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Outspoken Iran Academic Says Rigid Political System Cannot Be Reformed


Former president Mohammad Khatami casts his vote at a polling station in Tehran, in June 2013 when Hassan Rouhani won his first term in office. File photo

Hashem Aghajari, an outspoken academic in Iran, has stated in a recent article that the relatively open political environment prevailing in the late 1990s and early 2000s marked the limit of the Islamic Republic’s tolerance for reforms.

Aghajari maintains that not only did reforms not continue beyond that point, but Iranians have witnessed a day-by-day decline in the extent of civil liberties allowed by the Islamic Republic. Criticizing the model used by Iran’s reformists, Aghajari argues that reform is not possible through ballot boxes alone, but rather that shaping a powerful social movement is necessary.

Activists have levelled such criticism at former president Mohammad Khatami, who has been trying to bring about reforms by encouraging participation in elections without forming and leading a social movement. In the last two years, several prominent personalities living in Iran have called for the resignation of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, arguing that reforms are not possible in the existing system. Many have signed petitions, risking their freedom and lives by doing so.

Iranian university professor and outspoken academic Hashem Aghajari, in a meeting in Allameh Tabatabaei University on December 18, 2018.
Iranian university professor and outspoken academic Hashem Aghajari, in a meeting in Allameh Tabatabaei University on December 18, 2018.

In an article in the July edition of Iran-e Farda (Iran of Tomorrow), a pro-reform magazine, Aghajari, who is a historian and known for his provocative ideas about the Iranian political system, examines the potential benefits and limitations of the reform movement in Iran. The periodical's editor, Kayvan Samimi, himself has been jailed for his outspoken ideas about the nature of the regime.

In the early 2000s, Aghajari was sentenced to death and imprisoned when he questioned the regime's underlying idea of Guardianship of the Jurisconsult, the system in which a cleric rules over society as Supreme Leader. Aghajari critiqued the idea of emulation (taqlid), which calls on every Shiite to follow a high-ranking cleric as his or her source of emulation. At the time, Aghajari used the colloquial Persian word for emulation, which literally means to imitate. This gave way to controversy that would have cost him his life were it not for the students and academics that constitute his support base.

Today, Aghajari has once again highlighted what he perceives as the Iranian regime's inability to reform itself. In his article for Iran-e Farda, he warns that a revolution could catch political activists by surprise if the system fails to correct itself from within. Aghajari writes, "Revolution happens when the system is rigid and does not allow peaceful democratic and lawful change based on dialogue between the elite in power and the social forces that want a reform."

Aghajari states that "when the system is rigid and the society is developing, the system and the society will inevitably face each other in an antagonistic confrontation." He adds, "In pre-modern societies this antagonism could continue for centuries as the pace of change from generation to generation was slow, but the momentum of developments in modern societies and modern lifestyle do not allow rigid systems to survive indefinitely.”

Aghajari argues, "It is impossible to follow the idea of reform exclusively through ballot boxes, unless it is backed by a powerful social force and social movement… Elites within the system cannot further reforms without active social movements and a social force." He maintains that the political system in Iran lags behind Iranian society at large, writing, "The Iranian society today is more open, aware, linked to the world, conscious of its rights and demands its freedom and rights compared to 1997," when Iran's reform movement started.

Aghajari warns that the gap between the new generation and the political system has dramatically widened, resulting in the system becoming anachronistic due to the system and the public belonging to two different times. He argues that this reduces the hope of reform. As a result, "reformists" attempt to scare the public with what might happen if they do not vote for reformist-endorsed candidates.

"People voted for Khatami based on hope in the future, while they voted for Rouhani fearing what might the future hold," writes Aghajari. He cautions, "When you promote the idea of choosing between bad and worse, then you blur the boundaries between reform and non-reform. At the same time, you keep reducing expectations for the future."

In a veiled reference to social upheavals in late 2017 and early 2018, Aghajari warns that "this situation will push reformists to stand next to the system when social movements stand against the system as we have seen in recent years."

It remains to be determined how the public will receive Aghajari’s critique on the political dynamics in Tehran. So far, there has been no reaction by Iran’s rulers.

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