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Testing the Seriousness of Iranian Reforms

As Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's liberal reforms begin to take serious hold, they are creating sharp tensions between his supporters and hard-line conservatives.

Mr. Khatami visited the United Nations last week - the first such visit since 1987. There, Khatami declared the case against Salman Rushdie "completely finished" and welcomed what he called a "change in speech" by United States officials toward Iran.

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For the first time since 1979, senior Iranian and US officials sat at the same table at a meeting designed to head off war between Iran and Afghanistan.

But for every notch Khatami loosens things, Iranian hard-liners stiffen a notch.

The struggle for power between the two sides is reaching a new level in Iran's brewing conflict with the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist were killed by Taliban forces last month, and the conservatives are demanding immediate military action instead of Khatami's efforts at diplomacy.

In the face of these challenges, can Khatami continue to hold the course of reform against his country's hard-liners? Yes. Khatami's assured political touch will keep the conservatives in check.

It is a mistake to interpret any short-term closure of the pro-Khatami newspaper, Tous, by the conservative-controlled judiciary, or harsh anti-reform rhetoric by hard-liners as signs of weakening in Khatami's base of support.

His popularity seems to have soared since he took office, especially among young clerics, civil servants, and military recruits. According to the Minister of Islamic Guidance, Ata'olah Mohajerani, 80 percent of the Iranian Army and Revolutionary Guards voted for Khatami in 1997.

In my travels in Iran since that election, I haven't met a single young Iranian who supported conservatives. No one, including the conservatives, question the popularity of Khatami.

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Hard-liners are concerned the reform climate will influence the October elections of the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member male-and-cleric-only body whose sole duty is to designate or even depose the supreme leader, the Muslim head of state who is commander in chief of the armed forces and the security services.

It will be the first nationwide election since Khatami routed conservatives last year. Because members are elected for eight years, there's a strong possibility this assembly will select a successor to the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khatami has encouraged people to think that it is their right to participate in the election and they should be free to elect their candidates. In contrast to the elections for the Second Assembly of Experts in 1990 when only 182 people declared candidacy, Khatami reforms have prompted nearly 400 candidates to sign up.

Significantly, the list of potential candidates include 46 non-clergymen as well as nine women. Women have never served on the Assembly of Experts, and their candidacy has yet to be approved.

One could argue that the 12-member conservative Council of Guardians - composed of six clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six nonclerics nominated by the judiciary and confirmed by the parliament - has the power to neutralize these reformist efforts. For example, the Council of Guardians used the vetting process in 1990 to reject 86 out of 182 candidates. But such a view would totally ignore the rising assertiveness in Iranian politics, evidenced by Khatami's 1997 landslide.

That popular will has already targeted the powers of the council, of the assembly, and even of the supreme leader, Khamenei.

In an unprecedented move, the head of a pro-Khatami faction wrote an open letter to the leadership of the Assembly of Experts, objecting to the power and authority of the Council of Guardians in deciding the qualifications of the Assembly of Experts' candidates. Other prominent moderates have also urged changes in the candidate screening process, limitation of both the powers and the duration of the tenure of the leader, and a constitutional amendment that would require the assembly to be more accountable to the public.

Conservatives must reckon with these popular demands. Elimination of candidates belonging to the president's camp would cause a popular backlash. On the other hand, if the conservative faction fails to allow for fair and free elections, it may well lose the control of the assembly to Khatami's supporters.

For the conservative hard-liners, the crisis over Afghanistan is a godsend. They are trying to capitalize on the crisis to quash the momentum for reform and isolate moderates. By whipping up popular emotion against the Taliban, hard-liners put Khatami in a difficult situation. In seeking a diplomatic solution for this crisis he'll need to show he doesn't appear impervious to street demonstrations clamoring for military action against the Taliban.

While hard-liners are determined to undermine the reform agenda, Khatami is equally determined to implement it.

The global democratic movement on the one hand, and the unstoppable tide of popular demand for civil society, the rule of law, and greater social and political freedom seem to favor the reformist movement in Iran. The only question is whether it will be Khatami or a successor who will complete it.

* Bahman Baktiari is associate professor of political science at the University of Maine in Orono. He wrote 'Parliamentary Politics in Revolutionary Iran' (University Press of Florida, 1996).

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