Challenges facing Islamic Iran’s new Majlis

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Awwal 11, 1425 2004-05-01

Special Reports

by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 3, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1425)

The results of the Iranian Majlis elections in February silenced many who had expected them to produce a massive popular rejection of the Islamic system. But in Islamic Iran people are looking ahead, not back. ZAFAR BANGASH looks forward...

The newly-elected members of Iran’s Majlis will have both opportunities and challenges when they assume their responsibilities after the new assembly is inaugurated in June. Moving beyond the simplistic labels of "conservative" and "moderate", the new Majlis will be much more cohesive, and therefore in a much better position to approve bills dealing with the problems facing Iran 25 years after the Islamic Revolution. Western propaganda notwithstanding, the elections on February 20 showed that the people of Iran are far more involved with their political system than most people in the West today. The shrill calls for a boycott, broadcast into Iran not only by CNN and the BBC but also by the 19 US-based satellite channels funded by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), were ignored by almost all Iranians, who have displayed considerable political maturity before, during and since the elections for the Majlis.

The largest group to emerge in the new Majlis (Iran has no political parties) is the Abadgaran-e Islami-e Iran (‘developers of Islamic Iran’), led by Dr Haddad Adel, a dedicated revolutionary who has served the Islamic Republic in many capacities, especially in the field of education. Far from being confrontational, he is a consensus-builder, a quality that will help him navigate the argumentative nature of parliamentary politics. The Islamic State faces many challenges; some are easy to identify: economic problems leading to high unemployment; increasing expectations among the young, for whom employment and an outlet for creativity must be found; and debate about the future of Iran’s political system. These are all related to Iran’s internal politics, although it would be unwise to compartmentalize issues into neat packages.

On the international front, the most serious problems stem from relations (or lack thereof) with the US. These are apparent in such pressures as those being exerted on Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme for energy generation, and America’s massive military presence in and around the Persian Gulf. In fact, despite being thousands of miles away geographically, the US has now in effect become Iran’s immediate neighbour. This is an unpleasant development, thrust upon the Islamic State, that policymakers in Tehran cannot afford to overlook.

Dealing with the America that is currently run by a group of extreme rightwing ideologues will be a major challenge for the Islamic State in the coming years. The US’s behaviour is not difficult to analyse; it is driven mostly by greed. There is nothing inherently wrong with countries pursuing self-interested agendas – every country and government does so –but the US tries to disguise its extreme greed and domineering attitudes with moralistic utterances, even as its aggressive actions betray its real intentions. For instance, it parrots such expressions as "freedom and democracy" for Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, yet US intervention has been an unmitigated disaster for the peoples of these lands. Of the 60 or so countries where the US has intervened in the last 50 years, not one has achieved democracy in any significant sense. In fact, while mouthing slogans about democracy, in reality the US prefers military dictatorships to democratically elected governments.

The basic features of Western policy in general, and America’s in particular, can be identified easily: those with whom the US shares common ideological or strategic interests (Britain and Israel, for instance) are considered allies and friends; those (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar and so on) whose resources – mainly oil at the moment – the US needs, and those that are regarded as advancing the US’s hegemonic agenda, such as Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Egypt and Turkey at present, are patronised. There is also a category of rivals, real or imaginary, for political, economic, ideological or military reasons. China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela fall into this category. Countries that fall outside these categories are of little immediate interest to the US, although there is hardly a country in the world today where Washington does not claim to have some sort of interest because of its global reach.

The world is menaced by a hyperpower that has arrogated to itself the right to decide how others should conduct their affairs. This is especially true of those the US considers hostile. Take the case of China: the US would like to undermine it, yet this is becoming increasingly difficult. China is an emerging military and economic power; at present Washington is pursuing a policy of containment, in conjunction with India, which also perceives Beijing as a rival. Others, such as North Korea and Islamic Iran, are being threatened by the US in order to force them to modify their policies to suit American designs.

One of the main reasons for the US adventure in Iraq (which is turning into a disaster) was and remains the encirclement of Iran. A glance at the string of US military bases in the region, from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the other side of the Persian Gulf in Qatar, Bahrain and now in Iraq, shows how the encirclement of Iran has proceeded. Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution (February 1979), the US has been unrelentingly hostile to the Islamic State because it broke out of the stranglehold of Western domination. It was also not anchored in any other secular ideology, such as communism; instead it was rooted in Islam. This is seen as a major challenge to Western hegemony, and a challenge, moreover, whose impact has been felt far and wide. Those in Iran who argue today that Iran should loosen or abandon Islamic values and priorities, in order to improve relations with the US, miss the point. Washington is not prepared to tolerate any ideology or philosophy that will enable people to adopt an independent course of action. If Islamic Iran has survived America’s disruptive machinations for 25 years, it is only because of the sustaining power of Islam, the deen chosen by Allah (swt) for mankind, which acts as a bulwark against oppressive ideologies and systems.

