On December 28, 1996, Mohammad Khatami gathered with university students in a courtyard in downtown Tehran to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Ali, one of the holiest figures in Shiite Islam. The meeting took place at the headquarters of the Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat, a 20-year-old student organization whose founders helped take U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979. Khatami pulled out of his pocket a small copy of the Iranian constitution and promised his audience that, if elected president, he would create a society based on the "rule of law."
It was the beginning of Khatami’s close affiliation with Iran's youth, who comprise more than half of the population. From that day forward, student groups vowed to help elect him president. They campaigned for him in their towns and on their campuses. When Khatami won in a landslide victory five months later with 70 percent of the vote, he owed much of his victory to Iran's students.
This relationship between Iran's president and its youth prompted university students to demonstrate July 8-14 in support of the very policies Khatami advocates. Over the two years he has been in power, the country's youth have embraced his reformist agenda with high expectations for social and political change. The days of unrest were sparked by the closing of the liberal newspaper Salaam, a publication that symbolized freedom of expression. But the students' underlying motivation was in fact their own liberation from cultural and political pressures. This would require modernizing the Islamic system that now restricts their social and moral behavior. So when they shouted "Freedom or Death" at their rallies, which began on university campuses and then spilled into the streets, they were thinking of the freedom that Khatami had first promised that cold December afternoon in 1996.
By the third day of the July unrest, the protests grew more violent. As students felt the pain of the brutal and, in some cases, deadly blows of the Islamic militia, and plainclothes police and vigilantes took swipes at them on the campuses and in the streets, they became inflamed. At some rallies, there was no way to know if the armed men beating the students were police, members of the right-wing Basij militia, the secret intelligence service, or the Ansar-e Hezbollah, Iran's most prominent militant extremists. It appeared the aggression was unauthorized at times; yet the authorities failed to stop it.
When calm had returned to the capital and major cities such as Tabriz, where clashes between students and law-enforcement agencies were reportedly bloodier than in Tehran, the question on the students' minds was: Where was the "rule of law" Khatami had promised?
The student unrest, the worst since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, raised the political stakes to a level unseen since the president took office in August 1997. Their courage to cross the line from peaceful protest to public rage came from a determination to chart their own destiny. If at one time they doted on Khatami's every word, now they were willing to risk leaving him behind. The students and youth in general believe the pace of reform has been too slow. Their patience has grown shorter each time their weddings are broken up by aggressive vigilantes who are given law-enforcement powers, or they are stopped in their cars and taken into custody for being in mixed company, or when they sit, boyfriend and girlfriend, in cafes.
If modernists fail to answer this call for fast reform, they risk being done in by the very people who helped bring them to power. But how can they accelerate the pace, when President Khatami himself seems powerless at times to undo the damage his hard line rivals have inflicted on his government? Unlike the chief executive of a Western government, Khatami's power as president is severely circumscribed. In all matters of state, he must defer to Iran's supreme clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is backed by conservatives. Khamenei and his loyalists effectively control most branches of law enforcement, which include the police, the Revolutionary Guards (Sepah) and the Basij militia. They also dominate the judiciary and have used their powers to close reformist newspapers, attempting to choke off the growing independent media that represent one of the president's greatest achievements to date.
A few weeks after a court closed Salaam, Khatami, making a public appearance, was asked by a journalist what action he might take:
"What about Salaam?" the journalist asked.
The president grinned from a distance. "Mr. Khatami, why are you grinning?" the journalist asked.
"What do you want me to do, cry?" Khatami replied.
"I mean, what have you done for Salaam?"
"What can I do?" the president answered.
Intellectually, the student movement understands the limitations of Khatami’s presidency. But rather than waiting for change within the institutions beyond his control, the students have decided to apply their own pressure from outside. In pressuring their hardline rivals, they are also forcing the man they helped elect to sit on a time bomb. This volatility has made Iran a more dangerous place than it was before the riots occurred.
The students have become a powerful force on the political scene, yet they have neither the organization nor the leaders to direct their movement. With its long history of working against secularist dissent lodged at the Islamic regime shortly after the revolution, the Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat, or Office to Consolidate Unity, was once the students' guiding light. But the July demonstrations illustrated the organization's shortcomings. It’s almost exclusive focus on political affairs leaves many of today's students cold, as does its impeccable revolutionary heritage. Its original mentors are now seasoned politicians and journalists in their 40s. And its loyalty to the Khatami government has left it struggling to keep up with the rising demands of the campuses for accelerated change.
