By Thomas Friedman
The New York Times
August 15, 2000
Watching Iranian politics today is a lot like watching the Weather Channel
during hurricane season. The weatherman comes on and points to a group
of clouds somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. He tells you it's not a hurricane
just yet, but if you study the cloud patterns you can see the storm forming.
If the current winds and temperatures persist, he concludes, it will definitely
be upgraded from tropical storm to hurricane.
And so it is with Iran. Right now, the struggle between the reformers
and conservatives there is still just the political equivalent of a tropical
storm, with the occasional bursts of student rioting and mysterious murders.
But if you look at the trends closely, and if temperatures in Iran keep
rising, this low-grade struggle could turn into an Iranian version of the
What's driving this storm is the behavior of Iran's top leader, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, who is increasingly behaving as if he were "Shah Khamenei."
He and his conservative allies have been mounting a creeping coup against
the democratic process in Iran. If it continues, Iran could feature the
first big civil clash of the globalization era -- that is, a popular struggle
between localizers, who want to keep Iran isolated from global trends and
dominated by religious theology, versus the globalizers, who increasingly
know how the rest of the world lives and want to be part of it.
Here's why: In May 1997 the cleric Mohammad Khatami, running as a moderate,
was elected president by a stunning landslide. He trounced the conservative
candidate, who was supported by Ayatollah Khamenei. Mr. Khamenei carries
the title supreme leader, he sits above the president and he controls Iran's
religious institutions, courts, Revolutionary Guards and Islamic business
Soon after becoming president, Mr. Khatami unleashed a flowering of
liberal Iranian newspapers and magazines, run by journalists, cartoonists
and writers pushing for a more open, democratic Iran, with more rule of
law and a healthier civil society. But he was hamstrung in pushing through
more liberal laws by the fact that the Iranian Parliament was still dominated
by conservatives. He preached patience, telling his followers to abide
by the process and wait until the parliamentary elections this spring.
Well, the parliamentary elections happened and the reformers, once
again, trounced the conservatives, winning nearly 200 of the 290 seats
-- a real popular rebuke to clerical rule.
That was too much for the conservatives, who, led by Ayatollah Khamenei,
then launched their creeping coup against democracy. Using a crude press-control
law rammed through the last Parliament at the eleventh hour, and a judiciary
still entirely under their thumb, the conservatives shut down some 20 reformist
newspapers and magazines and threw a host of leading journalists in jail
on charges of insulting Islam. Ebrahim Nabavi was jailed Saturday, just
as he was being honored by his peers as Iran's best satirist, while Muhammad
Quchani was jailed Sunday after being honored as the country's best political
Ayatollah Khamenei's Council of Guardians also ruled that Parliament
had no authority to investigate any institution that he oversees -- i.e.,
the army, the Revolutionary Guards, the conglomerates and the courts. And
in an unprecedented claim of authority, Mr. Khamenei ordered the new Parliament
not to overturn the draconian press law. This is the Soviet Union, Islamic
One cannot say enough about the courage of Iran's liberal journalists
in resisting this creeping coup, and even exposing how government agents
sent by the conservatives murdered several dissidents in the winter of
1998. These journalists are real heroes of democracy in Iran.
That's why it's gut-check time for President Khatami: He was elected
by Iran's reformist majority to open their society. He told them to be
patient and follow the process. They did and now they're in jail. President
Khatami is coming to the U.N. in September to push his plan for making
the year 2000 a year of "dialogue among civilizations." Well,
dialogue begins at home. It's Iran's civilization that's imperiled, and
if President Khatami can't protect that, something tells me the brave men
and women of Iran, who fought the anti-democratic shah, will fight the
Beware: hurricane forming in Iran.