The “Iranian Spring” caught the world by surprise one fine day in May 1997. Long viewed as the epitome of a rogue state and boycotted and shunned by the international community, Iran successfully held fair elections. Of the four candidates who passed the Guardian Council’s grueling test, Mohammad Khatami had an open and tolerant attitude and leanings towards democracy. Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the powerful president of the Islamic Assembly, who had been buttressed by the most conservative and reactionary factions, was trounced. Even segments of Iran’s population that rarely participate in elections — the modern middle class, “Westernized” youth, women unhappy with their second-class citizen status and secular intellectuals — rallied around Khatami, a member of the religious rank and file.

A closer scrutiny of Iranian society — in all its diversity and pluralism — would have revealed its dynamism. The press in general, and intellectual journals in particular, have played a pivotal role in Iran’s political effervescence during the last decade and continue to nurture the public debate. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation began making subtle gestures in favor of intellectual journals and reviews. Though Khatami headed the Ministry at the time, his role should not be exaggerated, since he was minister of culture during a dark period of political and cultural repression. The emergence of a more tolerant attitude towards intellectuals was due to three key events:
• the end of a long and merciless war with Iraq in August, 1988, during which all internal dissent was necessarily muted;
• the June 1989 death of Ayatollah Khomeini, a charismatic figure who commanded extraordinary respect and obedience while he was alive; and
• the 1989 election of President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, whose open ambition was to initiate an era of “reconstruction.”

Tentative Tolerance of Intellectuals

It was in this context of change that intellectual journals began appearing. Not linked to the regime, they presented poetry, articles on literature, philosophy and the human sciences, occasionally addressing political issues. The editors of these journals were usually degar andishes (“alternative thinkers”) [1] who were speaking out after a long silence. Until the 1996 legislative elections, periodicals with undeclared but definite and diverse political leanings proliferated. These publications seldom shied away from sensitive topics. The first to appear in these early years of tentative tolerance was Adineh (Friday). Couched in a vaguely Third World and Marxist idiom, Adineh denounced poverty in Iran and praised Cuba and its regime. Adineh offered a forum for secular intellectuals to publish their short stories, poetry and essays for the first time in a decade. Its tone was decidedly moderate, and contributors often expressed criticisms euphemistically. Soon thereafter, other periodicals appeared with a secular and covert political message. Doniya-ye Sokhan (Word’s World), Kelk (Pen), Gardun (Celestial Sphere), Takapu (Quest) and Jame’eh-ye Salem (Sane Society) provided a new forum that enabled Iran’s intelligentsia to join forces and demand their rights to freedom of speech and association.

Growing Autonomy of the Muslim Intelligentsia

During this same period, Muslim intellectuals began to distance themselves from official institutions by launching periodicals without any ties to the government. Initially, these reviews confined themselves to philosophical debate, historical commentary and the study of various professions open to women. Their tone and content rapidly became critical of official ideology and its social and political restrictions.

The most political journal to appear during this period was Iran-e Farda (Tomorrow’s Iran), a bimonthly founded in 1992 and edited by intellectuals close to former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s Movement for Freedom. Contributors to Iran-e Farda went so far as to demand freedom for political organizations while denouncing institutionalized corruption, aberrations in economic policy and the decision to carry the war over into Iraqi territory. [2] Although Iran-e Farda’s tone was rather moderate, readers as well as censors could easily decipher the underlying messages.

Kiyan, a review founded in 1991 by former hardline militants of the Islamic Revolution, has focused on philosophical and theological questions. Open to other cultures, currents of thought and religions, it has published translations and interviews with Karl Popper on science, Paul Ricoeur on Christianity, Emmanuel Levinas on Judaism, Muhammad Arkoun on Islam, Leszek Kolakowski on Marxism and Claude Lefort on human rights. Kiyan’s editors and contributors — the most prominent being the philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush — openly advocate respect for human rights and argue that the separation of religion and state would preserve the sanctity of Islam.

Zanan (Women), a monthly founded in 1992, is Iran’s most prestigious women’s periodical. Initially considered the “women’s section” of Kiyan, it was also founded by former Islamic militants. Zanan vigorously defends women’s rights in a patriarchal society. It has denounced backward-looking interpretations of Islam and has criticized laws that consign women to the status of second-class citizens. Zanan advocates Iranian women’s right to attain high positions, including those of judge and president of the Republic. Zanan has not only broken away from the ruling circles by adopting a clear political stance, it also has claimed independence from its male counterpart, Kiyan. Furthermore, Zanan was the only intellectual publication to support Khatami’s candidacy openly at a time when very few believed he had any chance of winning.

Politics Enter the Fray

A number of avowedly political periodicals, particularly weeklies, debuted during the 1996 electoral campaign. Among the most notable were Bahar (Spring), Bahman (the eleventh month of the Iranian calendar, during which the revolution took place) and Mobin (Clarity). During this second phase of political opening up, degar andishes were not yet editing or contributing to these publications, which were then headed by intellectuals and journalists close to the regime. This period extended to 1998, and witnessed the gradual abandonment of circumlocution in public debates, open rifts between different factions of the Islamic Republic and sharp disagreements between various Muslim intellectuals and public figures. Broaching sensitive — even taboo — topics was now becoming possible.

