Myth of the Moderate Mullahs

Jan. 31, 2004


Defying conventional wisdom, fresh voices of freedom appear to be coming from the Middle East of late.

Assad of Syria delivers his plans for democratization directly to The New York Times. Gaddafi of Libya delivers his to Newsweek, as he claims to be an ally in the war against terrorism and invites the world to review his nuclear arsenal. Khatami of Iran, the “moderate” president, threatens to resign due to an election crisis resulting from the Guardian Council’s decision to disqualify more than 3,000 candidates from the ballot of his country’s upcoming elections. Among the disqualified candidates were 80 incumbent parliament deputies, including two deputy speakers.

The banning of candidates, of course, is never a positive step. But the political crisis brewing in Iran must clearly show that voices of freedom are indeed making headway there – right?


What you see is not always what you get when it comes to the Middle East, a region that has not yet begun the process of democratic change.

The cynical Syrian abuse of the crisis in Bam, Iran – the Syrians flew humanitarian aid into the earthquake-devastated city only to bring back weapons for terrorist groups – is just one example of this new cosmetics given to the same old faces.

Nevertheless, knowing there are forces of reform in a country like Iran is welcome news in Washington, where there are many who would like to show that US policies in the Middle East are already producing results.

There is only one problem: What Iranians have seen from Khatami and his faction over the past seven years has been nothing more than the rhetoric of reform.

Iran’s theocracy is based on a theory of government called the Velayat-e faqih, or the absolute clerical rule. This concept is at the core of the complex structure of the Iranian political system in which immense religious and political authority rests with the vali-e faqih (the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamenei).

The interpretation of what is or is not an “Islamic principle” falls within the authority of the Supreme Leader and his hand-picked Guardian Council, the 12-member body tasked with vetting candidates for their “heartfelt” and “written” allegiance to the Supreme Leader. To be sure, there are factions within the Iranian political system, but the conflict is more of a power grab than a content debate over fundamental issues facing society, above all secular democracy.

“I have principles for my path,” said Khatami earlier last week to the Parliament deputies, “and the most important principle for me is to conserve the system.” The so-called “reformist” faction has lost no opportunity to conserve the doctrine of velayat-e faqih.

In Iran, elections serve as a veneer to mask a rigid theocracy. The mullahs have twisted the pillars of Western democracies – elections and the parliamentary system – and ensured that those institutions would not pose a threat to their grip on power.

This hybrid of theocratic soul and democratic gloss has created a paper democracy in Iran, giving ammunition to Teheran’s advocates in Washington and Europe to justify “engagement” and “dialogue” with its clerics.

KHATAMI’S “reformists” have some interesting associations. Among them have been mullah Mohammed Mousavi-Khoeiniha, one of Khatami’s deputies, who was fully behind the US Embassy takeover in Teheran in 1979; Ayatollah Sadiq Khalkhali, the late, notorious hanging judge; Ali Akbar Mohtashami, the terror master, who directed the Hizbullah in Lebanon in the 1980s and is believed to have coordinated the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barrack in Beirut; the US Embassy hostage-takers; the architects of the Ministry of Intelligence and former commanders of the Revolutionary Guards. These and others were baptized as “reformers” following Khatami’s presidency.

While these “reformers” promised the rule of law and to defend civil society, in reality they incorporated velayat-e faqih into the constitution, rendering it reform-proof.

In fact, the biggest beneficiary of Khatami’s mantra of “rule of law” has been the rival faction that consistently invoked it, casting aside the president’s faction by applying the existing election and press laws.

In Iran, rule of law means rule of velayat-e faqih, which means, Islamic shari’a law. The establishment never gave Khatami’s faction any real say in domestic policies. His smile, his citing of Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville, and his discourses on lofty topics like the “dialogue between civilizations,” has served as a diplomatic facade for Teheran.

The Iranian government is already besieged by domestic, social, and political crises, as well as by international pressure for its sponsorship of terrorism and procurement of nuclear weapons. And despite the brave face they keep in public, Iran’s leaders cannot escape the reality of what has happened in its neighboring countries.

Genuine reform can only come from inside the country, but outside this regime.

Secretary of State Colin Powell recently talked about Iran’s “encouraging” moves and “new attitude.” This is misplaced praise for a regime that still thrives on domestic terror and the export of fundamentalism.

We need to see the clerical regime for what it really is: A theocracy, intrinsically and structurally incapable of reform. After a quarter of a century of acquiescence, the US must help the Iranian people and opposition forces tear down the clerics’ house of cards.

Reza Bulorchi is the Executive Director of the US Alliance for Democratic Iran. Nir Boms is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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