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The Loneliness of the Supreme Leader’

Many of Ganji’s demands—as well as his impudent lampooning of the Supreme Leader—were echoed during last month’s protests. “We students,” Akbar Attri, a leader of Iran’s biggest student body, the Office to Foster Unity, told me, “gave up our hopes in Khatami a long time ago. Iran has mixed religion and democracy, and found that it doesn’t work.” According to Abdullah Momeni, a colleague of Attri’s, there is a qualitative difference between the student actions and the Khatami government’s own protests in the Aghajari affair. “The government,” he told me, “protested against the severity of the sentence against Aghajari. We were opposing the fact that someone can be tried for apostasy.”

In a recent issue of Aftab (“Sun”), a monthly magazine, Ali-Reza Alavi Tabar, a prominent progressive and a professional colleague of Ghazian’s and Abdi’s, outlines three stages on the road to full democracy. Iran, he writes, hasn’t reached the first of these, which would be to force conservative leaders to be more accountable by accepting critical scrutiny of activities and institutions over which they enjoy absolute control, like broadcasting and the powerful religious foundations. The second stage, according to Alavi Tabar, would be to establish a more democratic interpretation of the existing constitution. This is, in fact, the effect that Khatami hopes his two bills will have. The final stage would be more radical. It would involve building a consensus to change the constitution, and to substitute a new definition of government that would either sharply diminish the influence of religious authority or establish a secular democracy. If this were done, he makes clear, the institution of the Supreme Leader, set up by the Ayatollah Khomeini, would not survive.

At present the liberals who want democracy unrestricted by Islamic law and the Islamic democrats need each other. During the recent protests, Khatami’s education minister put pressure on the university authorities to allow campus demonstrations, and he made sure that uniformed policemen protected students from physical attack by hezbollahis, and from arrest and torture at the hands of plainclothes members of Iran’s myriad intelligence organizations. Student leaders were unhappy when the Khatemi government reacted to Khamenei’s order to review the death sentence of Hashem Aghajari by withdrawing its support for the protests; but they delayed further demonstrations until December 7, which is National Student Day. The few students who have been arrested since then, during revived on-campus demonstrations, are now in the hands of the Intelligence Ministry, which is dominated by reformists. They seem to have been arrested for breaking the peace, not for political crimes, and there have been no allegations of torture or mistreatment.

Khatami is defending people who are more radical than he is. At the height of the unrest, the National Security Council—which he chairs but which contains many leading conservatives—issued an order that forbade the arrest of prominent student activists. The edict was signed by the Supreme Leader, but was soon violated. On November 25, four student leaders, including Attri and Momeni, were arrested by agents of the Revolutionary Court, the arm of the judiciary that deals with political offenses and alleged crimes against national security, and is known for the harshness of its sentences. Khatami was furious. He ordered the students’ immediate release, and was, surprisingly to some, obeyed. He then refused to consider the demand of a senior military official that some 140 student activists—who had been identified as subversives—be arrested.

The much-respected reformist Mustafa Tajzadeh told me that this was a triumph for the students. Following the 1999 disturbances, he points out, students were tortured and condemned to long jail sentences. This time, none of the four arrested students complained of physical mistreatment. The case against them now looks as if it has been shelved; the student movement is intact, and its most important leaders are free. This is surely owing to Khatami and the support—however unwilling—that he is getting from Khamenei and some of his fellow conservatives who are anxious to avoid chaos.

Not all conservatives are as pragmatic as the Supreme Leader, however. According to Tajzadeh, ultra-hard-liners in the judiciary, the Intelligence Ministry, and the security forces—“a cancerous tumor” on the country—are searching for an excuse to launch a coup d’état against the President, in the hope of installing a strong dictatorship. They oppose the secret negotiations that are taking place between Iran and the US concerning limited bilateral cooperation against Iraq. Tajzadeh suggests that they may have been behind the admission of al-Qaeda operatives into Iran.

On November 30, these hard-liners were criticized by a conservative newspaper, Jumhuri Eslami, in a remarkable article, “The Loneliness of the Supreme Leader.” The newspaper acknowledged that Khamenei is being undermined by people who are even more authoritarian than he is. The article specifically attacked Abdulnabi Namazi, the prosecutor-general, for flagrantly defying Khameini’s order to review the Aghajari verdict. (His defiance forced Aghajari’s lawyer, against his client’s wishes, to lodge an appeal in early December.)

The extreme conservatives, most of them senior clerics, would like Aghajari’s sentence to be confirmed by a court of appeal. Ominously enough, the panel of judges who are to oversee this court includes two very conservative judges, both of whom are notorious for having sentenced reformists to death in the past. It is rumored, furthermore, that a powerful conservative ayatollah has issued a fatwa sentencing Aghajari to death; this will make it hard, even for a lenient judge, to reverse the earlier verdict. If Aghajari is executed, the ultra-conservatives would welcome the opportunity to violently suppress the intense campus demonstrations that would inevitably follow. The hard-line leaders have small numbers of fanatical supporters in the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guard, the plainclothes squads, and the intelligence organizations. They proclaim their loyalty to the Supreme Leader, but this seems a marriage of convenience.


