A shadow haunts Iran, the shadow of democracy and popular sovereignty. Twenty years ago the Islamic Revolution established a polity based on two contradictory elements: a republic of equal and sovereign citizens, and a hierarchical theocracy of pastoral power descending from an unelected religious leader (vali-e faqih, the Supreme Leader), which represented an innovation in Shi‘i Islam. The inevitable tensions between these irreconcilable elements are now coming to a head. [1]

Increasing tensions are largely due to the dramatic changes of the past two decades. Iran is now a more self-confident nation, having endured a brutal war while developing necessary self-reliance in response to an international embargo and diplomatic isolation. Yet Iran also confronts momentous social and economic problems. The population has doubled since the 1979 revolution, while relative resources have significantly dwindled. The country’s overwhelmingly young population is urban and educated; its aspirations are fundamentally modern, secular and “middle class.” But a rigid ideological system frustrates young people’s material aspirations and desires for a “normal life,” which, in local parlance, bespeaks the profound alienation of the revolution’s second generation.

A chronic economic recession poses the greatest challenge to Iran’s population. The prevailing consensus holds that structural economic problems cannot be properly addressed until the underlying political impasse is resolved. That is why, despite their repeated attacks on his government’s economic record, President Mohammad Khatami’s conservative critics have been trounced in successive elections. Iran’s economic malaise stems from a pervasive sense of insecurity. Multiple centers of authority disrupt plans and decisions, appoint incompetent managers and consolidate the domination of mafia-like clans over every institution. The judiciary, a conservative stronghold, consistently acts in an arbitrary manner, violating the constitutional rights of individuals and the press. Politicized selection processes in the bloated state sector, from universities to industries, have sharpened distinctions between first- and second-class citizens.

The widespread sense that Iran had reached a political dead end mobilized the heterogeneous Do-e Khordad Movement in the run-up to the 1997 presidential elections. Since then, society’s aspirations for democratic reform have been invested in the administration of President Khatami.

The embattled conservative establishment has created successive crises in an attempt to block political reforms and protect its own privileges. During 1999, three major events defined Iran’s turbulent political landscape. In January, Khatami stunned the nation by forcing the exposure of a gang of Intelligence Ministry high officials’ involvement in the assassinations of intellectuals and opposition figures and their attempt to mastermind a wave of political and cultural repression. In February, Khatami delivered on his campaign promise to hold Iran’s first local elections. At one stroke, 200,000 democratically elected officials entered the country’s political structure, despite conservative parliamentarians’ frantic efforts to block the candidacy of the Do-e Khordad candidates. It became clear that, in a relatively open electoral game, the reform movement would continue to win hands down.

Riding the wave of this electoral victory, Iran’s reformist camp announced its short term strategy: to capture the Majles (or parliament) in the scheduled February 2000 elections in order to legislate reforms, and to launch a national referendum to purge and reform the judiciary. By March 1999, rumors began circulating that extremist conservatives planned to provoke major urban disturbances and eliminate (perhaps physically) a couple of hundred key reformist figures in the process. The motive behind this rumored plan seemed to be conservatives’ belief that Do-e Khordad was not a social movement but a plot devised by intellectuals, journalist and strategists close to Khatami. The widespread exposure of this plan in the independent press momentarily threw the extremists into disarray.

By summer, however, a conservative backlash had led to the imprisonment of Tehran’s mayor, the closure of the daily paper Zan, the impeachment of the minister of culture and proposed legislation to seriously curtail press freedoms. Responding to this crackdown and the closure of the newspaper Salam, student protests erupted on the Tehran University campus. Security forces and paramilitary thugs quickly moved in to brutally suppress the students, and central Tehran was engulfed in street violence. After the disturbances were put down a secret letter surfaced in which 24 Revolutionary Guard generals threatened President Khatami for failing to maintain law and order.

If the conservatives’ ploy was meant to intimidate, it backfired badly. Public outcry over the security forces’ ferocious attacks on the students and the barely veiled threats of a military coup by the generals suddenly brought Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militia and the security forces [2] under intense public scrutiny and criticism, thus neutralizing them for now. In his second public speech after these violent events, Khatami emphasized that violence was a double-edged sword. He declared that his agenda to implement the rule of law as articulated in the constitution while expanding citizens’ participation in the political domain remained unchanged.

