Political crisis threatens to weaken Iran at a crucial time

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Shawwal 27, 1423 2003-01-01

Special Reports

by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 21, Shawwal, 1423)

The current crisis in Iran arising from a court verdict against Hashemi Aghajari, a professor at Tehran University, is clearly a case of an unnecessary self-inflicted wound. As Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the Rahbar, pointed out after several days of demonstrations by students, the judiciary should be more careful in how it handles cases and should not open itself to ridicule by handing down sweeping verdicts.

The problem arose on November 6, when a court in Hamedan declared Aghajari guilty of blasphemy for a statement he had made last August. During a speech to students, he had said that Muslims "should not blindly" follow religious leaders, and called for "religious renewal" of the Shi’ah sect. On the face of it this statement seems innocuous, but in Iran it is politically loaded. Among the Shi’ah, following a marja’ (religious scholar) is a requirement for religious observances. So Aghajari’s statement was seen as attacking this long-established religious practice. Among the Sunnis there is little emphasis on this point, but for the Shi’ah it is a weighty matter.

Equally significant are the political implications of Aghajari’s statement. In recent years there has been an increasingly noisy debate about the role of the ulama in running the affairs of state. There are those within Iran who assert that they should have nothing to do with it; others hold equally strongly that they must be fully involved to guide the society in all matters, religious and political alike. This debate is not new; it erupted soon after the Islamic Revolution (1979) led by Imam Khomeini against the Shah’s regime. At that time the so-called liberals, led by people like Bani Sadr and Qutbzadeh, who had penetrated the movement, thought the Imam would settle in Qum and leave the affairs of state in their hands, in the manner of Ayatullah Kashani, who left the political stage after the Shah was driven from power in 1951 and Dr Mohammed Mussadeq took over as prime minister.

This is, in fact, what happened initially in 1979, when Mehdi Bazargan was appointed prime minister and the Imam forbade the ulama to assume any direct role in the day-to-day running of the state. As Vali-e Faqih, Imam Khomeini provided general guidance to government functionaries, but it soon became clear that for the liberals the Islamic state of Iran was little more than an improved version of Pakistan, with some revolutionary slogans to keep the masses happy.

Bazargan and Bani-Sadr were dismissed, and the ulama assumed direct control of affairs of state. This, however, was acceptable to neither the liberals nor the munafiqeen (hypocrites) backed by the US. They launched a vicious campaign of terror and assassinations. It was assumed that the ulama would be unable to control the situation; that either the military or the liberals would soon achieve dominance, and the US resume its plunder and exploitation of Iran. This did not happen; the ulama, led by Imam Khomeini, proved far more competent and showed far greater strength and resilience in resisting both internal intrigue and external aggression from Iraq than the western-educated liberals had thought possible. During Imam Khomeini’s lifetime few dared to question his authority openly because of his towering personality. In fact, different factions in Iran, holding wildly divergent views, often claimed to represent his "line". Since his demise in June 1989, opponents of the ulama have begun to demand that they should give up their role in state administration and decision-making.

While Aghajari has adopted a somewhat similar position, it is important to make a distinction. He cannot be accused of being part of the "liberal" trend in Iran; he made great sacrifices during the war against Iraq, in which he was seriously wounded. At the same time, his statement demonstrates the kind of differences in thought that have emerged in the last decade or so in Iran. There is vigorous debate within the country about who should have the final say on matters of state policy and legislation. This debate even extends to questioning the role of the Rahbar, the supreme authority in the country, with some groups calling for a direct vote to elect him. It is clear that many in Iran have imbibed western cultural and political values, and are unable to distinguish between an Islamic state and a secular one. Islam has its own value-system that does not draw upon western secular values, in which vested interest groups fight for control of resources while pretending to represent the people.

