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If push comes to shove, Iranians will unite to defeat an external threat

By Amin Saikal - posted Monday, 30 June 2003

The Iranian Islamic regime is walking a tightrope. It is faced not only with student unrest at home, but also mounting criticism from abroad. The Bush administration has accused it of having a secret nuclear program, and the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union have called on it to come clean on the issue.

The recent student protests in Tehran are partly a reflection of the continuing power struggle between Islamic conservatives and reformers in the regime, and partly inspired by Washington's new get-tough policy towards the regime.

President George Bush has recently used an anti-Iranian regime rhetoric that is very much reminiscent of his approach towards Iraq before the United States-led invasion.


While maintaining his branding of the regime as part of an "axis of evil", he has charged Iran with nuclear ambitions and vowed to deny it any nuclear weapons capability.

Bush has openly backed the latest demonstrations to encourage a popular uprising similar to the one which overthrew the US-backed Shah's regime more than 20 years ago and deprived the US of a vital strategic foothold in the Middle East.

Emboldened by the US's military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, neo-conservatives in the Bush administration may now feel that the time is ripe to strangle the Iranian regime through a combination of political pressure and eventual surgical strikes.

Whatever Washington's ultimate course of action, it's important to be reminded that the Iranian regime cannot be expected to be as much of a pushover as Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

The regime is certainly divided and vulnerable to serious internal and external pressure. The power struggle between conservative clerics, led by Iran's unelected supreme religious and political leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and their reformist counterparts, headed by the elected President Mohammed Khatami, has been unsettling for too long.

The frustration for reformists and those who elected them has been great: they have not made more than limited progress in their goals of liberalising politics and the economy, or rationalising foreign relations.


Despite the voters' decisive rejection of the conservatives in two presidential and parliamentary elections, the conservatives' continued firm hold on the instrumentalities of state power, with a particular anti-liberal and anti-US posture, has caused much stagnation and bewilderment.

Yet this tells only one side of the story in Iranian politics. The other side is that the reformers are ultimately from the same background as the conservatives. They operate within the same Islamic framework as their factional opponents, and have never hinted at a readiness to go outside this framework to allow the secularism of the Shah's time to return.

Both factions claim Islamic popular legitimacy, although the reformists have proved to be far more popular than the conservatives. Cadres of both factions come mostly from the same crop, whose factional devotion is underpinned by the reality that their fortunes are tied to the Islamic regime as a whole.

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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on 24 June 2003.

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About the Author

Professor Amin Saikal is director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University and author of Islam and the West: Conflict or Cooperation?.

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