Ideologically, the Daftar backs President Khatami's political agenda, even if he may at times disappoint them. "Khatami is the system's last hope for survival," said one of the organizations' leaders during a press conference at the height of the July mayhem. "This is why we must support him." It is a message many students do not want to hear.
In the heat of the unrest, when fears were rampant that students might try to take over Tehran streets and get themselves killed while doing so, the Daftar called on all students to restrict their rallies to the university campuses. But the young students refused to obey. One evening, they left the gates of Tehran University and began marching in the streets. Soon they were chased back into the university by Islamic vigilantes. The students were so frightened they took refuge in the university mosque, which the vigilantes then tried to storm. The Daftar issued a statement disassociating itself from the student demonstrators. The protestors then elected the so-called Select Committee, including several members of Daftar, to act as their representatives. This split showed their ultimate difference: the Daftar as a whole had become part of the system; but the younger students were content to remain outside it if rebellion was the only avenue to rapid social freedom.
Generational change plays a large part in these differing approaches toward reform. Today's students, too young to carry the baggage of the 1979 revolution, are less ideological than their elders who stormed the U.S. embassy and founded the Daftar. The most important change for them is to remove the prying eyes of law enforcement and intelligence agencies from the personal lives of Iranians. But the important point upon which the Daftar and the young generation agree is that Iran should remain an Islamic state. Students made it clear during their protests that they were fighting for Islamic revisionism, not for dismantling the system.
"There might be an idea that the Islamic system is bad. What we want to say is that some have tried to install a system which is not a real Islamic system. Everyone in the Islamic system should be able to express their ideas in a clear way and live freely," one student leader said in an interview.
COMPETING RELIGIOUS INTERPRETATIONS
The depth and scope of Tehran's days of rage clearly caught the reformist camp off-guard. Students, after all, hold a near sacred status in modern Iran. It was the students who did much of the heavy lifting during the Islamic Revolution. Later, they watered the homeland with their martyrs' blood to defend Iran from Iraq. And it was the students who reveled in their new political power with the election of Khatami and then were among the first to enjoy the tentative fruits of his social and cultural reforms. Surely, no true student would seek to destabilize the existing order.
The conservative establishment suffered from no such illusions. It was not that they were any less starry-eyed over the students. Rather, they grasped at once the immediate political implications to what was essentially a release of pent-up demand for cultural and social "normalization" after 20 years of permanent revolution. If competing versions of Islam were allowed in the name of expanded freedom, then the role of the clerical hierarchy could be called into question.
To freeze the momentum created by the protests, senior religious figures ran to their pulpits to denounce Western-style personal and intellectual freedom. The right to resort to violence in defense of the existing orthodoxy was asserted from one end of the country to the other. At a rally organized by hardliners during the July unrest, the students were denounced as mohareb, a term meaning those who declare war on God, and mofsed, or the corrupt on earth. "No doubt, those who have resorted to sabotage, destruction of public assets and violation of the state property will be tried in our relevant courts," Deputy Speaker of Parliament Hasan Rowhani, a mid-ranking cleric, told a crowd of about 100,000 people. "They shall be punished as corrupt of the earth who waged war against God." The most common penalty for such crimes is death.
The monopoly the conservative establishment claims to hold on Islamic interpretation collides with the thinking of the students' guiding light, the philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush. In his theory of the "contraction and expansion of religious laws," Soroush rejects the idea that the clergy maintains the exclusive religious knowledge required to interpret Islamic texts. To adopt such a view, according to Soroush, is to deprive an individual of free thought. And such deprivation does not produce true believers. In The Theoretical Contraction of Religious Law, he wrote: "A religion that is tied to the material and political interest of a special class leaves little room for its own evolution and development. From that point on, that groups' s defense of that religion, and its struggle against invention and innovation, will become a defense of its own interests and position....With such a religion it is neither possible to attain happiness in this world and contentment among the people, nor to satisfy the Creator and achieve happiness in the hereafter."
