Muhammad Khatami's landslide victory in the May 1997 presidential election produced considerable optimism that moderates might finally prevail in the power struggle that has been raging in Iran in recent years. This battle pits a loose coalition of reformers who want to liberalize Iran's Islamic regime against a loose coalition of conservatives who oppose liberalization. Conflict between these two factions has dominated Iranian politics since the mid-1990s, paralyzing the political system and preventing Iran from addressing many of its urgent problems. Optimistic observers described Khatami's election as a ''Tehran Spring" and compared him to Mikhail Gorbachev,1 suggesting that an Iranian "Velvet Revolution" was underway that would break the stalemate in the power struggle, sweep away the opponents of reform, and foster far-reaching change.
In the period since Khatami's election, the reformers have made some gains but have failed to achieve the far-reaching change many had anticipated. Khatami and most other reformist leaders have proceeded cautiously, avoiding major confrontations with the conservatives and choosing not to bring the large majority of Iranians who support them into the streets. The conservatives have proven resilient, regaining their balance soon after the election and working energetically ever since to block the reformers' initiatives. It is now clear that Khatami's election did not break the stalemate in the power struggle and that further change will not come quickly or easily.
This paper examines the dynamics of Iran's power struggle, focusing on the factors responsible for the emergence of the reformist movement, the composition of the reformist and conservative factions, and the trends that have played out during the last few years. It concludes by speculating about the likely course of the power struggle and the prospects for far-reaching change during the next few years.
PRESSURES FOR REFORM
The rapid growth of the reformist faction and Khatami's stunning electoral victory both reflect a strong desire for reform that has been building among Iranians since the late 1980s. This pressure for reform has been driven by three inexorable changes taking place in Iranian society. The first is a sharp decline in the revolutionary fervor that gripped Iran in the early 1980s. While most Iranians still seem to support the fundamental achievements of the 1979 revolution, the long years of war, economic hardship and sociocultural rigidity that followed have largely extinguished the passions that fueled the revolution, replacing them with a pervasive spirit of pragmatism. Iranians now are preoccupied, above all, with economic difficulties: inflation rates of 20-50 percent, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and standards of living that remain far below those of the prerevolution era.2 These conditions are partly responsible for Iran's growing problems with drug addiction, prostitution and crime3 and for a series of spontaneous riots that have occurred throughout the country since the early 1990s.
Second, the large generation of Iranians who were born in the 1970s and 1980s and have recently entered the political arena is generally disenchanted with the Islamic regime and strongly supports the reformers. Young people in Iran today did not share in the exhilaration and spirit of sacrifice that marked the revolution and are frustrated with the poor economic prospects and Islamic sociocultural restrictions they face, making them strong advocates of liberalization. Iran's youth have also benefited from a rapid expansion of educational opportunities that has roughly doubled the overall literacy rate and the secondary-school enrollment rate since the revolution,4 making them more sophisticated and less susceptible to demagoguery than previous generations. With a voting age of 16 and more than half of the electorate under 30, Iran's youth constitutes a large, growing base of support for the reformers. Indeed, 85 percent of Iranians under 29 voted for Khatami.5
Finally, as this younger generation has increased in importance, the older generation of hardened revolutionaries who were active in the I 960s and early 1970s has been fading, with many key figures retiring from politics, becoming less active or passing away. Most of these older revolutionaries are (or were) very idealistic and ideological and made great personal sacrifices for the revolution, leaving them more strongly committed to it than younger Iranians. As this generation exits the political arena, it is being replaced by younger, more pragmatic leaders who advocate liberalization.
These changes have created strong pressure for reform, focusing on four main sets of issues. Most important, Iranians want economic reforms that will provide more employment, curb inflation and raise living standards. Second, many Iranians favor further easing of the country's strict Islamic sociocultural restrictions, especially on hejab (women's Islamic dress code), gender relations and access to Western culture and media. Third, many also want better relations with the United States and other Western countries, which would improve the economy and facilitate travel and contact with relatives living abroad. Finally, most Iranians favor a further political liberalization, which would increase public accountability and thus the prospects for broader liberalization, including economic reform.
The depth of this desire for reform has become increasingly evident in recent years through elections, intellectual trends and various forms of popular protest. Its strongest manifestation came in the May 1997 presidential election, which Khatami won with 69 percent of the vote. An astonishing 91 percent of the electorate participated in this election, far exceeding the 55-percent turnout rate of the 1993 presidential election.6 Khatam i's supporters dubbed his victory a "second revolution:' implying that it had initiated a new, more progressive phase. These results were virtually duplicated in the February 1999 nationwide Municipal Council elections in which 75 percent of the seats in Iran's 112 largest cities went to pro-Khatami candidates and only 12 percent went to conservatives.7 Similar results emerged from the parliamentary elections a year later, when some 74 percent of the seats went to Khatami supporters.8 These results show very clearly that 70-75 percent of Iranians favor extensive reform and only 15-25 percent oppose it.
Although the desire for reform in Iran is widespread and deeply felt, only a fairly small minority of Iranians seem to oppose the Islamic regime altogether, judging from causal conversations, popular participation at Friday prayer services and related events, and especially styles of dress, which are widely interpreted as a statement of political preference.9 Moreover, many Iranians who do oppose the Islamic regime do not favor active steps against it; they recognize that it remains popular and believe that only slow, evolutionary change is feasible. The movement for reform symbolized by Khatami's election therefore seeks to liberalize the Islamic regime rather than dismantle it.
THE PLAYERS 10
The reformist faction is a loose coalition of centrists and Islamic leftists who began to work together against the conservatives after the 1992 parliamentary elections. Most of the leading centrists are proteges or close relatives of Khatami's predecessor, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who initiated the reformist trend when he was president in I 989-97. In early 1996, several prominent Rafsanjani associates created an organization called the Servants of Construction (Kargozaran-e Sazendegi), an organization that has been the centrists' main institutional vehicle. Its leading figures have been Gholam Hossein Karbaschi (former mayor of Tehran), Ataollah Mohajerani (Khatami's minister of culture and Islamic guidance), Mohsen Nourbakhsh (central-bank governor), Mohammad Hashemi (Rafsanjani's brother) and Faezeh Hashemi (Rafsanjani's daughter). The centrists' main goal traditionally has been to revitalize the economy through neo-liberal structural adjustment, though they also advocate political and sociocultural liberalization. The Islamic leftists dominated the government of Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (1981-89) and were responsible for much of the radicalism of the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the seizure of the U.S. embassy hostages in November 1979. They were badly beaten in the 1992 parliamentary elections, demonstrating that they were out of touch with mainstream views and leading most of them to become much more moderate.
