Is the Islamic Republic Unraveling?








Turmoil and Transformation in Iran

By: Robin Wright

These are exciting times in Iran. As the revolution enters its fourth decade, the Islamic regime is under attack from without and within. Iran's youthful population is restive. A reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami is battling to make the system more open and accountable.

So Robin Wright's The Last Great Revolution comes at a timely moment. Wright, a writer for The New Yorker and other publications, is one of the more seasoned Western observers of Iran. She first visited that country in 1973, when the Shah ruled and when an American woman could wear a bikini in public. Since the Shah's 1979 fall, Wright has returned again and again.

Her book is a welcome corrective to the Western stereotype of Iran as a kind of hell administered by black-robed mullahs. Instead, today's Iran is a rich cultural stew. Some of the arts, such as film and painting, are actually thriving. And although women remain second-class citizens in terms of jobs and legal status, they have made huge strides in some areas, particularly education. Unlike most of the nearby Arab states, Iran enjoys a measure of democracy and has an influential Parliament. And the mullahs, far from presenting a solid front, are divided. Some bitterly oppose having a state run by clerics.

Still, The Last Great Revolution is not the clear, incisive book it might have been. For one thing, the author has two aims that don't always mesh. She is fascinated by the current rethinking of the Iranian revolution, and she has wonderful material on the crucial, at times deadly, debate. But her central focus is sometimes obscured by her human-tape-recorder approach. She wants to let ''Iranians speak for themselves about their ideas, experiences, dreams, and frustrations.'' This can work well: A visit to a government family-planning clinic produces a hilarious scene in which the director demonstrates the use of condoms on a model of an erect phallus to surprised couples--who, thanks to arranged marriages, barely know each other. But other sections bog down. Some of her description of Iran's cities and regions is eminently forgettable.

She is also weak on the economy, where mismanagement has done as much as anything to undermine support for the regime. Still, Wright does include some telling information: The Iranian riyal now trades at less than 1% of the value it held against the dollar at the time of the Shah's fall. Iran is one of the few places in the world where the price of a used car tends to rise because of the rapid depreciation of the currency. Iranians blame government corruption for their plummeting incomes. ''You can't do anything without paying off this mullah's son or that mullah's brother-in-law,'' one shopkeeper tells her.

Wright excels at political reporting. Her section on Abdul Karim Soroush, the religious philosopher who is leading the intellectual attack on the clergy, is worth the price of admission. Wright seems to have become well-acquainted with Soroush, whom she compares to Martin Luther. Soroush first had great hopes for the revolution. He thought Islam would prove an indigenous and, therefore, legitimate vehicle for modernization in contrast to the pseudo-Western ideas of the Shah. ''Islamic law is expandable,'' he tells Wright excitedly. ''You can't imagine its flexibility.''

But the mullahs' grab for power and their repressive tactics quickly soured Soroush. In 1991, he began openly challenging the regime, saying that the clergy were not holy or infallible and were wrong to use religion as a pretext to exercise power. Many of these autocrats were third-rate religious scholars, he asserted. He said the clergy should work for a living and challenged the authority of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader who controls the armed forces and claims ultimate authority on matters of religion and law.

Such charges were intolerable to the ruling mullahs, reminding some of their minions of Ayatollah Khomeini's critiques that had brought down the Shah. Thugs calling themselves ''the Helpers of the Party of God'' disrupted Soroush's public lectures and beat him on several occasions. Fearing for his life, he left the country, returning after President Khatami's 1997 election.

As Wright points out, many Iranians, including members of the clergy, now share the views first articulated by Soroush. Khatami, too, mostly agrees with the radicals. His election revealed just how much resentment had built up against the mullahs. A dark-horse candidate given very little chance against the regime's choice, Parliament Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, Khatami received an astounding 70% of the vote.

As Wright says, Khatami doesn't ''deserve full credit for Iran's movement, since he didn't initiate the trend.'' Whether he will succeed is far from clear. Most of Khatami's reforms have been blocked by hard-liners. A crucial parliamentary election takes place on Feb. 18.

Whatever happens in the short term, Wright argues, ''the Islamic republic is not likely to survive in its current form.'' The ''turbaned classes,'' she argues, will have to share power with those who wear ties. Still, Wright says, the revolution will prove of enormous historical significance for the Islamic world. Is this correct? So far, Iran seems to have had little influence on its neighbors. That could change if it puts its house in order. Otherwise, the revolution's legacy could be a crippled economy and a chaotic, divided society.

London bureau chief Reed covers the Middle East for BUSINESS WEEK

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