The events of July were nonetheless shocking to reformists and conservatives alike. The speed with which events spun out of control revealed that neither faction decisively commands Iranian society, thus serving notice that any small excuse can detonate the country’s pent-up frustrations. The volatility of these frustrations was highlighted by the fact that no organizations emerged to represent students’ collective demands. The students seemed unwilling or unable to formulate consistent and reasonable goals or to forge alliances with other political forces.

Iran has become a fragmented society over the last 20 years. The Islamic regime has tried to dominate all public space and every autonomous public institution for the past two decades. In the words of a young working-class student employed as an industrial designer in the military, “We have been denied a normal life. We cannot even have an ordinary conversation with the opposite sex. Getting a job or entering the university depends on your connections and ‘Islamic’ credentials. It has little to do with your abilities or motivation. It is such a sham!” When asked why he does not join forces with fellow thinkers in his neighborhood or work place to call for change, he appeared confused and commented that “everyone is so cynical. All I can do is to write up what I think and distribute it in the streets at night. But what if I get caught?”

In such an atomized society, repressed needs and demands burst forth at the first opportunity, yet without being able to coalesce into a coherent movement. The only common point reiterated by student protesters in July was their support for Khatami. This is a dangerous situation for all concerned. Many conservatives appeared convinced of the need for relative moderation. The newly appointed heads of the judiciary and the Foundation of the Oppressed seemed to show greater accountability and began to initiate long-needed reforms in their respective institutions.

By early September, however, the new judiciary appeared to have caved in to conservative pressures. The independent daily, Neshat, was shut down and discussions of violence being permitted in Islam had moved out of the dark corners of extremist discourse and into the public pulpit of Friday prayers. Reckoning that the upcoming parliamentary elections will pose a grave threat to their interests, the extremists are mounting the next wave of their offensive. More alarming, they appear to be swaying the more moderate elements of the conservative faction. In this tense context, the Do-e Khordad movement’s most urgent task is to nurture autonomous institutions capable of channeling and articulating public frustrations, consolidating public participation in the political process, and strengthening the democratic and republican side of Iran’s conflicted dual polity.

This issue of Middle East Report marks the twentieth anniversary of the Iranian revolution, an event that redrew the political map of Iran and the entire Middle East. For twenty years, most analyses of Iran have focused on Islam’s political role in the regime. This one-sided focus has led to the neglect of the inner dynamics of this complex society and polity. In this issue we have tried to redress this analytical imbalance by bringing together two groups of contributors: scholars who have recently conducted qualitative and quantitative field research in Iran on the key social trends that culminated in the Do-e Khordad movement; and key allies, advisers and sympathetic secular critics of President Khatami, who provide a unique critical analysis of the reform movement. Although we could have presented brief overviews of a variety of minor socio-political trends, we have decided to focus on one group within Iran’s diverse spectrum: an emerging faction that describes itself as a democratic and Islamic new left. We hope this issue of Middle East Report will illuminate the fascinating inner dynamics of a complex, evolving revolution while opening a constructive dialogue between interested observers inside and outside of Iran.

Author’s Note: Khordad 2, or May 23, the day of Khatami’s election to the presidency in 1997, is also the name of the social movement that has spearheaded reformism in Iran.


[1] This duality frequently engenders bizarre and seemingly irresolvable contradictions, involving repression as well as innovative forms of subversion and resistance. For instance, last March the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance finally granted permission for James Joyce’s Ulysses to be published in Persian after having been banned for years. The translator, who had refused to publish the book in a truncated form, reached a compromise with the ministry, which refused to allow any of the book’s more objectionable passages to be published in Persian. Vetoing the use of English for these passages, since many people would actually be able to read them, the two sides eventually struck a compromise to publish the racier passages in Italian.
[2] A few years ago the police and gendarmerie were integrated to create a united force called the security forces.

How to cite this article:

Kaveh Ehsani "Do-e Khordad and the Specter of Democracy," Middle East Report 212 (Fall 1999).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This