The Islamic leftists are represented by the Islamic Iran Participation Front (Jebhe-ye Mosharakat-e Iran-e Islami), the Militant Clerics' Association (Majma-e Ruhaniyun-e Mobarez), the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (Sazman-e Mojahedin-e Enqelab-e lslami), the pro-student Office for Consolidating Unity (Daiar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat) and the pro-labor Workers' House (Khaneh-ye Kargar). These organizations and the Servants of Construction together formed the Second of Khordad (May 23) Coalition prior to the recent parliamentary elections. In addition to President Khatami, the most prominent Islamic leftists today are Mohammad Reza Khatami (the president's brother and head of the Participation Front), Hojjat ol-Islam Mehdi Karrubi (speaker of parliament and head of Ruhaniyun), Hojjat ol-Islam Abdollah Nouri (a former vice president and interior minister), Behzad Nabavi (head of Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution), Said Hajjarian (a close Khatami adviser), Abbas Abdi (a leading journalist) and Heshmatollah Tabarzadi (a prominent student leader).
The Islamic leftists' main goals traditionally have been to help the poor and combat Western influence in Iran, though they have abandoned the latter issue and become Iran's leading advocates of democracy in recent years. Khatami was a moderate Islamic leftist in the 1980s and early 1990s, serving as minister of culture and Islamic guidance from 1982 until 1992. Though he was not very prominent before the 1997 election, he captured the public's attention by calling for greater freedom and tolerance, the rule of law, the expansion of civil society, economic development with social justice and moderation in foreign policy- themes he has continued to promote since taking office.11 His emphasis on political liberalization distanced him from the traditional emphases of the centrists and Islamic leftists and made him extremely popular among the large majority of Iranians who favor reform. As a result, the centrists and Islamic leftists both moved away from their traditional emphases after Khatami's election and now focus mainly on promoting political liberalization, though they insist that it must occur within the framework of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the Islamic legal authority)- the basic organizing principle of the Islamic regime-which they interpret quite broadly. Since his election, Khatami has been the central figure in the reform movement and the unchallenged leader of the centrist-Islamic-leftist coalition.
Although the centrists and Islamic leftists have worked fairly well together, important differences exist between them over economic policy and the question of how aggressively they should pursue political and sociocultural liberalization. Until recently, the Islamic left advocated traditional socialist economic policies and showed little interest in promoting growth or fighting inflation. However, many Islamic leftists have moved closer to the centrists' neo-liberal views in the last few years, a trend that was demonstrated clearly in the fall of 1999, when Khatami unveiled a growth-oriented development plan that received only mild criticism from the left.12 The centrist-Islamic-leftist coalition therefore encompasses widely differing views on economic policy, though these differences are now fairly muted. Differences over the pace of political and sociocultural reform have been more divisive, most notably during the February 2000 parliamentary elections, when centrists and Islamic leftists disagreed sharply over whether to support the candidacy of Rafsanjani, who advocated a gradualist approach. The poor showing of Rafsanjani and his associates weakened the centrists and drove many of them closer to the Islamic leftists' position, reducing these differences at least temporarily.
The main conservative organizations are the Militant Clerics' Society (Jameh-ye Ruhaniyat-e Mobarez), the bazaar-based Islamic Coalition Organization (Jamiat-e Molalafeh-ye Islami) and Supporters of the Party of God (Ansar-e Hezbollah), a loosely organized group of Islamic vigilantes who often assault reformist leaders. Leader of the Revolution (Rahbar-e Enqelah) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the most important conservative leader, though he generally remains above factional disputes and occasionally backs reformist positions. Other prominent conservatives include Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (head of the Council of Guardians, Shura-ye Negahhan), Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi (former head of the judicial system) and Habibollah Asgharowladi (head of Motalafeh). Since the recent parliamentary elections, Rafsanjani, who heads the Council for the Discernment of Expediency (Majma-e Tashkhis-e Maslahat-e Nezam), has aligned himself with this faction. The conservatives' main focus is to stop the reformers' efforts to promote political liberalization, which threatens their control over much of the state apparatus. They are also strongly opposed to sociocultural liberalization and the growth of Western influence in Iran, which undermine what they regard as the main achievements of the revolution.
Three general tendencies exist within the conservative camp. One consists of hardliners who favor the use of violence against the reformers to stop liberalization. The hardliners include Ansar-e Hezbollah and other vigilante "pressure groups" and shadowy cells connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Islami) and other branches of the security forces. Most of the hardliners were pious young men who threw themselves valiantly into the revolution or the 1980-88 war with Iraq and remain committed to the radical ideas of the early 1980s. Ayatollahs Jannati, Yazdi and Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi openly encourage the hardliners and provide theological support for their actions. The second tendency consists of pragmatic conservatives who personally oppose liberalization but recognize that some reform is necessary to enable Iran to function in the modern world and placate the many Iranians who favor it. Most pragmatic conservatives are relatively young and university-educated, though Rafsanjani best personifies this tendency. Many work in government ministries or served in the last parliament, where they have been forced to confront Iran's pressing problems. The third tendency consists of traditionalists who oppose liberalization and do not believe compromise is necessary, but also generally oppose violence. The traditionalists include much of the older clerical establishment and many bazaaris, shopkeepers and members of the urban lower class, who generally have little modern education and are relatively insulated from the problems of modern life. Khamenei does not fall clearly into any of these categories, though he is perhaps closest to the pragmatist tendency.
These three tendencies are united by their opposition to liberalization and their devotion to a narrow interpretation of velayat-e faqih, which emphasizes accepting the authority of the Leader and clerically dominated institutions like the Guardian Council and the judiciary. However, significant differences have occasionally emerged among these tendencies, reflecting potentially divisive fissures within the conservative faction. The most important difference involves the hardliners' use of violence and threats of a coup d’état, which Khamenei and other mainstream conservatives have occasionally condemned. Differences also exist between the pragmatists and other conservatives over economic policy and Iran's relations with the United States.
