What did trigger Uncle Sam’s wrath and words on “destabilizing” the government in Iran a few days ago? Some believe it was a red line crossed by the mullahs. Both Saudi and Western intelligence, including American, got information that the suicide attacks in Riyadh were remote controlled by al Qaeda operatives out of Iran. This was the final straw. Tehran’s regime was made responsible for new terrorism.
The question now is: Who in Iran is behind it? And a wider file has been opened as the United States is scrutinizing further Persian politics. Are we faced with a centralized regime, resurrecting the jihad of the 1980s against the Greater Satan? Or are we handling more than one power inside the Islamic republic. What’s inside Iran?
Over the past decade — and to be precise since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union — the country’s political map has significantly changed. With the passing of the founder of the Republic, the grip of the radical clerics loosened up. Mr. Khomeini lacks his predecessor’s charisma. Besides, many mullah consider him more of a peer rather then amentor, including an open-minded scholar, Mohammad Khatami. The latter will be elected few years later as the president of the state. The future will witness a bi-polarization of Iran’s institutions between “radicals” attached to the mandate of the Vilayet el-Faqih (literally Mandate of the Wise, or the strict religious roots of power) and so-called reformists calling for an Islamic Perestroika. The first camp sees in the Vilayet the only source for policies and laws, let alone the selection of leaders. In other words, only clerics can assume the destiny of the nation. And accordingly the only foreign policy to follow is global jihad.
On the other side of the fence, the “reform” camp promoted more of a pragmatic thinking than ideological change. They postulate that economic liberalization and commercial openness will improve the republic, not de-Islamize it. By the end of the decade, the reformists led by Mr. Khatami took the control of the presidency, the Parliament, the technical ministries in the cabinet and segments of the army. Many in the business community supports them, as well as a few moderate clerics. The old guard dominates the security apparatuses, the other segments of the armed forces, the omnipresent Guardians of the Revolution Pasdaran,and the agencies that “export” the revolution, i.e. the budget and logistics for the support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad among Palestinians.
The two giants of Iranian politics struggle constantly over public life. While the pragmatic camp scores small advances, due to the large popular support it obtains increasingly from the electoral body, the radical clerics continue to dominate national security and their international web of jihad. Between the two mountains of power lay a third party, emerging slowly but steadily: the students. In a symbolic irony, while the Afghan talib (students) turned extreme Wahhabi, their Iranian colleagues turned freedom wannabe. Over the past few years, the student movement — mostly led by young intellectuals and academics — is demonstrating its rejection of the old order. Marches are frequent on campuses around the country and in Tehran. So is the repression by the mullah police. The generation huriye (freedom) is not demanding an amelioration of their status. It is asking for regime change. In response to Mr. Khamenei’s crack downs, the boys and the girls of Iran granted Mr. Khatami a comfortable presidential and legislative majority. Also voted in the same direction, the other suppressed sector of society: women. From under their black chadors (Iranian-style veil) the women lib of Persia blasted the all-male hierarchy of the Islamic regime.
September 11 had its own effects in Iran as well. While the radical clerics detected a change of times to come, as they witnessed the uprooting of their Sunni counterparts in Afghanistan, Iranian students amazingly flew the American flag in the face of their oppressors. Their slogans, chanted in the streets, were revolutionary: “From Kabul to Tehran, no return to Taliban.” The Iranian kids are now on their own, as they have identified their young colleagues pacifying and democratizing their neighbor to the East. That alone chills the bones of the oligarchy. But things got really worse, when last April U.S.-led coalition forces brought down Saddam statues to the west of Iran this time. That morning, the Spring of Baghdad sent memorable pictures of young Shi’ites exploding their feelings in freedom to their brothers and sisters across the Zagros Mountains (border between Iran and Iraq). In sum, the students of Persia are surrounded with freedom, while the mullahs of Iran are encircled with Democracy.
Responding to the threat, the radical mullah harbored al Qaeda remnants, increased support to Hezbollah and Hamas and went on the offensive against moderate regimes in the region. Inside the republic, the ayatollahs are preparing for an all out crushing of both the students and the reformists. Call all of that pre-emptive strikes. Washington understood the message and suggested “regime de-stabilization.” As Mr. Khatami feels the danger from all sides, he attempts to calm down Washington with periodic assertion by his Foreign Ministry that Osama bin Laden followers are arrested. No names are ever revealed. But the real confrontation won’t be between the president and the revolution, it will be between the Islamic state and the young generations. What separates them is a view of the future. The turbaned and bearded men of the Vilayet want to spread jihad and build nuclear power. The boys and girls in jeans want to spread human rights and construct democratic power.
The United States must be wiser than it has ever been before. It should work for the weakening of the religious dictatorship but must not take credit for it. It should use its resources in the change to come, but only to help the coalition of the willing inside Iran. Washington may have today the keys for a much better tomorrow in Iran. All it has to do is to contain the radicals firmly from the outside and allow the flower of liberty to grow at will on the inside. From the east and from the west, the future of Iran’s people is closer than ever to freedom. We need not to break that dream prematurely.
Walid Phares is a professor of Mideast Studies at Florida Atlantic University and an MSNBC analyst.