Mohammad Khatami
Mohammad Khatami; drawing by David Levine


Mohammad Khatami became Iran’s new president in May 1997, winning a surprising victory over a more traditional candidate favored by the clerical establishment. Khatami attracted voters with a campaign in which he emphasized the need to strengthen the rule of law and the institutions of civil society, and to protect the basic rights of Iranians. He said he would tolerate and even encourage open debate and a diversity of views, and address the aspirations of women and youth. If official figures are accurate, over 80 percent of the voters went to the polls-a figure unprecedented since the early years of the Islamic revolution. Khatami received nearly 70 percent of the vote.

The victory was all the more striking because Khatami’s rival and the supposed front-runner, the speaker of the Majlis, or parliament, Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri, was endorsed by most of the regime’s leading clerics, cabinet members, and, implicitly, by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor of the Ayatollah Khomeini who, in principle, can overrule any other official in Iran, including the elected president. Khatami did well among voters of differing political views and in almost all the provincial districts, even in small towns and villages where citizens traditionally follow the advice of local religious leaders. He did particularly well among the young (anyone above sixteen can vote) and women. Khatami also gained support among the intelligentsia and the middle classes for his more tolerant policies toward the press, book publishing, movies, and theater when he was minister of culture and Islamic guidance in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Since taking office in August last year, Khatami has brought about some startling changes in Iran. Except for his current dispute with the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, he has greatly improved Iran’s relations with the states of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. In January, in an interview with CNN, he began the difficult process of mending an eighteen-year estrangement between Iran and the United States by inviting Americans to a “thoughtful dialogue” with Iranians. The Clinton administration has welcomed this initiative, although the US continues to be troubled by Iran’s efforts to acquire long-range missiles and nuclear weapons and by its support for radical Islamic groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the West Bank, that use violence to pursue their goals. Whether Khatami will have an effect on these policies is still too early to tell; but he appears to have reined in Iran’s own fearful security agencies. Since his election, the assassination of Iranian dissidents abroad appears to have stopped.

Equally important are the changes he has brought about in Iran itself. Censorship has eased and numerous films and books long in the censor’s hands have been released. Khatami’s minister of culture, Attaolloh Mohajerani, has issued permits for dozens of new newspapers and magazines. His minister of interior has allowed several independent cultural associations and political groups to be formed. Iran today has a vigorous press, a parliament more lively than Egypt’s, and a politics which, though restricted to the ruling elites, is nevertheless competitive and engaged with real issues.

The changes Khatami has made possible are all the more striking when we recall conditions during the last three years of the presidency of his predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, when the Majlis was inert and the press, with one or two exceptions, was politically insignificant. The security agencies seemed out of control; a number of writers and intellectuals were subjected to cruel treatment; some were found dead on the streets, or died in police custody.1 In 1997, when a publisher was found dead and his car abandoned, a friend wrote to me from Tehran that “we feel as if we are on death row, waiting our turn.”

The presidency of Khatami raises intriguing questions. He has written approvingly of Locke and Rousseau. Can he significantly curb repression, pervasive corruption, and the clerical monopoly of power, and create conditions to foster the civil society and rule of law he speaks about with passion and commitment? The obstacles are formidable. But Khatami has made a start.

Khatami is not an outsider. Since the 1979 revolution, he has been very much part of the ruling clerical establishment. He was born into a prominent clerical family and married into another. He received traditional clerical training at the seminary in Qum, where Ayatollah Khomeini’s son was a classmate and a close friend. Just before the Islamic revolution of 1979, he was picked to run the Iranian-sponsored Islamic Center in Hamburg, where he had his first direct contact with the West and learned some German. Until 1992, when he was sent into the political wilderness, he held important offices in the Islamic Republic. Yet he always had an independent streak. After his studies at the seminary, he also took a degree in philosophy at Isfahan University. Seminary classmates remember him as a good student but one always interested in “secular” ideas outside the seminary curriculum. Soon after the revolution, while briefly serving in parliament, he was appointed, then dismissed, as editor of Kayhan, then the largest newspaper in the country. After he left it, Kayhan became increasingly strident in tone, a forum for America-bashing and vicious attacks on the Westernized intelligentsia.


