Earlier this evening, I was at a lecture by Ali Ansari, whom our Middle East Studies Director Dr. David Morgan described as "his generation's greatest scholar of modern Iran." His talk was basically on the failure of the Iranian Reformists and where things would go from here. Going solely by my own memories, some salient points were these:
*The primary failure of the Iranian Reform movement was in the fact that they insisted in playing by the rules when those rules were rigged against them and the other side wasn't afraid to cheat. (I feel like I've read that before, but I don't remember where.) According to Ansari, Khatami did far more than many realize behind the scenes, but he insisted on taking what he considered the high road. Ansari's analogy was something like "the Reformists seemed to think they were living in Sweden." The hard-liners interpreted this as weakness, and pushed harder.
*Ansari also mentioned the failure of the Reformist political leadership to coordinate effectively with the Iranian student movement. (Regular readers will know I share this perspective.) According to Ansari, who has talked to Iranian government officials on all sides of the political spectrum, the political leaders were afraid of another 1979, and this partly explains their attitude toward both following the rules and behiving nervously toward their potential allies in the student movement. Khatami and Co. refused to support the students in June 2003, and as a result the students didn't rush to their defense in the election controversy. Here I would also add the exile community: Ansari said he felt that the Iranian exiles failed to recognize the serious differences between the Reformists and hard-liners, and had wasted an opportunity as a result. This seems another example of the Reformists failure to mobilize potential supporters.
*One thing that I found really interesting was Ansari's contention that the first thing the Reformists to really threaten the hard-liners was audit the finances. He indicated that if Iraq was a state based on terror, then the Iranian regime was based on greed. Privatization is a highly corrupt process which is used to get potential enemies to buy into the system, and thus fear its collapse. Real ethics investigations threatened all of this.
*Finally, Ansari was unhappy with the way Western powers have dealt with Iran. he indicated, for example, that by the end of 2001, Khatami had adopted a strategy of trying to deliver normalized relations with the U.S. as his major accomplishment, and then leverage that into more reforms elsewhere. The tacit cooperation regarding the Taliban was a major opening for this. However, according to Ansari, Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech proved a disaster for the Reformists, as it set off in Iran a debate over who had ruined U.S.-Iranian relationships, which of course Khatami had been going out on a limb to handle. In the resulting finger-pointing the hard-liners made gains, as even most of the radical reformers wish to advance the Iranian nation-state against threats from abroad, and the policy of engagement with the U.S. stood discredited as something that would get them nowhere and simply make them look weak. In addition, Ansari was discouraged by Prince Charles's visit to Iran, which he said convinced many Iranians that Europe was on the side of the hard-liners, and led to a general loss of morale. (On this point regular readers know I've said engagement of that kind doesn't matter, but Ansari is causing me to reconsider that stance.)
Anyway, from there, the speaker joined the rest of the planet in saying peaceful change was no longer possible, and we should all start waiting for the revolution. He did, however, go into one issue that troubled him about the possible direction of the revolution: Grass-roots Persian nationalism today is far greater than it was even under the Shah. Iranians today are buying literature about the greater Persian nation and the need to reconstitute the old Persian Empire, and there is a renewed interest in pre-Islamic stories and monuments. Ansari said even the regime was starting to play this game, promoting stories like the Shahnama on state television as propaganda. He thus feared that in the future, Iran might behave in an aggressive manner toward its neighbors.
Anyway, I just thought I'd share that report. The whole lecture was really interesting, far more than I can go into here.