Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed March 1999
Copyright ©1999 by William O. Beeman

Iran is Changing. Can the United States Respond?

By William O. Beeman
William O. Beeman is an anthropologist and Iranian expert at Brown University. He spent nine years living in Iran and is the author of Language, Status and Power in Iran.
"It is rarely a good idea to be blown around aimlessly by the winds of change when they come, but that is where America is heading with regard to Iran. The better course is to catch the wind and sail with it"

In Iran the winds of change are blowing with gale force, astounding much of the world. But the United States has yet to feel the breeze.

The Iranian government is in the midst of substantial internal change, moving it from the extremist positions of the original Islamic Revolution. A reform-minded president, Mohammad Khatami, and his supporters are gaining strength daily and are slowly working to counter the excesses of more radical fundamentalists in the government. His efforts were recently boosted by local democratic elections in which his supporters triumphed.

The world is also changing its opinion of the Islamic Republic. Iran's international profile is increasing. Its cultural and artistic achievements, particularly in the field of cinema, are gaining international recognition. Iran's relations with its neighbors - including Iraq - have never been better. Even the recent conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan has ameliorated in recent months.

Now that same President Khatami has made an triumphal visit to Italy including a visit with the Pope. President Khatami is the most senior Islamic clerical leader to ever visit the pontiff. Astonished European commentators hail the visit as the dawn of a new era not just between Iran and Italy, but between the Islamic world and Europe.

The changes are not surprising when one considers Iran's demographics. The Iranian revolution was 20 years old in February. The majority of Iran's young population has no personal knowledge of the revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Indeed, few of them even remember Khomeni himself.

Khomeini's successor, chief jurisprudent Ali Khamene'i, has a fatal illness. Hard-liners desperately seek someone with sufficient religious scholarly stature to succeed him. Such a person would need to be both respected and committed to the revolutionary goals of Khomeini. Thus far no such person has been found - the simple reason is that among Shi'a Muslims, individual leaders collect their own followings. At the time of the revolution it was estimated that 60 percent of all religious Iranians acknowledged Khomeini as their spiritual leader. At his death, this support dissipated and was diluted by the astonishing rise in the population of citizens younger than 25. It is likely that the role of spiritual leader will either disappear or be greatly reduced at the death of Khamene'i.

Parliamentary elections next year will clarify once and for all whether President Khatami's reform-minded supporters will be able to seize the upper hand from the hard-line revolutionaries. The chances are good that they will.

In the meantime, internal debates continue as the two government factions remain at loggerheads. Struggles over curtailment of repressive measures against dissidents, support of Islamic movements outside of Iran, and questions about relations with the United States continue as the political scene in Iran continues to evolve. Dissident Iranians, mostly outside of Iran, continue to protest with legitimacy human rights abuses within the country. Time is on the side of the reformers, however.

The United States has been curiously passive-aggressive in the face of these changes. Despite feints at improving relations, American foreign policy toward Iran remains lodged in the vengeance politics of two decades ago. Iran continues to be demonized and despised in legislative halls. The foolish attempt to isolate Iran economically has totally failed, leaving our European allies shaking their heads in puzzlement at Washington's quirkiness.

It is rarely a good idea to be blown around aimlessly by the winds of change when they come, but that is where America is heading with regard to Iran. The better course is to catch the wind and sail with it.