The May 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran was a watershed event in the history of the almost 20-year-old Islamic Revolution. While the current on-the-ground situation in Iran remains confusing, it is not for lack of information. During the last year, the press has blossomed with a variety of daily newspapers printing real news, including murders, scandals, police misconduct, public protest and opinion, public appeals to rulers and polemical debates between Iran’s different factions. With the exception of attacks on the concept of velayat-e faqih (regency of the jurisconsulate) and the role of the Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, many previously forbidden things have now been printed.

At the same time, polls and sociological research conducted by Iranian institutes give a clearer picture of Iranian society. Khatami’s victory can be linked first to changes in contemporary Iran: literacy, urbanization and rapid demographic growth have highlighted the role of those generations educated under the Islamic regime. The expectation of this generation had been for a more open society and less restrictions on daily life, marked by the constant harassment of youth by the Basij (literally, “the mobilized,” a voluntary militia), who enforce the wearing of the hejab (veil). The Basij also ensure that every woman is accompanied by a “legal” male guardian, a husband, father or brother. The younger generation is also frustrated by the lack of any real entertainment and the prohibition on gender mixing in social settings. These and other restrictions have pushed public frustration to the boiling point. Corruption and hypocrisy have also exacerbated young Iranians’ dissatisfaction; indeed, they may have undermined Islamic values far more than any Western influences.

Women’s votes played a decisive role in Khatami’s election. Paradoxically, it was the Islamic Revolution that facilitated the active participation of women in economic and political life. The “Islamic feminist” (such as Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh), although rare, is a constant reminder that the revolution has always had a female constituency. Many women of the popular classes have been attracted by, if not engaged in, politics. The overall educational level of women has increased as a result of general, nationwide educational advancements.

The long war against Iraq also affected the position of women in society by bringing more women into the labor force. At the same time, however, legislation concerning marriage, divorce and child custody constituted a setback for women”s rights. The discrepancy between women’s enhanced social and political status and their retrograde legal status has become untenable for most educated middle-class women.

These moral issues are not the only items on the protesters’ agenda. Amelioration of the economic situation and movement towards democratization are also among their demands. Few, however, believe in the likelihood of sudden economic growth, considering the fall of oil prices and the fact that only a strong executive can deal with corruption, red tape and the opacity of Iran’s business networks. The depoliticization of Iran’s youth reflects a general disaffection with the ruling elites. Public dissatisfaction would not be a problem for a run-of-the-mill authoritarian regime, but the Islamic revolution still claims to reconcile vox dei and vox populi through regularly organized, relatively free elections that ostensibly demonstrate public adhesion to the values of the Islamic Revolution which is now firmly entrenched in a complex institutional system; unable to question its own legitimacy.

Iran’s Islamization project has failed. It has been reduced to an authoritarian imposition of external restraints on behavior that bypasses social justice, economic reforms or new configurations of social relations. Iranian Islamization resembles the conservative brand of “shari‘atization” creeping into conservative Sunni societies such as in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan; it is no longer a banner for a new social order. This failure is evident not only in daily life, but also in public debates. The students who benefited from the policy of “affirmative action” that brought the Basij, veterans and members of martyrs’ families into the university without exams have not contributed to Islamization. Rather, the “politically correct” students tend to be the most politicized; they feel cheated by a system which rewards them with places at university but does not assist their entry into the labor market. These students, who resent the abuses, perks and corruption among members of the new establishment, look to the philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush as a leader capable of challenging the deadlock. Soroush has legitimacy because of his role in the Islamization of the university and the social sciences in the early 1980s. His distinction between minimalist religion (as a private matter) and maximalist religion (as imposed by the state) creates room for secularization without rejecting the entire revolutionary project.

Tensions in the State Apparatus

The state apparatus is clearly divided on how to handle 
current popular disaffection. The division pits the conservatives against all other factions, whether liberal, leftist or even traditionalist. The conservatives advocate a return to the basic tenets of the revolution, accelerated “shari‘atization” and increased control over the electoral process through careful screening of candidates. They are reluctant to open the economy to foreign investments and cleave to the usual revolutionary rhetoric, even though it sounds increasingly empty and outdated.

