When Mohammad Khatami unexpectedly won the Iranian presidential election on May 23, 1997, hopes ran high that he would take Iran in new policy directions both at home and abroad. At home, that meant a relaxation of some of the strict and intrusive social policies of the conservatives who had monopolized politics in recent years. More attention would be paid to the needs of the youth population and Iranian women. Abroad, Khatami promised to ease tensions with other nations. This article attempts to show that he has important advantages for effecting change. He will continue to face stiff resistance from defenders of the status quo, but his success in August in gaining parliamentary approval for his entire cabinet makes it likely he will prevail.
AN AGENT FOR CHANGE
To many Iranians the election was a clear defeat for the entrenched authorities in Tehran, in some ways a "second revolution." Unlike previous Iranian presidential elections where a prominent regime figure ran against one or more no names, this was a real contest, and the winner was not the one selected by those holding the reins of power. "Your election was no ordinary one," Ayatollah Montazeri wrote to Khatami shortly after his victory. Montazeri Khomeini's one-time deputy leader, turned regime critic and now in internal exile in Qom called the election a "popular revolution against the existing conditions ... and a clear message to all the authorities and officials of the country."1
Iranians, in Montazeri's view, wanted change after years of empty government promises, unfair discrimination, mismanagement, administrative favoritism, factional monopolism and the denial of freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, even though they still remained faithful to Islam and the revolution. He wished Khatami well but warned of the opposition he would face from narrow-minded interest groups.
Most of those who voted for him saw Khatami as an agent of change, even though he avoided bold or even very specific campaign promises. He needed to be cautious in order to allay the concerns of some Iranian leaders that he represented a threat to the system. As did his rivals, he pledged his loyalty to Iran's unique theocratic system and its leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and promised to carry on the Rafsanjani-era reconstruction programs. But more than the others, he promised to enforce the constitution of the Islamic Republic. His supporters interpreted this seemingly non-controversial promise to mean he would end the abuses of power attributed to the conservative faction then in power.
Along with his intellectual prowess, it was his image as an outsider and underdog that so appealed to the voters. The dominant conservative faction in the Majles (parliament) had pressured him to resign in 1992 from his position as culture minister for his insufficient enforcement of media censorship. The always-smiling Khatami was something of a new face to many voters, particularly the young, who were tired of Khatami's election rival, Majles Speaker Nateq-Nuri. Until Khatami declared his candidacy in January most voters were unhappily resigned to the speaker's foreordained election to succeed Rafsanjani in the presidency. Nateq-Nuri had become a regular fixture on nightly television newscasts one day seen shaking hands with leaders in Moscow, the next day inaugurating a village water tower. Indeed, after the election a Khatami staff member suggested that the state television, in devoting exclusive coverage to Nateq-Nuri, deserved a prize for unintentionally performing the "best possible publicity" for Khatami.2
No one in Khatami's position can satisfy all of the voters' high hopes for change. Some of the issues are daunting, particularly on matters of the Iranian economy, stagnating from long years of mismanagement and war with Iraq. The economy is not easily fixable by a new administration that must follow the legislated guidelines of the previous one's five-year plan. The relaxation of cultural and political restrictions hoped for by many voters, particularly the youth and women, would seem more achievable. A conservative backlash is inevitable, and we may well see a repeat of past oscillations in enforcing the dress code for women and tougher Islamic strictures.
Foreign relations, though they were not a campaign issue, are also likely to improve. Khatami's promises to ease tensions with the rest of the world, his stated opposition to the idea of an inevitable "clash of civilizations," and his appointment of a foreign minister, Dr. Kemal Kharrazi, who had already represented Iran capably at the United Nations, are favorable developments. But here, too, Khatami faces serious ideological opposition from narrow-minded conservatives guided by their own self interests. They continue confrontation with the outside world, particularly America, as an ideological means to exclude others from power. Hopefully, calculations of Iran's best interests will prevail, and that means working constructively to overcome Iran's diplomatic and economic isolation.
