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The Struggle for Iran

Iran: Comment sortir d’une revolution religieuse

by Farhad Khosrokhavar, by Olivier Roy
Paris: Seuil, 288 pp., FF130

Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran

by Ziba Mir-Hosseini
Princeton University Press, 305 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah

by Baqer Moin
London: IB Tauris, 358 pp., £24.95

Being Modern in Iran

by Fariba Adelkhah, Translated from the French by Jonathan Derrick
Columbia University Press, 190 pp., $25.00


In Tehran at the end of September Mohammad Khatami rose to his feet to address some ten thousand students on the occasion of the one hundredth birthday of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979. Mr. Khatami captured Iran’s presidency two and a half years ago with promises to extract democratic freedoms from the hardline clerical establishment that has dominated Iranian politics for the past two decades, and to improve ties with the West. The students who came to listen to him, drawn from Tehran’s half-dozen universities, wanted to express their support for these goals, but in his speech Mr. Khatami often seemed to be reading from a different script altogether. His attack on the “spineless imitators of the West” and his call for piety, for example, would not have been out of place in a tirade by one of Iran’s hard-liners. Why, then, when the President had finished and sat cross-legged among the other dignitaries, was he loudly cheered, with female students holding up his photograph, their male counterparts bellowing his name?

There are two main reasons for this apparent anomaly, and both shed light on the President’s reform movement. The first is the need felt by Mr. Khatami to play down the potential that he has to change Iran dramatically. His stated goals of democratic accountability and the rule of law in a civil society may seem bland. In Iran, however, they are a direct challenge to the politically powerful clerics who have shaped the Islamic Republic since its inception. Mr. Khatami has to contend with a suspicious parliament, a doctrinaire judiciary, and with Ali Khamenei, a conservative Supreme Leader drawn from the ranks of the senior clergy who has been given powers unthinkable in a Western-style democracy. As a medium-ranking cleric and former minister, Mr. Khatami comes from the very establishment that he challenges, but he risks political oblivion if his position strays too far from that of his opponents.* Such caution colored the response of Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, Mr. Khatami’s longtime adviser, when I asked him about the absence of policy statements in the President’s speech: “The less he says, the better.”

A second characteristic of Mr. Khatami’s movement is the political acumen of its supporters. Along with most other young Iranians, a great many of Iran’s one-million-odd students helped to vote him into power until 2001. They are eager for political reform. They, too, appreciate the influence exerted by Mr. Khatami’s opponents, and the need for prudence. Their activism is more considered than was that of their parents’ generation, whose violent opposition to the Shah hastened his downfall in 1979. In July, Mr. Khatami disappointed his more impatient supporters when he condemned the violent protests of reformist students at Tehran University against the clerical establishment. Nevertheless, the event which had provoked these protests, the death of a young man during an attack on reformist students by militant Islamists supported by the police, was more significant, since it illustrated the frustration hard-liners felt at Mr. Khatami’s enduring popularity. For the moment, reform-minded Iranians tend to remain indulgent of their President’s soft-pedaling.

Mr. Khatami’s skill as a public speaker helps to explain their indulgence. True, his speeches often contain conventional anti-Western themes, but he gets across more radical ideas, too. Just as his address to the students at the end of September contained traditional invective, it was also disturbing to conservatives, calling as it did for increased student participation in politics, and expressing admiration for Western technological advance. Mr. Khatami cleverly fends off charges of betrayal by quoting—very selectively—pronouncements of Ayatollah Khomeini himself which seem to support a more open society. The President won sustained applause with an attack on those who “suppose that the more retarded a society is, the better protected its religion will be.” Like every successful Iranian politician, Mr. Khatami refrains from identifying his opponents. But everyone knows who they are.

The President’s enemies look for leadership to the Shi’ite clerics who have been labeled, with a nod to Western political nomenclature, muhafazakaran —conservatives. The conservatives claim, with partial justification, to be the heirs to the political legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, whose quasi-divine persona continues, ten years after his death, to exert a strong hold over his people. The conservatives—many of them clerics—and their allies have around 120 representatives in Iran’s heterogeneous, 270-seat parliament, and they have, until recently, relied on support from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iranians wishing to know what these conservatives are thinking need only follow the sermons they deliver at prayers each Friday. In general, such sermons follow a predictable course, with strong attacks on “liberals” (by which they mean Mr. Khatami and his supporters), “nationalists” (a blanket term that can refer to closet monarchists, socialists, and secularists), and other lackeys of the West. They are suffused with images of martyrdom, a traditional Shi’ite motif lent contemporary resonance by the deaths in the 1980s of at least 300,000 Iranian soldiers during eight years of war with Iraq. One of the best-known practitioners of such sermons is Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.

Like Ali Khamenei and Mohammad Yazdi (who this summer stepped down as Iran’s top judge), Ayatollah Jannati is a middle-level ayatollah whose temporal power exceeds his clerical authority. His influence derives from his position at the top of the Council of Guardians, a twelve-member, conservative-dominated body which can turn down parliamentary legislation and candidates for election to public office if they do not adhere to Islamic tenets. Before the 1996 parliamentary elections, it vetoed the candidacy of well over a third of 5,359 registered aspirants, most of them associated in some way with the (then nascent) reform camp. A year later, it cleared the candidacy of only four of the 238 Iranians who wanted to run for president. It is likely that the Council of Guardians will use its veto to eliminate candidates in next February’s parliamentary polls, in an effort to prevent pro-Khatami candidates from winning control of Iran’s narrowly conservative chamber. In the meantime, Ayatollah Jannati uses his Friday sermons to drum up indignation against the supposed excesses of the current government.

