, p. 1005.
20 Greene, p. 84.
21 James Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American Iranian Relations (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1988), p. 273.
22 Greene, p. 84.
23 Robin Wright, "Mullahs Losing Grip in Iran," Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1994, p. H1.
24 Edward G. Shirley, "Iran's Present, Algeria's future?" Foreign Affairs, vol. 74, No. 3, May - June 1995, p. 36.
25 Quoted in Iran Times, December 22, 1995, p. 5.
26 See Abdul Karim Soroush, Farbehtar az ldeo/oji (More Powerful Than Ideology [Tehran: Sarat, 1993]); "An Iranian Martin Luther Preaches Islamic Reforms," The Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 1995, p. 6; Lamis Andoni, "Iran's Islamic Rule Under Fire by Revolutionaries," The Christian Science Monitor, April 20, I 99S, p. 6.
27 Robin Wright, "Silencing Ideas: The Crisis Within Iran's Theocracy," The Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1995, p. M2.
28 Wright, December 1995, p. M2.
29 Oliver Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, Trans. by Carol Volk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 173.
30 Iran Times, August 11, 1995, p. 16.
31 Jeane Kirkpatrick, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Commentary, 68, November 1979, p. 38; see also Jeffrey Herbst, "Prospects For Revolution in South Africa." Political Science Quarterly, vol. 103, November 4, 1988, pp. 665 - 685.
32 "The U.S. - Iran Tussle," Iran Times, December 22, 1995; "It's Open Season on Gingrich in Iran," Iran Times, January 5, 1996, p. 16.
33 See Jane's Defense Weekly, May 20, 1995, p.3 and Ruzegar-e-Now, April-May 1995, pp. 15-16.
34 Andrew Rathmell, "Khamanei Strengthens His Grip," Jane '.r Intelligence Review, October 1995, p. 450.