The reformers and conservatives have very different sources of power. The reformers' main source of power lies in their overwhelming popular support, comprising 70-75 percent of the population. Their huge popular base enables them not only to win sweeping electoral victories but also to organize massive public demonstrations, if they choose to do so. The reformers have established a variety of outspoken newspapers, most of which have been closed down recently, and a dense network of political organizations, whose effectiveness was demonstrated in the last parliamentary elections. These newspapers and political organizations have been crucial to the reformers' success in mobilizing their supporters and challenging the conservatives. The reformers also control the presidency, the parliament and most of the Municipal Councils elected in February 1999. Their control over the presidency gives them control over the Ministry of Interior, which oversees elections and many provincial and local matters; the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which oversees the press and cultural affairs; and the Ministry of intelligence, which has been purging hardliners from its ranks during the past two years.
The conservatives' main source of strength lies in their control over the most powerful branches of the state apparatus. Ayatollah Khamenei, as leader, has ultimate authority over the armed forces, the Revolutionary Guards and the police. Most top officers are conservatives, and some Revolutionary Guard commanders are prominent hardliners. However, many junior officers and enlisted men apparently support the reformers,13 so there is some doubt about whether the security forces would remain loyal to the conservatives in the event of a major factional confrontation. Conservatives also control the judicial system, as well as Ansar-e Hezbollah and other pressure groups. These various capabilities give the conservatives a virtual monopoly on coercive force. The conservatives also control the radio and television media; the Council of Guardians, which has the power to screen candidates for all elected offices and veto any legislation approved by parliament; and the Assembly of Experts (Majles-e Khobregan), which appoints the leader and monitors his performance. In addition, the Expediency Council, which is empowered to mediate disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council, is dominated by conservatives and generally sides with this faction. Finally, in addition to the political organizations mentioned above, the conservatives control many religious institutions and a series of parastatal business foundations (bonyads) that wield considerable influence over the economy. 14
These two factions have coexisted since the 1979 revolution,1 5 though their roots go back much farther. Tensions between them have been growing since the 1992 parliamentary elections and have escalated sharply since Khatami's election. The balance of power between them is now fairly even, with the reformers' large popular base offset by the conservatives' monopoly on coercive force and their other institutional powers. The result is a very tense stalemate, leaving the political system virtually paralyzed.
TRENDS SINCE KHATAMI'S ELECTION
Khatami's election in May 1997 threw the conservatives off balance and gave the reformers a "honeymoon period" to begin their liberalization efforts. Khatami focused first on establishing control over the executive branch, choosing a cabinet consisting mainly of like-minded reformers. The major exception was his nominee to head the Intelligence Ministry, Ghorban Ali Dorri Najafabadi, who was forced on him by conservatives intent on maintaining control over the is crucial ministry. Although conservatives controlled the key leadership positions in parliament, Khatami managed to secure approval for all of his nominees, leaving most ministries in the hands of reformers and demonstrating that his sweeping victory had won him considerable support in parliament, at least temporarily. However, in what proved to be a crucial decision, Khamenei decided to retain control over the security forces rather than place them under the authority of Interior Minister Nouri, checking the reformers' growing institutional power.
Khatami and his cabinet quickly began to implement reforms. Their main focus initially was to promote a freer political climate, which they hoped would facilitate their broader liberalization efforts. Culture Minister Mohajerani eased restrictions on the press, approving several outspoken newspapers that quickly began to promote reform and attack the conservatives. He also encouraged filmmakers to work more openly, contributing to the recent richness of Iranian cinema. Khatami and other reformers made numerous speeches in this period calling for greater freedom and openness and the expansion of civil society. Common Iranians responded to the new climate by pushing back the limits on individual expression, speaking and socializing more openly and moving farther away from strict Islamic dress codes.
The conservatives began to respond to these initiatives in the fall of 1997. Pressure groups disrupted a concert and attacked the Isfahan office of the venerable reformist newspaper Salaam (Peace). Hardliners in the judiciary leveled corruption charges against Tehran Mayor Karbaschi, who had been a key architect of Khatami’s victory, and several of Karbaschi's deputies. Tensions increased further in November 1997, when one of Iran's highest-ranking clergymen, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazari, called for a sharp reduction in the powers of the leader, saying that the occupant of this position should "supervise, not rule." Montazari's statement was both an attack on the current leader, Khamenei, and an appeal for popular sovereignty rather than divine or clerical sovereignty. Tabarzadi and other reformers openly backed Montazari. Hardliners retaliated by ransacking Montazari's seminary and assaulting Tabarzadi, beating him severely. Khamenei denounced Montazari as a "pathetic weakling and naive cleric" and called for him to be prosecuted for treason, a position echoed by many other conservatives.16 Montazari was put under house arrest but not prosecuted. He has continued to speak out against the conservatives since this time and remains a serious irritant to them.
In the months after he was elected, Khatami called for better relations with the West and the establishment of closer ties, though not diplomatic relations, with the United States. He moved this initiative forward in December 1997 and January 1998 by making a series of statements advocating “civilizational dialogue” with the West, expressing his "great respect" for the American people, and calling for scholarly exchanges and other non-diplomatic contact with Americans.17 These remarks were widely interpreted as an effort to start a process of U.S.-Iran rapprochement that would lead to a resumption of diplomatic ties. This initiative angered many conservatives, who fear that greater U.S. contact will promote Westernization, undermine the Islamic regime, and prevent them from using "great Satan" imagery to rally their supporters and attack their opponents. Khamenei responded by denouncing the United States as Iran's "enemy" and indicating that he strongly opposed rapprochement.18
Since then, he and other conservatives have regularly attacked the United States, warned of efforts by "foreign enemies" to weaken the Islamic regime, and denounced their opponents as U.S. agents. In a rare case of overt hostility toward Americans, vigilantes even attacked a group of American tourists in November 1998. Although considerable non-diplomatic contact has occurred since Khatami's initiative, the issue of normalizing U.S.-Iran bilateral relations has become deeply entangled in Iran's power struggle, blocking any real progress. The conservatives have not opposed better ties with Europe and the conservative Arab states, however, and Khatami has made great progress in these areas.
