Saturday’s summons of the Ayatollah Ali Khameneii’s brother Hadi Khameneii to the Special Court for the Clergy punctuated Iran’s tumultuous summer in dramatic fashion. The younger Khameneii, publisher of the moderate daily Hayat-e No, appeared before the tribunal September 11 to face vague charges of “press offenses.” His summons was only the latest setback for Iran’s reform movement, which has weathered this summer the wholesale closure of some 25 reformist newspapers, the arrest of vocal journalists and intellectuals, the impeachment of two of reformist President Mohamed Khatami’s major ministers, a violent attack on Tehran University’s campus and serial political murders. Has Iran’s reform movement–inspiration for so many hopes inside and outside the country–ground to a halt?

Some reform sympathizers, victims of excessive optimism early in the reform process, are now demoralized by the conservative backlash. As next spring’s presidential elections approach, the backlash will intensify. Meanwhile, reformists face the classic dilemma of social movements with one foot in power. How can this movement act within and yet against the state, abiding by the same rules which are used to undermine reform? The reformists call for the rule of law: if laws are repressive, then the solution is to change them rather than violate them. But decisions of the lawmaking body, Iran’s parliament, are subject to the veto of conservative Ayatollah Khameneii, successor to Khomeini as prime representative of velayat-e faqih–the rule of the clerics.

Contours of Conservative Intimidation

Conservative forces, composed of some state officials, clerics and extremist vigilantes, wield powerful instruments for intimidating the reform movement. Conservatives control important state institutions–the judiciary, security forces, the Council of Guardians and the Council of Expediency, two other bodies that can veto Parliamentary decisions. They launch smear campaigns against reformist journalists and intellectuals, through their daily newspapers, state TV and Friday sermons. Informal and illegal vigilante groups like Ansar-e Hizbollah and Baseej assault reformists on the street. Right-wing death squads have abducted and murdered close to 100 activists and intellectuals.

The contours of conservative activities look like this: vigilante groups calling themselves “the people” are dispatched to attack reform rallies and offices or to provoke violence. Then the conservative dailies print sensational headlines to discredit the movement and Khatami’s government, saying that civil society causes instability, and that a free press spreads anti-Islamic sentiments and tacitly serves enemies like secularists and the US. In the final stage, conservative judges order security forces to ban an offending reformist newspaper, close an office or jail activists.

Last March, reformists were confident that their landslide victory in parliamentary elections would allow them to curb these pressures. But conservatives regained the initiative through legal means, using the anti-reform judiciary appointed by Ayatollah Khameneii to wage an all-out campaign against the independent media, which has been instrumental in exposing the wrongdoing of officials and helping reformists to win elections. The arrest and imprisonment of intellectuals became so common in recent weeks that almost every intellectual in Tehran was expecting a summons.

A Stronger Ayatollah Khameneii

Ayatollah Khameneii’s support for the conservative camp is crucial. Many observers, including reformers, believe that Khameneii is trying to forestall a right-wing extremist takeover by reining in the reformists. Some evidence supports this conclusion. Khameneii called for the approval of Tehran Parliamentary elections which gave reformists all the seats, publicly supports President Khatami, and even speaks of “novel and attractive ideas like religious democracy.” Yet Khameneii overwhelmingly upholds conservative ideals. He appoints traditionalists as Friday prayer leaders. He has never decisively denounced the continuous violence of Ansar-e Hizbollah or Baseej, thus giving a green light to their atrocities. By simultaneously supporting Khatami and lashing out at the free press, he attempts to isolate the president from the more radical reformists, while still courting the public, who revere Khatami. Khameneii’s interpretation of “reform” does not exceed vague notions like “fighting corruption” and “economic improvement.” His veto of the parliamentary decision to reform the press law in early August clearly demonstrates the limits of his vision. Frustrated by persistent popular support for radical reformist candidates, he recently downplayed voting as a mechanism for popular sovereignty. It is more important, he implied, to respect the general thrust of people’s values–Islam.

Currently, conservatives are trying seriously to elevate Khameneii’s supra-legal stature, counter to reformist calls for the rule of law. They want to make Khameneii an unquestionable figure who can intervene in any public affair and veto any decision. Ayatollah Shahroudi, head of the judiciary, said that Khameneii’s words carried special and extra-legal portent. When Khameneii vetoed Parliament’s press law decision, even the speaker justified the interference by referring to Khameneii’s absolute power.

