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The Loneliness of the Supreme Leader’


On November 22, I was a guest at a barracks of the Islamic militia (officially called the Basij, or the Mobilization of the Oppressed) in a suburb of Tehran. Some thirty militiamen in their late teens and early twenties had gathered to celebrate the birthday of Ali Ibn-Abu Taleb, the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law, the first Imam of Shia Islam. Before the ceremony started, a middle-aged man entered the room, holding a copy of Keyhan, the main newspaper of the conservative establishment. From the polite greetings he received and the superior manner of his responses, it was clear that he was a figure of authority. Without noticing me, the only foreigner in the room, he sat on the floor, cross-legged, and began speaking.

At the time, Iran’s politics had been convulsed by nationwide student demonstrations protesting against the death sentence that had been given to a freethinking academic, Hashem Aghajari, for apostasy. The demonstrations—which began the day after Aghajari’s sentence was made public, on November 6—were supported by the reformist government of President Muhammad Khatami, and were mostly confined to university campuses. Although none of the demonstrations is thought to have attracted more than five thousand participants, they were Iran’s most serious protests since 1999, when the suppression of riots at Tehran University left one student dead. Alarmed by the scope of the current demonstrations, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a review of the verdict against Mr. Aghajari, but he issued a warning as well. If trouble continued, he would not hesitate to deploy “popular forces.” He was partly referring to the Ansar Hezbollah, a fellowship of Islamic thugs who take orders from senior conservatives. But most of the regime’s “popular forces” are members of the Islamic militia, such as the young men I was visiting.

In this modest Tehran suburb, Khamenei’s words hung in the air. The speaker assured the militiamen that the Islamic Republic faced mortal danger. They should not, he urged, suppose that the campus demonstrations were spontaneous expressions of dissent; they had been meticulously planned by Iran’s enemy, America. America’s aims, he said, were to make Iran seem divided and, eventually, to bring down the Islamic regime. “Do you think,” he asked rhetorically, “that America intends to stop after it has dealt with Iraq? Do you think that’s the sum of George Bush’s ambitions for the region?”

Supported by America, he said, Israel also posed an immediate danger. Its ambition was to expand as far as the Euphrates, putting it on Iran’s doorstep. Everyone knew, he said, that over the years Iran had supported the oppressed Palestinians and opposed Israel. In a week’s time, on Jerusalem Day, which falls on the last Friday in Ramadan, and was used by the late Ayatollah Khomeini as a means of showing Iran’s solidarity with the Palestinians, it was vital that Iranians exhibit their resolve.

This Jerusalem Day,” he went on, “must be different from other Jerusalem Days.” Any member of the militia who did not participate in the state-sponsored marches, he said, would be guilty of “the greatest betrayal of Islam.” The Americans and their lackeys, the British, would be observing the marches; they would seize on signs of faltering zeal. Unless Iran made an impressive show of unity and strength, he concluded, “we might as well recite the fateheh [prayer for the dead] over the corpse of the Islamic Republic.”

The following day, Khamenei delivered the sermon during Friday prayers at Tehran University. He castigated the Americans for coveting the material wealth of the Islamic world, and accused them of supporting the “unprecedented violence” being inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians. In an oblique reference to the protesting students, he declared that anyone who accused the Islamic Republic of despotism was either “the agent of the enemy, or its dupe.” Another part of the sermon seemed to have nothing to do with America or the students, although in fact it was a reply to both. Khamenei recalled the thousands of Iranians who “had been persecuted and whipped” by the Shah’s “diabolical regime.” They had not endured these persecutions, he said, “in order to bring about Western democracy.” Then, referring to the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, he said, “Those mothers who swelled with pride at the sacrifices they made—at losing two or three sons, a son-in-law, a husband—they weren’t pursuing Western democracy.” “Back then,” the Supreme Leader continued, “the people longed for spiritual development and material welfare under the shelter of Islam, and for the boon of the sovereignty of Islamic law. Now, too, that remains the case.”

If Khamenei’s office or other institutions under his control have based their rhetoric on opinion polls, their findings have been kept from the public. In fact, the conservative establishment seems terrified by any attempt to find out what Iranians actually want, to judge by the trial that began in December of Behrouz Geranpayeh, Hossein-Ali Ghazian, and Abbas Abdi, all of them pollsters and public opinion researchers. The public prosecutor accused Ghazian, who runs a polling institute with Abdi, of having contacts with “agents associated with foreign intelligence and security services.” He told the court that Geranpayeh, who runs another polling organization, had given “a false picture of public opinion‚” sold information to foreigners, and been in contact with “counterrevolutionaries.” According to the editor of Keyhan, the authorities had “unearthed the ultimate base of American espionage, and the operations center for a fifth column.”