At the height of the student protests in November, a US-based Persian-language television channel broadcast what it said was a “live” conversation with several young Iranian men who claimed to be speaking from Tehran. The young men announced that the capital was in chaos, and that they were preparing to seize control of it. The interviewer breathlessly urged them on. “Go, my dear ones!” he said. “Don’t sit there glued to the television screen!”

Such fantasies have long given heart to the Iranian diaspora. Now they color the judgment of the press and television in the US. During the recent protests, several mainstream US publications gave their readers the impression that Iran was in the throes of a revolution. On November 15, CNN interviewed a spokesman for a US-based Iranian dissident group, the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran. I know this committee; they clutter my e-mail with fictitious accounts of mass arrests, riots, and mayhem in Iran. They have referred to the recent protests as an “uprising.”

In the November 25 on-line edition of National Review, Michael Ledeen claimed that “something like half a million” Iranians had taken to the streets on November 22, “to demonstrate their disgust with the regime of the Islamic Republic.” On December 6, in the same publication, he misrepresented events as follows: “The revolution is being led by students, workers, intellectuals, and military officers and soldiers.”

So far as I know, Ledeen hasn’t visited Iran since the days of Iran-contra—in which, acting as a consultant to Ronald Reagan’s administration, he played a small and inglorious part.* His distorted analysis of events in Iran—which conflicts diametrically with my own experience—has unaccountably been given a platform by The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times. It would be interesting to know the sources of the information he and other conservative American commentators have been circulating about Iran.

There is no revolution in Iran. Most Iranians are sullen but cautious; they were merely observers of the recent protests. The biggest demonstration to have taken place on November 22, the day that Ledeen claims half a million people took to the streets, and which I observed myself, was attended by around five thousand people. Most students in Iran had nothing to do with the campus demonstrations. Even activists like Attri and Momeni disclaim revolutionary ambitions and admit that they are not leading a mass movement. They are not armed. Few are willing to die for their beliefs. (In these two characteristics they differ from the revolutionaries of 1979.) They need protection, by the police and from Islamic bullies.

They can, however, act as a catalyst, and their cause is strengthened by the relative feebleness of the forces opposing them. In theory, in times of crisis the regime can call on eight million members of the militia. The reality is different. A few boys in the Basij barracks I visited are genuine ideologues. Many more joined the militia because of the special privileges they get for doing so—basijis do three months less military service than non-basijis, and have a better chance of gaining admission to a university. The same motives can be found in hundreds of Basij barracks across the country.

The militiamen turned out, as instructed, on Jerusalem Day. In central Tehran, several hundred thousand basijis and other dependents of the regime, men and women, thronged the streets. (Perhaps this is where Ledeen got his figure of half a million.) Their attendance was hardly voluntary. Many of the participants have jobs in conservative-sponsored state institutions and were instructed to attend. The mood was lighthearted. It was hard to imagine these people physically attacking fellow Iranians.

Such attacks can be expected only from a relatively small number of hezbollahis, hard-line basijis, and murderous ideologues like Saeed Asghar, who was convicted of trying to kill an important reformist in 2000, but was freed in time to direct much of the violence against students and other demonstrators during the recent protests. The violence may, in fact, be intensifying. On December 8, some three hundred Islamic thugs stormed onto the campus of Iran’s Amir Kabir University and attacked about two thousand students who were participating in a peaceful political meeting there.

It is possible that a dramatic escalation of protest, or perhaps the death of a demonstrator, would shake more Iranians from their timidity and torpor. This may be the aim of the ultra-conservatives. Both Khatami and Khamenei are apprehensive about growing unrest. They want to get on with their own struggle for power, which they see as central to the future of Iran. The Supreme Leader is being pressured by fanatics. Khatami not only faces strong conservative opposition to his bills in parliament; he is also being outflanked by democrats who draw their inspiration not from his benign reading of Islam but from Western political traditions. The center of Iranian politics—the ground that is currently occupied by the President and Supreme Leader—is becoming more and more unstable. If this trend continues, radicals on both sides will have an impact way beyond their relatively small size.

—December 18, 2002

  1. *

    See Theodore Draper, “Rewriting the Iran-Contra Story,” The New York Review, January 19, 1989, a review of several books on the subject, including Ledeen’s own Perilous Statecraft: An Insider’s Account of the Iran-Contra Affair (Scribner, 1988), and the ensuing correspondence between Draper and Ledeen, published in the Review, March 2, 1989.

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