KHATAMl'S STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Khatami's main, and extremely important, strength is the huge majority of voters (20 million out of 30) who chose him in nearly every province and across class and economic lines. Khatami supporters refer to them as a "twenty-million-strong army" for change, a reference to Khomeini's call for an army of 20 million to defend the revolution. Many were first-time voters inspired by Khatami to join the political system and sound their voices for change. Khatami's "army" should have sway with Majles deputies concerned with their own political futures. Though some Majles deputies are ideologically committed opponents, others may be reluctant to risk crossing so many constituents who had voted for Khatami. Those same voters will be choosing Majles deputies as well in a few years.
But his weaknesses are considerable. He has no formal party structure to back him up: he ran as an independent, and the technocrats and leftists that supported him are ideologically at odds with one another, particularly over economic policy.
The rightist faction could present serious opposition to the president-elect, particularly over cultural issues. But can Khatami be expected to fare any better against the right wing than President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was repeatedly stymied in his economic and social reforms by the Majles, who in tum were allied with Ayatollah Khamenei? The conservatives are still important in the Majles, but they have lost the overwhelming majority that they enjoyed during Rafsanjani's last term. They are also weaker because their leader, Speaker Nateq-Nuri, has lost much prestige after his poor showing in the presidential race.
Other potential strongholds of opposition to Khatami include the Council of Guardians, the Intelligence Ministry, and an unknown portion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia. Conservative newspapers, particularly Resalat, will continue to oppose him, though the state radio and television, which had supported Nateq-Nuri, will probably be neutral. Several key clerical organizations will be serious opponents, while others, representing younger clerics in Qom, will be strong backers.
The revolutionary guards have the potential to intervene to protect the status quo if they believe Khatami intends too much change. The leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, felt obliged to send his representative, Mr. Movahhedi-Kermani, to them on June 15 to tell them that they must accept the president-elect and forget about objections they had raised before the elections.3 But the guards remained suspicious of Khatami and his allies: in July, a deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards warned Khatami's "liberals" not to oppose Ayatollah Khamenei and the role of clerics in government.4 He warned that those who say that clericism cannot meet the needs of the country's management would face disgrace and their own political death "if one day the esteemed Leader allows it."
Ayatollah Khamenei remains key. As leader of the revolution, he is the constitutional head of state. He, not the president, sets broad policy directions, particularly on foreign policy. He had supported Nateq-Nuri for the presidency and could thwart Khatami just as he maneuvered against President Rafsanjani over the past eight years.
But it does not necessarily follow that Khamenei will automatically side with Khatami's hard-line opponents. Before announcing his candidacy for the presidency, Khatami obtained consent from Khamenei, who probably saw Khatami as an acceptable candidate who could function as a safety valve for public discontent. Khatami would appeal to disaffected young voters without undermining the system. Khamenei saw Khatami as an acceptable person he could work with in the unlikely event of an upset victory.
If he concludes that power has shifted away from the right-wing hardliners, Khamenei may well take a different tack and ease away from some of his hard-line positions of recent years. Khamenei does not entirely fit his reputation as a hard liner. When he was president he contradicted Khomeini by saying that Salman Rushdie could get off the hook by apologizing, for example. But when he inherited Khomeini's mantle, he felt the need to espouse Khomeini's hardest stances to compensate for his comparatively weak clerical credentials and, after 1993, to gain the support of the conservative Majles. By doing so he was able to assert his constitutional powers over President Rafsanjani. Whether out of his need to represent the national political will by responding to the popular mandate for liberalization and reform, or out of a pragmatic concern to acquire popularity for both himself and the regime, Khamenei has more incentives to work with Khatami than to oppose him.
