In Iran, the Rivers of Reform Run Deep
Liberalization, Modernization Draw Wide Support, Even Among
By Howard Schneider
May 17, 2000
KHALKHAL, Iran -- The riot started one evening last month, just after
the nightly news.
Residents of this remote northwestern village had learned that the reformist
candidate they thought they had chosen in February's parliamentary elections
had been disqualified. Instead, conservative authorities in Tehran had
awarded the seat to a local cleric who has held the office for 16 years--an
establishment figure, in the voters' eyes, if ever there was one.
Hundreds gathered in the town center. Many stood in quiet protest at
the nullification of their vote, but others began smashing the windows
of government buildings and banks. Cars belonging to the local administration
were wrecked. Homes of some local officials were set on fire. Even the
local seminary was torched, a potent symbol of the faltering hold that
conservative Islamic authority has on this country's imagination.
From its urban seat in Tehran, the reform movement led by President
Mohammed Khatemi seems fueled by the young, bulging population of Iranians
in their late teens and twenties who are politically engaged and who are
using the country's 16-year-old voting age to push for a freer lifestyle
in this strict but changing Islamic republic. Yet it is apparent from the
people of Khalkhal, a town of about 30,000 in the mountainous region west
of the Caspian Sea, that the movement runs far beyond the capital anddeep
into middle age and the middle class as well.
In a dozen interviews, students, middle-aged workers and business owners
shared similar frustrations about Iran's system and similar desires for
a society that would allow them to speak more freely and have more say
over their lives. Living in a rural region--a place where goatherds tend
flocks in the countryside and laborers congregate in the town--their feelings
demonstrate what reform supporters and diplomatic analysts in Tehran have
concluded: That, short of a determined crackdown by ultra-conservatives,
the ultimate success of Khatemi's drive to liberalize Iran and introduce
the rule of law may be less of an issue than its speed and sweep.
Despite what appears on the surface to be a seesaw battle in which momentum
swings between Khatemi's supporters and their hard-line rivals, key institutions
are gradually being brought under more open and rationalized management.
Abuses by hard-line security agents and others are being more vigorously
policed, and political victories such as the recent reformist takeover
of parliament appear to be taking place without crippling interference.
Although the election in Khalkhal was one of a dozen in which Islamic
authorities rejected apparent reformist victories, parliament is apparently
on track to convene later this month with a solid reformist majority intact,
giving Khatemi the legislative support he has been denied since he was
elected on a reform platform in 1997.
Here in Khalkhal, it is easy to understand the reformist sweep. It is
not only supported by college students; army veterans who battled Iraq
in the 1980s are behind it, too. Heads of households want a local movie
theater as much as teenagers do, and they were just as offended, they say,
when the Friday prayer leader persisted in denying it. Business owners
are as upset about the economy as unemployed youths are, frustrated over
a system that creates ward heelers out of theologians and seems to place
politics above merit in the distribution of jobs and state loans.
"The freedoms that we want are freedoms found in Islam. Here, we
don't even have that," said a member of a group of men in their thirties
and forties who gathered to discuss the election. "If I say something,
they are immediately going to tell me I'm against" the system of Islamic
"Eighty percent of the people here are the supporters of Khatemi,"
said the man, who like others in the group did not want his name used because
of the heavy police presence here after the riot. "People like his
The trends set in motion by Khatemi show up in ways both obvious and
* A court has ruled that possession of "illicit"--i.e., Western--movies,
music and even pornography is not illegal, a decision that should help
keep people's homes off-limits to security officials. * Administrative
changes have stripped the Intelligence Ministry of its independent funding
sources and encouraged early retirement by its old guard.
* The head of a major government foundation has been replaced by a man
who has ordered more relaxed social rules for the popular Caspian Sea vacation
resorts it owns.
"Socially, politically . . . things are good," said Hamidreza
Jalaie-Pour, editor of a number of reformist dailies that have been ordered
closed over the years. His latest publication, Asr-e Azadegan, was among
16 shut down recently under court instructions, and he faces charges for
attending a conference in Germany that conservative authorities felt insulted
the Islamic system. Such setbacks, however, are not impeding the underlying
trend toward more political and social freedom, more open and accountable
institutions and stronger civil government, Jalaie-Pour said.
His opinion, although widely echoed in Iran, is qualified by the fact
that conservatives still control important economic and political power
centers, such as the Revolutionary Guards and the state radio and television
system. Short of a potentially convulsive action, such as removing the
president or blocking the inauguration of the new parliament, however,
the conservative wing "has no lawful or legitimate way" to reverse
Iran's new direction, he said.
That outlook is rendered all the more credible by the fact that change
is taking place with the support of a large body of pro-reform clerics
who believe in a more flexible interpretation of Islam and feel that Iran's
Islamic system must change to survive. That is a view most visibly embodied
by Khatemi himself, who carries the mid-level clerical rank of Hojjatoleslam.
But reformers and many diplomats here feel it is a view also shared by
the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei
inherited the supreme leadership after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, but not the full personal sway of that towering figure, who carried
the rarely bestowed title of grand ayatollah and helped overthrow Shah
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Although his rhetoric is often harsh and seemingly
old guard, diplomats and reform advocates here say that behind the scenes
Khamenei is helping the reform trend in significant ways, supporting the
president at key junctures and trying to prevent a harshbacklash.
At a recent Friday prayer service, for example, he made what were some
of his most definitive comments yet about the movement that is reshaping
Iran, saying that while the Islamic system must be preserved, all parts
of society, including theology schools, need to embrace change and be more
flexible in their thinking. Khamenei has his own constituencies to satisfy,
most notably the clerics who form the Experts Assembly. A relatively obscure
body elected by the public in races that rarely draw much attention, the
assembly has power to review the leader's performance and thus is central
in Iran's intricately woven government. Nor is Khamenei felt to have full
control over some aspects of the system. The closure of reformist newspapers
by the judiciary, for example, was apparently done without his knowledge,
although analysts here say it may have been indirectly prompted by his
comments that some members of the reformist press were exploiting the society's
The trend in his thinking and decision-making, however, is of comfort
to ranking reformers who have met with him frequently. At one recent session--at
the height of public concern about a possible move by conservatives to
remove Khatemi from office or block the next parliament--Khamenei reaffirmed
his support for the president and for Iran's increasingly participatory
"From the beginning, Khamenei is an open-minded man, and pro-reform.
. . . If he was not pro-reform, we would have much bigger difficulties,"
said Ayatollah Mehdi Karoubi, a strong candidate to be the next speaker
of parliament and one of the reform movement's influential clerical leaders.
He and others said that it is not even a matter of theology anymore. There
is a body of religious thought, Karoubi said--a reformist theology in essence--that
he, Khatemi and many other clerics have developed sincethe revolution.
Characterized by flexibility and a desire to modernize, he said, the new
thinking would allow a different approach even toward some current taboos,
emphasizing the privacy of people's homes, for example, on questions as
sensitive as the consumption of alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam.
Karoubi said it is not reformers who are jeopardizing the revolution,
but those trying to "monopolize" political power and the economy--and
thus risking the spread of the type of popular discontent apparent in Khalkhal.
"People are Muslim, and the root of Islam is in their blood. They
love the country, and they love the revolution because they paid a lot
for it," Karoubi said. "But there are some clerics and some non-clerics
who do not do according to Islam. . . . They are monopolizing the economy
and power, and that is why we have such unhappiness."