Khameneii has become stronger as conservative-reformist struggles have intensified, since any move on his part tips the delicate balance of forces. Figures from across the political spectrum are compelled to quote from Khameneii to legitimize their stands. The reform movement, which emerged precisely to curtail these extraordinary powers, is now shoring them up, if unintentionally.

Building a Social Base

Although the conservatives are currently speaking the language of economic populism to put pressure on Khatami, they are largely free marketeers. In this they differ little from the mainstream reformists. But despite their more or less similar economic strategies, the two factions draw on different sources of support. The conservatives’ power base lies among officials of revolutionary institutions (nahadhay-e enghelabi) who have enjoyed great privilege, traditional clerics whose views cannot incorporate notions of democracy and pluralism, segments of the lower classes who are powerful in repressive institutions, and bazaar merchants with kinship and institutional ties to the conservative clerical leadership.

What have reformists done to broaden their own support? Not enough. They have not tried to woo sections of the conservative camp, like the lower and middle ranks of the Revolutionary Guards, who might not side with their right-wing leaders. Instead, mirroring their rivals’ rigid attitudes, reformers have antagonized figures, like former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who could have bridged the two factions. The reformist-conservative split is only a surface description of political divides in Iran today: there is vast diversity within each camp. The existing alliances are subject to change.

Reformists have not done enough to mobilize their social base. Although reformists enjoy massive support, their organizing efforts have been weak. The movement remains a loose coalition of personalities and organizations, ranging from progressive Saiid Hajjarian to former hanging judge Ayatollah Khalkhali. While the Mosharekat Party and student groups possess a fairly organized structure, the Islamic Labor Party, a member of the reform coalition, has failed to activate the working class. Neither have reformist-controlled city councils mobilized urban populations. Despite much talk about “civil society,” few concrete steps have been taken to establish NGOs.

Certainly, the movement has been busy confronting right-wing provocation, leaving little time for more mundane organizing tasks. But, of necessity, the movement is becoming more mature. Activists discuss theories of social movements, debate strategy and call for social peace and patience in pursuing reform objectives. To establish itself, they argue, the reform movement needs to cultivate a culture of tolerance and pluralism. Despite the summer’s hardships, the movement retains great potential.

Bankrupt Rivals, Inner Strength

Reformers’ biggest advantage lies in the political and ideological bankruptcy of its rivals, both the domestic conservatives and the Mujahedin-e Khalq opposition abroad. The general public detests the semi-fascist thugs organized by the ultra-conservatives. Right-wing judges and state institutions like the Council of Guardians are distrusted for their clear bias. Conservative newspapers barely manage to find readers, while state TV drives more people to purchase illegal satellite dishes. Attitudes of anger, demoralization and anti-clericalism are gaining ground. A recent official statement revealed that over 75 percent of young people in Tehran refrain from praying. As religion, or “values,” is now associated with dirty politics, many sincere Muslims worry that the public will turn away from Islam altogether.

Beyond their rivals’ weakness, the reformists boast significant inner strength. They have compelled other political actors to accept the vocabulary of reform, and the necessity of merging Islam with democracy. Never before in Iranian history have pluralism, democracy, accountability, the rule of law and tolerance been such popular concepts. The greater expectations that Iranians, particularly youth and women, have developed in the relatively open social and political climate are simply remarkable. Indeed, the new awareness and expectations threaten not only the conservative establishment, but also the reformists themselves if they cannot deliver.

Reformists have effected change at the highest levels–the Foreign and Culture Ministries–and have cleaned up the Ministry of Intelligence, once a nest of serial killers (though the conservatives have started their own intelligence service). The somber and repressive mood prevailing on the street and in government offices in the pre-reform era is now more relaxed. The state of the economy remains deplorable. But so long as the political situation remains insecure, there is little hope for investment and job creation. Economic growth in Iran is very much tied to the fate of political development.

Many still perceive Iran’s reform movement to offer a viable alternative–religious democracy–to the existing social and political order. Potentially, the movement can accommodate religious and secular opinion, radical reformers and, if they win them over, moderate conservatives. Despite the great pressures of recent months, President Khatami has remained a steadfast leader. In response to provocation, he has often resorted to “active” silence, but he has never changed his words.

How to cite this article:

Ali Mudara "Iran’s Reform Dilemma," Middle East Report Online, September 12, 2000.

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