As the reformers became increasingly aggressive in the spring and summer of 1998, the conservatives stepped up their efforts to stop them. Hardline pressure groups attacked a series of reformist rallies, leading the reformers to demand better protection from the security forces. These demands went unheeded, and the attacks have continued ever since. Judiciary officials arrested several Karbaschi deputies and then Karbaschi himself on corruption charges, provoking a sharp outcry from reformist leaders. Despite Khatami's appeals for calm, students then organized large pro-Karbaschi demonstrations that were brutally attacked by the police. To calm the situation, Khamenei ordered Karbaschi released on bail, though he was later convicted and given a long prison sentence. Karbaschi's trial was broadcast on television, enabling him to use it as a venue to attack the conservatives and the judicial system. Conservatives also began to attack Interior Minister Nouri, who had criticized the pressure groups and defended Karbaschi. The parliament voted to impeach Nouri in June, and Khatami then appointed him vice president. Hard line vigilantes assaulted and injured Nouri and Culture Minister Mohajerani in early September as they were leaving a Friday prayer service. Although the assailants were later arrested, assaults on reformist leaders have occurred frequently ever since. Throughout this period rumors circulated that hardliners were plotting a coup against Khatami.
The conservatives also increased their attacks on the reformist press. Vigilantes ransacked the offices of several reformist newspapers. Revolutionary Guard Commander Yahya Rahim Safavi sharply criticized reformist journalists, threatening to "behead some and cut off the tongues of others."19 The outspoken newspaper Jameh (Society) was banned in early June and its editor, Hamid-Reza Jalaiepour, was arrested for publishing defamatory articles. Jameh then reopened under the name Tous (an ancient Iranian city). Another reformist editor was arrested as well. In late July the offices of a reformist weekly were firebombed and its editor was arrested after publishing photos of unveiled women. Another wave of attacks began in September, when Tous and two other newspapers were closed and four Tous staff members were arrested for "fighting against God," a crime punishable by death. Tous later reopened under another name, was closed down, and then reopened and was closed again. Attacks on the press have continued regularly ever since. Even Faezeh Hashemi's newspaper Zan (Woman) was later closed. The parliament passed a bill in September 1998 calling for journalists who criticize Islamic principles to be charged with threatening national security, and the judiciary set up a special press court to try journalists. Conservatives began to call for the impeachment of Mohajerani, who was largely responsible for the increase in press freedom. As a result of these actions, a climate of fear descended over the reformist press. One observer described the events of this period as "trench warfare."20
As it became increasingly clear that the conservatives could block most of their reform efforts and attack them almost with impunity, the reformers turned their attention to creating or taking over institutions they could use to promote reform. The Interior Ministry announced in May that political parties could be formed, and the Servants of Construction was soon licensed as a party. Reformers created several other parties in the following months, hoping they would bring more accountability and continuity to the political process and help them win elections. In August, Khatami announced that Municipal Council elections would soon be held, implementing a provision of the constitution that had never been realized. The reformers believed that Municipal Councils would help democratize Iran by promoting local self-government and giving people experience in democratic processes. (These elections, held in February 1999, gave the reformers an electoral triumph.) The reformers also began to prepare for the Assembly of Experts elections, scheduled for October 1998. The Guardian Council rejected almost 60 percent of the candidates for these elections, including most reformist candidates, enabling the conservatives to sweep these elections. The reformers also began to call for reform of the judicial system in this period, though little was accomplished.
The hardliners' use of violence reached a new level in the fall of 1998, when four dissident intellectuals were brutally murdered in what came to be known as the "serial killings." Although conservatives blamed foreign-backed “enemies,” the previously unknown Devotees of Pure Mohammadan Islam (Fedayan-e Islam-e Nab-e Mohammadi) claimed credit for the murders, saying it had killed the dissidents as "a warning to all those whose pens are in the service of foreigners."21 Khatami ordered an investigation, and many suspects were quickly arrested. The Intelligence Ministry then announced that some of its officers had committed the murders, and it soon emerged that the killers had also intended to assassinate Khatami and other reformist leaders. At the same time, a prominent conservative judge was severely injured in a bombing that was later attributed to the shadowy hardline group Mahdaviat (Supporters of the Mahdi),22 and a number of other suspicious murders occurred.
Several prominent reformers were assaulted or received death threats, and the office of the reformist newspaper Khordad (May/June) was bombed. These events shocked Iranians, forcing conservative leaders to denounce the killings and producing demands that the security forces be purged. Intelligence Minister Najafabadi resigned and was replaced with a reformer, who began to purge the ministry. In the following months rumors circulated persistently that leading conservatives had ordered the murders. These rumors were given new credence in June 1999 when a leading suspect died mysteriously in prison, in what many allege was an attempt to cover up the involvement of top officials. The remaining suspects still had not been prosecuted by late summer 2000.
The uproar over the serial killings and the outcome of the Municipal Council elections led many observers in early 1999 to believe that the conservatives had been thoroughly discredited and would now accept the reformers' demands. The conservatives soon began a new offensive, however, banning the reformist journal Adineh (Friday), assaulting several reformist leaders, and arresting popular reformist cleric Mohsen Kadivar for "confusing public opinion." 23 They then tried unsuccessfully to impeach Culture Minister Mohajerani, and unknown assailants tried to assassinate him. The security forces also quietly arrested 13 Iranian Jews and several Muslims on charges of spying for Israel, in what many believe was an attempt to embarrass Khatami and undermine Iran's relations with the West. Four reformist student leaders were arrested in late May, leading others to threaten a general strike. In June, conservatives in parliament introduced a bill that would sharply restrict freedom of the press, posing a direct challenge to the reformist movement. An initial version of the bill was then approved in early July. At the same time, judicial authorities closed down Salaam for publishing a story that linked the press bill to the serial killings.
