Student demonstrations in December 2002 revealed yet again the depth of public sentiment favoring political and economic reform in Iran. But the loose coalition of reformists under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami has been unable to harness this “reserve power of revolution” to push its program through to fruition. Crises engendered by the conservatives, a persistent sense of encirclement by foreign enemies and the reformists’ own failures have all contributed to the Iranian impasse.

Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the revolutionary movement against the authoritarian regime of the Shah, Michel Foucault, borrowing from Marx’s famous critique of religion, spoke of the Iranian Revolution as an expression of “the spirit of a world without spirit.” [1] For him, the force that encouraged unarmed people to risk their lives in protest against that corrupt state was a kind of “political spirituality” with its roots in Shia Islam. The promise of the revolution for Foucault and many Iranian political activists, as well as for younger generations in Iran and throughout the Muslim world, was that genuine political participation would replace the indifference and apathy characteristic of many modern societies. This vita activa would be guided by voluntarily accepted moral and ethical concerns, rather than the omnipresent codes of disciplinary systems of surveillance and punishment. [2] Foucault was rapidly disillusioned by events in the first few years after February 1979, though he continued to defend the unrealized potential of the revolution in the face of fierce critics who accused him of supporting repressive theocracy.

But for those who have lived the last 25 years in Iran, the emergence of the post-revolutionary state could be conceived as the development of technologies for chaining the relentless “spirit” of a more democratic and just world. The reform movement of the last six years could be seen as one last effort, within the broadest and most flexible interpretations of the discourses of the Iranian Revolution, to reinvigorate the revolution’s ideals of justice, freedom and spirituality.

Khatami’s Limited Successes

Since May 1997, successive landslide victories in municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections have given control over parts of the Islamic Republic that are, in principle, open to competition through popular vote to Iranian reformists, united in a coalition headed by President Mohammad Khatami. But neither the reformists’ parliamentary majority nor their control of the executive branch has enabled them to bring about significant change in major areas of government. With few exceptions, the reformists’ efforts to increase transparency in state practices and strengthen the rule of law have been blocked by organs of the state that remain beyond the supervision of democratically elected bodies.

Since the beginning of its term, the sixth parliament has introduced a broad range of legislation aiming, among other things, to reform women’s rights, prevent torture and guarantee press freedoms. Almost all these bills passed by Parliament have been vetoed by the Council of Guardians, the body that examines laws for compatibility with the principles of sharia (Islamic law) or the Iranian constitution. In the last three years, the Council has vetoed more than 50 pieces of legislation, including a recent amendment to the press law allowing the daily Hamshahri, published by the Tehran municipality, to be distributed in other parts of the country. This amendment, the Council said, contradicted “the orders of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution” concerning a parliamentary effort to amend the press law in 2001. Parts of annual budget laws that are identical to budgets passed by previous parliaments have been vetoed on unheard-of grounds. The Council has ruled out efforts to introduce parliamentary supervision over the accounts of institutions like the Imam’s Relief Committee — a kind of welfare organization helping the poor — and the Islamic Propagation Organization, whose heads are appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, because such supervision would interfere with the Supreme Leader’s authority.

Khatami’s foreign policy initiatives, too, have had limited success. Of course, compared to the period before he came to power in May 1997, Iran’s image and position in the world have significantly improved. Better relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, with the tangible result of cooperation over oil prices in OPEC, have created a $7.5 billion surplus in Iran’s foreign trade account. “Constructive dialogue” with the European Union — tying economic cooperation to improvements in human rights, reduced military buildup and foreign policy changes in Iran — has replaced the “critical dialogue” of the previous decade. Iran has warmer relations with Britain, having moved beyond the controversy over the Salman Rushdie affair.

But Khatami has not been able to take Iran out of its “state of uncertainty” — a sense of being constantly besieged by diplomatic pressure and the threat of military aggression, mainly from the US. During almost every visit to major European capitals or the UN, a domestic political crisis has surfaced to remind Khatami that he cannot go it alone in improving relations with the outside world. Sometimes the conservative judiciary has banned a major newspaper and arrested its editors; sometimes the overnight discovery of an insult to “Islamic sacred beliefs” in a student weekly with a circulation of 200 copies has provoked noisy demonstrations covered by conservative-controlled, state-run radio and TV; at other times opposition figures have been arrested. Ironically, the end of the besieged mentality is itself badly needed for the success of political reform. In its drive to technological modernization and reconstruction after war and isolation, Iran needs a certain degree of domestic cohesion and consensus. Khatami’s government has been denied this opportunity. In a 2001 speech to the Iranian parliament, he complained that his government “had to deal with a crisis every nine days” in its first four-year term.

