Defying conventional wisdom, fresh voices of freedom appear to be coming from the Middle East as of late. Assad of Syria delivers his plans for democratization directly to the New York Times. Khaddafi of Libya delivers his to Newsweek, as he claims to be an ally in the war against terrorism and invites the world to review his nuclear arsenal. Khatami of Iran, the "moderate" President, threatens to resign due to an election crisis resulting from the Guardian Council's decision to disqualify more than 3,000 candidates from the ballot of his country's upcoming February 20 elections. Among the disqualified candidates were 80 incumbent Parliament deputies - including two deputy speakers. The banning of candidates, of course, is never a positive step. But the political crisis brewing in Iran must clearly show that voices of freedom are indeed making headway there - right?
Wrong. What you see is not always what you get when it comes to the Middle East, a region that has not yet began the process of democratic change. The cynical Syrian abuse of the crisis in Bam - the Syrians flew humanitarian aid into the earthquake - devastated city only to bring back weapons for terrorist groups-is just one example of new cosmetics hiding the same old faces. Nevertheless, knowing there are forces of reform in a country like Iran is welcome news in Washington, where there are many who would like to show that our policies in the Middle East are already producing results. There is only one problem: what Iranians have seen from Khatami and his faction over the past seven years has been nothing more than just the rhetoric of reform.
Iran's theocracy is based on a theory of government called the Velayat-e faqih, or absolute clerical rule. Velayat-e faqih is at the core of the complex structure of the Iranian political system in which immense religious and political authority rests with the vali-e faqih (or the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamenei). The interpretation of what is or is not an "Islamic principle" falls within the authority of the Supreme Leader and his hand-picked Guardian Council, the 12-member body tasked with vetting candidates for their "heart-felt" and "written" allegiance to the "Supreme Leader."
To be sure, there are factions within the Iranian political system, but the conflict is more of a power grab rather than a content debate over fundamental issues facing society, above all secular democracy. "I have principles for my path," said Khatami earlier last week to the Parliament deputies, "and the most important principle for me is to conserve the system." Indeed, the so-called reformist faction has lost no opportunity to conserve the doctrine of Velayat-e faqih.
In Iran, elections serve as a veneer to mask a rigid theocracy. The mullahs have perverted Western democracy and the parliamentary system to ensure that those institutions would not pose a threat to their grip on power. This hybrid of theocratic soul and democratic gloss has created a paper democracy in Iran, giving ammunition to Tehran's advocates in Washington and Europe to justify "engagement" and "dialogue" with its clerics.
Khatami's "reformists", by the way, have some interesting associations. Among them, one will find mullah Mohammed Mousavi-Khoeiniha, one of Khatami's deputies who was fully behind the US Embassy take-over in Tehran in 1979. Joining him was the recently deceased Ayatollah Sadiq Khalkhali, the notorious hanging judge; Ali Akbar Mohtashami, the terror master, who directed the Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s and is believed to have coordinated the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barrack in Beirut; the US Embassy hostage-takers; the architects of the Ministry of Intelligence and former commanders of the Revolutionary Guards. These and others were baptized as "reformers" following Khatami's presidency
And this brings us to one of the biggest deceptions since Khatami's presidency in 1997: the promise of rule of law and civil society. In a system erected on the anti-democratic doctrine of Velayat-e faqih, this is a non-starter. This principle was incorporated into the constitution to make it, in essence, reform-proof. In fact, the biggest beneficiary of Khatami's mantra of "rule of law" has been the conservatives who consistently invoke it, casting aside the President's faction by applying the existing election and press laws. In Iran, rule of law means rule of Velayat-e faqih. In other words, Islamic sharia law. The establishment never gave Khatami's faction any real say in domestic policies. His smile, his citing of Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville and his shallow discourses on lofty topics such as Islam, democracy and a dialogue between civilizations served as a diplomatic face-lift for Tehran.
The Iranian government is already besieged by domestic, social and political crises, as well as by international pressure for its sponsorship of terrorism and procurement of nuclear weapons. And despite the brave face they keep in public, Iran's leaders cannot escape the reality of what has happened in its neighboring countries to the east and the west.
The Guardian Council's move has made one thing abundantly clear: under the current political structure, a metamorphosis of the Islamic Republic from within by the likes of Khatami is an impossible task and a "reformed" Velayat-e faqih system is a contradiction in terms. Change - by way of genuine reform - can only come from inside the country but outside this regime.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has recently talked about Iran's "encouraging" moves and "new attitude." This is misplaced praise for a regime that still thrives on domestic terror and the export of fundamentalism. We need to see the clerical regime for what it really is: a theocracy, intrinsically and structurally incapable of reform. After a quarter of a century of acquiescence, the U.S. must help the Iranian people and opposition forces tear down the clerics' house of cards.
Reza Bulorchi is the Executive Director of the U.S Alliance for Democratic Iran. Nir Boms is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.