On July 8, several hundred students from Tehran University staged a peaceful protest against the press bill and the closure of Salaam. Late that night, police and pressure groups savagely attacked the students' dormitory, killing at least one student, injuring and arresting many others, and causing extensive damage. The students then organized large demonstrations the next day, calling for the resignation of top police officials and making additional demands. Khatami and most other leaders denounced the attack, and several top education officials resigned in protest. The demonstrations grew in the following days and spread to other cities, producing the gravest political crisis in Iran since the early 1980s. The protestors increased their demands, calling for freedom of the press and democracy; some openly criticized Khatami and Khamenei. They also clashed repeatedly with the police and pressure groups, encouraged by provocateurs who infiltrated their ranks. In a bid to restore order, the government on July 12 announced a ban on demonstrations. Many protestors ignored the ban the next day and were attacked by police and vigilantes, producing pitched battles in central Tehran. Facing severe pressure from Revolutionary Guard commanders and other conservatives to end the unrest, Khatami was forced to denounce the protestors. Dozens were injured and some 1400 were arrested. Conservatives then organized a large counterdemonstration on July 14. Abandoned by the reformist leadership and facing harsh repression from the security forces, the students were forced to give up their protests.24
These riots left Iran tense and polarized. Many students and other reformers were very bitter, both at the hardliners' brutal actions and at Khatami's refusal to support the protestors. Conservatives attributed the riots to the freer political climate created by the reformers and demanded that restrictions be imposed. Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi presented a theological defense of the use of violence to defend the Islamic regime. Rumors again spread that hardliners were plotting a coup. The Devotees of Pure Mohammadan Islam circulated a list of prominent reformers it had targeted for assassination. Ansar-e Hezbollah called for the National Security Council to provide it with arms for use against "enemies of the people."25
The leaders of both factions now realized that the power struggle could spin out of control, producing chaos and perhaps a decisive confrontation with unpredictable but potentially disastrous consequences. As a result, they acted cautiously in the following months, restraining their most aggressive supporters and avoiding provocations. Khatami reaffirmed his support for Khamenei, and he and other reformist leaders vowed to crack down on pressure groups and seek justice for the students. Khamenei made speeches praising Khatami and calling for unity. He and other conservatives blamed the riots on the United States and foreign-backed "counterrevolutionaries," implicitly absolving the reformers and mainstream student groups of blame. The security forces gradually released most of the protestors they had arrested, though they later put some on trial and gave them harsh sentences, including several death sentences. They also arrested nearly 100 policemen in connection with the dormitory attack and eventually put them on trial as well.
Conservatives in parliament put off further work on the press bill. In August, Khamenei appointed the pragmatic conservative Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi to replace Ayatollah Yazdi as head of the judiciary. Shahrudi soon replaced a number of hardliners who held top judicial positions and announced that he would carry out additional reforms, helping ease tensions.
In the fall of 1999, both factions began to prepare for the February 2000 parliamentary elections. The reformers assembled a broad coalition of parties and developed a sophisticated strategy for contesting the elections, even drawing on American campaign tactics. They also made a series of unsuccessful efforts to reduce the Guardian Council's ability to screen candidates. The conservatives raised the voting age from 15 to 16 and reduced the percentage of votes required for election in the first round from 33 to 25, hoping to improve their chances. They also cautiously continued to attack the reformers, closing several more reformist newspapers and voting down much of Khatami's development plan. In late November, 34 members of the hard line Mahdaviat group were arrested for plotting to assassinate Khatami and other leaders.26
Abdallah Nouri was the reformers' leading candidate and was almost certain to be elected speaker if they gained control over parliament. Conservatives in the judiciary therefore arrested him on a variety of charges and gave him a five-year prison sentence in late November, making him ineligible to run for office. Rafsanjani had been positioning himself to run by advocating reform and opposing the conservatives on certain issues, hoping he would win a large share of the vote and then be elected speaker. With Nouri ineligible, he entered the race in early December, presenting himself as a consensus candidate who could unite the country and solve its many problems. The leading conservative organizations quickly backed Rafsanjani, as did the Servants of Construction. The Participation Front and other Islamic leftist parties decided not to support him, fearing he would emasculate the reform movement if he became speaker. Akbar Ganji, Abbas Abdi and other reformist journalists then began to attack him harshly, linking him to the serial killings and accusing his family of corruption. 27 Rafsanjani reacted by moving closer to the conservatives, leading many centrists to distance themselves from him and creating severe tension between Islamic leftists and pro-Rafsanjani centrists.
As the elections neared, the Guardian Council vetoed only a small number of candidates, apparently realizing that the reformers would sweep the elections no matter what they did.28 The reformers then scored a huge victory, taking 71 percent of the seats decided in the first round; conservatives took only 21 percent, the remainder going to independents. Within the reformist camp, Islamic leftists took 65 percent of the first-round seats, the Servants of Construction only 6 percent. 29 Rafsanjani barely won a seat, which he later gave up when it became clear he would not be elected speaker. His daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, who had won a huge vote in the 1996 elections but strongly defended her father, lost her seat. Many conservative incumbents also lost theirs, and conservatives such as Mohsen Rezaie and Ali Fallahian, who had tried to present themselves as moderates, were decisively defeated. The second round, held in early May, had a similar outcome, giving the reformers a large majority in parliament. These results indicated not only that most Iranians opposed the conservatives' austere program and harsh methods but also that they opposed Rafsanjani and other centrists who favored cooperation with the conservatives. The pre-election tension between Islamic leftists and centrists had suggested that pro-Rafsanjani centrists might leave the reformist coalition and join forces with pragmatic conservatives. The centrists' poor showing obviated this possibility and created an "ideological crisis" within the Servants of Construction that threatened to split it apart.30 The centrists' poor performance also left Iran more polarized than it had been at any time since Khatami's election.
Although many observers believed that the reformers had now decisively defeated their opponents, the conservatives soon showed that they remained very powerful. In the following weeks, the security forces began a crackdown on immodest behavior, and the outgoing parliament passed a bill loosening the country's protective labor laws, sparking protests from pro-labor reformers. The Guardian Council called for ballot recounts in certain districts and began to nullify the election of reformist candidates, producing angry street protests throughout Iran that continued sporadically for several months. On March 12, Said Hajjarian, whose newspaper, Sobh-e Emrouz (This Morning), had sharply attacked the conservatives, was shot and severely wounded, sending shock waves through the reformist camp. Although several men with no known political affiliations were soon convicted, it was widely believed that the shooting had been ordered by top officials in the security forces. Conservatives again talked about impeaching Mohajerani; rumors spread that hardliners were plotting to assassinate Khatami or stage a coup.