He then served for ten years as minister of culture. During most of this period, which coincided with the consolidation of the new regime, Khatami went along with repressive policies: books were systematically censored, some book publishers had their licenses revoked, and the government parceled out scarce and subsidized newsprint to favored publications. However, during his last three years Khatami eased cultural controls. The Iranian film industry flourished. Writers found they could appeal the censorship of a book directly to Khatami or his deputy, and it was after such an appeal that Mahmud Dowlatabadi’s impressive multivolume novel, Kelidar, was finally reissued in its original form. Set in Iran in the 1940s, the book centers on the political awakening of a simple villager who leads a desperate and ultimately futile rebellion against an oppressive government. The censors, suspicious of Kelidar’s wide popularity, insisted on numerous revisions, unacceptable to the author.

Khatami reinstated annual awards for the best books, and established a press arbitration council to deal with complaints against the journals and writers charged with violating the press code, with its obscure standards for political and moral correctness. At least one writer and publisher, Abbas Maroufi, the editor of the journal Gardun, believes that the press council saved him from jail.2 When Gardun’s offices were trashed by the regime’s stick-wielding bullies, Khatami was virtually the only member of the government to condemn the attack, describing it as “autocratic, irresponsible and illegal.” In 1992, hard-liners in the parliament forced Khatami out of the cultural ministry, claiming his policies toward books, film, and the press were excessively lenient.

Khatami spent the next five years as head of the National Library-a job of little importance in Iran. He used his time in the political wilderness to think, to lecture, and to write. He published two books in Persian, both collections of essays originally delivered as lectures to university students. The first, Fear of the Wave, consists of essays on Shi’ite Islamic reformist thinkers-men whom Khatami admires for attempting to reinterpret Islam in ways that address problems of the modern world. The second, From the World of the City to the City of the World, is a long rumination on Western political thought, from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. It concludes with an account of the age of liberalism which, in Khatami’s telling, these political philosophers made possible.3

The two essay collections provide insight into the two sources of Khatami’s political inspiration. He is deeply committed to Islam and to Iranian culture, history, and traditions; at the same time, he greatly admires the Western political tradition. It would be a mistake to see Khatami, as some in the West have done, as a kind of Jeffersonian democrat in Islamic dress. In fact, Khatami sees the Islamic revolution of 1979 as one of the central events in Iran’s history in the last few centuries. He believes in the centrality of religion to Iran’s culture and society and, presumably, to its political and governmental structure as well. But he is one of the Iranian thinkers who are seeking to reconcile Islamic law, and Islamic tradition and practice, with individual rights and basic freedoms, and with Western concepts of the rule of law and of a civil society.

Two themes run through these writings. First, Khatami sees Islam as a religion and civilization in crisis or, at least, as a religion and civilization no longer responsive to the needs of the times, whether in science, the economy, or political organization. Islamic civilization, he writes, reached a high point of creativity, power, and influence in the Middle Ages, and then, like Greek or Roman civilization, went into decline. It is demonstrably no longer the world’s dominant or most relevant civilization. Second, Khatami believes that today “the world is the West, or lives in the shadow of Western thought and civilization.” The West is the source of the world’s most powerful, creative, and relevant ideas; it is superior in military prowess, technology, and economic resources; it dominates the world’s financial institutions and information networks. Muslims can deal with the exigencies of the modern world only if they acknowledge this reality.

At the same time Khatami observes that the West came to the non-Western world as colonizer and exploiter, and as a threat to the identity and culture of other peoples. Western civilization ignores the spiritual aspects and needs of man. But Muslims must distinguish between the West in its political activities and the West as a civilization. Khatami is advocating not Westernization but an intellectual engagement by Iran and the Muslim world with Western thought, with the dominant ideas of the age.