Soroush, who led Iran's cultural revolution in 1980 after the overthrow of the shah, has long been on the fringes of the system. For years he was considered a dissident. He was removed from his post as a professor at Tehran University and often denied permission to leave Iran in order to give lectures in the United States and Europe. Over the last six months he has been rehabilitated to some extent. He is now allowed to give public lectures, albeit at the risk of violent disruption by the hardline Ansar-e Hezbollah, and to travel abroad. But Soroush's new liberation is made possible only through President Khatam i's indirect support for Soroush, which is never discussed publicly.
For the clerical establishment, Soroush's ideas are a serious threat to their legitimacy, to say nothing of their very existence. His direct challenge provides an example for the youth to act likewise. At rallies during the unrest, students booed and jeered at Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Such an act verges on heresy. Khamenei symbolizes the sacred nature of the Islamic Republic, and supporters of the "absolute" reading of clerical rule say he is answerable only to God. To insult the leader is considered a crime punishable by up to two years in prison. Insiders said Khamenei was devastated by such humiliation. When he appeared in public shortly after the unrest, he was visibly shaken.
One of the fundamental differences between thinkers such as Soroush and those of the conservative establishment lies in their interpretation of the velayat-e faqih, the concept of supreme clerical rule. The main problem of the principle of velayat, according to Soroush, is its imposition on the people of obligation to the state. In a republic, the state should be governed according to the rights of the people.
What has become the establishment political reading of the velayat was first introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini, but many senior theologians argue there is insufficient evidence in the Quran or other sacred texts to support its existence. Islamic intellectuals such as Soroush argue it is the people who give legitimacy to political rule. The conservative establishment, however, believes the state's legitimacy rests within the divine rule of the supreme leader.
When students jeered Ayatollah Khamenei, they were in fact expressing their disapproval with the system of supreme clerical rule, which inherently gives short shrift to the desires of the people. More significantly, their dismissive attitude toward one of the greatest symbols of the Islamic revolution - the velayat shows they have left much of the revolution behind psychologically. Many students may not be able to articulate this idea, but their vision of an ideal Islamic Republic has all the characteristics of a modern Iran that has moved on since 1979.
The conservatives, on the other hand, appear incapable of surrendering their revolutionary mentality. They interpreted as heretical the students' anti-clerical protest. Their response to the student rebellion was to hold a staged rally. Tens of thousands of citizens traveled to Tehran from their villages and towns on state buses, in a tactical maneuver reminiscent of those used by the Communist party in the former Soviet Union. When the crowd was shown on national television, which is controlled by the conservatives, marchers carrying pictures of President Khatami were conspicuous by their absence from the nation's television screens. Crowd shots included only those participants holding pictures of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The debate over religious interpretation heated up in the weeks following the student unrest. In mid-September, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the leading ideologue of the right, gave a speech before Friday prayers in central Tehran and clearly articulated the conservatives' position: "If everyone is allowed to make his own interpretation of the holy Quran, nothing would be left for Islam. What would you do if in the future someone claims that according to his reading there is no God? He would base his words on his interpretation of lslam. If you plan to be Martin Luther, invent a new religion for yourself. The religion we have inherited from the Prophet and his household is not adaptive to different readings and has no other interpretation but that of the Prophet.... If anyone tells you he has a new interpretation of lslam, slug him in the mouth," he concluded.
The current crisis of defining the "true Islam" certainly is not new in Iran. But the student demonstrations have pushed both the extreme left and right to new heights, regenerating a cycle of debate that has put President Khatami in a no-win situation. During the days of unrest, Khatami called upon the students to stop demonstrations in the streets. When the protests continued, he distinguished among the students, calling those who marched in central Tehran a "deviant movement." Some of the demonstrators in the streets during the fifth and sixth days indeed included non-students. Some were workers who sympathized with the students; others were hooligans who took advantage of the chaos, burning cars and tires and breaking the windows of two banks near Tehran's grand bazaar.
By the time the students called off their marches, they felt betrayed by a president they had worked hard to elect. They never heard the words of support and sympathy they had expected from President Khatami; some said they just wanted to see him shed a sympathetic tear or two. In his first public appearance after the unrest, in the western town of Hamadan, he referred to the police and Islamic vigilantes who had attacked students in their dormitories the first night as "supporters of violence." But he drew a clear separation between the injustice committed that night and the following days of unrest. "The attack on the university dormitory was a crime. Why did they attack the university? Why did they beat up students? Because students and academics are dynamic and active members of society and the greatest supporters of the progress and development of this country."