As an Islamic state, Iran will be and should be held to a higher standard. After all, an Islamic state cannot be judged by lesser standards than those applied to a secular state. It must immediately be conceded that Iran is not a perfect model of the Islamic state; it is in transition towards an Islamic state. It does make mistakes, which should be readily admitted so that they can be rectified. For instance, there is the problem of economic mismanagement, made worse by a unilateral embargo imposed by the US in order to undermine the Islamic Republic. These problems are compounded by corruption and the alienation of young people from Islamic values. It is astonishing that in just one generation the great sacrifices made for the Revolution have been forgotten. The youth in Iran are by and large so infatuated with western culture that they know little or nothing about Islamic values and culture. These shortcomings need to be addressed and overcome if the Islamic Republic is to reintegrate young men and women into society, instead of letting them adopt western, often immoral and unethical, values.

Aghajari’s statement must be considered against this background. Initially he refused to appeal against the verdict, saying that if the court felt the sentence against him was just it should be carried out. On December 3, the day the deadline for his appeal was to expire, Saleh Nikbakht, his defence lawyer, appealed against his sentence. President Mohammed Khatami, who on November 13 had described the sentence as "inappropriate", said that it would not be carried out. "This verdict was inappropriate. I personally do not accept such practices," the president was quoted as saying by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). "Such a verdict should never have been issued and I hope that this issue will soon be resolved." The president added: "the death penalty is not applicable and will not be applied."

What the Aghajari case illustrates is that there are people on both sides of the political spectrum who appear determined to stir passions and push their respective sides to extremes. In fact, in both camps (often referred to as "conservatives" and "reformers") there are fringe elements that want to create dissension and discord. But both camps also have people, comprising the vast majority, who realize this and are striving to resolve their differences. For instance, president Khatami himself asked all sides to tone down their rhetoric and work within the bounds of law. He also called on people not to do anything that would increase tension in society. He warned that irresponsible statements would harm the country’s interests. Even in the conservative camp a number of prominent figures have criticized the verdict and said that it should not have been passed. This clearly indicates the large common ground between the two factions; this needs to be cultivated, and the debate conducted in a more rational manner, so that people’s emotions do not get out of control.

While the Iranians debate these issues, often with great enthusiasm and sometimes with angry rhetoric, they must not lose sight of what is happening outside their borders. The US’s hostility to Islamic Iran is no secret. Not only has Washington described Iran, together with Iraq and North Korea, as part of the so-called axis of evil, but on December 13 the US added another factor to its mischievous campaign against Iran. Unnamed US officials told CNN that Tehran was secretly producing nuclear weapons at two new nuclear plants at Arak and Natanz. These allegations were made after the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) published what it claimed were satellite photographs of "secret" nuclear activity by Tehran. Like other such bodies, ISIS is a front for the US government; whenever Washington feels the need to target a country, one of its so-called institutes or think tanks is wheeled out to provide "evidence."

These allegations have been dismissed by Iran as part of the continuing American propaganda against the Islamic Republic. Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were notified by Tehran of the two new plants last September; they are scheduled to arrive for inspection in February, according to the IAEA terms. Abdullah Ramazanzadeh, an Iranian official, denied that anything sinister was going on at the plants. The Natanz plant was used for experiments with radioactivity, he said. "We don’t have any hidden atomic activities. All our nuclear activities are for non-military fields," he insisted. When the BBC World Service contacted Melissa Fleming, an IAEA spokeswoman, on December 13, she said that Iran has not violated its agreements, which require opening each facility to inspection six months before any radioactive material is used there. Dr Mohamed El-Baradei, the head of IAEA, is due in Iran in February to inspect the new sites. In fact, during the BBC interview, another IAEA spokesperson flatly dismissed suggestions that Iran might use these plants to divert enriched uranium or plutonium to weapons-making. This IAEA spokesperson said that Iran had observed its obligations as a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty scrupulously, and that there was no reason to believe it would not do so in the future.