In presenting to his countrymen the outstanding achievements of Western civilization, Khatami, significantly, concentrates neither on the scientific nor on the industrial revolution; he says nothing about Western art and music. He is drawn to Western political philosophy, fascinated not by Copernicus or Newton, or by Michelangelo or Bach, but by St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli and Hobbes, Voltaire and Locke. These men have provided Western civilization with the kind of political ideas that he believes are lacking in Islamic thought. Rich in its conceptions of theology, jurisprudence, mysticism, and the arts, he writes, Islamic civilization was deficient in its conceptions of government and principles for the management of society. It would be more precise to say that Islam has had little to say about the approaches to government and society that Khatami finds of strong interest in Western political philosophy.

As an account of Western political thought, From the World of the City to the City of the World will be familiar to readers of college textbooks on the subject, but what Khatami chooses to highlight is instructive. Khatami describes the struggle in the early modern period between the Church and new forces in European society. The Church wants to maintain a monopoly on thought and claims authority to define truth and falsehood. It is allied to feudal power and represents the status quo. Increasingly, it is out of touch with the aspirations and needs of a changing world. Against it stand the rising merchant classes, the religious reformers, the advocates of social reform and greater social justice, and the bearers of new ideas-champions of reason who want to free human thought from the shackles of tradition and outmoded ideas. It is not fanciful to imagine that Khatami, here, sees a reflection of the condition of the Islamic clerical establishment in his own time.

Khatami finds in Locke the strongest expression of political thought in the West in the modern era. Locke is the advocate of limited, constitutional government based on the consent of the governed, who must be granted individual rights. For him government exists to protect the life, liberty, and property of the citizens; and people have a right to change their government if it becomes tyrannical. Locke is a religious man but believes in tolerance for different faiths, the separation of Church and State, and the primacy of government over religion. Moreover, he establishes the foundations for the age of liberalism that follows; and, for Khatami, liberalism defines the political and social institutions, the very essence, of the West in the modern era.

In his account of that era, Khatami has been greatly influenced by Harold Laski’s The Rise of European Liberalism, from which he quotes extensively. It is from Laski’s somewhat schematic account that Khatami derives his understanding of the most prominent features of the liberal age. The bourgeoisie and their interests triumph. In law, contracts replace the rights and privileges of classes; wealth is derived from trade, manufacture, and movable goods rather than from land; the divine right of kings gives way to the idea of natural rights; established religion gives way to tolerance for many denominations; a belief in progress replaces nostalgia for a past golden age; enjoyment of things in this world replaces hope for a better life in the hereafter; reason replaces faith; science and experimentation replace superstition and tradition.

Khatami’s summary is conventional; but it is also striking when we consider that he is writing as a high-ranking Islamic cleric and as the champion of an Islamic Republic in which ultimate authority rests with the clergy and in which law must be based on the shari’a, or Islamic jurisprudence. Yet he describes the Western Church as out of touch with the times. Most of the exciting political thinking, he says, comes from religious reformers and out-and-out secularists. The Church and the Pope lose power and authority. Rationality and science triumph. Man, rather than God, becomes the measure of all things. Materialism triumphs over spirituality. Skeptics, secularists, and dissenters are the source of the best ideas.

Aside from an occasional expression of regret over the loss of spirituality, Khatami describes these developments without even a hint of criticism. On the contrary, he represents the rise of liberalism as a triumph for a group of new thinkers and new social classes that pulsate with energy and creativity and march with the forces of history.

Khatami admires the eighteenth-century political philosophers because, he says, they dared to address questions to the problems of their own age. He applies the same test to civilizations. On the eve of the Enlightenment, the Church loses out to the philosophes because it no longer represents the most dynamic forces of the age. He applies a similar test to the contemporary Islamic reformist thinkers he admires. In Fear of the Wave, he writes that Allameh Tabataba’i, Morteza Mottahari, and Mohammad Baqer Sadr-Shi’ites who died in the last two decades-attempted to reinterpret Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic thought in light of the needs of their own time. This is exactly the language Khatami uses in From the World of the City to describe the significance of Locke, Hobbes, and others. Khatami exaggerates the originality of these Islamic commentators. Yet he seems to be saying that his own country and the Islamic world itself need powerful and imaginative thinkers (like Locke, like Hobbes) who will engage in a far-reaching reinterpretation of Islamic political thought and create political institutions adequate to the present time.

