All the West’s well-established theories about the political evolution of the Islamic state of Iran were thrown into disarray on February 20, when Iran’s parliamentary elections passed off peacefully.
All the West’s well-established theories about the political evolution of the Islamic state of Iran were thrown into disarray on February 20, when Iran’s parliamentary elections passed off peacefully: slightly more than half of Iran’s voters turned out to elect a parliament characterised broadly by ‘conservatives’, a turn-out that is high by current international standards (see Special Report).
In recent years, western analyses have put forward a number of understandings of Iranian politics. The best-known one, which reflects the perceptions of many Iranians and certainly has an element of truth in it, concerns the perceived division between ‘reformers’ and ‘conservatives’ in Iran. Another is that there has been growing popular disillusion even with the previously popular reformists, led by Iranian president Muhammad Ali Khatami, as Iranians come to favour an ever more radical and secular future for their country. Thus analysts have long been predicting a very low turn-out at these elections, because voters were expected to decide that they did not wish to vote for any of the candidates available, preferring to abstain in order to express their disillusion with the Islamic system.
In the run-up to the polls, the situation was further exacerbated by the decision that a number of prospective candidates, including sitting members of the Majlis, should be barred from standing for election for a variety of reasons. Although the Rahbar has traditionally stayed out of domestic political activities, apart from giving his opinion on broad issues, he suggested openly that the decisions should be reviewed, and several hundred candidates were restored to the elections. Despite this, a number of reformist groups withdrew from the polls, claiming that they had been discredited. They also called for voters to boycott the elections to show their anger at the decision and rejection of the system. Perhaps believing their own propaganda, foreign analysts predicted that the election turn-out could drop as low as 10-15 percent, as only the tiny minority of Iranians who remain Islamist would bother to vote.
Like all the best propaganda, these accounts of Iranian politics were rooted, to some extent, in reality, which therefore made them credible. Instead of making up flights of fancy that were bound to float free of any possible connection with reality, the propagandists were skilful enough to distort and misrepresent real situations. The result was an expectation that was plausible but wholly unrealistic, created by selective and distorted reporting. An example was the rallying of millions of people in Azadi Square, Tehran, on February 11 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, clearly showing their commitment to the Revolution and the Islamic State it established. Although pro-reform political events of only a few dozen people were prominently covered in the West, this massive rally received little coverage. Where it was covered, for example by the BBC, it was wrongly described and the numbers minimised. For example, the BBC reported on its website that "tens of thousands" of Islamists had rallied to a state-sponsored event designed to show support for the conservatives. The use of the term ‘Islamists’ was intendeed to indicate that those attending were a minor, fringe group. By contrast, people attending pro-reform rallies are routinely described as "young Iranians" or simply "Iranian people", to give the impression that they represent the true feelings of most Iranians.
The reality of Iranian political opinion was shown when the elections finally took place; far from a low turn out – whether through apathy or design – voting levels were high in many areas, with a low turn-out only in some cities, including Tehran, dragging the average down to 50.7 percent. Despite the fact that many reformers did stand for election, despite the disqualifications and withdrawals , the new Majlis is dominated by so-called ‘conservative’ groups, dedicated to the maintenance and protection of Iran’s Islamic system. This is a clear indication that, despite the image carefully cultivated by the West, and encouraged by some groups in Iran, the reality is that the vast majority of Iranians are satisfied with the Islamic system and wish to continue to live within it.
The question is where things go from here. Despite the fact that the political situation in Iran has been grossly misrepresented outside the country, resulting in major misunderstanding even among many Muslims, it is an inescapable reality that there are issues in Iran that need to be addressed. Were there not real differences of opinion within the country, the foreign enemies of the Islamic state would not have found it so easy to spin their propaganda webs.
We have long pointed out – see for example "Debate between ‘reformers’ and ‘conservatives’ in Iran demands that responsible leaders hold middle ground" by Iqbal Siddiqui, Crescent International, May 16-31, 2000 – that the supposed split between reformers and conservatives is an oversimplification because both camps tend to be defined by their extremes, whereas there is in fact a large middle ground in which most ‘reformers’ and most ‘conservatives’ have a great deal in common. The political tensions in Iran have been caused by the concerns of the extremes. The reformers have worried, wrongly but perhaps understandably, that the conservatives have too much power, and misuse it for their own interests. The conservatives have worried that the reformers are not sufficiently committed to the Islamic State and do not understand the nature of the enemy that the Islamic State and Revolution face in the shape of the US (and the rest of the West). On both sides there have been factions guilty of these charges, but they have been relatively small and marginal. Nonetheless, the debate between the two camps has polarised around these two extremes, and both sides have perhaps allowed their concerns to make them commit the very offences of which they they are accused.
The decision of the Council of Guardians to exclude a considerable number of reformers from the next Majlis was designed to ensure that the influence of the extreme wing of reformers is minimised. It may prove, in hindsight, that they have been too cautious in this, and that some of those excluded could have been permitted to stand for election. Be that as it may, the conservatives’ concerns have now been addressed. Now they must understand that their actions can be misconstrued, and prove counter-productive if they are pursued to excess. Instead they must work with the majority of reformers whose concerns about the direction and governance of Iran are sincere and well-founded, rather than tainted by association with those whose intentions may not have been sincere, to address the real social, economic and cultural problems facing Iran. These are concerns that many so-called conservatives also hold; there would be nothing defensive or opportunistic about their now coming together with the main body of reformists, with whom they have common views on most issues, to pursue a common agenda for maintenance and development of Iran’s Islamic system, which is, after all, what the vast majority of people, in all sectors of the community, recognise to be both correct and in the people’s best interests.
Had the Council of Guardians not acted as they did, Islamic Iran might indeed have been in danger of subversion from within, albeit by many people some of whom genuinely did not understand the consequences of their actions. However, the government’s responsibility now is to ensure that such a situation does not arise again, by avoiding the mistakes of the past and addressing the issues that allowed this situation to come about in the first place. On the streets and at the polls, the Iranian people have demonstrated their continuing commitment to the Islamic Revolution and State, despite the efforts of some forces to deflect them. But they also have genuine and serious needs and concerns about the maintenance of the Revolutionary spirit and ethos, as well as the country’s economic and social needs, which must be met if the new Parliament is to maintain the support and confidence it has now been given.