A full-blown political crisis began to unfold in April, when conservatives undertook a series of harsh actions designed to weaken and intimidate the reformers. The judiciary brought charges against several prominent reformist journalists, giving one a 30-month prison sentence for criticizing capital punishment. The Expediency Council ruled on April 10 that parliament had no authority to investigate state agencies controlled by the leader, putting the security forces, the judicial system, the state-controlled media, the parastatal business foundations and other powerful bodies beyond public scrutiny. Khamenei made speeches approving the use of violence under certain circumstances and warning the press to act with restraint. The Revolutionary Guards threatened to crush "traitors and reactionaries [who] have reemerged like a malignant tumor."31 Conservatives began to attack a group of reformers who had gone to a conference in Berlin attended by members of an exile opposition group, later arresting several for "desecrating Islamic sanctities" and other offenses.32 On April 17, parliament passed the harsh press bill that had sparked the July 1999 riots. The press court then closed I 9 newspapers in the following weeks, including most of the major reformist papers, and arrested Ganji and several other reformist journalists. These events provoked large student demonstrations throughout the country. Sporadic street protests continued against the Guardian Council's efforts to nullify election results. Fearing that the conservatives would use the crisis as a pretext to prevent the new parliament from opening, Khatami and other reformist leaders remained passive and appealed for calm.
The Guardian Council continued to challenge the election results in April and early May. It ordered three recounts of the Tehran ballots, apparently trying to block the election of key reformers and raise Rafsanjani's vote share enough to make him a viable candidate for speaker. It also briefly delayed the second round of voting and nullified the election of 12 reformist candidates outside of Tehran. As it became clear that the Guardian Council might nullify the Tehran ballots altogether, Tabarzadi threatened to organize nationwide student demonstrations. The Guardian Council then duly nullified the Tehran ballots on May 18. Fearing massive unrest, Khamenei immediately ordered it to certify the ballots. The Guardian Council reluctantly backed down, though it nullified enough ballots to raise Rafsanjani's vote share substantially, triggering more demonstrations. With the reformists certain to prevent him from becoming speaker and threatening to reject his credentials, Rafsanjani gave up his seat. Parliament then convened on May 27. Mehdi Karrubi, a moderate reformer who maintains good relations with the conservatives and had been speaker during 1989-92, was soon elected speaker, providing some hope that the severe factional polarization would ease. Behzad Nabavi and Mohammad Reza Khatami were elected deputy speakers. Another plot to assassinate Khatami was broken up on May 29.
The new parliament set out an ambitious agenda, declaring that its first priority would be to revise the harsh new press law and that it would also seek judicial reform, electoral reform, curbs on pressure groups, looser sociocultural restrictions, an end to the state monopoly on radio and television, and economic reform. Khamenei gave a series of speeches in June opposing changes in the press law, praising the judiciary and the Guardian Council and advocating economic reform, apparently trying to discourage parliament from pursuing political reform. Judiciary head Shahroudi also opposed changes in the press law. Ten of the 13 Jews and two of the Muslims arrested on spy charges in 1999 were convicted on July I and given prison terms, provoking sharp condemnations from abroad and embarrassing the Khatami government.
In early July, the Office for Consolidating Unity announced it would hold a peaceful demonstration at Tehran University on July 8 to commemorate the July 1999 riots. Hoping to prevent a confrontation, the security forces arrested Tabarzadi and dozens of student activists, and Khamenei dismissed the police commander accused of overseeing the July 1999 riots. The student demonstrators handed out flowers to emphasize their peaceful intentions and chanted slogans criticizing the clergy and calling for Khatami to act more boldly. They were soon attacked by vigilantes, who beat them savagely and helped the police arrest dozens of them. Unlike the July 1999 riots, the student demonstrators were soon joined by large numbers of non-students, and some of the policemen assigned to disperse the demonstrators refused to follow orders.33 Smaller demonstrations also occurred in Tabriz, Rasht and other cities. When Khatami and other reformist leaders appealed for calm, the confrontation soon eased. Khamenei and the state-controlled media blamed the confrontation on "foreign enemies."34 Several days later, some 20 police officers were acquitted of charges stemming from the July 1999 riots, though one was convicted of disobeying an order to attack the students and another was convicted of stealing a razor in the dormitory. Reformist leaders strongly condemned the acquittals. However, most students had gone home for the summer by this time, so only minor protests occurred.
In the following weeks, reformers in parliament drew up a new press bill. In response, judicial authorities closed several more newspapers and imprisoned some prominent journalists. On August 6, as debate on the new press bill was about to begin, Khamenei decreed that the bill should be dropped, warning that "enemies of Islam" might use it to take over the press.35 Speaker Karrubi then reluctantly announced that parliament was obliged to comply, triggering a sharp outcry from reformers and a brawl on the floor of parliament. Conservatives organized raucous demonstrations in support of Khamenei' s action, denouncing "U.S.-style reforms" and calling for harsh action against reformist deputies.36 Khamenei and other conservatives made a series of speeches denouncing the press. All but one of the remaining reformist newspapers were closed down, and several more journalists were arrested. Khamenei 's action demonstrated that the conservatives could easily stop parliament from carrying out reforms and that they were prepared to do so. The reformers' triumph in the parliamentary election now seemed to have been a hollow victory.
Iran today is sailing in uncharted waters, so predicting its future is difficult. However, the trends discussed above suggest three general scenarios that may unfold in the next few years.
First, the reformers may gradually win the power struggle, pushing back the conservatives and carrying out reforms that create a "kinder, gentler" Islamic regime or perhaps even change the regime altogether, as occurred in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Observers of Iran who expect such a reformist victory37 argue that a new political reality has emerged as a result of the reformers' success in mobilizing young people and women, their efforts to expand press freedom and create political parties, and "everyday forms of struggle" by common Iranians, including conversations, styles of dress, graffiti, jokes and leisure activities with political meaning. These changes are irreversible and have made a reformist victory inevitable, in this view.