The main question in Iran today is whether the growing socio-political crisis should be confronted within the state’s institutional framework or through an open showdown between the factions, unseen since the revolution took root in 1981, which might lead to violence. A secondary question concerns the extent and nature of the impact of the domestic struggle on Iranian foreign policies. Previous conflicts inside the regime have been resolved within the state’s constitutional framework, since the constitution grants the guide powers to bypass normal procedures and to impose decisions. The supreme authority is the Leader of the revolution, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed by an elected body of 83 clerics (the Assembly of Experts), who can dismiss him only in the case of grave infringements on his duties. The Leader can dismiss the president; he appoints the heads of the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards, the media and the military. He is expected to refrain, however, from interfering in daily politics and government. An elected parliament is headed by Nateq Nuri, a conservative who was defeated by Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential elections. The Guardian Council, comprised of religious lawyers appointed by the guide and lay lawyers elected by the parliament, ensures that all legislation is in conformity with Islamic laws. Another body, the Expediency Council (created in 1988), resolves the constant and inevitable disagreements between the parliament and the Guardian Council. The elected president appoints a cabinet whose members must be approved individually by the parliament, which also reserves the right to impeach them.

In the wake of Khatami’s election, conservatives are well entrenched in the parliament and the judiciary, headed by Ayatollah Yazdi. They are also supported by the heads of the Revolutionary Guards and by many conservative newspapers. The judiciary is currently spearheading the conservative offensive against President Khatami, using tactics reminiscent of the Khomeini era: Any attack against a prominent figure of the regime is heralded by harassment of his closest allies. The arrest of Tehran mayor Kerbaschi in May 1998 placed the power struggle center-stage. The liberal newspapers (particularly the newly created, pro-Khatami Jame’eh) launched a press campaign to free the mayor, while the conservative newspapers criticized his alleged corruption.

The parliament, which approved Khatami’s cabinet, is more divided, even though it has a conservative relative majority. Parliament resists new political trends by passing laws counter to Khatami’s endeavors. For example, in April 1998, Parliament passed a law forbidding any depictions of unveiled women in the press. Another law imposed gender segregation in hospitals and medical facilities, including private clinics. However, these laws have yet to be implemented, and state TV regularly presents foreign films featuring unveiled women.

The conservative Guardian Council is trying to reinforce its prerogative against Parliament, the presidency and the restructured Expediency Council. A bone of contention between Khatami and the Guardian Council is the latter’s demand to test the “Islamicity” of candidates for parliamentary and presidential elections before the elections, thus granting the Council de facto veto power over political opponents. The government is trying to limit this veto power through a new law passed in Parliament.

President Khatami enjoys the support not only of his cabinet, but also many technocrats in different sectors of the state apparatus. He exercises decisive control over the ministries of foreign affairs and “orientation” (culture), and also has the support of the largest municipalities, which are renovating inner cities. Khatami’s wide base of popular support has not dwindled even a year after his election. Since becoming president, Khatami has endeavored to bring more state institutions under his control, but with mixed success. Although the neutrality of the army seems certain, the Basij and Revolutionary Guards are not as reliable. Khatami’s success in obtaining the resignation of Mohsen Reza’i, head of the Revolutionary Guards, in September 1997 was a favorable sign, as was his ability to bring the secret services under his control while also curbing the activities of radical organizations outside the country. Indeed, many former radicals, such as Ayatollah Sana’i, head of the Khordad 15 Foundation, which promised a reward to anyone assassinating Salman Rushdie, are now supporting Khatami.

