Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on Foreign Policy Aspects of the War Against Terrorism: Memorandum from Dr. Ali Ansari

February 11, 2003

Related Country: 

  • Afghanistan
  • Iraq
  • United States


Unlike many of its regional neighbours, Iran possesses a dynamic political environment, and a sophisticated, highly politically aware and literate public. The process of "democratisation" which grew in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, and accelerated dramatically with the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, continues apace, although it has faced considerable difficulties and resistance from a hardline establishment unenthusiastic about the prospect of sharing, let alone relinquishing power. This continuing contest, which has not been without some significant casualties, has resulted in a polarisation of views, between the vast majority of the Iranian public, who seek greater political and social liberalisation, along with economic integration; and a decreasing clique of hardliners, who seem equally determined to resist change, apparently at any cost.

This almost irrational determination was most recently seen with the decision by the hardline dominated Judiciary to sentence the popular Professor of History (and war veteran), Hashem Aghajari, to death, for reportedly having blasphemed against Islam. The sentence was so harsh, and so obviously disproportional to his alleged crime, that it enervated a somewhat exhausted and demoralised reform movement. Although, of far more significance was the reaction the sentence received from more moderate conservatives, who openly voiced their concern at the wayward judgements issued by certain elements in the Judiciary, and served notice that the common distinction between "reformists" and "conservatives" could not accurately describe the growing gulf in opinions between a radical minority of zealots and the rest of society (whatever their political leanings). This domestic political contest, which has undoubtedly been influenced by regional and international developments, though not dictated by it, has similarly influenced Iran's position on these developments.

This brief memorandum will seek to highlight the most recent trends and developments in Iran and should be read in conjunction with the previous submission to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2001[1]. It will be divided into four main sections:

1. Domestic Developments;

2. Regional Relations;

3. International Developments;

4. Anglo-Iranian Relations.


Iran continues to possess a dynamic political environment, in which political views are frequently aired if not always respected. There is little doubt that since the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, there have been marked improvements in political and social freedoms, and some measure of stabilisation in economic terms, although the economic development aspired to has yet to be achieved. This in large part is a consequence of the failures of political reform, in that while a more liberal atmosphere pervades, notions of the rule of law, transparency, accountability, and respect for individual human rights have yet to be institutionalised. In sum therefore, it may be said, that considerable progress has been made, but much has yet to be achieved.

In particular, since the triumph of Reformist deputies in the elections to the 6th Majlis (Parliament) in February 2000, there has been a determined and often brutal attempt by the hardline establishment to stifle reform, encourage apathy and effectively de-politicise the public. This attempt has had mixed results. Rather than extinguish the flame, hardline resistance has tended to further polarise opinion, and to radicalise it away from notions of Islamic democracy altogether. Indeed, arguably, much as reformist politicians had warned, hardline resistance has ensured the secularisation of the Iranian public.

It has also ensured that this public (which is overwhelmingly young in composition), increasingly espouses a radically nationalist ideology, which regards the hardline establishment, epitomised by the head of the Judiciary, as distant from their needs and alien to Iranian culture. While this process of polarisation has undoubtedly created a dangerously wide gulf between "State" and "Society", it is also important to point out that the "State" in question is represented in the popular mind, by a relatively small clique of hardline insiders, and bears little relation to the organs of government we usually associate with the "State". Indeed many ministry officials (including those of Intelligence) are now very much considered to be outsiders, and it is not without reason that President Khatami is characterised as the "leader of the opposition". Such a situation, is clearly neither socially nor politically desirable, nor tenable, and challenges continue to emerge. Indeed many prominent agitators against the current status quo come from the ranks of staunch revolutionaries (such as Aghajari), and the recently released Ayatollah Montazeri, who had previously been Imam Khomeini's heir apparent.


Iran's political situation and the social revolution which it is witness, reflect upon its somewhat anomalous position in the region. Put simply, not only is Iran distinguished by the fact that it is a Shi'a island in an ocean of Sunni states; it is in contrast to the sacralisation of social and political life in many Arab countries, moving towards a more secular approach to politics. (Arguably, while in many Arab states, the existence of a "secular" state is witnessing a religious revival within society, the reverse is true for Iran). This process has yet to reach fruition, and while there is little possibility of Iran adopting the French model of secularism, it is with no little irony, increasingly clear that the model being aimed at is that of the United States. In other words, the state should espouse a secular attitude, so that society may, in the absence of state strictures, remain religious. This secularism, and appreciation of pluralism is being reflected in its regional relations, particularly in its pursuit of stronger relations with India; its undisguised sympathies for the US war against the Taleban in Afghanistan (a group which many Iranians deride as having perverted Islam); and its similar enthusiasm, must to the chagrin of Arab allies, for the war against Saddam, though as will be noted in the next paragraph, there are also many reservations.