Economic Challenges

Although the government has introduced greater transparency in budgetary debates, especially over the accountability of organizations which are outside the control of the executive branch but spend government monies, major problems remain unsolved. Relatively high oil prices since 1999 have helped the government to stabilize the foreign currency market, and the rial’s exchange rate with the dollar has remained stable for the last three years. But from the period 1997-2001, the gross domestic product has grown at an average rate of 2.7 percent, well under the Third Economic Development Plan target of 6 percent. Inflation is high, running at an average annual rate of 15.5 percent from 1998-2001. [3]

The main challenge before the Iranian economy is provid¬ing jobs for the growing number of people entering working age and those already without jobs. In the period between March 21, 2000 and March 20, 2001, the number of unemployed rose almost 5 percent to reach three million. According to official sources, the unemployment rate that year was 16.1 percent. [4] The government’s Third Economic Development Plan (covering the period March 21, 2000 to March 20, 2005) posits that an average of 765,000 jobs should be created annually, but the highest figure so far has been 399,000 in 2000-2001. The baby boomers of the first decade after the revolution are now flooding the labor market at a rate of 1.6 million per year. Current projections are that every year at least 300,000 to 350,000 of them will join the ranks of the unemployed, raising the unemployment rate to 25 to 30 percent by the end of the decade.

Government finances are heavily burdened by wasteful subsidies and the bloated state bureaucracy. In 2000-2001, the government spent 1.5 percent of GDP on basic goods and services subsidies, 65 percent of which was for wheat alone. This figure does not include subsidies for fuel, especially gasoline which is sold at the cheapest prices in the world. Restructuring of Iran’s industries requires political stability and a prolonged process of negotiation with organized labor, the over two million employees in the public sector and other constituencies. In the permanent political crisis, the government has not taken these risks. With so much uncertainty on the horizon, the private sector does not invest in long-term projects.

Closed Loop

Why is there no strategic vision to tackle these urgent problems? The crisis of the Iranian post-revolutionary state goes beyond economic performance and extends to the very discourses of power and authority. Those entrenched in power appreciate the depth of public sentiment favoring change, but rather than consulting widely to find a way out of the state of day-to-day uncertainty, they try to erase the structural problems altogether, creating instead immediate “problems” that they can solve with their familiar techniques.

At the heart of the present impasse is the legitimation of power, and the insufficient clarity of the constitution on this issue. The president, members of Parliament and the “Assembly of Experts” that, in turn, elects the Supreme Leader are elected by popular vote. But since 1991, the Council of Guardians has interpreted Article 99 of the constitution as giving them the authority to bar candidates for public office on the basis of their “competency or merit” in religious and political matters. Critics within the reform movement and various independent observers claim that this “supervision on the basis of approval” (nezarat-e estesvabi) has created a “closed loop” in Iran’s power structure, whereby the Leader appoints the members of the Council, the Council approves candidates for the Assembly of Experts which is supposed to supervise the Leader’s conduct in power. Since the Council considers loyalty to the Leader (vali-e faqih) as proof of commitment to the sharia, the already loyal deputies of Assembly of Experts cannot effectively perform their duty. The same analysis, though to a lesser extent, applies to the practice of vetting the candidates in parliamentary elections.

During every electoral campaign in the last decade, the existence of this “closed loop” has sparked political turmoil. Candidates who have been denied the right to stand in one election round are approved for the next, but then denied again. Behzad Nabavi, a leading reformist deputy in the present parliament, was approved, then denied and again approved in three consecutive parliamentary elections. Stricter criteria have been applied during the last ten years to gauge the loyalty of independent or non-rightist candidates. Council of Guardians spokesmen have, on many occasions, made it clear that it is not enough for candidates to express their “commitment in practice” to the Constitution; they should also prove their “wholehearted belief in the progressive principle of the rule of the jurist (velayat-e faqih).”

Another bone of contention is the fact that, according to Article 113 of the Constitution, the president is responsible for preventing violations of constitutional principles, but has no power to stop violations when elements of the judiciary or the armed forces are implicated. According to Article 110 of the same constitution, heads of these organs are appointed by the Leader and are accountable solely to him. The well-known recent trials of political activists in closed courts, without the presence of a jury, violate Article 168 of the constitution; the closure of 90 independent newspapers and other publications by the judiciary violates Article 24; and arbitrary arrests, detentions without charge and the extraction of confessions under physical and psychological pressure violate Article 38.

