The collapsing of Iranian reform
With hardliners in the ascendant, Muhammad Khatami's bid
to reform the clerical system from within has succeeded only in minor social
August 19, 2000
SIX months ago a loose grouping of reformists, committed (at least by
local standards) to the rule of law and democratic accountability, won
Iran's parliamentary election. The future looked uncertain but promising.
Even though the conservatives still controlled all the effective instruments
of state power -- the judiciary, the police, the army, the broadcast media
-- it was fair to hope they would feel obliged to pay heed to the strength
of the people's voice. So they did; but only to shut it up.
President Muhammad Khatami and his followers run the government and
are a majority in parliament. But the power of both institutions is circumscribed,
and their decisions can be overruled by the clerical establishment, personified
by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's "supreme leader". The main
reformist message, calling for more openness and democracy (although still
within the clerical system), was spread by an explosion of free-speaking
newspapers and magazines. It was backed cautiously by academics and incautiously
by students. But hardliners, recognising their most effective enemy, cracked
down on the press ferociously. By now, all the liberal papers have been
closed, parliament has been told by Ayatollah Khamenei to forget even thinking
of reopening them, and many prominent journalists have been arrested.
The illiberalism that darkened Iran before President Khatami's election
in 1997 has not altogether returned. Socially, people can still breathe
more easily than they did under his predecessors. Young men and women can
mix in public without too much fear of being intimidated by a gang of Islamist
bully-boys, or watch satellite television with less likelihood of a crippling
fine. These changes are probably irreversible. With Iran's vast army of
youngsters facing political and economic dead-ends, even hardliners recognise
the need for a modest degree of tolerance in social matters.
In other directions, however, doors are closing. Reformers, these days,
are challenged with "legal violence" (see ). Academics returning
from international conferences are liable to be accused of treason -- which
makes them reluctant to accept invitations to travel or play their part
on the lecture circuit. Students, long in the forefront of Iranian politics,
have been battered into caution by the cruel prison sentences meted out
to those of their number, such as Ahmad Batebi -- his picture was on the
cover of The Economist -- who took part in a pro-democracy protest last
summer. And the brutality of the police, and of their Islamist helpers,
in squashing a demonstration on the first anniversary of this protest has
discouraged ordinary people from supporting the cause.
Reformists and revolutionaries
What, under these conditions, does "reform" amount to? Given
the shackled nature of the presidency, Mr Khatami has based his policy
on the belief that the only way to move forward was to take Ayatollah Khamenei
with him: if he set himself against the supreme leader, he would be bound
to trip. A fair argument, but it would be more convincing if he and his
movement were in fact getting anywhere.
Disillusion with Mr Khatami and his softly-softly approach is bound
to swell. Iranians have been allowed to vote for what they want, but were
then stopped from getting it. People are now much more alert than they
were to what is going on; they cannot easily be fooled. And they may not
accept stagnation. If the clerical system cannot be reformed, their minds
will turn to the disintegration of that system. If gentle voices are gagged,
less gentle ones will take over.