Iranian conservatives, though hard-line, are not necessarily radical; they simply refuse to make space for liberalization and democracy, fearing that any changes would lead to the regime’s collapse. Among the conservatives are many former revolutionaries who are now firmly entrenched in either the state apparatus or some of the big foundations. They show signs of following the “Chinese syndrome” (the process which impelled Chinese leaders to crush the student democracy movement when it was obvious that the Soviet system was collapsing because of perestroika), rather than maintaining a commitment to revolutionary ideology. Khatami, a product of the revolution, portrays himself as a savior of the concept of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He hopes to rescue the revolution by engineering a soft transition.

The conservatives are obviously intent upon effecting either Khatami’s dismissal or his submission. They claim that he has betrayed the Imam’s legacy and harass him indirectly by attacking his allies. Conservatives hope that the guide will dismiss Khatami just as Khomeini dismissed Bani-Sadr in 1981. A key issue of the debate is the status of the vali-ye faqih, a position now held by Ayatollah Khamenei. As noted above, the Leader can legally dismiss Khatami and call for new elections. The conundrum facing Iran’s conservatives is that they must enlist the Leader in their “crusade” against the president. They cannot engineer a coup without his consent, as this would completely undermine not only their legal position, but also any remaining religious and political legitimacy they enjoy. The Leader is both the best asset of and the main obstacle to the conservatives’ strategy. What, then, will be the Leader’s strategy?

In the complex balance of power established by the constitution and its different amendments, and in the absence of a charismatic leader such as Imam Khomeini, decision making hinges upon complex political negotiations between different institutions and pressure groups (ultimately endorsed by the Leader), rather than upon any institutional processes. The state institutions now confront a situation in which the power game is played with words and speeches while final decisions are made behind the scenes. The real decision-making process in Iran is triangular in nature, involving the Leader, the Expediency Council (headed by Rafsanjani) and the presidency. The Leader reshaped the Expediency Council in the weeks preceding the end of Rafsanjani’s last term as president. Thirteen more members were added, and the six religious lawyers of the Guardian Council who were de facto members of the Expediency Council lost their voting privileges concerning questions unrelated to constitutional matters. The new council is thus tantamount to a “politburo”: The members represent the different factions while Rafsanjani, as chairman, holds the predominant role. The crisis following Kerbaschi’s arrest seems to have been settled not by any open procedure, but by discussions, pressures and shuttlings back and forth between the points of the aforementioned triangle.

Ultimately, it is not in the Leader’s interests to dismiss Khatami. His own legitimacy is rather weak; he is not a “great ayatollah” and has not been elected by a direct popular vote. Consequently, he has a vested interest in acting as a referee between the competing poles of power. The Leader’s attitude during the first year of Khatami’ presidency has been consistent: He does not interfere in daily politics, and intervenes only after a debate is engaged in order to underscore the legacy of Imam Khomeini, of which he is the supreme guardian. Yet, despite the rhetorical speeches freighted with ideology and references to the revolution, the guide has never really obstructed Khatami’s path. He even intervened to free Kerbaschi, albeit just late enough to let the president feel some pressure. He did not object to the minister of the interior’s instructions to the police urging security forces to be more circumspect in checking women in the streets (these instructions came in the wake of the suicide in a police station of a young girl arrested for being with a man unrelated to her). His speech against any rapprochement with America following Khatami’s CNN interview in January 1998 was not construed as a strong rebuttal of Khatami’s views.

Another reason for Khamenei’s restraint is that everyone expects social unrest to follow in the event of Khatami’s dismissal. No one knows what form such unrest would take. After Kerbaschi’s arrest, only a few hundred protesters demonstrated in the street calling for his release. Given the depoliticization of the population, huge demonstrations are unlikely. Khatami is probably Iran’s last best hope for a peaceful transition. If he is dismissed, there will be no more fuse, and the guide will be on the front line. Troubles will erupt sooner or later, even if not directly sparked by political events. The economic situation renders social upheavals inevitable in the absence of political frameworks for containing and channeling popular frustrations and discontent.