In 1998, Khatami created a body called the Board of Supervision on the Implementation of the Constitution (Heyat-e Nezarat bar Ejraye Qanun-e Asasi) to examine such cases and report to him, so that he could issue “constitutional warnings.” In theory, these cases should then be studied by higher courts and followed by appropriate action. Khatami has issued several such warnings in the past three years, but none has been dealt with by the judiciary, controlled as it is by the chief political opponents of the reform movement.

Solitary Confinement at 70

Two recent cases of gross violations have highlighted the arbitrary power of the judiciary and police. In December 2000 and March 2001, 15 reform-minded activists whose views were published in the monthly Iran-e Farda (banned since 2000) were arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime and having links to the Mujahidin-e Khalq armed opposition group based in Iraq. Among these activists were veterans of the anti-Shah movements of the 1960s and 1970s. All 15 were held in solitary confinement for about six months and then released on bail, waiting for their sentences to be announced. Raies Toosi, a 65-year old professor of political science, said his four interrogation sessions lasted more than 18 hours each and that he was held in solitary confinement for 168 days. [5] During his term in prison, Ezatollah Sahabi, another 70-year old activist from the 1950s who supported the 1979 revolution, wrote a letter condemning his own ideas and asking his children not to give interviews to the media regarding his situation. Seven months after his release in June 2002, Sahabi published an open letter to the heads of the three branches of government and gave a shocking account of how he was treated during his 15-month detention. [6] He said that his interrogation sessions lasted from afternoon until the following morning on several occasions, that he had written 2000 pages in answering the questions and that he had suffered a heart attack after being shown a copy of a newspaper with a front-page headline about his “letter of repentance,” after which he was kept in a military hospital for nine months.

Compared to the 12 years he had spent in the Shah’s prisons, Sahabi said, his last experience had been “beyond imagination in terms of the quality of treatment and charges laid, and in terms of the insults and psychological techniques used.” Even after his release, he had been summoned by “the same team of interrogators” to places other than the relevant court, and told to attend no public event “unless under the interrogators’ supervision.” Sahabi continued:

I am ready to go to prison anywhere or for any length of time, but since I am sure that these gentlemen would not leave me alone even there, I wish to be executed and die. My request is, therefore, that you order my execution and let yourself and the nation get rid of me if you think I am doing harm to the country, the nation, Islam and the revolution. There is, after all, the Other World… and we will all be accountable in front of our God. But if you think this is not the case, then do something effective to relieve this fellow citizen of yours.

After Sahabi’s surreal open letter, there could be no illusions any more about the technologies applied by those in power to restrain the revolution’s potential.

The Pollsters’ Case

During October and November 2002, three social researchers, Behrooz Geranpayeh, Hossein Ghazian and Abbas Abdi, were arrested on charges of manufacturing fake polls and selling classified information to foreigners. Media and human rights organizations’ accounts of the pollsters’ case have said that conservative circles were concerned by press leaks of poll results that showed close to 75 percent of Iranian respondents favoring a start to official negotiations with the US. In reality, the poll on US-Iran relations was conducted in July 2002 by the National Institute for the Study of Public Opinion (NISPO), headed by Geranpayeh, under a contract with the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian parliament. A summary of the results was published in September 2002 by the Iranian News Agency without the consent of NISPO. Geranpayeh was arrested in October on charges of misuse of funds (close to $700,000), selling poll results and other classified information to foreigners, conducting biased polls on the Palestinian intifada and heading an unregistered research institute. (In court, some of these charges were dropped.) He was tried in December 2002 and released on bail last January.

Ghazian and Abdi were tried on charges of conducting polls for two American institutes, Gallup and Zogby, selling classified information to foreigners and possessing government classified documents. One of the charges against Ghazian was that he participated in a conference sponsored by “the research institute of the CIA,” or the “Columbia Research Institute of the American intelligence agency,” as the Iranian judiciary called it. In fact, Ghazian had attended a conference at Columbia University in New York. One of the polls in question was conducted for Zogby in June 2001, a week before the last presidential election, and the other one was part of the Gallup surveys in nine Muslim countries after the September 11 attacks. The results of the Zogby poll, published at the time, predicted with precision the results of the election that gave Khatami a second term in office. The Gallup results were published, and the complete data for each country is publicly available for purchase. The most relevant finding of this poll for the arrests was, perhaps, the fact that 63 percent of the public in Iran held a predominantly negative view of the US. [7] Such is the “secret information” Ghazian and Abdi “sold to the enemy.” They were given jail sentences of nine and eight years, respectively, early in February 2003.

Ghazian and Abdi were directors of Ayandeh Research Group, the most important private social research institute working in Iran since the mid-1990s. Ayandeh accurately predicted the surprise victory of Khatami in May 1997 and, until its closure by judicial order in November 2002, had compiled one of the most valuable archives of longitudinal data on a wide area of social and political issues in Iran over the last decade. All these files have been taken away.

