The revelations came on a January evening and were reminiscent of the days when the Shah’s Savak hit squads ruled Iran. Renegade agents within the country’s secretive Intelligence Ministry admitted to killing secularist writers and politicians they considered enemies of the Islamic state. For weeks, hard-liners within the ministry had been accused of the mystery murders. Iran’s newspapers, which grow in number by the day, were identifying the culprits as members of clandestine conservative factions. Everyone claimed to know the orientation of the assassins, but solid evidence seemed nearly impossible to come by until that night.

The admission stunned the nation, despite the rumors that had been circulating. Iranians, unaccustomed to speaking out on such sensitive issues, had no idea of the power behind their own words. Public pressure led President Mohammad Khatami to launch his own inquiry, which produced the confession by the Intelligence Ministry. It was unprecedented in Iran, a country that for decades was under the control of repressive police squads. Such an admission, in fact, would be unusual for any covert intelligence agency, from the CIA to the MI5 to the Mossad.

Perhaps more than any other recent event, the revelations tell the story of modern-day Iran. For the first time, public opinion has emerged as a powerful political force. For the first time, a national leader derives much of his strength from society. This broad-based support includes women, youth, urban intellectuals, peasants and even many elements of those institutions historically associated with the conservative establishment, such as the police and the Revolutionary Guards. On a trip to Italy in March, the first official visit by an Iranian leader to a Western nation since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khatami was asked what he plans to do if his reforms fail. “I am not leading the movement,” he replied. “Society is leading me.”

The alliance between the people and the moderate cleric they elected in a landslide poll in May 1997 is transforming the face of the Islamic Republic. In the presidential election, enthusiastic voters from all sectors of the population voted for Khatami, a dark horse candidate. They voted for change within the Islamic system, and they believed Khatami, a charismatic, intellectual cleric, could deliver on that promise. Nearly two years into his presidency, Iran’s younger generation, which comprises more than half the population and for whom revolutionary ideology holds little relevance, wants results. Khatami understands that allowing people to feel safe from the authorities is the greatest gift he can offer. One of the pillars of his presidential campaign was to establish the rule of law in Iran. Allowing renegade agents to continue killing secularist intellectuals would clearly have undermined his credibility and made further reforms unthinkable.

Once the admission was made, public opinion emerged victorious and seized the moment. The reformist newspapers, reflecting broad public sentiment, began demanding the resignation of Intelligence Minister Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, on whose watch the murders had been committed. In a matter of weeks, Dorri-Najafabadi, a conservative, was hounded from office. Khatami had been forced by conservatives to accept Dorri-Najafabadi into his original cabinet; press reports at the time said the minister was not among the president’s first dozen choices. But now Khatami had far more leeway to put his own man in place.

Khatami chose Ali Yunesi, like Dorri-Najafabadi a Shi‘i Muslim cleric. Yunesi certainly was not a known Khatami loyalist and probably not first on the president’s list of choices. As the former head of the military courts and one of the founders of the Intelligence Ministry, Yunesi enjoyed the confidence of conservatives. However, he apparently pledged to Khatami privately to carry out the president’s policies. After his appointment, Yunesi vowed publicly to back the president’s moderate social and political agenda and to help create an Iran safe for lawful dissent. The days of his ministry as a state-within-a-state were over, Yunesi said. There are plenty of similar examples of what Iranians call “converts,” former hardliners now remaking their careers as reformers.

“In line with efforts to establish the rule of law, a main aim of the ministry is to confront any unlawful acts. The ministry must act within its legal mandate and will seriously confront any violations,” Yunesi announced after his nomination. “This ministry must be beyond any partisan interests and take all factions under its security wing.”

Under Iranian law, the Majles, or parliament, must endorse the president’s ministers. The conservative-led body, responding to the intense heat of outraged public opinion, pledged in advance to accept Khatami’s selection. Deputies had no choice if they wanted to preserve what little credibility they had left. Yunesi won handily.

More important, the president had succeeded in stamping his authority on the security services, a small but important step in his broader drive to expand the limited power of the elected executive, whose power rivals that of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was clearly no accident that the ministry’s confessions emerged only after Khatami had created his own presidential commission to explore the scandal. Nor was it an accident that Yunesi, as head of the presidential team, had been named to take over. The rule of law, presidential-style, was now one step closer.

Khatami told lawmakers just before the confirmation vote that the revamped ministry should serve the interests of democracy and freedom. The secret service and the elected government would now work hand in hand. “The Intelligence Ministry is the light of the regime, not the fist of the regime. It is the brain of the regime, and not an arm of the regime,” Khatami said, calling Yunesi, 43, “enlightened in thought and deed.”

With a new minister in place, the ripples of the intelligence scandal continue to entangle the Islamic Republic, often in unpredictable ways. Secularist dissidents, including human rights lawyers and Western-oriented intellectuals, report a decrease in the harassment they have faced on a daily basis. Khatami’s culture minister, a close ally, recently honored pre-revolutionary secularist authors at a controversial awards ceremony. The once taboo image of nationalist icon Mohammad Mossadeq, resurrected at the funeral of two of the Intelligence Ministry’s victims, has returned to the Iranian political scene. It is Islamic intellectuals, not secularists, who now find themselves the targets of an angry and bewildered conservative establishment uncertain where to hit next.