Khatami does not say what form the great reinterpretation of Islamic thought that he envisions should take. But as was evident during his election campaign, and has been evident since he became president, he believes the root of Iran’s ills and the ills of other Islamic societies lies in a failure to develop politics in the broad Aristotelian sense of the word. He wants, above all, the rule of law; tolerance for a multiplicity of views; strong civic associations; rational discourse among men and women of differing views. Out of this, he believes, can emerge the “Good Society,” one that is sensitive to the rights and welfare of its members, advances their material well-being, and makes possible artistic and intellectual creativity.

This is a noble ambition. Whether it can be achieved within the Islamic Republic is another matter.


Khatami’s attempt to expand press and political freedoms has run up against strong opposition from the conservative faction among the ruling clerics. The long knives are already out to frustrate the President’s aims. Khatami has the advantage of a popular mandate, control over the executive branch-or most of it-a winning personality, and a bloc of votes in parliament although not a majority; the conservative clerics who want to protect the authoritarian heritage of the Ayatollah Khomeini still outnumber his parliamentary supporters. But the strongest powers are held by the Supreme Leader. The Ayatollah Khamenei controls the military, including the regular army, the Revolutionary Guards, the basij paramilitary forces, and the national police. The security agencies report to him. He names the chief of the judiciary and the chief of national broadcasting. He also appoints the head of the Foundation for the Disinherited which controls the hundreds of industries and enterprises expropriated after the revolution; as one of the country’s largest employers, it poses a major obstacle to privatization. The Supreme Leader also names the principal members of the Council of Guardians, a constitutional watchdog body, dominated by senior clerics, that can strike down legislation it deems in violation of Islam.

Khatami’s reforms make the conservatives and the internal security agencies nervous. The President’s repeated calls for freedom of association and political participation have greatly appealed to politically aware Iranians. He has made the idea of civil society the subject of common discourse, even in the right-wing press. Newspapers, as one cleric put it, have been “springing up all over like mushrooms.” They express a wide range of opinions-from ultraconservative Islamic to secular liberal-and thus undercut the myth of a harmonious ruling elite unanimously supported by a united populace. The conservatives regard the clash of opinion and the infighting among interest groups (some of it is admittedly vicious) as signs of faction and division-omens of impending anarchy—rather than as characteristic of a healthy politics; and in several cases they have been able to close down dissenting publications.

Young women, sensing a relaxation of controls by the “morals police,” are appearing in public with lipstick, nail polish, and more of their hair showing; and young men and women mix more freely, exacerbating the clerics’ perennial fear that any increase in freedom for women will result in moral corruption. Moreover, “the verdict of the 2nd of Khordad” (May 23, 1997), as Khatami’s supporters grandly describe his electoral victory, threatens the hold of entrenched interests over the economy, jobs, and political patronage. Khatami’s first minister of interior alone made hundreds of changes in provincial and district governors, mayors, and interior ministry personnel.

Previously taboo issues which affect the very foundations of the regime are now being openly discussed. Last fall, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, the leader of a loose coalition of university-student Islamic associations, called for constitutional changes so that the Supreme Leader would be elected by direct popular vote, would hold office for a limited term, and would have only clearly defined powers. The Supreme Leader is now chosen by the Assembly of Experts, an elected body composed almost entirely of clerics. He serves for life, and exercises vast powers under the constitution, which have been further extended in practice, as well as by the theory of Supreme Leadership of some legal scholars who hold that the Supreme Leader stands above the law and the constitution.

