Global Vision

Muslim Crosscurrents

Looking beyond the Iranian revolution.

The victory of Mohammed Khatami in the Iranian presidential election suggests the country’s revolutionary zeal has been tempered. While little change is likely to Iran’s political structure or foreign policy, a more moderate line in social policy may emerge. In contrast, Afghanistan’s Sunni Muslim Taliban is still in a revolutionary phase of development. Currently, its advance is generating the greatest concern in the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia, but the movement may yet resonate more strongly in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The net effect of these contrasting trends on the attainment of U.S. objectives across the region is not likely to be positive. Washington may come to regret its reported support for the Taliban movement. And while a more moderate social policy may emerge in Iran, the country’s resistance to a U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is unlikely to soften.

In Iran’s May 23 election, Khatami received almost 70 percent of votes cast, putting him far ahead of his main rival, the conservative speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nuri. The result was a surprise, since Nategh-Nuri enjoys the tacit support of Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, and was viewed as the clerical establishment’s candidate for president.

Khatami’s huge mandate is a clear sign of the Iranian electorate’s desire for change and may become a significant landmark in the country’s history. Offered a clear choice of candidates and policies for the first time since the 1979 revolution, an overwhelming majority of Iranians voted to overturn the social and cultural restrictions that have become synonymous with the Islamic republic’s revolutionary zeal.

Khatami’s reputation for supporting liberal policies during his tenure as minister for culture and Islamic guidance was combined with a populist campaign message stressing the importance of civil society, individual rights, a wider role for women, and greater freedom of expression. This allowed him to appeal to a broad range of constituencies that have eschewed electoral participation since the revolution. In addition to the support of left-wing Islamic radicals, Khatami received the overwhelming backing of the intelligentsia, the urban middle class, and female and younger voters.

Nevertheless, and despite his reputation as a moderate liberal, Khatami, the son of an ayatollah, remains a product of Iran’s Shiite Muslim clerical establishment. He has emphasized his commitment to the principles of the Islamic republic, and will do nothing to fundamentally alter the existing political system. Moreover, moves to introduce radical social-reform legislation may founder in Parliament, where there is a conservative majority.

Ultimately, the extent of any shift in domestic policy will depend on the position adopted by Khamenei. If the spiritual leader views the election result as a threat to his own authority, he could side with hard-line Islamists to thwart reform initiatives. However, given the size of Khatami’s mandate, Khamenei may conclude that the desire for easing social and cultural restrictions is compelling enough, and opt to assist the new president in overcoming conservative opponents.

Similar transformations in foreign policy, particularly toward the United States, are far less likely. Khatami’s statements reflect a recognition that foreign policy remains the domain of Khamenei. The ayatollah has been dogmatic in opposing Washington’s policies in the region, particularly “dual containment,” which he views as U.S. victimization of Iran. The leadership is particularly unlikely to moderate its opposition to the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, which it perceives as detrimental to Iran’s security interests.

Both sides believe that the other must make the first conciliatory move. There is debate within the U.S. foreign-policy establishment regarding the efficacy of Washington’s approach, which is based on the perception of Iran as a rogue state and a sponsor of international terror. However, social reform in Iran will not by itself be enough to facilitate a dramatic shift in U.S. policy.

Set against the evidence of moderation in Iran, the Taliban’s advance in Afghanistan has generated alarm, particularly among ex-Soviet Central Asian governments, who fear the spread of Islamic fundamentalism northward. Since most Central Asians are Sunni Muslims, the Taliban potentially may be a more inspiring model for local Islamic revolutionaries than Shiah Iran. However, while there is a real danger that the fighting could destabilize Central Asia’s southern flank, the Taliban’s restricted ethnic base may limit its attractiveness. In contrast, this may not be the case in Sunni-dominated Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Islamabad, Riyadh and, by extension, Washington may yet come to regret their reported support for a Sunni movement that apparently now exceeds Shiah Iran in its fundamentalist zeal and potential appeal to discontented Sunni populations.

Although the Taliban operates autonomously, its advance would not have been possible without foreign backing. Pakistan has been the key supporter, but Saudi Arabia and the United States–both keen to stem Iranian influence in the region–also are believed to have supplied finance. All three countries have an interest in stabilizing Afghanistan sufficiently to construct oil pipelines from Central Asia through the country, as an alternative route to Iran.

The Taliban is both a product of and a reaction to the civil war that has gripped Afghanistan since the demise of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992. The movement developed out of refugee Koranic schools in Pakistan. Taliban leaders declared a holy war against the various warlords who carved up Afghanistan, and preached the role of strict Islamic rules as a unifying force. This simple message found a ready audience among the largely rural population of southern Afghanistan. Like the Taliban leadership, most southerners are ethnic Pashtun Sunni Muslims who, though accounting for the majority of the Afghan population, had not fared well in the civil war.

The Taliban captured the southern city of Kandahar–where its reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, resides–in late 1994 and the capital, Kabul, last September. In all conquered regions, the Taliban has immediately implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law. Among other things, women are barred from work and most education, and men may not trim their compulsory beards. In southern rural areas, such strictures have been accepted, especially as the Taliban has provided a stable environment for the cultivation of poppies. Domestic drug use is severely punished, but heroin production for export is permitted.

Taliban rule has not been popular with non-Pashtun communities or the more sophisticated, liberal-minded residents of the major cities, especially Kabul. This is unlikely to change. The recent heavy defeat of the Taliban in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif highlights both its failure to incorporate ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, or Shiah Hazaras into its leadership, and its refusal to moderate its Islamic zeal. Even if the Taliban succeeds in conquering the entire country, many areas will remain subject to guerrilla warfare.