Given Iran’s impeccable record in fulfilling its international obligations, what explanation could there be for America’s vicious propaganda against Tehran, especially at a time when American forces are poised to attack Iraq? It is clear that US policy has been hijacked by a small coterie of hardcore warriors from the cold war era who believe that America need not abide by any rules, and that it can dictate to the rest of the world how it should behave and who should govern where. The US has made no secret of its hatred of countries such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Sudan; with the exception of North Korea, all of these are Muslim countries. This policy of open hostility towards Muslims is essentially dictated by America’s ward, Israel, whose rulers have already started claiming that Iran is a greater threat to US interests than Iraq. In fact, the zionists have long feared the revolutionaries of Iran, who defended the Revolution successfully against a brutal military onslaught by Iraq, backed and financed by essentially the entire world, for eight years.

Using the events of September 11, 2001, as its pretext, the US has launched a crusade on the assumption that it has no equals militarily and that it can get away with murder (literally and metaphorically both) anywhere in the world. This new crusade was launched with the infamous "axis of evil" speech by US president George W. Bush on January 30 last year before a joint session of congress. This came to be called the Bush doctrine, but it was conceived in essence by the zionists in Tel Aviv, in conjunction with their friends in the US government. These include such notorious figures as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and their rightwing Christian fellow travellers, Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft. Now Elliot Abrams, another ‘super hawk’, has joined the inner circle of cold warriors as Bush’s senior director for Near East and North African affairs in the National Security Council. In this post he will be directly in charge of the Palestinian-Israeli "peace process", among other things. Abrams’ hostility to the Arabs is no secret; he belongs to the extremist fringe of the Israeli Likud party. He gained notoriety during Reagan’s presidency when he was convicted of lying to congress about supplying arms and money to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels in contravention of a congressional ban. Abrams avoided imprisonment only because Bush Senior pardoned him after becoming president. A convicted felon and his kind now control the destiny of millions of human beings in the world by dictating US policy.

It is bearing these matters in mind that the people of Iran have to consider their options. They must be wary of America’s so-called support for reformers in Iran; it is merely a ploy, and a dangerous one at that. While most Iranians are not fooled by such tactics, there is still the need to be extra vigilant in order not to give America any pretext or excuse to meddle in Iran’s internal affairs. It must also be borne in mind that there are some groups in Iran (the monarchists and the munafiqeen, for instance) who are prepared to betray their country for personal gain. These people are operating inside the country as well as abroad. There is also no doubt that such groups are busy instigating trouble within Iran in order to destabilize the country. The best guarantee against their mischief and that of their chief patron, the US, is for the Islamic republic to do the right thing. This means honest debate about issues and problems confronting Iran, tackling them in earnest in order to alleviate people’s grievances. Good governance is an essential task of the Islamic state.

At the same time, there must be clear understanding about certain fundamental points relating to governance in the Islamic state. The Rahbar, the leader of the Islamic state, cannot be subject to the whims of the masses. When Muslims choose a leader, he is there to be obeyed and respected. This is based on Islamic principles as well as supported by the hadith of the Prophet of Allah (saw). At the same time, the Islamic state and its institutions must function according to the lofty principles of justice and fairness stipulated by the Qur’an and the Seerah. When some people perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they are not being treated fairly, it creates problems in society. The law must apply equally to all; there cannot be favouritism or double standards in the Islamic state.

The stakes are too high for people to take a narrow, self-centred view of matters. One point, however, should be clear to the US as well: should it make the mistake of attacking Iran, all Iranians, no matter what their political outlook or differences, will rise as one to confront American aggression. The US should not harbour any illusions that political differences in Iran will enable it to exploit the situation; attacking Iran will be neither easy nor cost-free. In fact, it may well prove the ruination of US imperial ambitions. Iran is neither Afghanistan under the Taliban nor Iraq ruled by a dictator. Even if Bush understands little else, he should at least avoid the pitfall of harbouring illusions regarding Iran, no matter what devilish sleights of hand and mind Israel and its friends conjure up to confuse him.

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