Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran: Why Return To Revolutionary Values Is Temporary

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (foreground) with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left), November 2005 (AFP) The clash between Iran and the West over Iran's nuclear program has entered a new phase since Mahmud Ahmadinejad won a surprise victory in presidential elections in June 2005. This new phase is marked by harsh and inflammatory rhetoric reminiscent of the early years of the Iran's Islamic revolution. To understand how the new situation relates to the dynamics of the power struggle within Iran, Fatemeh Aman of RFE/RL's Radio Farda interviewed one of Iran's most prominent opposition figures, Mohsen Sazegara. Currently a visiting fellow at Yale University, Sazegara was imprisoned in Iran in 2003 for his open advocacy of a secular, democratic system. In 2005, an Iranian court sentenced him in absentia to seven years in prison for undermining national security. A member of Iran's revolutionary cadres in his younger years and later one of the first dissidents to criticize Iran's Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei directly, Sazegara has a deep knowledge of the internal dynamics of Iranian politics.

RFE/RL: Dr Sazegara, the world is confused about the behavior of Iran's leaders. Iran had been seeking international trust and cooperation in the preceding eight years but now we only hear words of defiance. How did we get here?

Mohsen Sazegara: I believe what's happening in Iran right now is the comic version of the tragedy that took place with the advent of the Islamic revolution. In general, all revolutions tend to reach a point where they are confronted with the reality that their primary objectives are unachievable. There is a phase in which the revolutionary leaders relate this defeat to bad management, rather than to any inherent deficiencies in the principles of the revolution, and blame it on liberal and impure elements. As a result, the revolutionary elements tend to resort to their founding values. In fact, a kind of cultural revolution takes place. This is one of the things that is happening in Iran. Insisting on confrontation with the West, and the emphasis on the poor and the state economy all indicate that the current leadership, in particular Mr Khamenei, believe that, if the course of events is turned back to the early days of the Islamic republic, all problems will be solved. Mr Khamenei has positioned himself at the forefront of this move and has allied himself with those who advocate a fascistic interpretation of Islam.

However, there is also another factor, and that is the strategy adopted by the Revolutionary Guards [the main base of support for President Ahmadinejad], which is based on inflating the threat of a foreign enemy and sanctions due to the nuclear issue. This strategy has been used to successfully justify an astronomical budget for the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij paramilitary forces [a volunteer group related to the Revolutionary Guard]. This group hopes that, by supporting the conservative layers of society using charity-style approaches, they will be able to rally 30 percent of society behind the regime. That is their plan to suppress the democracy movement.

RFE/RL: Why do you think the reversion to revolutionary values will not work?

Sazegara: There are two reasons. First of all, retrying a failed experience is a big mistake. The Iranian people have experienced these extremist policies. The period when people would have supported these policies is past, and people have seen what the consequences of revolutionary policies have been for the country. The confiscation of property and the consequent outflow of capital from Iran have shown to have damaging effects on the economy. The second factor that will lead to the failure of this policy are the fundamental changes that Iranian society has undergone, such as urbanization, higher rates of literacy, the participation of women, industrialization, globalization, and -- above all -- the fact that the era of revolutionary discourse adopted by the country's intellectuals is over. We are now entering an era with a new paradigm, what we could call the democratic and liberal discourse. Seventy percent of the population is made up by the young people who were raised in this new era. I therefore believe that the current situation is temporary and transitional, although it will inflict significant damage on society.

The Conservatives' Factional Conflicts

RFE/RL: Do you think that the entire conservative faction supports this new policy?

Sazegara: Factional conflicts have been an integral part of life in the Islamic republic since its establishment. Because of the lack of democratic structures, such conflicts tend to be resolved by one faction excluding the other. The closest natural allies of this fundamentalist group [advocates of what Sazegara terms a 'fascistic interpretation of Islam'] are the traditional religious conservatives such as [Hezb-i] Motalefeh (Islamic Coalition) and the Society of Militant Clergy. However, serious conflicts are emerging between these groups. These differences are even reflected at the highest level, in the relationship between the president and the head of the National Security Council, Ali Larijani.

RFE/RL: The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has always been well aligned with the traditionalists. How will he react to this growing rift within the conservatives? Will he move to slow [President] Ahmadinejad down?

Sazegara: Well, we have to realize that the entire conservative camp agrees on the principle of a judicial system based on Islam. However, here they were faced with an unpredictable factor -- and that is Ahmadinejad's peculiar character. His views are centered on the reemergence of Imam Zaman, the Twelfth Imam [a line of religious leaders held by Shi'ite Muslims to be the divinely appointed successors of the Prophet Muhammad] who is supposed to show up to save the world. Ahmadinejad and his followers believe that the Imam will return in the next two years and they see their primary mission as being to pave the way for the return of the Hidden Imam [as Imam Zaman is also known] rather than to respond to people's earthly needs. Most clerics, including Mr Khamenei do not believe in these superstitions. One option that Mr Khamenei has is to push parliament to pass a “vote of no confidence” in the government, for which a two-thirds majority is needed. To achieve that, the 90 seats of Motalefeh will be crucial -- and they will not make a move without the [Supreme] Leader's permission. As far as I know, Mr Khamenei has rejected this option so far.

The reason is clear. There is a large overlap between Ahmadinejad's followers and the base of the Supreme Leader's support. Mr Khamenei has relied on these forces to fight the reformers for many years. Now, Ahmadinejad has evolved out of this group. Mr Khamenei is very concerned that some of these forces may stop supporting him. He has no other support other than these forces. The other problem is that if Ahmadinejad is brought down, they will have to have new elections and people like [former President Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani or the reformers will have the best chance of winning. This is not a favorable option for Mr Khamenei and he is therefore somewhat stuck.

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

SUBSCRIBE For regular news and analysis on Iran by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Iran Report."