Students, clerics, and lay politicians are also calling for a change in the electoral law, which holds that the Council of Guardians can disqualify any candidate from running for par-liament, the Assembly of Experts, or other elected offices. This law has been invoked since 1990 to exclude not only members of the genuine opposition from standing in elections, but also representatives of rival clerical factions within the ruling elite. In by-elections earlier this year, for example, a number of Khatami’s supporters were barred from running as candidates for vacant seats in the Majlis from several constituencies, including Isfahan.

Particularly worrisome for the regime are potential challenges to the authority of the Ayatollah Khamenei, whose selection as Supreme Leader in 1989 never had the unanimous approval of the most senior clerics. He was hurriedly selected as a compromise candidate following Khomeini’s death in 1989, and the handful of religious leaders who engineered his election thought he would be more pliant than he turned out to be. More than a few still believe that Khamenei lacks sufficient scholarly and religious qualifications for the job. One of them, Hossein Ali Montazeri, who lives under house arrest, circulated a letter in November criticizing Khamenei not only for superficiality as a religious leader but for unwarranted intrusion into government affairs. For several days, his hometown of Najafabad, near Isfahan, was the scene of disturbances. Montazeri was stopped from circulating any more letters. However, the role of the Supreme Leader continues to be discussed in daily editorials and the periodical press.

The conservatives have attempted to thwart Khatami by attacking his principal aides, by alarming the mass of believers with suggestions that Khatami’s policies threaten social order and Islam itself, and by shutting off free debate. In April, one of Khatami’s close associates, the Tehran mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, was arrested on charges of corruption and misuse of funds. Karbaschi had thrown the considerable resources of the Tehran municipality behind Khatami’s presidential campaign and was one of the strategists responsible for Khatami’s election victory. He is also secretary-general of the parliamentary faction known as the Servants of Construction that provides most of the President’s support in the Majlis. Karbaschi has built dozens of parks and youth centers in Tehran and he has improved municipal services and cleaned up the streets; but he is also responsible for increasing urban sprawl, and for higher and more arbitrary taxes. Some of his officials have been inclined to seize private land and buildings in the name of urban beautification. But most Iranians believed his trial to be political punishment for his part in Khatami’s election and a warning to Khatami’s other influential allies. The presiding Islamic judge, who also served as prosecutor, sentenced him to five years in prison, a lifetime ban on government service, and a monetary fine of over $300,000. (An additional punishment of sixty lashes was waived.) He is still free while waiting for the outcome of his appeal.

In June, the Majlis ousted Khatami’s interior minister, Abdollah Nuri, with a no-confidence vote. Along with the minister of culture, Nuri was one of the two most politically powerful members of the cabinet. The debate on the vote made clear the conservatives’ two main reasons for unseating him. First, they attacked his leniency in granting permits for political gatherings, a practice, they claimed, that was threatening public order. One deputy even made the far-fetched charge that Nuri’s supposed fecklessness was creating insecurity along Iran’s borders. Another blamed him for the demonstrations on behalf of Montazeri in Najafabad. Then the deputies attacked the sweeping changes Nuri had made in his ministry-and with good reason. The interior ministry administers national elections, and Nuri had put himself in a position to exercise considerable control over them.

On October 23, elections will be held for the Assembly of Experts. Since Khamenei’s health is precarious, this assembly will likely pick his successor. The Council of Guardians has managed to exclude most of the cler-ics who want to curb the Supreme Leader’s practically unlimited powers and subject his exercise of power to closer scrutiny; but now that this possibility is being openly discussed, it will be extremely difficult to stop the movement to restrict his power from gaining support. Elections for the next parliament will take place in the year 2000 and will decide whether Khatami will be able to work with a friendly majority instead of the hostile one that still dominates the Majlis. Finally, as part of the program to widen political participation, the Khatami government, for the first time since the revolution, will hold elections for town councils-provided for in the constitution but never carried out.

