As Iran's Reformer Speaks, Anti-Reformers Sit and Scowl
By JOHN F. BURNS
The New York Times
September 30, 1999
TEHERAN -- Thousands of jubilant university students gathered Wednesday
to hail the country's reformist President inside the sprawling, golden-domed
shrine to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the puritanical Muslim cleric who
led Iran's Islamic revolution 20 years ago.
The students pressed against barriers inside the shrine to chant the
name of the President, Mohammad Khatami, punching the air with hand-lettered
signs bearing slogans of support and crying "Death to the opponents
So dense was the crowd that many were pressed almost against the glass
walls of the green-roofed pavilion within the shrine that encloses the
tombs of Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989 at age 90, and his son, Ahmad
Khomeini, a cleric who died in 1996 in his mid-50's.
But if the students' enthusiasm carried the unmistakable sense of a
society in transition, it was also redolent of the formidable obstacles
that Khatami, 53, a high-ranking cleric himself, will have to overcome
to build a "civil society" -- his catch phrase since his landslide
election victory 28 months ago.
In casting their votes, 20 million Iranian voters backed his pledge
to establish a tolerant, law-abiding democracy that he has said would mitigate
the harshness of Islamic rule without allowing it to be swept aside by
Khatami has been called the "Iranian Gorbachev," a reference
to Mikhail S. Gorbachev's efforts as Soviet leader to reform the Communist
system, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and his ouster
in the early 1990's.
One similarity is that Khatami is an authentic member of the political
establishment he now challenges. He emerged from the same ultraconservative
seminary in Qum as the hard-line clerics who still cling doggedly to the
legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, and with them he took part in the "Islamic
revolution" that overthrew the Shah in 1979.
What makes the difference were the years before his election in 1997,
when he was sidelined by clerics to be director of the national library.
There he plunged into a study of Western political thought and emerged
with ideals that drew heavily from various philosophers who influenced
the American Revolution, including Locke and Rousseau. Khatami's 290-page
book on Western political thought is now a best seller around the campus
of Teheran University.
But the President's supporters, concentrated among the two-thirds of
the 70 million Iranians who are under 30 years old, are at least counterbalanced,
for now, by his opponents, as today's events showed.
Sitting a few feet away from Khatami, rows of Muslim clerics and other
influential figures responded impassively to his hour-long speech. They
included Hassan Khomeini, the ginger-bearded grandson of the Ayatollah;
he is 28, a middle-ranking cleric who has become an icon to Islamic conservatives.
Through waves of cheering and chanting by the students, the clerics
offered no applause. Some stroked their beards, others played distractedly
with prayer beads, some fanned themselves with programs for the gathering,
which was part of a 10-day celebration of the centennial of Ayatollah Khomeini's
The clerics' glumness was not relieved even when Khatami, responding
to the cries of "Death to the opponents of Khatami!" rebuked
"No, no, I don't like to hear slogans like that," he exclaimed.
"I don't like to hear 'Death to opponents' or death to anybody, because
as matters stand in our society at present, it will be interpreted in a
very negative way, as meaning that anybody who does not share your views
should be silenced, and that's not right at all. The Iran we want should
be one where there will be room for all the different viewpoints, for all
ideologies, even those that oppose the President. They, too, must have
the right to express themselves."
While some Iranian clerics are aligned with Khatami, many others, probably
a majority, are in the conservative camp with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As
Iran's Supreme Leader, a title bequeathed by Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah
Khamenei remains the country's most powerful figure, with effective control
of the army, the police, the judiciary and the intelligence agencies, as
well as the theological establishment. Under the Constitution, Khatami's
powers as President are limited, and he relies heavily for his influence
on the persuasive power of his popular support.
Khamenei, who did not attend Wednesday's gathering, has been engaged
in a game of cat-and-mouse, blocking many of the President's programs and
maneuvering to discredit and even jail some of his associates, but managing
to avoid a direct confrontation, which many Iranians fear could lead to
So far the struggle has been waged with only occasional violence, and
both sides seem keen to keep it that way as they approach the next crisis
point: parliamentary elections in February, in which Khatami will attempt
to wrest a majority from the conservatives.
Wednesday's meeting with the students was shadowed by the riots in July
on the university campus, the worst disturbances since the 1979 revolution.
The riots began with student protests over the closing of a reformist newspaper,
but they spiraled out of control as the police and gangs of Islamic militia
members attacked a dormitory, killing at least two students.
The conservatives appeared to have won the day then by calling huge
crowds into Teheran's streets in a counterdemonstration, but popular outrage
at the students' deaths prompted Khamenei to condemn the attack on the
dormitory as "criminal."
Since July the conservatives have remained on the offensive. Earlier
this month, they used a press court to close another leading reformist
newspaper, Neshat, and to sentence its editor to a 30-month jail term,
now under appeal, for "insulting the sanctity of Islam," among
other things, through the paper's coverage of the riots.
Although a Government inquiry condemned the police for the campus attack,
a revolutionary court, also under conservative control, announced two weeks
ago that it had sentenced four people, apparently students, to death for
their roles in the disturbances. No announcement has been made that the
sentences were carried out, and reformers hope that they will be commuted
to jail terms.
In the latest skirmish, hard-liners have attempted to stir public outrage
against the reformers over the publication of a satirical essay in a Teheran
campus magazine. It featured a student telling the 12th imam -- a central
figure in the theology of Iran's Shiite Muslims -- that he would be too
busy with exams to attend the reappearance on earth of the imam, an event
that holds a sanctity among Shiites similar to the second coming of Jesus
Conservative newspapers have run banner headlines on the affair, not
mentioning that the original article appeared in a publication with a press
run of 150 copies, and conservative students have rallied on the university
campus, demanding the resignation of the Culture and Education Ministers,
key allies of President Khatami.
In the face of the new attacks, Khatami's tactic has been to parade
his own Islamic credentials while offering oratorical strikes against the
conservatives. At today's meeting, he lavished praise on Ayatollah Khomeini
and emphasized the importance he attached to university learning, as if
to say that conservatives who condemn the campuses as centers of anti-Islamic
sentiment and urge that they be closed have betrayed the Ayatollah's legacy.
While attacking the anti-imam satire as "an insult to religious
values," he said the "bigger crime" was that of the conservatives
"who have tried to convert a small wave into a big storm" in
a bid to isolate the reformers.
But mostly Khatami concentrated on an appeal to the students to avoid
provoking the hard-liners and giving them a pretext for another campus
"We should remember that there are hands at work in our country
that want to foster divisions among us and to set one group against another,
with a view to creating chaos," he said. "So while you should
defend your values, don't allow divisions to rule life on the campuses.
You are there to ask questions, to learn, to engage in dialogue, not to
allow the universities to descend into chaos."