DUBAI (IPS)–Iran is in the midst of its worst political crisis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but forecasts of another revolution stemming from current student unrest and calls for greater openness are unfounded, regional analysts say.
Instead, they say that the protests by students, angered by a Nov. 6 court decision against a moderate professor and Islamic thinker, are part of Iran’s evolution toward a democracy.
The protests are but the latest reflection of the rising tensions between moderate and conservative forces in the country.
Thousands of university students, along with some of their professors, took to the streets in recent days to protest the death sentence handed down against Hashem Aghajari, an ally of reformist President Mohammad Khatami who had questioned clerical rule in Iran and was found guilty of blasphemy.
Mr. Aghajari, a history lecturer, had said Muslims should not blindly follow the teachings of senior clerics–a comment that challenges the Shiite doctrine of emulation and the basis of Iran’s Islamic regime.
Hardliners have been threatening to crack down on reform-oriented student rallies, aimed at maintaining pressure even after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, under popular pressure, ordered the judiciary in mid-November to review the verdict.
“Banning newspapers, war of words, and arrests and releases are all part of the game of democracy; only that in Iran, democracy is in a transitional phase, and hence, rudimentary,” remarked Nasseb Al Saleh, professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates’ Ajman University.
The Iranian developments are constructive, he explained in an interview. “The process of give and take is a way forward and, at some time, there will be a balance that the system will evolve and achieve. (But) one thing is certain. There is no going back to the 1979 (Islamic Revolution) days in terms of a religious political establishment, because people have tasted democracy,” he added.
“Remember, just a few weeks ago there was talk of a dead reform movement and now, there is talk of a possible conservative pullback,” said Professor Al Saleh
However, news reports say hardliners are also taking to the streets. On Nov. 21, some 1,500 hardliners in the southern city of Shiraz rallied in defense of the clerical establishment.
At the height of their protests, students had chanted slogans saying “Death to the Taliban in Kabul and Tehran,” a reference to the ruling clerics in Iran, media reports said.
“Our problem is not only the revision of the death sentence on Hashem Aghajari, but freedom of speech and freedom in general,” Adbollah Mo’memi, an Iranian student leader, was quoted as saying.
Ayatollah Khomenei warned that he might resort to “popular force”–a euphemism for the Revolutionary Guards who have been used to break up pro-reform rallies in the past–to end the political crisis.
Despite winning parliamentary polls in 1997 and 2001, the reformists have been curtailed by the conservative judiciary’s hostile response to the pro-reform press and liberal thinkers.
But President Khatami’s reformist allies have also upped the ante by suggesting that they would push for a rare referendum if conservatives veto two bills challenging the hardliners’ grip on power.
President Khatami, for the first time in his two-term presidency, headed for a confrontation with his conservative rivals by submitting two bills to parliament in September that would strengthen his hand in passing through his reform agenda.
“If the bills are not approved by conservative establishments, one of the choices could be a referendum,”’ the Aftab-e-Yazd daily quoted Mohsen Mirdamadi, head of parliament’s foreign affairs and national security commission as saying on Nov. 20.
One bill makes the judiciary more accountable, and the other abolishes the power of the conservative-controlled Guardian Council to veto election candidates. The 12-member council can veto legislation that it says violates Islamic law or the constitution.
Only two national referendums have been held in post-revolutionary Iran, one to establish the Islamic republic in 1979 and another to amend the constitution in 1989.
“Khomenei appears to be trying to let off steam by sparing Aghajari and he may permit some or part of the two bills to become law. But that is good enough for now because it will take the sting out of civil-war possibilities, which neither of the groups really want,” Professor Saleh said.
The developments in Iran have been watched with interest by the United States, which issued a statement saying the protests mean that people “are looking for a change in the way they are being governed.” The remarks were promptly dismissed by Tehran.
Political analyst Ghassan Al Jashi said, “There is a hidden U.S. agenda in prophesizing the Iranian government’s doom,” adding that Washington’s Middle East policy is aimed at strengthening Israel’s security.
If Saddam Hussein is neutralized, the United States will have a difficult time and wants to be able to scapegoat Iran and Syria, he said in the UAE’s Al Itihad daily.
“By creating and fuelling crises in these countries now, Washington hopes to have a ready excuse to target them in the future,” Mr. Jashi said in his commentary.