Although this scenario might perhaps occur, the balance of power between reformers and conservatives currently does not favor it and is not likely to become more favorable in the foreseeable future. The conservatives have used their control over the judicial system, their monopoly on violence and their other institutional powers to block most of the reformers' major initiatives and neutralize key reformist figures such as Karbaschi, Nouri, Hajjarian and Ganji. While the reformers have used their huge popular base to take over the presidency, the municipal councils and the parliament, there are no other institutions they can gain control over through elections. Ayatollah Khamenei and the Expediency Council have put the security forces, the judicial system, the state-run media and other key institutions beyond the control of these elected bodies; and Khamenei, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council can veto almost anything these elected bodies do. Most important, Khamenei and other conservatives have shown that they are determined to do whatever is necessary to stop the reformers from carrying out extensive change. Faced by these obstacles, it is difficult to see how the reformers can win the power struggle peacefully in the coming years.
Second, the tense factional stalemate that now exists could erupt in a popular "explosion" or even another revolution, 38 as the reformers' most ardent supporters take to the streets and perhaps use violence in an effort to sweep away the conservatives. This might occur either spontaneously or as the result of a deliberate decision by reformist leaders to use mass protests - the last remaining weapon in their arsenal - to confront their opponents. A mass uprising of this sort could result in a "Velvet Revolution" and victory by the reformers, a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown and victory by the conservatives, or simply a reversion to the status quo ante. Which of these outcomes might emerge would depend on the willingness of students and other ardent reformers to stand up to the security forces, the willingness of common Iranians to join them, the loyalty of the security forces, and the actions of Khamenei, Khatami and other key figures. It is impossible to say how these factors might play out, so the outcome of such a confrontation would remain uncertain until its final stages. The most likely time for such a confrontation in the near future is probably the fall of 2000, after students return to their campuses and before the 2001 presidential election season begins.
There is little doubt that a popular explosion of this sort could occur. However, most Iranians clearly want to avoid a major confrontation and are willing to accept large compromises to do so. Moreover, the leaders of both factions realize that the outcome would be quite uncertain, making them reluctant to start one and anxious to defuse tensions if one emerges. For these reasons, most of the political crises that have emerged in the last few years have been resolved before a popular explosion could take place. The one exception - the July 1999 riots - ended inconclusively, with leaders on both sides acting decisively to ease tensions. Thus, if a popular explosion does occur, a reversion to the status quo ante is the most likely, though certainly not the only, possible outcome.
The third scenario that may unfold is what could be called a de facto coup, where conservatives permit the reformist movement to maintain a nominal existence but prevent it from achieving its main goals. Under this scenario, Khatami might be permitted to remain in office for a second term, parliament might remain in reformist hands, and some reformist newspapers might even be allowed to reopen; but the leader, the Guardian Council, the judiciary and the security forces would use their powers to emasculate the reformist movement and prevent it from carrying out significant political reform. Ardent reformers would be silenced and street protests would be suppressed. Moderates like Khatami and Karrubi would be co-opted, if possible, to foster the impression that the popular will is being heard. Conservative leaders would increase their use of Islamic and xenophobic imagery, raising the specter of “threats to Islam" and "foreign enemies" to justify their actions. Following the "Chinese model,"39 economic and even some sociocultural reform might occur, serving as a "safety valve" to reduce popular unrest.
A de facto coup of this sort might succeed in stopping the reformist movement indefinitely. Its success would depend mainly on whether the conservatives could defuse popular pressures for reform not only with repression but also with sociocultural and economic reforms. This might be difficult, since powerful interest groups in the conservative camp40 oppose many of the sociocultural and economic reforms needed to satisfy popular demands, and because most of the technocrats capable of engineering effective economic reform are centrists or Islamic leftists. A de facto coup therefore would be more likely to succeed if it were carried out by a "coalition of the center," bringing together pragmatic conservatives, centrists and perhaps even some moderate Islamic leftists, with the centrists and leftists offsetting the influence of powerful interest groups, engineering economic reform and providing some popular legitimacy. However, the severe polarization that currently exists will make it difficult to build a coalition of the center for some time to come, and it is not clear that traditionalist and hard line conservatives would necessarily defer to such a coalition. High oil prices would help reduce unrest, but only temporarily. Consequently, while a de facto coup might succeed, it might also fail. If its leaders cannot defuse popular unrest, the outcome could be a popular explosion.
While each of these scenarios is problematic, the third seems the most likely to occur and the first seems the least likely. Indeed, recent events suggest that the conservatives have already partially implemented a de facto coup and may well continue in this direction.
What are the likely consequences of these scenarios? A reformist victory, through either a gradual defeat of the conservatives or a popular explosion that sweeps them away, would lead to the creation of some sort of Islamic social democratic regime. Political liberalization has been the reformers' highest priority, so the democratic foundations of this regime would probably be fairly strong. Sociocultural liberalization has also been a high priority, especially for younger reformers, but its scope and pace inevitably would be limited by the Islamist character of the reformist leadership and the conservative views of most Iranians. Consequently, while rapid sociocultural change undoubtedly would occur, it almost certainly would remain within broad Islamic boundaries for the foreseeable future. The reformist coalition has widely differing views on economic policy, though most of its members lean to the left. Economic reform therefore might be limited and would probably place heavy emphasis on safety nets and other measures that protect the poor. Khatami's efforts to improve relations with Europe and the conservative Arab states have been popular and undoubtedly would continue. Most reformers now cautiously favor better relations with the United States, though few consider it a high priority. U.S.-Iran rapprochement therefore probably could move forward, though only on terms that benefit Iran and respect its strong nationalist sensitivities.
Finally, a reformist victory would be extremely popular, so Iran probably would remain politically stable for some time, even without extensive economic reform. A conservative victory, accomplished either through a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown or a de facto coup, probably would produce a more authoritarian version of the current regime, perhaps incorporating elements of the Chinese model. The conservatives' highest priority would be to neutralize the reformers politically and solidify their own control over the state apparatus, so most of the current regime's democratic features would effectively be dismantled. Although the conservatives would like to stop or reverse the sociocultural change that has been occurring in recent years, doing so would create tremendous unrest and might well trigger a popular explosion. They would therefore probably permit limited sociocultural change to continue, keeping it within narrow Islamic boundaries and forbidding activities with a political content. A conservative victory might or might not result in effective economic reform, depending mainly on whether a coalition of the center can be constructed. Relations with Europe and the conservative Arab states might move forward, but the conservatives' use of xenophobic imagery probably would preclude rapprochement with the United States, at least for some time. Political instability likely would increase, especially if significant sociocultural and economic reform do not occur. A conservative victory thus could lead to a popular explosion and perhaps even civil war.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Iran today is at a turning point. The actions of key leaders in the reformist and conservative camps in the coming months will be critically important in determining which of these scenarios takes place. Indeed, the actions of these leaders may well decide the future of the Islamic regime.
