Glasnost In Iran

Glasnost in Iran

[Published in, March 26, 2000: ]

The Russian term glasnost, meaning openness, was coined in the late 1980s to define Michael Gorbachev’s political and cultural reforms in the Soviet Union. In a highly publicized message to Gorbachev, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic leader of Iran, argued that if the Soviet leaders turned to divine rules of governing, their difficulties of ruling the Soviet people would end. Gorbachev did not dignify this advice with an answer. However, with an ironic twist of events, the Iranian people have now rejected the Ayatollah’s prescription of strict religious rules of government.

Barely a dozen years after the Ayatollah’s admonition to Gorbachev, the Iranian people have embarked on a glasnost of their own. Their rejection of strict Islamic rules became clear in the last month’s nationwide parliamentary elections, in which the Iranian people overwhelmingly voted for change.

Obviously, this elections’ victory represents only one step, although a very important one, on the rocky road to democracy. Along the way there will doubtless be many challenges and setbacks. Nevertheless the victory should be celebrated in its own right because, regardless of whatever may happen next, it signifies a number of important achievements.

To begin with, it shows that the Iranian people did not fight the autocratic rule of the Shah to replace it with a theocratic one. For many Iranians, the use of Islam in that fight was not so much for its own sake as it was for the sake of national unity in pursuit of the popular ideal of empowerment. This shows how misleading the distant impressions of Iran as a uniform and immutable society have been. Many of the overseas Iranian opposition groups have, unfortunately, contributed to this distorted picture of Iranian society.

The elections’ strong message in favor of change also shows how deep-seated and resilient the Iranian revolution has been; it has been a continuous revolution, a series of revolutions within the original revolution which toppled the monarchy in 1979. Not only did it end the 2500-year old monarchical rule in Iran, it has also amazingly survived a number of sinister betrayals and fatal plots, including the unholy alliance of foreign powers that orchestrated Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980. But, perhaps most importantly, it is now in the process of lifting the strict Islamic rules and regulations that were hastily imposed on people by the religious leaders during the heat of social turbulence of the first several years of war and revolution.

The rift in the ranks of the clergy’s hierarchy demonstrates that Islamic leaders are not simply religious ideologues or theoreticians; they are also politicians who cannot remain unmindful of people’s desires and demands. Blinded by their intense hatred for Iran’s clerical leaders, many of the overseas Iranian opposition groups failed to see the complexity of Iranian society and politics, and thus the possibility that a people’s power, often submerged, could cause a fissure to appear within the religious leadership. In fact, many of these groups insisted that the political infighting within the ruling circles was merely a family feud, thereby overlooking the possibility that, when high political and economic interests are at stake, what appears to be a family feud may well develop into an all-out fratricidal war.

The US policy toward Iran has likewise been misguided. Disregarding political differences between President Khatami’s government and various para-statal centers of power, the United States has demonized Iran as one of the most repressive regimes in the region. Yet, as a number of nationwide elections since 1997 show, despite forces of repression, largely outside of and beyond the control of Khatami’s government, Iran is evolving democratically—and this in sharp contrast to most US allies in the region.

Commenting on the elections process in Iran, Riad Najib of Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper, wrote: “Everything considered, Iran’s democratic process stacks up well and is miles ahead of anything practiced in the modern Arab world.” John Daniszewski of the Los Angeles Time reported from Tehran that “For all their excesses and human rights violations…Iran’s elections have grown more like those held in the United States or Western Europe, with clearly defined political parties and platforms…; each side had access to mass media, and both accepted the outcome as legitimate and final” (February 27, 2000).

What helped make the reformers’ victory decisive was their ability to form a broad tactical coalition around such issues as freedom of the press, relaxation of censorship rules, liberalization of election rules, and the like. While it may be relatively easy to agree on such matters, for example, as freedom of expression, economic issues will be much more divisive. The broad coalition of some 18 reform groups and parties, which united during the elections campaign against the hard-liners, is bound to show cracks as its representatives begin to decide on allocation of resources, state subsidies, foreign investment, and other economic matters.

Disagreement on economic matters also exists among the hard-liners. Public opinion surveys of election results show that a major reason for the hard-liners’ losses, besides political and ideological intolerance, was their insufficient attention to the economic needs of their constituencies—they were apparently hoping, in vain, that if they kept to a moral and religious “purity,” they would be re-elected.

The political implications are clear: to be elected, Iranian politicians will henceforth need to keep the state out of people’s private lives and, instead, pay more attention to their economic needs. As economic issues increasingly gain prominence in national and local politics, new alliances and shifting coalitions will be built around specific monetary and fiscal priorities. This evolving trend seems to be bringing Iranian politics and economics closer to what is prevalent in the Western world.

To be sure, there are challenges and setbacks ahead. Entrenched religious institutions such as the “Council of Guardians,” the powerful role of the “supreme Islamic leader,” and the Islamic judiciary will continue to resist change. But reform is the evolving, and the inevitable, trajectory of social and political developments in Iran. Indeed, an undeniable process of Islamic reformation, similar to Luther’s Reformation in the Christian world, is unfolding in Iran.