The impending US led war against Iraq has raised mixed emotions among Iranians. Put simply, many members of the establishment view the onset of war with trepidation, and are anxious about the possibility that Iran may be next on the US hit list. Extremists nevertheless, see in any war an opportunity to finally get to grips with the "Great Satan", and indeed view any war as a useful pretext to declare martial law and end any possibility of reform. These views are certainly in a minority, and it is not clear how sustainable such a development would be. The vast majority of society however, views the prospect of war with some enthusiasm, insofar as there is no affection for Saddam Hussein, and some Iranians harbour the view that change in Iraq will in turn encourage change in Iran. It is certainly probable that a successful US invasion (and occupation) will have a catalytic effect on domestic politics. At the same time, it is an indication of the political sophistication of the Iranian public, that for all the desire for dialogue, few Iranians actually trust the Americans in their war aims; few for example are convinced that the US will attempt to develop some sort of democracy in Iraq. For Iranians, the war remains an issue of oil, and US desires to control the oil. Furthermore, while there is a tendency, even among members of the more moderate establishment to provide assistance to any allied invasion of Iraq, there are justifiable concerns that the US will not appreciate such help, and much as in the aftermath of Afghanistan, will then turn against the Islamic Republic. The real fear among Iranians of all hues (and this is a reflection of the growth in nationalism), is that the United States will seek to dismember Iran, as part of any radical restructuring of the Middle East. That said, despite these concerns, there exists a curious reality, that most ordinary Iranians find the "moral certainty" of the Bush administration attractive.

This is in stark contrast to their views on Europe. The European Union has traditionally been seen as a strategic ally, and a useful counter-weight to the United States. The trouble is, that at this crucial time of domestic political tensions, the multi-lateral European approach, is perceived as somewhat ineffective. There is discomfort and irritation at the tendency of European parliamentarians to associate themselves with Iranian opposition groups (of course the US Congress does this too, but to some extent the Iranians expect this), while at the same time pursuing a somewhat ambiguous dialogue with the Iranian "state" (however that is defined). This is obviously a gross simplification, but it is a perception that is widespread. In simple terms, the Europeans seem to Iranians, to lack consistency and certainty in their approach to Iran, and ironically, are perceived are particularly lax in their approach to human rights issues.


Anglo-Iranian relations continue to be comparatively healthy, with the recent accreditation of a new ambassador, Richard Dalton, and of significance, the opening of the British Council. Anglophilia is relatively widespread though not always for the right reasons (there is a widespread assumption that know how to run things, and indeed do run things, so there is an admiration even if it is grudging). The debacle over the nomination of David Reddaway as ambassador last year, has largely subsided, though it reminds us that relations, certainly at the state level, remain fragile. There are also a number of points which need in addition to be kept in mind, and which, to my mind would need addressing, should there be a desire to expand Anglo-Iranian relations:

Britain should avoid associating, at whatever level, with opposition groups, in particular the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation, who are resident in Iraq and largely discredited in the eyes of the Iranian public. Neither should they be seen to be cultivating links with the Pahlavi's, since this will only enhance feelings of paranoia about Britain's true intentions.

Britain should try and limit its association, in the public mind at least, with the more conservative elements in the clerical classes in Iran. Few Iranians will fail to point out that Islamic centres abound in Britain, and that many of the most hardline Ayatollahs seem to have little difficulty in gaining access to Britain. Given their unpopularity in Iran, Britain's "links" are injudicious.

-Britain should seek to distance itself from the more hawkish attitudes in the United States, but at the same time not appear to succumb to the ambiguity being identified with the EU. While most Iranians cannot get excited about alleged links with terrorists (they tend not to believe this in any case), WMD (they don't see why they can't have them given the neighbourhood); and the Peace Process (as far as they are concerned the Israelis are doing a good job of demolishing the PP on their own); they are frustrated by the lack of attention to human rights, and while this has to be handled delicately, (insofar as no-one wants to be seen to be interfering), there is a demand for a more robust stand on human's rights issues. Iranians, even in government, feel that the hardliners would not dare even attempt repression if they felt there was a sufficient cost to pay in their (commercial) relations with the EU.

Dr Ali Ansari

University of Durham


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