It was in this context of intellectual and political ferment that Iranians voted overwhelmingly for Khatami. A close examination of Khatami’s speeches and writings reveal a consonance between his campaign message and the issues raised by intellectual periodicals and the press in general. Among the central issues were the need for greater freedom of opinion and association, political parties’ right to publicize their views, a serious effort to meet the multifaceted needs of Iranian youth, a re-evaluation of women’s status, a condemnation of violence and the institutionalization of tolerance and dialogue. A wide cross-section of Iran’s population hoped to ameliorate these issues by electing Khatami president.

Civil Society Speaks Up

With the 1997 presidential election, Iran witnessed an increase in the quantity and quality of publications. The emergence of numerous dailies and weeklies diminished the influence of intellectual periodicals, which remain the primary forum for extensive debates of complex ideas. The presidential elections and subsequent events politicized Iranian society to a remarkable degree. Consequently, daily newspapers and weeklies have gained unprecedented importance and attract an immense readership. The main source of their popularity is their diversity, relative freedom of tone, inquiring spirit and gradual deviation from the official line.

The appearance of Jame’eh (Society) in February 1998 marked the beginning of a daily press independent of official institutions. Jame’eh billed itself as the first privately funded newspaper to speak for civil society rather than the state. Its publishers were former Islamic militants of the same school as the Kiyan review. Jame’eh rapidly adopted a fairly free and independent course, becoming so popular that its circulation shot up to 230,000 soon after its first edition, with an occasional peak of 300,000. The paper had an innovative style and tone. [3] Its cartoons and drawings poked fun at political leaders — even Khatami was not spared (although Ayatollah Khamene’i, the Supreme Guide, was). Jame’eh did not hesitate to criticize the military’s top brass for their threatening declarations, nor did it shy away from demanding a multi-party system, freedom for trade unions and freedom of opinion and assembly for the entire political spectrum, Marxists and Communists included. [4]

Jame’eh’s independent and inquiring spirit constituted a watershed event in the history of Iran’s press and intellectual life. More surprising than its attacks on political foes (the conservatives and ultra-conservatives), were its cutting remarks and criticisms aimed at reformists. Jame’eh’s brief life ended in mid-1998. While the conservatives violently attacked this popular newspaper and concocted schemes to stifle it, the minister of culture and Islamic orientation, despite his reputation as a liberal, was irritated by the daily’s unfettered tone and authorized its closure. The publishers of Jame’eh, who were expecting such a move, immediately launched a new daily, Tous, on the same day Jame’eh was banned. The new paper was nearly identical to its predecessor. One week later, Tous was also banned and its publishers were beaten up by a violent pressure group. Undaunted, the publishers introduced a third daily, Aftab-e Emrooz (Today’s Sun). Meanwhile, Tous was allowed to reappear, attaining an average circulation of 120,000 copies. Two months later, the publishers and editors of both dailies were arrested and jailed for several weeks for “offending national security.” They were finally freed without trial. In February 1999 — exactly one year after Jame’eh’s publication — the same group launched Neshat (Joy), another clone of Jame’eh, and just as popular, until it was banned in September 1999.

A Pluralistic Society

The harassment of the publishers of Jame’eh and Tous did nothing to dampen the spirits of imitators. In August 1998, Fa’ezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, established the first women’s daily, Zan (Woman). First and foremost a vehicle of information, Zan is also a forum where Iranian women express their concerns and opinions.

In December 1998, two new dailies appeared, both supportive of the reformist movement: Khordad (the third month of the Iranian calendar, during which the 1997 presidential elections took place), founded by Abdollah Nuri, the liberal former interior minister who was forced to resign for allowing student demonstrations; and Sobh-e Emrooz (Today’s Dawn), run by Muslim and democratic intellectuals and political leaders close to Khatami. Both papers have played a crucial role in denouncing the assassinations of intellectuals and political dissidents that took place in late 1998. Khordad and Sobh-e Emrooz forced the government to admit that agents from the Ministry of Information were involved in the killings.