Khatami distinguished the dormitory attack from the demonstrations which followed by saying, "What (later) happened in Tehran damaged our national security. It was an effort to cause unrest among the honorable people and to destroy public opinion and private property. It was to express vengeance towards the system. It had nothing to do with the honorable nation or the university and its students."
In declaring the students "sacred," Khatami tried to convince Iranians that his supporters were not among those wreaking havoc on the nation. When he ran for office, his conservative rivals had warned that his presidency would spark civil unrest, and Khatami tried hard not to give credence to hardliners' predictions that his own supporters were defying his calls for law and order. But despite his revisionist history that evening, the reality remains: Students have become the wild card in the political game being played out in the Islamic Republic.
Khatami's loyalists the editors of reformist newspapers, the modernist intellectuals and pundits and the Daftar leadership - are all warning the young students to slow down. But they concede they have little control over the momentum of the movement that Khatami's landslide victory unleashed. This, of course, is the danger of any reform drive under authoritarian conditions, as illustrated most memorably in the case of the former Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, in creating the political climate to reform and energize the Communist system, inadvertently laid the groundwork for his own political demise.
Like Gorbachev, the Iranian president is hoping to carve a more modern and democratic reality from the existing system, in this case an Islamic Republic. But Khatami, unlike Gorbachev, continues to enjoy broad popular support well into the reform process. And Khatami also seems fully aware that he can no longer control the pace of change, which is the reason his response to the student demonstrations has been a mixed strategy of appeasing his conservative rivals while not permanently alienating his pro-reform constituents.
THE FUTURE LIES WITH THE JUDICIARY
For now, Khatami's strategy appears to have worked. There are no signs that his popularity plummeted as a result of the unrest. But the long-term political implications depend upon the very promise the president made to students back in December 1996. The pace of reform - and Khatami's ultimate success -depend upon the judiciary. If Khatami's administration can manage to force judicial reform and create a modicum of law and order, his supporters will tolerate change at a gradual pace.
In August, a new judiciary chief was appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei. Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a little-known scholarly cleric, has a record of conservative policies. But upon taking office, he vowed to remove the judicial system from factional infighting. This has encouraged the reformers. But shortly after he took office, hardliners made a point of showing their strength and underscored the difficulty Shahroudi will face in instituting any profound change. The Revolutionary Court announced that four people were handed the death penalty for their involvement in the July demonstrations. There was no evidence a trial had taken place, and the names of the accused were not released. The announcement sparked outrage in the international community. The European Union registered a formal complaint with Iran's foreign minister, and international human rights groups issued stinging letters of criticism. Shahroudi's staff made it clear the new chief was unaware of the sentences ahead of the announcement. The sentences were not only a direct challenge to his authority, but handed him a most difficult predicament during his first weeks in office.
The conservatives are clearly using the judiciary as a means for settling their political scores. For example, in cases such as those involving the press, conservatives have sidestepped the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the institution with formal authority over the press, and have taken their objections directly to the judiciary. They prefer to be heard in the courts, which they dominate, rather than in the ministry, which is under Khatami's influence.
Shahroudi has suggested he will try to remove the courts from press matters and all other issues that should be dealt with administratively, but the obstacles he faces could prove insurmountable. Conservatives generally use the Islamic texts as justification for their legal arguments. When they have taken newspaper editors to court in the last year, they have generally charged them with undermining Islamic principles as stated in the Quran, or they have charged journalists with insulting the faith by questioning Islamic practices such as retribution or blood money. Thus, as long as Iran's judicial system remains one that is based entirely on the Sharia (Islamic law), the conservatives will likely maneuver their way into the courts.
Shahroudi's only avenue toward substantive judicial reform is to cleanse the courts of jurists who base their decisions on ideological grounds. He has already made moves in that direction. One of his first acts was to remove several key judiciary officials, including hardliners tied to the Haqani seminary in Qom, the holy Shiite city and seat of lslamic learning.
In many ways, Shahroudi 's announced mission resembles that of President Khatami: institutionalization of the rule of law in a system long-dominated by factional interests, ideological considerations and expediency. In a broader sense, both men are seeking to lead their respective branches of government, the executive and the judiciary, into the post-revolutionary era. Given the heated political environment of contemporary Iran, however, neither of these two learned clerics, who both trace their lineage back to the Prophet Mohammad, can say as much out loud.