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Reform in retreat
The movement for change has suffered a set back. But...

By Rasool Nafisi
April 27, 2000
The Iranian

The reform movement in Iran has had ebb and flows, but this time it seems to have hit a major obstacle. Mohammnad Khatami is still the president and the sixth Majlis will open soon, but the main vehicle of reform, i.e. the independent reformist newspapers, have nearly all been banned and many well known journalists have been imprisoned. The main architect of the reform movement is still struggling for his life with a bullet lodged near his spine, and the Vali-e Faqih has unabashedly lashed out against the press. What can the reform movement expect in the future?

The number one issue that has come to surface is the movement's fragility. Pro-reform newspapers were beneficial as a means of propaganda and mass mobilization. But the reform movement has had little institutional support within the system. The reformists do not control military and security organizations which are the traditional sources of political power in Iran. The president has no control over the state radio and TV, or the infamous foundations that control a major portion of the national wealth. In fact, these organizations and all others controlled by the office of the Leader are not accountable to the Majlis.

The reformits' achievements in the last three years are mostly due to general disillusionment with the revolution and political violence, popular demands for change, as well as Khatami's personal integrity and effective tactics. However, a lack of institutional support will bring the reform movement to a halt at the governmental level. Can the movement now deepen its roots and bring about substantial changes?

So far, reformists have tallied three major victories: capturing the presidency, and winning a majority in the municipal as well as the parliamentary elections. The reformists have pledged that their top priority in the new Majlis will be to liberalize press laws, eliminate the Special Court of Clergy, and end the approbatory powers of the Council of Guardians to vet Majlis candidates. To achieve these goals, the reformists need to make sure that the new Majlis convenes on schedule. Thus they are continuously warning the public against violent anti-conservative demonstrations that may interrupt the opening of the new Majlis.

On the other hand, the so-called "right wing," fearing for its future, has clamped down on the free press to silence the populace, while revoking a sizable number of election results. So far elections in 11 constituencies -- all won by reformists -- have been voided. However, it seems that even a weakened Majlis will be acceptable to the reformists.

Based on current events, leaders and supporters of the reform movement should take the following into consideration:

1. The road to reform is a long and arduous one. The Islamic Republic has taken away many elementary rights, and to regain them through legal, peaceful, means may take decades.

2. Although the alternative, meaning violent political action, may seem attractive, the historical experience of Iranians and their neighbors bear witness to the futility of revolutions and civil wars. Any reform, no matter how slow and insignificant, may prove to be preferable to a full-fledged revolution.

3. The reform movement should have no illusions about the scope and expanse of reforms. Many constitutional institutions, such as the Council of Guardians, the Expediency Council, the office of the Leader, and last but not least the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, are well entrenched. They are determined to perpetuate clerical rule in Iran. Only an enduring reform movement may be able to erode aspects of the semi-totalitarian regime and increase the scope of democracy.

4. The reform movement doesn't have many tools at its disposal. The print media has been its main instrument of political action thus far. One may suggest that at this juncture civil disobedience without adhering to violence can be called forth. The bazaar merchants did not respond to a call by the conservatives to close shop. In fact, in time, the bazaaris may respond in favor of the reformists.

5. The city councils led by the reformists can function as the main channel of approaching citizenry. Reformists need to look at this particular civic organ to hold public meetings and inseminate ideas. City councils may publish newsletters to make up, to some extent, for the closure of the reformist daily papers.

6. The reformists should use the Internet, to convey their messages. Although Internet users in Iran are small in number, they can become the opinion makers of the country. Making accurate information and bias-free analysis available through this channel will help the movement grow. Also, Iranians rely heavily on international radio stations for information. Reformists must not shy away from the foreign news organizations but should in fact use them to spread their views, just as the Shah's opposition did in 1978.

7. On the psychological front, the movement needs to create an air of hope and optimism. Iranians have suffered long from a national malaise under dictatorships and tend to get easily frustrated by political upheavals. People need to be reminded of the long road to democracy, but also the possibility of attaining it through concerted political action.

It is of vital importance to make clear to Iranians that only they can shape their destiny. Great Britain or the U.S. have little to do with what is happening in Iran. Those within the regime with entrenched interests, will try their best to make the people frustrated, frightened, and indifferent. The reformists should prevent it by keeping their cool and slowly but surely march forward.


Rasool Nafisi, Ph.D., is the Discipline Advisor of General Studies at Strayer University in Northern Virginia. He is currently working on a book on resecularization of the state in Iran.

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