Iran's march toward becoming a secular democracy, which seemed to be accelerating just a year ago, has been significantly slowed down by recent events abroad and at home. The ruling theocracy's fear that Iran would soon be flanked by two secular, pro-American regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq has abated as the situation in Afghanistan has grown more tenuous and Washington's problems in Iraq have continued to mount. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei's grip on reformists in Iran seems to be tightening, just as the country gets ready for parliamentary elections next month.

Last year, the Taliban's crushing defeat and the rise of a reform-minded political elite raised much hope for the dawn of a modern democratic government in Afghanistan that would stand in sharp contrast to Iranian-style theocracy. But these hopes were dashed last month when the loya jirga ratified a new constitution that is supposed to adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (including by granting equal rights to women) but in fact forbids passing any law contrary to Islamic scripture. The UN's endorsement of this document gives further credence to President Muhammad Khatami's concept of "Islamic democracy" and thus extends the Islamic Republic's life expectancy.

In Iraq, both the turmoil caused by postwar insurgencies and the rising prestige and political clout of the Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani have also been a boon to Iran's Islamic Republic. The grand ayatollah's long-held goal of making Iraq an Islamic state and the possibility of a Shi'ite alliance between Iran and Iraq are bound to be encouraging to the Iranian mullahs. Iraq's uncertain future has thus emboldened Iranian hard-liners to thwart secular-oriented reforms at home.

Finally, Khatami's failure in his six-year opposition to Iran's clerical establishment has also temporarily slowed the liberalization process. Repeated hints that he would resign if his two reform bills were rejected by the arch-conservative Council of Guardians have proved to be an empty threat. Earlier this month, the Council disqualified wholesale some 3,600 candidates to upcoming parliamentary elections, fueling the political crisis between clerics and reformists and increasing the chances of a landslide victory by hard-liners. But the crisis will eventually be solved one way or another, and it can only slow down, rather than stop, the countdown to Iran's "D" day.

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  • Jahangir Amuzegar is an international economic consultant. He was Finance Minister and Economic Ambassador in Iran's pre-1979 government.
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