While Karbaschi and Nuri were under siege, Khatami’s policies were also denounced from pulpits and in Friday sermons, although the President was rarely mentioned by name. One of the country’s leading clerics, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, in remarks at Friday prayers in Tehran in July, suggested that those defending freedom really wanted a passport for sexual license. He told his listeners: “Beware! Don’t let them fool you. In legislation, Islam and democracy cannot in any way be reconciled.”4 Ayatollah Reza Ostadi, an official of the highly influential association of the seminary teachers of the shrine city of Qum, said in a newspaper interview that those who were posing as supporters of the President were pursuing “satanic goals.”5 In a similar vein, the conservative newspaper Jomhuri-ye Islami charged in July that “power-hungry” groups were exploiting demands for liberty in order to deceive university students and the young, stir up their “selfish and lascivious desires,” and encourage rebelliousness against Islamic values.6

The most alarming criticism of Khatami’s policies has come from the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, General Rahim Safavi. He told a meeting of Guards officers that liberals were in control of the universities, clerics had become agents of deceit, and the liberal press was undermining the national security. “Our tongue is our sword,” he said, warning that the Guards would have to “cut the throats and tongues” of those who were undermining the regime.7 Safavi’s remarks, made at a closed-door meeting but leaked to the press, caused a sensation when they were first reported by the newspaper Jaame’eh, an outspoken and irreverent daily that began to publish after Khatami’s election. Jaame’eh was soon to suffer for its boldness. The judicial authorities shut it down in June, allegedly for fabrication and libel, but really because it leaked Safavi’s remarks. The ban was confirmed on appeal in July.

Revolutionary Guards commanders have tried to use the recent tension between Iran and Afghanistan against Khatami. Iran has good reason to feel threatened by the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Eight Iranian diplomats and one journalist were killed, and thousands of the Afghan Shi’ites were massacred when Mazar-e Sharif fell to the Taliban. If the persecution of Afghan Shi’ites by the fiercely intolerant Sunni Muslim forces of the Taliban continues, Iran may feel it has to act. An increased flow of Afghan refugees across the border would exacerbate unemployment and social problems. The Taliban use the porous border with Iran as a transit route for large-scale smuggling of heroin and other drugs to Western countries. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who support the Taliban, are competing with Iran for regional influence. Iran exaggerates American influence on the Taliban and American interest in a gas-and-oil pipeline from Central Asia to the sea through Afghanistan and Pakistan, bypassing Iran. In mid-September, the Revolutionary Guards massed 70,000 troops on the Afghan border and deliberately whipped up pro-war hysteria. They are exploiting the persecution under the Taliban in order to claim that they are still central to the Iranian scheme of things, as well as to reignite revolutionary zeal, and are using an external threat to justify arrests and intimidation of Iranians who refuse to defer to the conservatives.

The position of the conservatives has been reinforced by the tacit support of Iran’s Supreme Leader. This has not made Khatami’s struggle against his opponents any easier. The relationship between Khamenei and Khatami is complex. Khamenei did not favor Khatami’s election and clearly disapproves of many of Khatami’s policies, but he cannot afford to be seen publicly opposing a popular president. Khatami, for his part, needs Khamenei’s acquiescence, if not his outright support, for his major new policies—for example, the opening toward the US last January or the economic restructuring program he announced in August. The economic program seeks to privatize government-held industries, to attract domestic and foreign private investment, and to create over 700,000 new jobs a year. It seeks to improve tax collection and reduce government inefficiency, while also advancing social justice. It faces formidable obstacles. The two men have had to work together, but the President and the Supreme Leader agree on very little.

Khatami argues for a dialogue between civilizations; Khamenei speaks as if a clash of civilizations, of Islam and the West, is inevitable. Khatami argues that in a world of the Internet and globalization Iran cannot isolate itself, and urges Iranians to be receptive to the outside world, new knowledge, and Western ideas. Khamenei has said it would be better to build a wall around Iran to keep out nefarious external influences-the “Western cultural onslaught” as he puts it. Khatami wants an understanding with America; Khamenei continues to attack the US as a satanic power, bent on world hegemony. Khatami has tried to moderate Iran’s uncompromising opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Khamenei denounces Israel in the most virulent terms and has equated aspects of Zionism with Nazism and support for Israel with support for Hitler’s Germany.8

