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Iran: Analysis From Washington -- Redefining The Revolution

Washington, 15 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is redefining the nature of the Iranian revolution, an apparent response to recent electoral gains by reformist parties and an implicit endorsement of President Mohammad Khatami's political agenda.

Delivering his Friday sermon at Tehran University on 12 May, Khamenei said that a blind adherence to what he called the "rigid ideas" of religious extremists could lead to "regression, stagnation, and silence" and to a "stale" and inefficient Iranian society.

To avoid that, the longtime defender of Islamic orthodoxy said, Iran needs "revolutionary reforms, innovation, and progress based on revolutionary values." And he called on both its leaders and people to recognize that "there is nothing wrong" with disagreement and discussion within the Iranian community.

Even the country's theological schools -- long a bastion of conservativism -- should do so, Khamenei said, calling on them to embrace "new thoughts and ideas."

Such statements do not mean that Khamenei suddenly has been converted to liberal democracy or even accepts all of the elements of the reform program often associated with Khatami. Indeed, Khamenei went out of his way to say that as long as he remains in office, he "will not allow anyone to play with the interests of the country."

Instead, his words suggest that Khamenei and at least some of the traditionally conservative Shiite leadership have concluded that repression alone will not work against the rise of reformist views within the population and that the leadership must modernize itself to retain its position in Iranian society.

That by itself points to a likely shift in regime policy both now and in the future. In recent weeks, following the victories of reformist and pro-Khatami parties in parliamentary elections, conservatives linked to Khamenei struck back by closing newspapers and other news outlets which appeared to call into question the values of the Iranian revolution.

Now, Khamenei has called for greater tolerance and understanding among the different factions within Iran. And he has called only for what he called "our factions" to "get closer together and further away from strangers."

"It should not be," he said, "that one faction pays too much attention to political and economic growth but not to religiosity. On the other hand," he continued, "one should not pay attention to religious values at the expense of freedom of expression."

To the extent that Khamenei's words allow for greater media freedom and more public discussion, they will certainly be welcomed by many in Iran and elsewhere as well.

But the real import of Khamenei's speech over time is almost certainly going to be less what he said than why he said it. In the past, he and his associates have simply defended the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini two decades ago as being the infallible source of values for Iran.

They have lashed out at those who questioned these values even at the margins, apparently confident that they could do so effectively. But now Khamenei's words suggest they have lost their earlier self-confidence in that regard and have decided that they must reach out to others, even while insisting that they alone are right.

Such a loss of self-confidence in the revolution reflects both the aging of Iran's revolutionary generation and perhaps even more the victories of reformist challengers at the ballot box. As has been the case with other revolutionary societies, the enthusiasms that power the revolution tend to recede over time and the interests of rulers and ruled tend to reassert themselves.

That does not mean that Ayatollah Khamenei plans to give up power or to concede very much to the reformers. Rather, it suggests that he is now making a political calculation that the only way he can advance the Islamic revolution is by redefining it in ways others will find more attractive.

But precisely because Khamenei is now engaging in this kind of political calculus, he and Iran are likely to move in new and unexpected directions in the future -- and thus become the latest in a long line of revolutionaries to be transformed by the power of the ballot box.