It is important to mention Hamshahri (Fellow Citizen), the organ of Tehran’s mayor and published by city hall. Founded in 1992, Hamshahri has Iran’s highest daily circulation (460,000). It rapidly gained a large readership by addressing the daily, apolitical problems of the population. Salam (Hello), on the other hand, is an openly political, left-leaning paper with a circulation of 70,000. Its editors played an active role in the hostage taking at the US Embassy in November 1979, and the paper has always been at the forefront of the “anti-imperialist struggle.” The defeat of the left-wing Islamic movement during the 1992 legislative elections, after which the leftists found themselves in the opposition with few rights, taught the Salam team to exercise greater moderation and tolerance towards their opponents, particularly the degar andishes. [5]

Ruling conservative factions also have their mouthpieces. The tone and message of these papers has not changed since the 1980s. Interestingly, they tend to have an anemic circulation. Resalat (Mission), a right-wing organ, and Jomhuri-e Eslami (Islamic Republic), each total 30,000 copies, while Keyan (Universe), known for its extremism, totals around 120,000 copies a day. These figures are somewhat artificial since these publications benefit from subscriptions by government institutions and public services. Farda (Tomorrow), another right-wing daily, was created in February 1998. Despite a generous government endowment, Farda folded after only six months due to low circulation. [6]

The launching of Rah-e Noe (New Path) in April 1998 marked a veritable revolution in Iran’s press and intellectual life. A weekly review devoted to politics and ideas, Rah-e Noe was founded by Muslim intellectuals and democrats influenced by Kiyan. Rah-e Noe also had a very short life span; it folded after only five months and 21 issues, when the editors received grim death threats. What distinguished Rah-e Noe from other periodicals was its freedom of expression, direct attacks on conservative foes, humorous columns, interviews with degar andish intellectuals and the publication of harsh public criticisms of its editorial policies. Rah-e Noe also built a bridge between secular and Muslim intellectuals.

A Secularist Presence

Although this overview of Iranian press dynamism during the 1990s has focused primarily upon the newspapers and periodicals launched by Muslim intellectuals and political leaders, mention must also be made of the hidden but crucial role of periodicals published by secular intellectuals of various leanings. With limited means and a confidential circulation, these periodicals represented a pioneering quest for liberating ideas at a time when Muslim reformists’ voices were barely audible on a number of issues. Adineh, banned for having written that the joy of living had vanished from the country; Gardun, banned for drawing a parallel between kingship and velayat-e faqih; Takapu, banned for printing a “pornographic” poem; Jame’eh-ye Salem, banned for criticizing a member of the judiciary; and Doniya-ye Sokhan, whose premises were ransacked in 1992, all struggled for the freedom of opinion and assembly and demanded that the Writers’ Association be allowed to resume its activities. Since the early 1990s the bimonthly Negah-e Noe (New Vision) has offered the Iranian public new perspectives on philosophy, sociology and political science through its translations of the works of Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, as well as Marxists’ writing on such topics as freedom, democracy, socialism and nationalism. The quarterly Goft-o-Gu (Dialogue), created in 1993, has explored the concept of civil society, the coexistence of cultures and the nature of democracy. Goft-o-Gu initiated a dialogue — never before attempted by secularists — with Muslim intellectuals. It also emphasizes the positive contributions of the modern Western world, often employing Western concepts to critique aspects of Iran’s socio-historical imaginary universe.

A study of Iran’s press, and more particularly its intellectual periodicals, affords a better understanding of the Khatami “miracle.” Khatami’s ascent to power stemmed directly from the current state of mind and aspirations of the people of Iran. His political slogans and ideas had been percolating for some time in various periodicals. The success of some of these periodicals and the failure of others — reflected in their print runs and their influence on modes of thought — mirror shifts within the intermediary components of power no less than the evolution of Iranian society in general.

In Iran today, an embryonic agora and a nascent civil society are taking shape mainly through the press and periodicals. It is these publications that, for the time being, nurture civil society and — in the beautiful words of the French philosopher Claude Lefort — widen the boundaries of the possible, enrich the field of possibilities, loosen the stranglehold and prepare the ground for the gradual establishment of democracy in Iran.


[1] Degar andish is a term applied to writers, intellectuals and periodicals that do not fall within the consensus of the Islamic Republic, but are tolerated by it. The term is generically used for secular individuals, groups or publications belonging to any part of the political spectrum — rightists as well as leftists, democrats, liberals, Marxists or nationalists with no conspicuous tags. The term is used both by those to whom it refers as well as by the various organs of the current regime.
[2] The interesting thing about Iran-e Fordo’s anti-war stance was the way it went about criticizing the government by publishing figures showing the cost of the war effort. No publication in Iran would dare criticize directly the decision to carry the war over into Iraqi territory.
[3] See, for example, the editorial titled “Lahzeh-ye Tasmimgiri-e Hashemi Rafsanjani Fara Resideh Ast” [Time of Decision for Hashemi Rafsanjani Is Here], Jame’eh, April 9, 1998.
[4] Emad al-din Baqi, “Hoquq-e Mokhalefan, Tashkil-e Ejtema’at” [Dissidents’ Rights, the Right of Assembly], Jame’eh, April 12, 1998).
[5] It was the banning of Salam, a very popular publication among university students. which provoked the student protests in July 1999, leading to Iran’s largest political crisis since 1981.
[6] Behruz Nazer, “Fordo Ta’til Nemishavad!” [Tomorrow Never Ends!], Rah-e Noe, July 25, 1998.

How to cite this article:

Zarir Merat "Pushing Back the Limits of the Possible," 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