Despite America’s disruptive actions and attitudes, Islamic Iran has made impressive gains since the Revolution. In 1976, at the height of the Shah’s so-called modernizing crusade, only 17 percent of women in rural Iran could read and write; today 65 percent can do so. In the field of higher education women have made even more impressive gains: 62 percent of all university entrants today are women; no other Muslim country achieves anything anywhere near this figure. Although Iran’s detractors complain about lack of women’s freedom and women’s rights in Iran, the real issue is not freedom per se but the type of freedom they demand. The intent of Iran’s detractors is actually to undermine the Islamic fabric of Iranian society by raising such artificial issues. The vast majority of people in Iran are not interested in the ethical, social and cultural anarchy that grips much of the West today; this is an obsession of a tiny minority of sore losers in Iran.

Islam in Iran has anchored itself in culture, society, the economy, politics and international relations since the Revolution, and no amount of negative propaganda can hide this reality. There is also vigorous (and sometimes heated) debate about all issues affecting society. Perceptive observers have noted that every one of Iran’s 70 million people thinks that he or she is an expert on every issue; when his or her particular point of view is not followed to the letter, the result is complaints about lack of freedom!

Islamic Iran’s policy-makers should build on their strengths, one of the most important of which is an educated populace that is highly politicized and cultured, and a new elite – the product of the Revolution – that is well-educated, well-read and well-informed; many have doctorates, thanks to deliberate State policy. This new elite is now active in the many associations of specialists that are beginning to exert significant influence on policy-making in the country. It is the convergence of this educated elite and the ulama that will act as a bulwark against US encroachments upon Iran’s independence.

Far from isolating Islamic Iran, it is the US under George Bush that has become a pariah state: even his European allies find Bush too toxic for comfort; he has become a political leper. Washington has to bribe or threaten rulers to get their support or acquiescence. The American rhetoric about freedom and democracy is so much hot air. To Iran’s east lies Pakistan, whose military dictator, general Pervez Musharraf, is a staunch US ally. Were Pakistan ruled by Halaku Khan, America would have little trouble making common cause with him to advance its own imperialist agenda. Gradually European governments are distancing themselves from the US’s policies, aware that these are deeply unpopular among their relatively better informed populace, unlike most Americans, who are brought up on a steady diet of Pentagon propaganda churned out uncritically by CNN and other television stations. Some, like the French, have parted company with the US and have challenged, for instance, the US-imposed investment limit of US$40 million in Iran. As early as 1995 (a year after the investment embargo was announced by former president Bill Clinton), Total, a French oil company, defied it. Now Renault, a French car-manufacturer, has followed suit. It signed a deal worth nearly US$900 million last October to set up a manufacturing plant in Iran.

It is at the international level that the environment is most favourable to Islamic Iran’s interests today. The US finds itself entangled in the Afghan and Iraqi adventures, from which it is finding it very difficult to extricate itself. Tehran should not provide any comfort to US adventurism in either; instead it should help to expedite the US’s departure from both. Already the Iraqis are making life very difficult for the Americans; any people of pride and spirit would do so in such circumstances. A militarily chastened America is good for the world, especially Islamic Iran. Although Washington may want to lash out at others, to deflect attention from its failure in Iraq, American generals may not be so easily persuaded to comply. Besides, the US does not have the manpower to take on any more Iraq-style adventures; its forces are already stretched to breaking-point, and morale among American troops in Iraq is very low. Now may well be the time to begin to work for a new international order based on justice and fairness, rather than one based on bullying and exploitation. But before Tehran is able to do that, it must work on the domestic front to create an environment in which all Iranians are working toward common objectives, instead of pulling in different directions on various issues, despite being largely united on main aims.

Of all the countries in the region, Islamic Iran is the most stable, politically and economically; that is why Europe, Russia, China and Japan are all vying to establish close links with it. Iran has a large, educated population and is a wealthy country; its resources now need to be harnessed properly to give it the weight and influence on the international level that it deserves. It has already established its position as an essential player for regional security and development, despite American efforts to exclude it. What it achieves domestically, based on the performance of the new Majlis, will be crucial in other vital areas as well. The incoming Majlis will certainly have a busy agenda to work for.

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