Some secularists who were once the favorite targets of the intelligence service are shocked at the abrupt halt to the harassment. One lawyer and women’s rights activist, Mehrangiz Kar, said agents made routine visits to her office over the last four years, and intimidated her children through repeated phone calls to her home. Once the ministry admitted to the murders in January, the harassment stopped. Kar said other activists with whom she kept in close contact had similar experiences. While she is relieved, she also is taking nothing for granted. “We have no protection, and we know that at any time we could become victims in the power struggle.”

One remaining dark spot is the curtain of secrecy that remains around the murder cases. Officials have been close-mouthed about their investigation, with only scattered leaks to the press. The authorities claim to have made several arrests, including relatively senior intelligence officers, but the names of any suspects, and the charges against them have yet to be made public. This has sparked fears of a cover-up.

Hardline extremists within the Intelligence Ministry may have been forced to relinquish their secularist prey to Khatami’s rule of law, but their cohorts in other Iranian institutions are continuing to try to discredit the reformist movement. Another national scandal erupted in February, when the Special Court for Clergy arrested Mohsen Kadivar, a theologian who is an aide to Khatami. Kadivar was charged with insulting the late Ayatollah Khomeini and for “confusing public opinion” after he wrote a series of essays published in newspapers and journals. The articles argued that the clerical establishment, of which Kadivar is a product, had failed to live up to the ideals of the revolution. He blamed the conservatives for holding a monopoly on theological interpretation (itjihad), instead of giving society a say in religious matters, a promise he said was made after the revolution.

Kadivar was sentenced to eighteen months in prison, after a hearing in mid-April. Through his trial, he has emerged from the obscurity of his political science institute in Tehran, where he was known only within narrow intellectual circles, to become a leading national symbol in the battle for freedom of expression. Each day, the ranks of pro-reform newspapers write that the Clergy Court, run by hardliners opposed to Khatami, is targeting Kadivar for his ideas. “The fact is that the special court is going against the modern clergy, who are freedom seekers,” said an editorial in the reformist daily Sobh-e Emrouz. “Does the special clerical court know the arrest of Mr. Kadivar adds to his popularity and will create a revolutionary?” One commentator even compared him to Galileo, persecuted by the doctors of religion for a heretical notion now accepted as scientific fact. From his prison cell, Kadivar says his conviction is “the price we pay for freedom.”

It is this freedom which conservatives fear the most: society’s newfound courage to criticize the establishment openly; the public demand for action when intellectuals are murdered; and even the newly granted right of unmarried couples to sit in a Tehran cafe. All these liberties have evolved since Khatami came to power.

What separates the prosecution of Kadivar, a popular university and seminary lecturer, from other recent incidents of hardline pressure is the degree to which it threatens the inner workings of the clerical elite. Kadivar is a post-revolutionary cleric, the “new man” of the Islamic Republic. Trained as a Shi‘i theologian and respected as a teacher of young acolytes, he sits near the center of intellectual and religious power. To attack him for his words and religious writings appears a direct challenge to the premise of the Khatami reforms, i.e., that change within the existing Islamic system is possible and even desirable.

The case against Kadivar by the secretive clergy court, whose deliberations take place behind closed doors, follows two other attacks on pillars of the reformist wing of the revolutionary clerics. In February the estranged younger brother of the Supreme Leader was badly beaten by hardline thugs as he delivered a sermon in the holy city of Qom. Earlier, Asadollah Bayat, once a trusted lieutenant of Ayatollah Khomeini, was arrested by the clergy court in what many commentators said was a political vendetta by conservative rivals for control of a Tehran mosque.

Iran’s hardliners, who were able to constrain freedom of expression for two decades, now find themselves losing ground. Proof of their waning influence lies in the outcome of polls held on February 26 for seats in village, town and city municipalities. Reformers allied with Khatami won all but two of Tehran’s council seats, and they secured an estimated 80 percent of the posts across the country. Of some 39 million eligible voters, 24 million cast their ballots. The top vote getter was former Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri, a moderate and an ally of Khatami who was ousted by the conservative-dominated parliament in June 1998.

The poll was a major landmark in Iran’s drive toward a full-fledged democracy. The degree of power the councils will wield is still in doubt, but the council members are the first officials elected directly by the people and thus represent a clear attempt to decentralize the clerical establishment’s power. The conservatives had tried but failed to disqualify reformers such as Nouri in the days ahead of the poll through a supervisory board charged with qualifying the candidates. Again, their actions sparked a backlash.

If public opinion has its way, the conservatives will be increasingly forced to make compromises. With every move being closely reported in the reformist press, they have little room to maneuver and fewer and fewer prospects for the secrecy, guaranteed by intimidation, that was once the source of their power.

The delicate balance for the reformers will be to continue applying enough pressure on the conservatives in the establishment to force social and political change without provoking an extremist response that could result in violence. Twenty years after the revolution, Iranians no longer have a yen for upheaval, nor do they want more blood in the streets. “When you have pressure from the top down this is despotism. When you have change from the bottom up that is revolution. We don’t want either of these scenarios,” said the editor of one reformist newspaper. “We should solve this struggle peacefully. The assassinations of secularists and writers is the price we are paying for transition.”

How to cite this article:

Geneive Abdo "From Revolution to Revelation," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

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