December 7, 1999 OPINION
Iran may yet stop taking holy orders
An evident difference is that Iran is a more open and pluralistic society. There are obvious limits to free expression - the Baha'i are heretics, atheism is inadmissible, Marxists are both anti-national and anti-Islamic. But there remains a broad spectrum of avowable opinion, a lively debate in the print media, and the fact that a popular electoral process exists.
Indeed, all eyes in Iran are focused on next February's election to the parliament. This will provide a third electoral occasion for popular support for reform to be manifested, following the unexpected and overwhelming election of President Khatami in May 1997 and the success of reformers in the elections for city and village councils in February 1999.
But Iran's is a "guided" democracy. All candidates for election have to be approved in advance by the "Guardian Council" - six Shia clergy, "just and acquainted with the needs of the time" - together with six jurists "qualified in various branches of the law" chosen by the parliament from a shortlist submitted by the head of the judiciary.
In February's local elections, a scrutiny procedure of this type excluded many candidates. And the conviction by a religious court of the former minister and leading reformer, Abdollah Nouri, is designed to exclude his candidature for the parliament.
The reformers are fighting back with a law that requires the Guardians to justify their decisions and gives rejected candidates a right of appeal. Their fallback strategy is to swamp the Guardians with candidates: in the Tehran local election in February, 4,200 candidates presented themselves for election to 15 seats.
The electoral outcome of these trials of strength is unforeseeable; a reformist landslide will almost certainly be prevented, but it is probable that the "forces of conservatism" that dominate parliament will lose control.
Even then, reform faces many obstacles. In Iran's Constitution, state institutions of a Western type are balanced by an array of "Islamic" and "revolutionary" institutions through which the reform process will have to be fought.
Alongside the state courts stand the religious courts, with formidable jurisdiction over that large part of the Iranian political elite which has clerical status.
Alongside the army there is the "Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps". Alongside the parliament is the Guardian Council. And over all, including the President, stands the "Leader", appointed for life, Ayatollah Khamenei.
But Iran's Islamic revolution is not a monolith: the leading reformers have all emerged from the clergy; Khamenei increasingly seems to be aligned with reform; within the Islamic structure there is the important override mechanism of the "National Expediency Council" - empowered to overrule the Guardian Council when it vetoes laws as being contrary to Islam or the Constitution.
Through this institutional maze it is possible to discern the channels along which the currents of reform may flow - President Khatami allied with a reform majority in a new parliament calling in the powers of the Leader and the National Expediency Council.
Against this prospect of peaceful evolution, however, there remains the violent fringe in Iranian politics. Journalists and dissidents have been murdered, and although this has resulted in purges of the intelligence service, no public trials have yet taken place. A deputy in the parliament recently commented that: "There are many brave and self-sacrificing youths ready to blast open the breasts of those who conspire to bring down the most holy Islamic system of government in the world."
Iran's clerical establishment must know, however, that change is overdue. Half the population was born after the revolution of 1979 and the young are increasingly restless. Unemployment is high and rising, and per capita GDP is less than before the revolution. In the words of Edmund Burke: "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation."
Robert Jackson is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Wantage. He recently visited Iran with the first Commons delegation since the revolution of 1979.
©Copyright 1999, Times Newpapers Ltd.