WASHINGTON - The Iranian theocracy stands on the precipice as it faces its most formidable crisis since the revolution that toppled the shah 25 years ago today.
Obscured by the candidate disqualifications, resignations and boycotts in the run-up to Iran's Feb. 20 parliamentary elections is the emergence of a new reform movement made up of a younger generation of parliamentarians, dissident clerics and students.
Instead of President Mohammad Khatami's patient negotiations with the right, the new generation of reformers adopted a two-pronged strategy of disengagement from the Islamic Republic's formal institutions and active confrontation with its would-be enforcers on the street.
In one of the Islamic Republic's many ironies, the clerical power is most directly challenged from within the regime. The resignation of many parliamentarians and local officials essentially cripples Iran's elected institutions. The reality remains that while the hard-liners enjoy considerable power, the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic has always been in the hands of its elected representatives with their popular mandate. It is this legitimacy that the reformers have revoked by leaving Iran's formal institutions.
As one of the reformers, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Sattarifar, noted, "If the government becomes impotent in securing the legitimate freedoms of the nation, it loses its legitimacy, and then, whether it dissolves itself or not, it is automatically dissolved."
As reformist politicians leave the government, a similar hardening is manifesting itself among the nation's restive youths. The students who populate Iran's universities did not witness the exhilaration and excitement of the revolution that launched the Islamic Republic in 1979. For Iran's vast young population, the revolution is a distant memory of limited resonance, while the hard-liners' exhortations of martyrdom and sacrifice are viewed as cynical ploys to maintain their own power.
What mobilizes the new generation is the repressive social and cultural strictures that it endures and its dim prospects of employment. At a time when the regime is providing 350,000 jobs for upward of a million annual job seekers, their future is frustratingly limited.
But despite their commonality of purpose, there always were tactical differences within the reform movement, leading to its incoherence and weakness. The established politicians always urged moderation and pursued a strategy of incremental reform, while the impatient students pressed for immediate change. The recent boldness of many parliamentarians has resolved the debate and has for the first time united the disparate strands of reformist opinion.
Iran's largest student organization, the Office of Consolidation of Unity, long has been critical of parliament and has expressed solidarity with the resigning deputies. "We will stand by the deputies in defense of the nation's historic demand," declared the student organization. The student movement, which historically has acted as a vanguard force in Iran, is once more providing the foot soldiers for the new, emboldened reform movement.
This movement is not without important clerical endorsement. Iran's senior clerics are beginning to appreciate that the vitality of Islam requires that they separate themselves from the unpopular state.
One of Iran's most senior clerics, Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, censured his colleagues, condemning their "amassing of fortunes" that "will show that we wanted the revolution as a means of serving ourselves." Given the despotic behavior of the hard-liners, many senior clerics are beginning to divest themselves of political power in order to salvage their sacral authority.
For the first time, the conservatives are confronting a reform movement that cannot be easily ignored or suppressed. The bellicosity of the hard-liners should not obscure their vulnerabilities, because the instruments of coercion at their disposal may not prove reliable.
As with most institutions in Iran, the Revolutionary Guards have fractured along demographic lines, with recent internal polling demonstrating that only 9 percent of them actually subscribe to the hard-liners' ideology. The conservatives in Iran simply do not have the strategic depth to suppress a nation demanding its rights.
Although the militants' narrow support base makes the triumph of popular will inevitable, it will not spare Iran a degree of disorder.
Change will come, although a level of violence may be the arbiter of that change. A movement that encompasses disillusioned youths, dissident clerics and defiant parliamentarians will finally usher in an Iranian state that reconciles its religious traditions with democratic precepts.
Ray Takeyh is a professor of national security studies and director of studies at the National Defense University's Near East and South Asia Center. The views expressed are his own.