Monday, June 16, 2003

As a graduate student in Middle Eastern history, discussion of the area sometimes follows in my wake, and over the weekend a lot of people asked my opinion of the student protests in Iran. The major question regarding Iran's future has always been whether the clerical regime would play by Tiananmen Square rules and suppress the protests with lethal force, which in the long run is really the only way they can win continuation of the current system. My betting has been that they won't. The Iranian regime, while repressive, has never been brutal in the way the Ba'athist regimes in Iraq and Syria have. In Iran, people who oppose the government face a revolving-door prison term, and opposition publications are banned only to start up again under a new name a few months later. Sometimes the demonstrators even get what they want.

In order to crush the protests, the hard-liners would have to call in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards - the basiji groups who are out beating the students couldn't pull it off. I suspect this would require the consensus of a large part of the hard-line community. The media sometimes portrays the theocratic side of Iran's government as a dictatorship led by the faqih, an office currently held by Ayatollah Ali Khamane'i. However, there are also bodies such as the Expediency Council and th Council of Guardians, as well as lower-level military commanders, many of whom would have to go along with such an order. The hard-line side of the government contains many types of people, some undoubtedly power-hungry despot wannabees, others true believes in Islamic government who believe they're doing the right thing. In addition, there's an open selection process for these positions, even if the range of choices is very narrow.

I'm not entirely sure what sorts of specific changes would satisfy the current protestors. A recent letter apparently called for Ayatollah Khamene'i to step down, and called his office blasphemous. I suspect if they lead to anything - and they won't for a few weeks yet, if then - it will be a renunciation of some of the faqih's powers and the passing of reformist legislation. Predicting the future is a dangerous business, so I don't stand by this in any way, but I've long suspected the faqih would eventually end up like the British monarchy, a symbol of certain aspects of the country's heritage without any real power. But only time will tell...


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