Khamenei says he will decide national issues on the basis of the consensus of the councils who advise him. The Supreme National Security Council and the newly expanded Expediency Council, with several liberal and technocrat members and Rafsanjani at its head, are more likely to have a significant moderating effect on Khamenei than the other way around. This could facilitate policy shifts that Khatami seeks. The model would be Khomeini's 1988 decision to accept a cease-fire with Iraq, which he announced after all Iran's government and factional leaders first reached agreement on the issue.
And then there is former president Rafsanjani, who will continue to have influence as head of the Expediency Council. Soon after the election, popular wisdom in Iran already had it that Rafsanjani was jealous of Khatami's popularity that, for example, he upbraided Khatami for seeking popularity by visiting earthquake victims in eastern Iran in June while riding in the back of a pickup truck. Iranians had immediately noticed the symbolic contrast with Rafsanjani's earlier visit to the same area in a comfortable Mercedes.
But Rafsanjani will most likely be a source of strength for Khatami, a power behind the scenes who will facilitate many of the reforms Khatami hopes to make. Rafsanjani stood for the same liberalization of social and cultural policies that Khatami stands for and had a relatively pragmatic foreign policy that sought to expand Iran's relations with the rest of the world, particularly Europe. Rafsanjani also had it on his agenda to ease relations with the United States, unsuccessfully using surrogates to publicly call for direct ties with Washington.
VITAL ISSUES AT STAKE
The power struggle being played out in Iran is not simply one of individual rivalries or simple factional competition. There are far weightier struggles going on. This is a period of tremendous intellectual ferment: cultural issues, such as how or whether to resist the "cultural onslaught" of Western values, are debated with intensity. Khatami is seen as opposed to the ban that the Majles, under Nateq-Nuri's leadership, had imposed on home satellite dishes, for example. Women have emerged as a serious political force and are demanding forcefully and effectively their legal rights. Above all, pluralism is the issue of the day, as Iranian thinkers call for establishing the institutions of civil society, particularly the formation of political parties that have in effect been banned for more than a decade. This dynamism in Iran today is what brought Khatami to power, and is what will continue to engender the fierce opposition of powerful leaders who want to maintain the status quo.
Most of the conservative clerics who wield the reins of power (men like judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, militant clergy leader Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani, and numerous turbaned officials) increasingly have come to fear for the position of the clergy in government and even for the fundamental principle of the Islamic Republic velayat-e faqih the idea that only fully-qualified Islamic legal scholars are fit to rule.
When one of the more moderate political clerics wrote in the daily Ettelaat in June that Khatami's 20-million-strong army was not opposed to the clergy per se but did reject the clergy's patronizing claim that only they knew what was right for the people,5Resalat responded that the author threatened to "disrupt the foundations of the Islamic system."6 In this atmosphere, the popular political philosopher Abdolkarim Sorush came under attack once again. He was prohibited from leaving the country for speaking engagements because of his criticisms of the official ideological platform and of the clergy's domination of government, and for asserting that there is no single official interpretation of religion (a position that strikes at the fundamental role of the ayatollahs).
Some clerics of the rightist faction reacted to Khatami's election with outspoken claims that provoked fierce reaction among the so-called "liberals." In June, judiciary chief Yazdi's deputy declared that the role of guardianship or ve leadership in the Islamic Republic, is more important than prophet hood the role of Muhammad himself- because Iran's leadership is charged with preventing deviation and doubt in religion.7 Then, in July Yazdi himself declared outright that non-clerics have no right to interfere in political affairs.8 Salam, the vibrant Tehran daily that is one of Khatami's chief bases of support, expressed outrage, citing remarks by Khomeini that he did not want to see a government monopolized by "a few old mullahs."9
But in the months after the election, Resalat 's positions were clearly reactive to the prevailing situation and seemed less influential on regime thinking. It admitted it was having difficulty rousing public opinion because of media censorship and because "the other side" was now prevailing.10
THE TREND TOWARD PLURALISM
Iran's 1997 election process was a stage in an evolution toward greater pluralism and democracy. Conservative clerics fear pluralism would threaten their domination of the important centers of power and would open up new paths to power outside the religious hierarchy. Pluralism would hasten the tides of secularism that threaten to engulf Iran. Popular demand for greater pluralistic expression heated up in the approach to the 1996 Majles elections, when several political groupings backed slates of candidates. But when the right-wing faction of the Majles conservative clerics and the bazaar traders allied to them saw their position threatened after the first round of elections, they sought to bully their moderate, "technocrat" competitors out of the arena, denouncing them as "liberals."