Iran’s economic situation has indeed worsened; the growing middle class sees its way of life vanishing, while corruption is increasingly conspicuous in the higher spheres of government. Falling oil prices will prevent the state from subsidizing basic goods. Oil prices, taken into account in the budget, have successively fallen from $18 to $16 and finally to $12 per barrel. Oil comprises 80 percent of Iranian exports and constitutes 36.5 percent of state income, if not more. Although foreign debt has decreased from $30 billion to $26.4 billion dollars, a recession has followed in the wake of the contraction of state expenditures initiated when Rafsanjani was in charge. Growth will be 3 percent in 1998, half the rate of only a few years ago. This does not match population growth, even given evidence that Iran has recently entered a demographic transition. The main flashpoints for social unrest are the new satellite towns (for example, Islamshahr, south of Tehran, which grew from 14,000 to 200,000 inhabitants in only ten years).

Unfortunately, Khatami has no clear-cut economic program. He is not very strong on economics, and is thus torn between two pressure groups: the “statists,” who, along with the Islamic left, opposed economic liberalization and still advocate a state-oriented economy, and the supporters of a free market, among them a growing number of bazaaris (merchants) who until recently dismissed the concept of a market economy and were more engaged in speculating than investing.

Many observers predicted a fall in Khatami’s popularity due to his inability to address Iran’s economic issues, but the conservative offensive gave him an unexpected advantage: Public opinion blamed the conservatives for preventing the president from addressing economic problems. The conservative offensive allowed Khatami to buy time.

Iran is in dire need of foreign investment. Until now, Iranian law and conservative pressures forbade foreign investment more effectively than the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). The business milieu in Iran, including the bazaaris and clerical holdings like the astan-e gods (which owns the sanctuary of Imam Reza in Mashhad), have undergone a radical shift in thinking, and are now advocating foreign investments. Even the foundations established by the Islamic Revolution to manage confiscated properties (which have grown into huge holdings lacking financial transparency), might be persuaded to consider joint-ventures, particularly since these foundations are being criticized for corruption and economic inefficiency.

Internal Feuds

ILSA assumes that Iran is a rogue state for at least three reasons: terrorism, opposition to the peace process and building weapons of mass destruction. Khatami’s election, and more precisely his CNN interview, was widely interpreted as a sign that, although Iranian foreign policy might have changed, the state remains hostage to the conservatives. The situation is more complicated, however. The main shifts in Iranian foreign policy were decided long before Khatami’s election, and terrorism has played little or no role in Iranian foreign policy during the last five years. Most of the anti-Western terrorist actions (e.g., the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and attacks on CIA offices in Washington) are clearly attributable to militant Sunni groups tied to the pro-Afghan mujahideen who were trained in Pakistan with US and Saudi assistance (e.g., Ramzi Yussuf, Mir Ajmal Kansi, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden, who has subsidized many radical groups and is now a guest of the Afghan Taliban). As for the Iranian nuclear bomb, it is not on the immediate agenda. Finally, Iran’s opposition to the peace process is no longer relevant, given the death and discrediting of the Oslo accords.

Iran had feared its possible isolation in the Middle East following the signing of the Oslo accords. The return of the Golan to Syria would have ended the close Iranian-Syrian relationship. The Iranian leadership came to the conclusion during Rafsanjani’s presidency that the best way to avoid isolation was not through threats but through a rapprochement with conservative Arab states. The fruit of this approach was the Islamic summit in Tehran in December 1997, and a series of official trips to the Gulf states. Iranian senior officials who traveled to Kuwait and Oman, including Rafsanjani and even Nateq Nuri, competed with one another to ensure the conservative Arab regimes of Iran’s benevolent intentions.

Iranian foreign policy is largely based on a consensus — with the notable exception of the question of relations with Washington — which constitutes an ideological posture rather than a strategic decision. It is unlikely that the domestic struggle for power will have a spillover effect on Iranian foreign policy, contrary to events during the 1980s. Regardless of its domestic turmoils, Iran is back again as a regional power, not as rogue state.

How to cite this article:

Olivier Roy "Tensions in Iran," Middle East Report 207 (Summer 1998).

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