The people who comprise the Islamic Republic of Iran's government, generally speaking, belong to one of two factions.
The first and most powerful faction is the hardliners. They espouse iron-fisted rule by the country's theocratic elites, provided, of course, that the iron fist is properly covered for the sake of modesty.
Since the revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah brought them to power 25 years ago, the hardliners are responsible for such innovations as punishing free speech with murder, funding international terrorism, and flogging people for major offenses like holding hands or wearing eyeliner. It's all been done, of course, in the name of religion.
By the way, Shah is just the Farsi word for king. And Farsi is the Farsi word for Persian, Iran's primary language.
The government's other big faction, the reformers, rose to prominence in the '90s. On its side was one of Iran's most important natural resources -- fertility. Perhaps because the revolution in 1979 made just about everything worth doing outside of the house illegal, Iranians have spent much of the last 25 years in bed. As a result, half of the country's 68 million people are under 23. More than two-thirds are under 30. By comparison, France, a country of people so into sex that they've got single words for acts that take at least a full sentence to describe in other languages (ex. postillionage), has a median age of 38.
The result, other than sore nipples and a thriving diaper industry, is that the bulk of the population wasn't around for the Shah, or the revolution. The only awful government they've ever known is the hardliner-controlled one that arrests them for listening to pop music. Hardliner jibba jabba about preserving the revolution falls largely on deaf ears.
The reformers, in turn, capitalized on the growing annoyance with the hardliners and, by the late '90s, dominated the national political offices that were chosen by election. The reformers, led by President Mohammed Khatami, didn't want to dismantle the Islamic government. They wanted to reform it from within -- free up the press, stop with the political murders, etc. (For those of you who remember the '80s, think of Khatami as a Gorbachev-type.)
Unfortunately for reformers, the Iranian government is structured so that an unelected little gang of clerics led by the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has veto power over anything important that the elected parts of the government might wanna do. Khamenei and his gang, called the Guardian Council, have done their best to stop reforms, even though the liberalizers overwhelmingly won the popular votes in the late '90s. Helping Khamenei and the Guardian Council are armed gangs known as religious police. They're the people who terrorize Iranians, roaming parks to look for kissing couples or knocking on the doors of houses in which they suspect a party might be going on. As often as not, they'll leave you alone if you bribe them.
In the past couple of years, support for the reformers has waned -- not because support for reform has waned, but because people are frustrated at what they perceive to be a system they cannot change. Sensing the weakness of the reformers, Khamenei and his Guardian Council recently set out to take back the reformer-dominated parliament. They did so by banning thousands of reform-minded candidates from competing in the Feb. 20 parliamentary election on the grounds that they were anti-Islamic. Among the banned candidates was President Khatami's brother, who coincidentally got more votes than any other candidate in the last parliamentary elections. His only "anti-Islamic" act was criticizing unelected clerics.
As I'm writing this, the election is happening. Reports are that turnout is low, thanks in part to the boycott called by reformers. Among the election boycotters is Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian woman who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work in Iran. Like a lot of people, she thinks the election is a sham. It's likely that hardliners will win the election, take control of parliament, and begin a crackdown on reformers. In a sign of things to come, two reformer-supporting newspapers were forced to shut down immediately before the election.
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