If the lesson of the pollsters’ case is that the judiciary will go to extraordinary lengths to silence any attempt to publicize popular preferences, the saddest reality is that for many Iranians this behavior is not considered extraordinary. Perhaps the most fundamental defect of the reform movement is that its main weapon — massive, if unorganized, popular support — has not been effective in bringing about meaningful change in the practices of the real sources of power in Iran. Reformists have proven to be sophisticated media and election campaigners, but they have not transformed popular dissent into organized political pressure upon the coercive apparatuses of the state. Their fascination with the “public sphere” and “rational debates” among “free independent individuals” has distracted them from the social bases of power. All their force is concentrated in elite parties, a parliamentary majority, some executive bureaucracies and a handful of remaining newspapers. They have not paid enough attention to unions, syndicates, civil society organizations and the emerging social movements. Yet, these social bases are exactly what is necessary to push back those who want to rule in the name of God using whatever immoral means earthly power requires. The reformists’ political impasse reflects the social impasse between organized forces of the state, the prison, the court and the garrison, and the unorganized masses with their “reserve power of revolution.”

Looking for a Way Out

All factions in the reform movement now acknowledge the impasse. In the last three years, more than 90 reformist publications have been banned by the judiciary, while dozens of journalists, student activists, parliamentary deputies, political activists, researchers and their defense lawyers have received jail sentences or are waiting for their court verdicts. As the conservatives already control the military, the courts and radio and television, they do not need an outright coup d’etat, as in classic cases of dual sovereignty. Their hit-and-run tactics have proven effective in paralyzing the reform movement.

There is, however, considerable disagreement among reformist circles as to the best way out of the impasse. Some believe the last effort to resolve it resides in Khatami’s twin bills, presented to the parliament in September 2002. One draft law gives the president more power to identify violations of the constitution and take those responsible to higher courts of law. The second bill, in fact an amendment to the electoral law passed on February 19, 2003 by Parliament, removes the veto power of the Council of Guardians over the fate of those competing in elections. The government hopes that these bills will remove barriers in the path of more effective legal reform.

The problem is that these bills must be approved by the Council of Guardians to become law. Given the historical record, it is highly unlikely that these bills will pass either the Council of Guardians or the conservative-controlled Expediency Council, the institution arbitrating in cases of unresolved disagreement between the parliament and the Guardians. It is, therefore, more reasonable to think of the twin bills as Khatami’s last symbolic effort to show that his government has exhausted legal means of bringing about peaceful change. In a rare press conference in August 2002, just before presenting the bills to the parliament, Khatami alluded to this by saying that “the president must be able to perform his legal duties that are 100 percent within the framework of the constitution.” He then argued that at present the president “lacks the required minimum authority to perform these duties. I have tried to proceed on this path with moderation, understanding, exchange of views and friendly negotiations… But, unfortunately, I believe that we have not moved forward in this regard.” [8]

Reformists believe that, if this last effort fails, their next step would be a call for a referendum by a two-thirds majority in the parliament. It is not clear what the exact content of the referendum would be, or what comes next in case the Supreme Leader does not issue the requisite decree to hold one. Some reformists in Parliament and elsewhere have indicated that they would walk out en masse from their official positions, robbing the political system of the legitimacy that their presence has given it. More radical reformist intellectuals have suggested resorting to tactics of civil disobedience, [9] as well as striking a deal of national reconciliation with the conservatives, similar to the strategies implemented during the transition to majority rule in South Africa. [10] The political opposition outside the country has not come up with clear and practical plans for a non-violent transition either. There is a movement on the part of liberals and social democrats to form a United Republican Front, but no concrete plans have been openly debated as to the future shape of the economy and the polity.

Specter of Uncertainty

Despite 25 years of revolutionary upheaval, through eight years of war, an unsuccessful attempt at authoritarian economic restructuring and this last struggle for democratic political reform, the specter of uncertainty looms over Iran. The resulting besieged mentality sows mistrust, disinterest in active social participation and apathy. With the drumbeat of war rising to dangerous volumes, and the declared aims and connotations of the Bush administration’s present rhetoric, the Iranian public as a whole — not just the conservatives — is pushed into feeling greater insecurity and frustration. Many Iranian intellectuals with liberal and secular tendencies have expressed concern about the consequences of current US policy in the region. [11] One frequently hears the view that this is a war over domination and hegemony in the Middle East and it will not end in Iraq. Iran, Syria and even Saudi Arabia, many Iranians fear, will be next targets to conquer breathing space for surplus capital and lucrative investments. Iran has paid a heavy price for being the target of such strategic plans in the past. The coup d’etat engineered by the US and Britain against the liberal government of Mohammad Mossadeq in August 1953 set aside all hopes for a democratic political order in Iran for 25 years. Revolutionary upheaval, followed by the Iraqi invasion of September 1980, imposed a state of security alert that made democratic politics impossible for at least another decade. This time, the threat of force comes from abroad, as well as from hardliners inside Iran who openly call for a final “purge” (palayesh) of the polity.

