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The second phase of Iran's Islamic revolution

HOW do we interpret the decision of a revolutionary firebrand like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to reach a peaceful ending to a war that has consumed close to 1 million lives on both sides? Do we say that a fundamentalist has decided to swallow the bitter poison of seeking a peaceful solution with the regime of his inveterate enemy, Saddam Hussein of Iraq? Many observers seem to think that fundamentalists in Iran are yielding to the growing influence of pragmatists like Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of the Majlis and the acting head of the armed forces. In such relatively simplistic interpretations we forget that before the revolution the ayatollah also very pragmatically put together a coalition of clerics, merchants (bazaaris), secularists, moderates, liberals, and leftists, some of whom were Marxists. He first strengthened his base among the clerics and the bazaaris by converting the relatively quiescent Shiite movement into a dynamic and activist Islamic movement. Thus, the revolutionary was a pragmatist in his means, but ideological in the ends that he pursued.

The emergence of moderates or pragmatists like Speaker Rafsanjani is a phenomenon that has been simmering in Iran almost since the inception of the Iran-Iraq war. As early as February 1982, a few of Mr. Rafsanjani's close followers in the Majlis told me that the war should be ended and that Iran's interrupted Islamic social transformation should be pursued vigorously and systematically. Now we are being told that the radicals hold about 60 percent of the 244 seats in the Majlis as a result of recent elections. We are also being told that those who are radical on social issues like land reform and public control of foreign trade may be pro-peace. Similarly, those who are radical in terms of an anti-West foreign policy may be conservative on Islamic and social issues. Political reality in Iran, as in most other countries, can be a fairly complex mosaic. Can it be that a new phase in the Islamic revolution has begun? A radical on social issues but a pragmatist on foreign policy, Rafsanjani has taken charge.

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The signals we are getting suggest that Iran would be more inward looking and would become much more engrossed in the task of social reconstruction. The objective of the new pragmatist is the same, namely, to advance in the medium or the long run the goals of the Islamic revolution. The means would be different. In the new phase, Iran would make a supreme effort to extricate itself from the ravages of the war and construct a socially balanced, just, and relatively humane society. This would improve its image, particularly in Muslim countries, serving as a model for them to move toward genuine Islamic social transformation in which social justice is the main plank.

It has been reported that in the debate that took place after the Iranian airliner was shot down by American missiles July 3, Rafsanjani pleaded with his colleagues that revenge attacks on United States interests around the world would play into the hands of Iran's enemies. Arrayed against the Speaker were some of the powerful members of the government and a radical leader like Khomeini's designated successor, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. The debate ended when Khomeini intervened in favor of the Speaker. There were no revenge strikes.

Rafsanjani faces a formidable challenge: to create a coalition out of a political mosaic in which conservatives and radicals are lining up on unpredictable sides on social and foreign policy issues. Like Khomeini, he may succeed. And, like Khomeini, whose objectives are also ideological, he may ruthlessly discard some of the members of the coalition in order to create a core of well-knit supporters for pursuing the goal of perpetuating the Islamic revolution at home and exporting it by relatively peaceful means abroad.

To peacefully export this new version of Islamic revolution, Rafsanjani would have to develop two themes different from those pursued under Khomeini.

First, he would have to stop calling upon the Arabs in the Gulf states to overthrow their corrupt or captive pro-Western regimes. Instead, he should stress the Islamic value of social justice, reinforced by simple living and national economic growth, in contrast to the conspicuous consumption that seems to be the order of the day in these Arab lands.

Second, the export of Islamic revolution under Khomeini has relied almost exclusively on the support it has generated among the Shiites in Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. A more inclusive Islamic revolution can come only when it wins the support of the Sunnis as well. This is where an emphasis on piety and social justice found in the Koran will help Iranians broaden the revolution to include the majority of Sunnis. ``Allah enjoineth justice and kindness'' is a verse that has been recited in every weekly sermon in Sunni congregations since the time of Caliph Umar II (717-20). The idea that the Islamic revolution must propagate through practice is that an Islamic society not merely pursues justice but justice seasoned with compassion.

Khalid Bin Sayeed is professor of Political Studies at Queen's University, Canada.