Leaders of Iran

Monday, December 20, 2004

NIAC Panel: Reuel Gerecht, Thomas Carothers, Daniel Brumberg, Hadi Semati

National Iranian American Council - NIAC - Washington DC: "CARNEGIE PANEL: IRAN MOVING BACKWARD?

By Sheherazade Jafari
National Iranian American Council

February 27, 2004 Washington, DC—The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a panel discussion on the implications of Iran’s recent Parliamentary elections and its disqualification of over 2,000 candidates. “We couldn’t decide whether to name this session, the struggle for power in Iran: ‘which way forward’ or ‘which way backward’” began moderator Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment.

The three panelists who addressed the subject were Daniel Brumberg, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, Reuel Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, and Hadi Semati, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and a member of Iran’s Islamic Participation Front.

Brumberg began by examining the latest elections from a historical perspective. In 2000 the reformists won the majority of Parliament, yet their increased presence did not transform into a political victory. A number of factors complicated their efforts, including the state’s still substantial capacity for repression and the profound ideological divide between reformist and conservative parties. Moreover, explained Brumberg, reformists were ill-prepared for the obstacles before them: “There was a [naïve] sense among reformists that they were riding an inevitable train of history…they just had to make sure they were on it.”

These factors, including the failure of reformists to establish organic links with society and President Khatami’s inability--or unwillingness--to challenge the regime, led to the latest elections: a third and highly successful effort by conservatives to ban reformists from power. Brumberg pointed to two possible scenarios for the future evolution of Iran’s political system. First, now that reformists are excluded and alienated from the state, their only option is to forge linkages with civil society. Because it requires a significant amount of time to build the mass movement of opposition that, in a moment of crisis, can force the regime’s collapse, this remains a long-term possibility.

The second scenario is the “China model,” the notion that Iran’s pragmatic conservatives will relax social constraints and promote economic development and foreign investment, creating a stability that will “buy off” the population. Since it is the hardliners who are ultimately in charge, however, Brumberg believes that the pragmatic conservatives will most likely “run in place” while the hardliners hit or miss certain opportunities in the domestic and international arenas.

Semati addressed why President Khatami did not step in to stop the disqualifications of these latest elections. He noted that Khatami has always expressed his loyalty for constitutional boundaries and is not likely to take a path that confronts the major institutions, including the Supreme Leader. Khatami feared the potential instability and bloodshed, and remained unsure of whether the public was able to mobilize to the extent that reformists needed.

Now that conservatives are dominating the parliament, Semati projects that the reformist movement will slow down significantly, if not stop altogether. Political space will become constrained while new cleavages and contradictions within the conservative camp will emerge. Attention might be turning away from the “China model,” Semati notes, and toward the “Malaysia model,” in which legal authoritarianism exists alongside culture and liberties.

As for foreign policy after the elections, Semati discussed four factors. The first is the conservatives’ confidence, which has been reinforced by the latest elections and the perception that the United States is feeling unstable within Iraq and Afghanistan. The second factor depends on how the reformists will engage with the state and the people, and the third is how the international community will engage with Iran. The fourth is economic development.

While conservatives and reformists have different ideas on how to make Iran a stronger and better society, Gerecht does not believe there will be a fundamental shift in Iran’s internal and external matters. In his opinion, assassinations will actually lesson as conservatives are more confident of their standing within society and less interested to engage in such tactics. Internationally, however, Gerecht believes the conservatives will take a rougher stance, especially in regard to its nuclear program.

What Iran has not prepared for, explained Gerecht, is the “Sistani factor.” Iranian conservatives within Iran are highly sensitive to the turnout of the Iraqi clerical society’s debates; Iranian clerics currently have a strong presence within Iraq and its discussions on religious leadership. As Iraqi direct elections draw near and the debates become more serious, the Iraqi clerics’ influence on Iran will grow increasingly strong, even if their effects are not immediately clear.

Ultimately, all the panelists agreed that—as Gerecht explained, “the reformist movement hasn’t even gotten to the good times yet.” He continued, “What we have witnessed in Iran may be the Iron or Bronze Age, and soon we will see the Silver and the Gold.”"

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