Khatami has no difficulty dealing with Iran’s intellectuals, the rowshanfekran, who have been exposed to secular education and are attracted by Western ideas, while Khamenei regards the secular intelligentsia with suspicion. In remarks to students at Tehran University, he described the secular intellectuals, stretching back over an entire century, as unpatriotic, enemies of religion, indifferent to the culture and traditions of their own country, and all-too willing to serve tyrants and autocratic kings.9

Khamenei speaks out of both calculation and conviction. He evidently intends his uncompromisingly harsh rhetoric to appeal to the regime’s hard-core and most loyal supporters in the Revolutionary Guards, the basij, the families of the “martyrs” and veterans of the Iraq war, and the beneficiaries of the patronage networks he and his clerical allies maintain. By harping on the baneful effects of Western cultural influence, he has been able to appeal to the deep resentment felt by young urban men against women’s independence, the new rich, and the supposed moral laxity of the secular middle class. He believes the Islamic Republic has great prestige among third world countries and Islamic communities outside Iran as a result of its revolution, support for radical Islamic causes, and defiance of “world arrogance”-i.e., the US and other great powers. He fears that freer debate will reopen questions regarding his own disturbingly limited scholarly and religious qualifications to hold the highest office in the land. Exactly contrary to Khatami’s policies, he thinks the continuing hostility of foreign enemies contributes to internal cohesion: “When a nation and a society know that the enemy lies in wait,” he said in June, “they set aside small differences. But when they lower their guard against the enemy, differences grow large, individuals start fighting, and factions form.”10

But Khatami has shown that, under conditions of divided government, he too can influence events. An open struggle is underway between the conservatives and Khatami. The Majlis ousted Nuri; but Khatami immediately appointed his former minister of interior as a deputy president, with special responsibility for programs to broaden political and social participation. As Nuri’s replacement at the interior ministry Khatami appointed a close associate who then presented to the Majlis a program emphasizing the government’s commitment to expanding the rights of assembly, association, and speech. Khatami’s message to the parliament was clear: the liberalization program would continue.

The conservatives managed to get rid of Tehran’s mayor. But with his arrest and trial Karbaschi became more popular than ever. The trial proceedings, which were broadcast late evenings two nights a week, became the most watched event in the history of Iranian television. Iranians saw, for the first time since the early days of the revolution, the workings of a judiciary in which the judge also serves as investigating magistrate, prosecutor, and jury. They evidently did not like what they saw. Indeed, the public reaction has been so strong that a bill is now before the parliament to separate the functions of prosecutor and judge.

Desperate to halt Khatami’s liberalization program, the conservatives urged this summer that Khatami devote more of his attention to the economy. Khatami’s supporters countered by arguing that political liberalization is a necessary condition before economic recovery can begin. Economic problems are in fact severe. Falling oil prices will mean a shortfall of as much as $5 billion in oil revenues this year. Unemployment remains high, industrial productivity low, and investment inadequate. Khatami himself has described the economy as “sick” and badly in need of the privatization and other reforms he has proposed but has not yet been able to carry out.

Having lowered the voting age to sixteen in the early days of the revolution, when the young were ardent revolutionaries, the conservatives in parliament want to raise the voting age back to eighteen, or at least seventeen. Now it is Khatami who favors the right of sixteen-year-olds to vote. In July, Khamenei finally delegated authority over national police and internal security forces to the minister of interior-a power that had been given to previous interior ministers but not to Khatami’s. The ministry is now in a better position to protect public and political assemblies; but the police chief is still a Khamenei appointee; and protection for freedom of assembly remains to be tested in practice.

The controversy over the newspaper Jaame’eh reflects the larger seesaw battle between Khatami and the opponents of change. Jaame’eh was closed down by court order. But it came out two days later, with the permission and obvious connivance of Khatami’s ministry of culture, under a different name, Tous. Its first run of 100,000 copies was sold out in a few hours. The judicial authorities then closed down Tous, claiming, quite accurately, that it was identical to Jaame’eh in format, editorial staff, and reporters. The newspaper appeared a day later under yet a third title, Aftab-e Emruz, using yet another publishing permit issued by the minister of culture. This time the officials of the judiciary retreated. Tous’s license was reinstated.

