US president George W. Bush has appealed to the Iranian people to reject the Islamic state. In a written statement on July 12 he called for Iran to abandon its "uncompromising, destructive policies", promising that "as Iran’s people move toward a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States of America": rich, considering America’s behaviour towards Iran; its sponsorship of Israel and other aggressive and oppressive regimes, in the Muslim world and elsewhere; the hundreds of Muslim political prisoners being held in the US itself (and not only since September 11); the academics and journalists who have lost their jobs for criticising Bush’s policies; and the tens of thousands of African-Americans who were disenfranchised to enable Bush to win the presidential elections (2000).
The episode illustrates the challenges and threats facing the Islamic State. Bush’s statement followed student marches in Tehran, and the resignation of Ayatullah Jalaluddin Taheri as leader of Friday prayers in Isfahan, because of his dissatisfaction with some aspects of the country’s politics. Both events were widely reported in the world media, trying to portray Iran as a repressive state seething with popular unrest. Bush’s response was foreseen by the Rahbar, Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, in a statement before juma prayers in Tehran early on July 12: he said that, while he shares some of the concerns raised by Ayatullah Taheri, Iranians need to be aware that such statements are welcomed and used by the enemies of the Islamic State, and that such issues must not be permitted to threaten the Iranian Muslims’ unity against Islam’s enemies.
In themselves, the week’s events add up to nothing very radical. They do, however, bring together the three key challenges facing Iran. These are the enmity of world powers, determined to end Iran’s independence and replace its Islamic state with a pro-Western one; the enmity of certain factions and groups within Iran that are secular and pro-Western in their outlook; and the challenge of effectively, efficiently and convincingly addressing the political, social and economic problems that Iran — like any country — faces. The Rahbar highlighted the way in which these link together: the fact that the Islamic State’s enemies seek to turn Iran’s social and political issues to their advantage.
However, the threat should not be overstated. The US is implacably determined to subvert Iran, yet Iran does not have the domestic dissidence that the US needs to succeed. Earlier this month hundreds of Iraqi dissidents called for US intervention against Saddam Hussein; there is no equivalent in Iran. The political debate in Iran takes place almost entirely within the Islamic system established under Imam Khomeini, working it instead of undermining it. The strongest challenge to Iran’s Islamic system comes not from direct enemies, but from the problems created by the perceived failures and shortcomings of the government’s policies. Ayatullah Taheri referred to these in his resignation statement.
In Iran’s present system, responsibility for these policies is divided. Most policy areas are controlled by the executive, under president Muhammad Khatami,but some, such as the judiciary and security services, come under other agencies. The risk in such a system is that policy lacks co-ordination, and agencies begin to pull against eachother, instead of pursuing a common agenda. This can easily lead to factionalism, internal politicking and an impression of permanent crisis. The only way out of this is for the state and government to take collective responsibility for Iran’s problems. The alternative — and this process is well under way— is that dissatisfaction turns into disillusion, which can potentially turn into dissidence that enemies can exploit. The distinction is crucial; if dissatisfaction is treated as dissidence, it is much more likely to become dissidence. The perception becomes self-fulfilling.
On July 12 the Rahbar went to the heart of the matter, as he has many times before, identifying areas in which the government is failing to satisfy Iran’s people. He also pointed out some forms of politics that play into the hands of Iran’s enemies. With the US increasingly aggressive in global affairs, it is essential that these issues be addressed effectively. Over twenty years ago the Islamic Revolution emerged as a beacon when the Ummah seemed to be engulfed in darkness: it would be a tragedy for the Ummah if that beacon were to be extinguished; all the more so if our enemies’ efforts were aided by errors and weaknesses within the Islamic state.