1 “Tehran Spring?” The Nation, June 16, 1997; “Khatami: Iran's Ayatollah Gorbachev,” The Washington Post, May 25, 1997.
2 Iran's real GDP per capita in 1998 remained 38 percent below its 1977 level, according to International Monetary Fund, International Financial Statistics Yearbook (Washington, 2000).
3 “Drugs and Prostitution Rampant Among Youth,” Agence France Presse, July 4, 2000.
4 World Bank, World Development Indicators (Washington, 2000).
5 “Young Iranians Help Elect Moderate,” Associated Press, October 23, 1997.
6 “Vote Breakdown Contradicts Pre-Election Predictions,” Iran News, June 2, 1997.
7 “Khatami Council Victory.” Oxford Analytica, March 9, 1999. The remaining seats went to independent candidates.
8 “More Than Votes Count in Iran Reform Bid,” Reuters, August 1, 2000. This figure understates the reformist vote because the Guardian Council nullified the election of 12 reformist candidates.
9 Most Iranian women wear the conservative chador in public, though it is not mandatory, and most men shave infrequently or wear beards and do not wear neckties, colorful clothes or trendy hairstyles. Departures from these styles of dress generally signify discontent or opposition to the Islamic regime.
10 For a more detailed overview of these factions and the organizations and institutions associated with them, see Wilfried Buchta, Who Rules Iran? The Structure of Power in the Islamic Republic (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000). I do not discuss the Liberation Movement of Iran (Nehzate Azadi-ye Iran), the People's Guerrillas of Iran (Mojahedin-e Khalq-e Iran) or other “outsider” and opposition factions here because they do not play important roles in the power struggle.
11 See Shaul Bakhash, “Iran's Unlikely President,” New York Review of Books, November 5, 1998: and Mohammad Khatami, Hope and Challenge: The Iranian President Speaks (Binghamton, NY: Institute of Global Cultural Studies, Binghamton University, 1997).
12 See Jahangir Amuzegar, “Iran's New Economic Plan: A Preliminary Review,” Middle East Economic Survey, Vol. 42, No. 41, October 11, 1999.
13 Many observers in Iran claim that districts with Army or Revolutionary Guard barracks voted strongly for Khatami in 1997 and for reformist candidates in 1999 and 2000. A poll conducted by the Revolutionary Guard apparently found that 80 percent of its personnel support Khatami and only 9 percent support the conservatives. See “Eighty Percent of IRGC Favour May 23rd Movement,” Iran News, November 16, 1999.
14 For a good overview of these institutions, see Iran Yearbook 96 (Bonn: MB Medien, 1995).
15 See especially Bahman Baktiari, Parliamentary Politics in Revolutionary Iran (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996).
16 “Iranian Leader Calls for Prosecution of Dissident Cleric,” Agence France Presse, November 26, 1997.
17 “Khatami's new tone towards United States broadly welcomed in Iran,” Agence France Presse, January 8, 1998.
18 “Detente in U.S.-Iran Relations Will Be a Little Late This Year,” The New York Times, January 22, 1998.
19 Iran's Revolutionary Guards Chief Threatens to Crack Down on Liberal Dissent, Agence France Presse, April 29, 1998.
20 “Iranian Politics in Trench Warfare One Year After Khatami's Election,” Agence France Presse, May 21, 1998.
21 “Shadowy Fundamentalist Group Claims Murder of Iranian Writers,” Agence France Presse, December 21, 1998. The Devotees also claimed credit for the November 1998 attack on American tourists.
22 “Cleric Nabbed for Bid to Kill Tehran Justice Chief,” Reuters, April 24, 1999.
23 “Iranians Want Release of Scholar,” Associated Press, March 3, 1999.
24 For a good overview, See Ali Akbar Mahdi, “The Student Movement in the Islamic Republic of Iran Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis, Vol. 15, No. 2, November 1999.
25 “Promises of Violence,” The Iranian Times (internet site: http:www.iranian.com), July 27, 1999.
26 “Iranian Agents Make Arrests,” Associated Press, November 25, 1999.
27 See “Playing with Death: How Akbar Ganji's Fiery and Courageous Journalism Helped Change Iran's Politics,” Time, March 6, 2000.
28 See “Toward the Sixth Majles Elections Iran Focus, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 2000.
29 “The Sixth Majles and a Parliamentary Majority,” Hamshahri, Khordad 19, 1379 (June 8, 2000).
30 “Rift Among Top ECP Officials, Karbaschi Issues Statement,” Tehran Times, April 30, 2000.
31 “Iran Guards Threaten to Crush Liberal Challenge,” Reuters, April 16, 2000.
32 “More Iranian Reformists Face Court Over Berlin Seminar,” Agence France Presse, May 1, 2000.
33 “Youth, Elderly Join Iran Students in Angry Outburst,” Reuters, July 9, 2000.
34 “Mainstream Iran Joins Students Against Hardliners in Tehran,” International Herald Tribune, July 10, 2000.
35 “Iran Supreme Leader Quashes Debate on Press Freedom. Stuns Reformers,” Agence France Presse, August 6, 2000.
36 “Demonstration at Parliament to Support Curbs on Press,” Agence France Press, August 7, 2000.
37 See, e.g., Robin Wright, The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), esp. pp. 287–288.
38 Mohammad Khatami and Abdi have spoken recently about the possibility of an “explosion” or “revolution.” See “Khatami Urges Free Speech, Warns of Explosion,” Reuters, July 8, 2000; “Press Review,” Iran News, Khordad 12, 1379 (June 1, 2000).
39 See “Asgarowladi Proposes China as Model for Reforms,” Islamic Republic News Agency, July 26, 2000.
40 See Jahangir Amuzegar, “Prospects For lran's Post-Election Economy,” Middle East Economic Survey, March 27, 2000.