But on September 16, Khamenei issued an “ultimatum” to the authorities to stop what he described as a “creeping movement” in the press to undermine the people’s faith in Islam. A few hours later, the revolutionary court (which is controlled by the judiciary, not the president) closed down Tous and arrested its editors on charges that carry the death sentence: acting against the security of the state and the national interest, and opposition to the “sacred order of the Islamic Republic.” Three days later, while Khatami was in New York to address the General Assembly, the judicial authorities closed down a number of other publications, including the lively weekly Rah-e Now, which had recently published an essay by the Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qasem Khoi that seemed to question the need for a supreme spiritual guide, and also articles by religious intellectuals openly arguing for a more restricted role for the Supreme Leader. This fierce attack on the press has had an effect. The Minister of Culture, though still defiant, himself warned against excesses by the press after a closed-door session with members of the Majlis on September 29.

Khatami’s popularity remains high. Addressing educators in July, he spoke angrily of those who are “opposed to the very essence of liberty” and try to stir up emotions among the common people by equating liberty with immorality and irresponsibility. “They oppose liberty and religion. Naturally, in a religious society, people will say we want religion…and liberty is crushed,” he said. While in New York in mid-September, he declared the Salman Rushdie affair “completely finished.” His foreign minister followed with an official statement saying that the Iranian government had no intention of carrying out the death sentence Khomeini had pronounced against Rushdie in 1989 and that the government was dissociating itself from the $2 million bounty an Iranian foundation had placed on Rushdie’s head. While the government continues to treat Khomeini’s decree as unretracted, it has made it clear that it will not be enforced. The declaration has satisfied the European Union. Full diplomatic relations between Iran and Great Britain are being restored, and European investment in Iran can now be expected to increase. The declaration was an act of political courage on Khatami’s part. On October 4, a majority of Majlis deputies signed a petition declaring the decree against Rushdie a “divine order,” although they did not demand that the government carry it out. Khatami’s declaration reflects this willingness to deal with seemingly intractable problems and to speak for the broad center in Iranian politics. For all his vaunted political power, Khatami’s predecessor, Rafsanjani, was never able to settle the Rushdie issue.

During Khatami’s early months in office, some in Tehran called him “Ayatollah Gorbachev.” The conservatives seized on the label in order to accuse Khatami of following a disastrous path. And it is clear that Khatami is also a reformer who emerged from within the ruling elite. Like Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, Khatami understands the deep malaise and the serious problems that afflict Iran. Like Gorbachev, he wants to reform the system, not to destroy it but to save it. But Khatami’s advocacy of the idea of civil society appears to spring from deep conviction, and he has a popular appeal that Gorbachev could never command. He has not yet faced a challenge as serious as that Gorbachev faced during the “palace coup” of 1991, but he has emerged intact from his confrontations with the conservatives. The institutions of the state and civil society are stronger in Iran than in the Soviet Union in its dying days; collapse of the state does not seem imminent in Iran. Indeed, the state security and judicial agencies can still be cruelly repressive, not only to political dissenters but to such groups as the members of the Bahai faith. But by supporting a free press, encouraging fledgling civil associations, and reviving a limited political life, Khatami has created a momentum which the ruling clerics will find difficult to reverse without paying a price they want to avoid-perhaps in bloodshed, certainly in a disaffected populace.

Ironically, some of the advocates of democracy among the Iranian regime’s opponents abroad, including both former monarchists and the radical left, do not wish Khatami well. They think his success would only perpetuate clerical rule; but they are mistaken. If Khatami succeeds, even to a limited degree, in strengthening the institutions of civil society and in establishing respect for the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and basic liberties, Iran will be a very different kind of Islamic Republic.

October 8, 1998

This Issue

November 5, 1998