Public prosecutors hope to use classified documents, allegedly found in one of the polling institutes, to implicate other reformists in the affair. Another explanation for the trial may be that the public opinion surveys of the two polling institutes were unpalatable to conservatives, particularly their findings that 74 percent of people living in Tehran favor the restoration of official dialogue with the US, and that 64 percent want full bilateral relations. (Geranpayeh had also polled people in Tehran on their favorite leaders, and found that President Khatami came near the top of the list, with conservative leaders trailing far behind.) It is possible that Abdi, who is an influential political strategist, is being punished for publicly urging reformists to refuse to cooperate with the authorities as a means of pressuring conservative institutions to give up some of their power. As an indication of conservative thinking, the most enlightening part of the charge sheet was its reference to the crime, allegedly committed by one of the polling institutes, of gathering “precise and comprehensive data about the views [and] beliefs of people across the country.”

There is a widespread belief that the judiciary will arrest reformists in parliament if they decide to carry out their longstanding threat to call for a referendum on the arbitrary powers of the senior conservative clerics. The sole empirical evidence available for the Supreme Leader’s account of Iranians’ desires may be the referendum held a few weeks after the 1979 revolution which asked, “Should Iran be an Islamic Republic?” More than 98 percent of the replies were positive. But Iran has changed a lot since then.

Taken together, the Supreme Leader’s sermon and the pep talk given to the militiamen are revealing. The conservatives have rarely felt so embattled; they blame America—along with Israel and Britain—for their recent vulnerability. Moreover, they have identified the ideology that threatens them. It is not the nostalgic monarchism that animates many Iranian exiles who are drawn to Reza Pahlavi, the elder son of the late Shah, who is living in the US. Nor is it the Islamic-leftist movement that was popular as well as murderous in the early years of the Islamic regime. It is something else, inchoate but ominously associated with the enemy: liberal democracy.


At present, there are few declared liberal democrats in parliament or among the ministers and bureaucrats who make up Khatami’s reform movement. Most of the reformists continue to argue for the “Islamic democracy” that Khatami has been trying, ineffectively, to install since he became president five years ago. Khatami’s followers present Islamic democracy as a third way—between religious dictatorship, which is what Iran increasingly resembles, and secular democracy, which it has never known. Illegal arrests and the suppression of free speech; the disqualification of reformist candidates for office by the powerful Council of Guardians, half of its members appointed by the Supreme Leader; and the wholesale spiking of legislation by the same body—all of these stem, they claim, from a despotic and willful misinterpretation of the constitution established under the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and later amended, not the constitution itself.

But Khatami’s “Islamic democracy” seems to be running out of steam. This isn’t because it cannot work—that hasn’t been proved either way. It is because the Islamic conservative leadership hasn’t given it a chance to work. Parliament’s reformist majority is making a final effort to save Islamic democracy by working to ratify two legislative bills that were put forward by Khatami. The first of these would, in theory, allow him to end such constitutional violations as the trial without jury of political prisoners and the arbitrary vetoing of legislation by the Council of Guardians. The second would curtail the Council of Guardians’ power to disqualify reformist candidates from public office. (The council, it is widely believed, intends to abuse this privilege before the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2004.) Conservative deputies have in effect been filibustering the legislation by proposing hundreds of amendments to it; but Mustafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist and former senior government official, expects that parliament will pass both bills by the end of April.

It seems unlikely, however, that the bills will be ratified by the Council of Guardians, and then implemented. If they are, this would signal a profound shift in Iran’s politics, and President Khatami’s prestige would rise. If the bills are vetoed, or their implementation is obstructed, Islamic democracy will be further enfeebled. Khatami, his allies insist, would submit his resignation. (He would probably be accompanied by members of the cabinet, and perhaps by some parliamentary deputies.) Whether or not the Supreme Leader accepts Khatami’s resignation, Iran could fall into political crisis.

Khatami, because he has twice been overwhelmingly elected to office, represents the Islamic Republic’s last claim to popular legitimacy. His friendships with European leaders might have a moderating effect on George Bush, who has been urged by Ariel Sharon to take aggressive measures against Iran, once Iraq is dealt with. Anything other than outright victory for Khatami would signal his political eclipse, and a huge setback for Islamic democracy. The President’s former supporters would have to search for new ways of expressing their aspirations; many will probably turn toward Western models.

Earlier this year, Akbar Ganji, a courageous journalist who was jailed in 2000, ostensibly for attending a controversial conference abroad, posted his “Manifesto for Republicans” on the Internet. Ganji used to be an Islamic democrat. But in his recent manifesto, which he wrote behind bars, he accused many reformists of using democratic jargon to disguise their essentially authoritarian tendencies. He contradicted the preeminent reformist philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, who has argued that religious government, if it is authentic, cannot be anything but democratic. The only way to avoid conflict between democracy and religious law, Ganji maintained, is for religion “to retreat from the domain of the state, into the private sphere.” He called for a referendum on a new, democratic constitution.

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