Reformists in Iran set for new clash with conservatives
By Geneive Abdo
August 21, 2000
Iran's moves towards democratic rule, which began three years ago with
the landslide victory of President Mohammad Khatami, appear little more
than a fleeting moment in history now that conservatives have reasserted
Hardliners in the judiciary have closed almost two dozen newspapers
and journals. Nearly all the country's prominent reformist journalists
have been imprisoned, prompting the Paris-based Reporters sans Frontieres
to declare last week that Iran is the world's largest prison for journalists'.
And reformist leaders have been muzzled out of fear that conservative
clerics on the powerful Guardian Council could try to expel MPs from their
seats for being insufficiently Islamic'. The reformers are also deprived
of their main political weapon - public protest -because any major confrontation
with security forces in the hands of conservatives would be likely to end
in a bloodbath.
Six months ago, when reformers rose to victory on President Khatami's
coattails, capturing a majority of seats in the first round of parliamentary
polls, there was great hope that political pluralism could overcome 2,500
years of centralised rule. But today the picture looks very different.
The reformist majority in parliament proved to be ineffectual earlier
this month, when the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his power
to kill a proposed bill which would have gone a long way towards reviving
the banned press. A press court acted immediately, closing the last major
progressive newspaper, Bahar, and jailing more journalists.
But even before Ayatollah Khamenei's unprecedented action, leading reformers
were already acknowledging that their majority in parliament had vast limitations.
Being a majority does not necessarily bring power. If we wish to reform
everything overnight, then undoubtedly our wishes will not come true,'
Mohammad Reza Khatami, deputy speaker of parliament and brother of the
president, told the Guardian on July 21.
Holding the presidency, too, has failed to produce the degree of power
the reformers had expected. With a mandate of 20m votes, or 70% of the
electorate, President Khatami assumed he could implement vast change. But
as the leader of the opposition movement who managed to enter the power
structure, he has been required to make such compromises with the conservative
establishment that he has been reduced to a symbol of Iran's potential.
As an intellectual cleric and humanitarian, Mr Khatami holds out the promise
that Iran could form an Islamic-style democracy, but that dream is far
from being realised.
With no control over the armed forces, which in Iran include the police,
and little influence within the judiciary, driven primarily by political
rather than legal considerations, Mr Khatami has been silenced as conservatives
in these institutions trample his loyalists.
In times of political crisis, Mr Khatami generally stays out of public
view. However, in a speech on Wednesday before the leading student group
which helped bring him to power, the president vowed to remain true to
the reforms he promised three years go. But he said change must come slowly
- an apparent signal that he wanted to avoid confrontation.
I stand firm on my promises. We ought to have a free climate for expression
of views and not betray people's dreams. But I believe there is no other
way to reach our goals than through a calm and gradual process,' said Mr
Khatami. Khatami criticised
Some reformers criticise the president and other like-minded loyalists
for their refusal to confront the conservatives. I sat in a room with the
leading reformers when the conservatives arrested the first journalist,
and I said we must organise protests, we must stop this with force,' said
one leading activist who wished to remain anonymous.
But the reformers said: We can't make trouble now that we are part of
the game. We have to cooperate.' And the more they compromised, the more
they watched their friends get arrested. Now, all the people who were sitting
in that room with me are in jail.'
The conservatives, at first caught off guard by the Khatami onslaught,
changed their strategy several months ago and began using all their institutional
might to quash the reformers. In the early days of the Khatami presidency,
it was primarily Islamic vigilantes who broke up peaceful rallies and beat
intellectuals at university lectures.
But in recent months, the militant fringe has taken a backseat to powerful
conservatives who hold legitimate positions in government. Now, it is hardliners
in the judiciary who are eliminating people they call their enemies', rather
than shadowy religious extremists with high-level backing.
Ayatollah Khamenei, the symbol of the conservative establishment, has
decided to move to the forefront, issuing directives that conservatives
within the judiciary or law enforcement then follow. The first wave of
newspaper closures, for example, came two days after Ayatollah Khamenei
declared in April that the reformist papers were bases of the enemy'.
As his health worsens -he is believed to have prostate cancer - Ayatollah
Khamenei appears more determined to secure the conservatives' hold on power
before his death. But the price he is paying for the crackdown is immense;
he has ceased being a sacred, untouchable public figure. By throwing himself
directly into the political fray, he is now the subject of criticism in
the way any political figure might be.
University students chant slogans against him at rallies. And even more
unprecedented, some theologians in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom have dared
to distribute leaflets criticising him on theological and political grounds.
The main issue driving the conservatives' onslaught is their belief
that divine rule has power over the republic. Islam was the government
of God, not the government of the people,' said Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi
Mesbah-Yazdi, a leading ideologue of the right. They are also reacting
to the growing belief in society that clerics should remain outside politics,
as they had for centuries.
The February parliamentary polls saw fewer clerics elected to office
since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, causing alarm in the conservative camp,
which subscribes to the belief articulated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini:
Those intellectuals who say that the clergy should leave politics and go
back to the mosque speak on behalf of Satan.'
In allowing Mohammad Khatami to run for office, the establishment hoped
a moderate mullah could save the declining reputation of the clergy. Mr
Khatami was selected to show Iran and the world that religious moderation
was possible in an Islamic government.
But three years on, Mr Khatami and the reformers are at a crossroads.
Will the only achievement of their movement, billed as Islam's great Enlightenment,
be the freedom women now enjoy to walk city streets wearing open-toed sandals
and red lipstick?