It appeared by summer 1996 that further political evolution had been squelched and that the right wingers would succeed in attaining a political monopoly. Once Majles Speaker Nateq-Nuri won the presidency, all the major branches of government would be under the control of the rightist faction. But once it became definite that President Rafsanjani could not seek a third term, and that the anti-liberal backlash had simmered down, the main organization of leftist clerics (the Militant Clerics, Rowhaniyun-e Mobarez) returned to political activity in the fall of 1996 to challenge their right-wing rivals, the long· established Militant Clergy (Rowhaniyat-e Mobarez). President Rafsanjani had managed to engineer the ouster of the leftist bloc from the Majles in 1992, since they opposed his free-market reforms, but that failed to produce a more cooperative Majles. In fact, it proved to be a major setback to pluralism, as it allowed the dominant right wing to consolidate its position with increasingly repressive measures.
While this year's election was surprisingly democratic, it was still within the limitations set by the conservative clergymen of the powerful Guardians Council, who vetted the candidates. For reasons rarely announced but clearly often partisan, the Guardians prevent numerous parliamentary and presidential candidates from running.
Democracy in Iran is also limited by the by the fact that true political parties are effectively banned, despite constitutional provisions allowing them. But in this year's presidential election, unlike previous ones, political organizations ranging from the Militant Clergy and Militant Clerics to dozens of little-known student groups were backing presidential candidates where previously only individual personalities ran. This could be an important step toward the formation of what may eventually become real, functioning political parties. Already several of the political groups have some of the practical attributes of parties, including their own newspapers, which function as party organs: Salam for the Militant Clerics and Resalat for the Militant Clergy. Several papers, including Ettelaat, Alchbar, Iran, and Hamshahri, favor the technocrats.
Some conservatives argue that parties are an inappropriate Western concept and fear a repeat of the domination of parties by secularists at the expense of the clergy, which followed the 1906 constitutional revolution. They fear that parties, as instruments of the people, threaten the role of the clergy. In their view, if there are to be parties in a theocracy, they should be created by the state in order to carry out God's will.
Such is the broader context of change in Iran that formed the environment for Khatami's election. The issue of democracy versus theocracy is at least as important as the other factors the youth vote, the increasing empowerment of women and the demand for cultural liberalization--and helps explain both the groundswell of support for Khatami and the intense opposition that is likely to continue from those who wish to maintain the status quo. Khatami is likely to prevail against the entrenched interests of the conservatives. In his favor are his "army of 20 million," the still-powerful Rafsanjani, a bloc of supporters in the Majles and a broad trend toward pluralism. And if the leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, sees fit to decide according to national interests rather than narrow partisan concerns, Iranians indeed may be on the threshold of a new era.
1 Ruzgar-e Now (Paris), Vol. 16, No. 4 (May/June, 1997), p. 31.
2 Iran Daily, July 7, 1997, p. 2.
3 Jomhuri-ye Eslami, June 16, 1997, p. 2.
4 Resalat, July 7, 1997, p. 5.
5 Ettelaat, June 8, 1997, p. 2.
6 Resalat, June 15, 1997, p. 1.
7 Resalat, June 28, 1997, p. 2.
8 Hamshahri, June 9, 1997, p. 2.
9 Salam, July 10, 1997, p. 2.
10 Resalat, June 15, 1997, p. 16.