In late September, I was among several thousand men who gathered to hear the Ayatollah talk beneath a gigantic awning inside the gates of Tehran University. Congregations here have dwindled since the early days of the revolution, when up to 100,000 students and other ideologues came to be thrilled by firebrand clerics. Twenty years later, however, the speeches are pretty much the same. On September 24, Ayatollah Jannati’s voice cracked as he denounced the student authors of a short play alleged to lampoon the twelfth imam—the final heir to the succession of the prophet Mohammad—whose reappearance at the end of time will establish a reign of justice and truth. While the congregation shouted “Death to America”—the all-purpose villain, whatever the crime—the Ayatollah demanded retribution for those who had given the “green light” for the play’s publication. Like the President, Ayatollah Jannati does not identify his adversaries, but it was clear whom he meant: the dovom Khurdadis, Iran’s prominent reformist politicians, journalists, and intellectuals.


The dovom Khurdadis take their name from the Persian solar calendar date on which Mr. Khatami won his momentous election victory twenty-nine months ago: the dovom Khurdad, 1376. Plenty of dovom Khurdadis have impressive revolutionary credentials. At least three were heavily involved in the defining revolutionary event, the takeover by students of the US embassy in Tehran, in 1979-1980: Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, one of eight reformers elected in February to Tehran’s ten-member municipality; Abbas Abdi, co-founder of Sobh-e-Emruz, a pro-Khatami newspaper; Mohammad Musavi Khoeniha, cleric and former publisher of Salam (whose banning provided a spark for events that led to July’s student unrest). Many of them have proud war records, too; Hamid Reza Jelaeipour, another prominent reformist journalist, spent much of the 1980s fighting the Iraqis, and lost three brothers in the war.

To be a dovom Khurdadi, you do not need to prove exclusive allegiance to Mr. Khatami. Ataollah Mohajerani and Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, both of whom are now closely associated with the President, were loyal to Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mr. Khatami’s immediate predecessor, whose relations with the dovom Khurdadis are currently cool. Yet both men have proved invaluable to Mr. Khatami, Mr. Mohajerani as a liberal minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance—the same portfolio held by Mr. Khatami until he was forced from office in 1992 for alleged permissiveness. Mr. Karbaschi, then mayor of Tehran, is said to have persuaded his friends in the construction industry to bankroll Mr. Khatami’s election victory. Mr. Karbaschi himself is now in jail on charges of embezzlement—a martyr to the reformist cause, his supporters say.

A striking thing about the dovom Khurdadis is that they are rather few—perhaps fifty politicians, journalists, clerics, and intellectuals. Some are related to others. Mohsen Kadivar, for instance, a progressive and controversial Islamic intellectual, is the brother of Jamilah Kadivar, a former Tehran councilor who recently resigned so that she could run in next February’s parliamentary elections. Ms. Kadivar’s candidacy will have the backing of Mr. Mohajerani, who is her husband.

The dovom Khurdadis publish their political tracts with half a dozen like-minded publishing houses, and they are connected with several reformist newspapers. In the offices of one such newspaper, Sobh-e-Emruz, you may catch a glimpse of Saeed Hajarian, the newspaper’s publisher and a senior reformist politician, discussing editorial policy with Mr. Abdi, whose research group conducts polls for the government. Reza Tehrani, whose progressive theological magazine, Kiyan, is required reading for reformists, may have dropped by from his office around the corner. Sobh-e-Emruz often features open letters from the minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance—in some ways Mr. Mohajerani is the quintessential dovom Khurdadi.

To appreciate Mr. Mohajerani’s importance to the reform movement, it helps to visit one of the newspaper kiosks that stand on the street cor-ners of Iranian towns. Before Mr. Mohajerani’s appointment, these kiosks sold just a handful of newspapers, most of them conservative, and all of them competing in a highly restricted market. Nowadays, you may see dozens of people at the kiosks reading the headlines of several dailies which have begun publishing in the past two years. Even in very pious towns like Mashhad, news vendors attest to the popularity of centrist newspapers like Hamshahri (declared circulation 460,000) and the reformist Khurdad (approximately 120,000) and Sobh-e-Emruz (around 110,000) over conservative mouthpieces like Keyhan, whose readership is rumored to have dropped from 200,000 in the 1980s to less than 100,000.

The combined circulation of Iranian newspapers and magazines is now 2,750,000, twice what it was a couple of years ago. The new newspapers tend to be color tabloids, while Keyhan (along with Resalat, a second conservative paper) remains foreboding and bulky—“good for vegetable peelings,” in the opinion of a woman whose words were quoted to me in Isfahan. Hamshahri owes at least some of its popularity to its reputation as the best place for classified advertisements. In general, however, Iranians tend to like the new newspapers because they like their politics. If you buy a copy of Sobh-e-Emruz, you will find that its twelve pages contain little news. The paper and its similarly inclined competitors are polemical sheets, reproducing the speeches of politicians they admire, and lambasting those they do not. They have fed what Faribah Adelkhah, a Paris-based anthropologist, calls “a society engaged in full-scale internal debate.”

  1. *

    See Shaul Bakhash, “Iran’s Unlikely President,” The New York Review, November 5, 1998.

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