The Reform Wave in Iran Is Gaining Momentum
By Philip Bowring
International Herald Tribune
December 15, 1999
TEHRAN -- A quiet counterrevolution is gaining momentum here. It is
evident on the streets and in the newspapers, and on Feb. 18 it will have
a real, if circumscribed, opportunity to express itself at the ballot box.
It should eventually lead to Iran regaining the position in its region
that its size, geography and level of development merit.
This is not to imply that the clerical domination of society is in any
immediate danger. Indeed, for fear of inciting a powerful and ruthless
right wing, most reformists are at pains to emphasize gradualism and the
compatibility of their demands with the leadership's interpretation of
But the atmosphere here reminds this correspondent of China in the early
1980s, when a hint of color began to appear in people's lives, Mao suits
ceased to be the universal garb and dealings with foreigners became a virtue
instead of a vice. Here the tie for men and colorful scarves for women
are making a discreet reappearance.
Events are likely to move much faster here than in China because the
political system is more directly responsive to the public mood.
Expectation of change is running high as the elections for the Majlis
approach. It is widely assumed that they will lead to a legislature more
sympathetic than the present one to the liberalizing policies of President
Mohammed Khatami, himself elected two years ago in a surprise upset.
It will not be plain sailing. There are big obstacles. First is the
Council of Guardians, a body which vets candidates. It is expected to disbar
some as liberals but will need to be mindful that overt rigging would further
undermine clerical prestige and perhaps lead to violent reaction. Some
on the right are believed to want violence as a an excuse to cancel the
The recent jailing by a clerical court of Abdullah Nouri, a former interior
minister who is now in the reform camp, has become a cause celebre. Reformers
have scented incitement; they support him in print but would prefer staying
off the streets.
Iran has a dual power structure. The president runs the executive, and
the Majlis passes laws. In parallel are the powers of the spiritual leader
(for life), Sayed Ali Khamenei, representing conservative clerical forces
and controlling the army and police and the Council of Guardians, which
Between these two poles, but closer to the conservatives, sits a balancing
factor, the Expediency Council headed by the opportunistic former President
The underlying theme of Iranian politics is the struggle between these
competing power centers. Reformers want to see the government and civil
powers represented by the popularly elected president and Majlis prevail
at the expense of the self- electing bodies.
Mr. Khatami is a cleric related to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
but within the clerical hierarchy he is viewed as an outsider. His attempts
to widen the scope of civil society have made him very popular despite
the wretched state of the economy. He is particularly approved of by women,
who have few freedoms other than the vote. Anti-clericals and covert monarchists
also acknowledge his standing.
The advance of civil society is reflected in vigorous public debate
both on issues of government and on religious interpretation. Many religious
back reform, too, either out of genuine belief in democratic process and
freedom of choice or out of fear that the young (most of population was
born after the revolution) are in quiet revolt against a system which,
even after the relaxations of the past two years, remains socially oppressive.
Mr. Khatami's recent appointment as head of the judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi
Shahroudi, has expressed shock at the state of his department.
There is also a growing feeling even among conservatives that the economic
challenges facing Iran - a work force growing by 3 percent a year, chronic
inflation and foreign exchange shortages - require some opening to the
outside world, and the speeding up of privatization which was promised
long ago but so far has been confinedto small enterprises.
This points to less regulated markets and foreign investment, which
implies concessions to the West. A recent gas development deal with Shell
is a signof new times.
Even so, political crosscurrents complicate change toward the outside
world. The 1979 revolution had ingredients of socialism and secular nationalism
- the mantle of Mohammed Mossadegh, whose nationalization of the oil industry
led to the 1953 CIA- sponsored coup that restored the shah. Those ingredients
are still there. So some social liberals are wary of, for example, welcoming
foreign investment and privatization of state industries.
The bazaaris (big merchants) who support the religious conservatives
favor some privatization but not the more general opening of the economy
that would threaten cosy relationships with the state and the religious
foundations which control lucrative monopolies and own large tracts of
On balance, a big Majlis victory for Khatami supporters should speed
up economic liberalization and opening to the outside world, including
This is not made easier by America's distrust of Islam and by the influence
of Israeli interests over its foreign policy. Some argue that a conservative
president in Iran would find it easier than it is for Mr. Khatami to do
an about-face toward America, as Mr. Rafsanjani did on the war with Iraq
and the crucial domestic issue of family planning.
Still, with the backing of voters anxious to put creature comforts before
anti-Western tirades, Mr. Khatami should have more room for maneuver. He
is playing to nationalism in his own way, subtly emphasizing Iran's pride
in its 3,000-year history - more than half of it pre-Islam. A spate of
foreign visitors and improving relations with neighbors show an Iran anxious
to be an anchor of stability in a turbulent region rather than a fomenter
Iranian politics remain unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Neither
a rightist coup against current trends nor uncontrolled street reaction
to religious regimentation can be ruled out. But the balance of forces
now suggests that its postrevolutionary development will have more in common
with China than with Burma or North Korea.
In many ways, the regime remains crudely oppressive. But Iran's struggle
back toward the mainstream world deserves more attention and support than
it is getting from the West.