An emerging force seems to be a “centrist alternative” formed around former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Akbar Velayati, the former foreign minister, who now serves as foreign policy adviser to the Supreme Leader. This “third force” is an emerging alliance of state technocrats and conservative politicians loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, resting mainly on the intelligence capabilities and firepower of the current leadership of the Revolutionary Guards. Rafsanjani’s open political dialogue with the US is a day-to-day reflection of what he reads from the covert diplomatic traffic between the two countries and his assessment of the domestic balance of forces. Last December, he said in a speech in Tehran: “The best way for the US is to proceed on the path of reconciliation, since in that case they could work with Iran…. [T]he best way for America is to stop bullying. They want to buy oil and we want to sell it.” [12] But in another speech on February 7, 2003, he said: “The US presence in the Middle East is worse than the possession of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq.” [13] Informed observers of the political scene in Iran believe that Rafsanjani is, for the moment, the conservative camp’s candidate for post-reform negotiations with the US.

The reformers are caught in a situation where they cannot shift to more radical tactics, out of fear of triggering the reaction of the military and paramilitary elements in the conservative camp. This, in their view, will finally prepare the ground for the kind of intervention the US is now practicing in Iraq. Their argument is that any military intervention in Iran’s political life, whether from domestic or foreign sources, will bury the drive for democracy under the weight of the “bread and security” imperative for another generation. At the same time they are losing all their popularity as the current impasse grinds on. The current state of paralysis will only be changed if political dissent is organized under an umbrella of unions and social movement organizations, as well as the reformist parties capable of producing a sound plan for non-violent political transition and economic modernization. It is when there is power on the side of civil society to balance the force of the coercive organs of the state that the moral values of justice and freedom, and the potential for “political spirituality,” find a chance to come to the fore. Iranian reformists have not constructed that social power.



 [1]  Daniel Defert and Francois Ewald, eds. Michel Foucault: Dits et ecrits, vol. III (Paris: Gallimard), pp. 743-55. Afsheen Jahandideh translated these writings into Farsi as Iran, Rooh-e Jahaan-e Birooh (Tehran: Ney, 1999).

 [2]  In retrospect, one could say that Foucault was probably projecting his wishes and ideals in constructing a cultural Other to interrogate Western political systems “by standing outside” these systems. F. Kurasawa, “The Exotic Effect: Foucault and the Question of Cultural Alterity,” European Journal of Social Theory 2/2 (1999).

 [3]  Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Economic Report and Balance Sheet, 2001-2002, Table 92, p. 229.

 [4]  Ibid., p. 62.

 [5]  Human Rights Watch, World Report 2003: Iran, p. 3.

 [6]  A detailed account of his treatment while in detention is accessible online at http: //

 [7]  See Richard Burkholder, “The United States Through Iranian Eyes,” first published on July 16, 2002 and “Iranian Reactions to September 11,” first published on July 30, 2002, online at

 [8]  Ettelat Beinolmellali, August 29, 2002.

 [9]  Perhaps the two most important such suggestions are Akbar Ganji’s The Manifesto of Republicanism and Mohsen Sazgara’s Last Word, First Step, both published in Farsi online at Both Ganji and Sazgara are currently in jail. Sazgara was arrested on February 19, 2003, while a delegation from the Committee on Arbitrary Arrests of the UN Human Rights Commission was visiting Iran. He was released four days later.

 [10] Kooshan Razjoo, “Tarhi Barra-ye Taharok-e Eslahat,” Aftab 3/22 (January 2003).

 [11]  See Mohammad Arassi, “ Don’t Divide the World into Good Americans and Westerners, and Bad Muslims,” and Kazem Alamdari “Khata-ye Mosalmanha ya khata-ye Gharb,” accessible online at, and recent issues of Aftab, a leading reformist monthly that has survived the conservative crackdown.

 [12]  Ettelat Beinolmellali, December 3, 2002.

 [13]  Ettelat Beinolmellali, February 10, 2003.

How to cite this article:

Ali Rezaei "Last Efforts of Iran’s Reformers," Middle East Report 226 (Spring 2003).

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