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.”

Mr. Mohajerani has made the new press possible. Whereas his conservative predecessor was inclined to refuse applications for permits to establish newspapers and magazines, Mr. Mohajerani readily gives his assent; his ministry has allowed hundreds of new publications to start up. The minister has encouraged other cultural activities, too, many of them previously unthinkable. It was Mr. Mohajerani’s men who allowed the release of the unprecedented fifty-odd Persian pop albums recorded in Iran during the past two years, and his ministry permitted (after a four-year wait) the screening of the movie Two Women, a boldly unconventional story of the degradation of a young woman trapped in a traditional marriage. It is no wonder that many anti-Western conservatives loathe Mr. Mohajerani. He speaks favorably of the novels of Milan Kundera; his daughter plays the piano; his lively wife promises representation “for the women of this country” if she gets into parliament.

But for all Mr. Mohajerani’s regard for Western culture, and the relative emancipation of his wife, it would be a mistake to visit his office expecting an Iranian version of the Westernized elite one finds in the bureaucracies and parliaments of other, more secular Muslim states—Turkey and Egypt, for instance. Mr. Mohajerani offers his visitors a learned critique he wrote of The Satanic Verses and goes on to argue that the reform movement is underpinned as much by a progressive Islamic theology as it is by imported Western ideas. This May, he gave an important insight into this theology when he replied in parliament to hardline deputies who were trying to have him impeached. In a speech that was praised for its eloquence and daring, he defended the principle of freedom of speech not in Western but in Islamic terms: “Why does the Koran carry the harshest criticisms of the prophet?” he asked. The answer was, “It was not in the nature of the prophet to stifle discussion of opposing points of view.” The minister survived.

A talk with Mr. Mohajerani highlights a second aspect of the reform movement, which appeals to many young Iranians: the idea of a still-developing Islamic revolution. “We have only twenty years of experience, and it will take time for the revolution to find its equilibrium,” he says, reflecting the view of the President himself, who has called the revolution a “point of departure.” The political dynamism promised by the reformers contrasts sharply with the passivity of many of their opponents. The conservatives maintain that the revolution needs only fine-tuning, and that the responsibility of ordinary people is to remain “vigilant” in the face of “enemies” both at home and abroad. Surprisingly, the reformist view has been cautiously endorsed by some members of the very senior clergy. When I asked Ayatollah Makaram Shirazi, one of seven Shi’ite clerics to be recognized as Grand Ayatollahs, about the fidelity of Mr. Khatami’s government to the ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini, he replied, “The goals of the republic remain those of the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini], but the means of reaching them can change.” Does this suggest the beginning of an Islamic pluralism?

Mr. Khatami, the president, whose peculiar circumstances oblige him to be the opposition leader as well, clearly hopes so. He has defined liberty as “the freedom to oppose.” Emboldened by this implicit endorsement, progressive clerics and lay philosophers have taken up an old but long-suppressed argument over the role of the vali-e-faqih, the position of Supreme Leader now occupied by Ayatollah Khameini. Conservatives, taking their cue from Khomeini as he neared the end of his life, believe the vali-e-faqih to be the representative of the twelfth imam and, as such, exempt from temporal accountability. Progressives, who quote Khomeini’s more ambiguous earlier pronouncements on the subject, believe that the vali-e-faqih’s legitimacy is temporal, and that he should be subject to democratic checks and balances.

Mehdi Bazargan, the nationalist Islamist who formed a short-lived government just after the revolution, described the institution of the velayat- e-faqih—literally, the “guardianship of the Islamic jurist”—as a garment stitched for Ayatollah Khomeini. In a recent biography of Khomeini, the London-based journalist Baqer Moin recalls the difficulty experienced by the Assembly of Experts, the group of clerics that selects the Supreme Leader, when it came to finding the Ayatollah’s successor: “There was no other jurist in the land who could lay claim to all his qualifications, especially on the political front.” For the institution and its supporters, this remains the case. In their recent survey of Iran’s politics and society two decades after the revolution, Farhad Khosrokhavar and Olivier Roy argue that Ayatollah Khamenei’s appointment as vali-e-faqih robbed the position of “its revolutionary élan, and of all charisma” (“de son élan révolutionnaire, et de tout charisme“). Many Iranians agree. How, they ask, can the current Supreme Leader be considered a divine representative, when Shi’ism’s top clerics considered him insufficiently learned to merit recognition as a Grand Ayatollah?

The men who have reheated the debate over the velayat-e-faqih are well known. Despite his belief in the value of the institution itself, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor until he fell from grace shortly before the Supreme Leader’s death in 1989, has cited Islamic law in defense of his proposition that the vali-e-faqih should be directly elected. (The Assembly of Experts, which chooses the vali-e-faqih, is elected by universal suffrage, but only after candidates have been rigorously vetted by the Council of Guardians.)

Mohsen Kadivar, Mr. Mohajerani’s brother-in-law, favors only a supervisory role for the vali-e-faqih, and accuses conservative clerics of gathering powers more suited to the monarchy they replaced. Other clerics question the theological validity of an Islamic state itself, while Abdul Karim Soroosh, a prominent lay intellectual, looks forward to the evolution of an Iran both democratic and religious—a “true Islamic Republic.”

Many Iranian progressives also hold contentious views about ijtehad—the interpretation by authorized theologians of the application of Islamic law. In general, the progressives think that ijtehad should be subject to revision. “Dynamic” ijtehad, they argue, would be a way of getting rid of those onerous interdictions and constraints which, while sanctioned by Islam, seem out of step with modern life. In Islam and Gender, a recent study of theological responses in Iran to emerging female emancipation, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Iranian-born anthropologist, gives prominence to dynamic ijtehad, recalling that Ayatollah Khomeini himself, in his fatwas that overturned earlier bans on music and the sale of chess sets, himself legitimized it. Anxious not to seem out of step, many conservative theologians pay lip service to dynamic ijtehad, but they have so far prevented it from having an effect on legislation. If it were adopted sincerely in lawmaking, however, dynamic ijtehad could have enormous consequences, and not just for Iranian Islam.

Conservative institutions and groups have attacked the proponents of these progressive notions. In April, Mr. Kadivar was jailed for eighteen months for commenting on the contradiction between the revolution’s aims to serve the people and the subsequent concentration of power in the hands of clerics. Ayatollah Montazeri, who two years ago questioned the competence of Ayatollah Khamenei to be vali-e-faqih, languishes under what amounts to house arrest in Qom. Mohammad Shabestari declines to be interviewed “in the current climate,” a seeming reference to the murders last year of several progressive intellectuals, and the wife of one of them, at the hands, it later emerged, of government agents. Not surprisingly, the liberal Dr. Soroosh, whose classes at Tehran University were canceled last month after the university received threats by Islamic bullies, declines to expand on his “true Islamic republic,” quoting a helpful hadith (saying) of the prophet: “Hide your money, your relations, and your ideas.”

The President would doubtless disapprove, but this remains a sensible maxim in today’s Iran, since the reformers have often been powerless to protect those whom they encourage to speak out. During the past few months in particular, the President has looked impotent in the face of a relentless judicial campaign to muzzle the press, which in the absence of a pro-Khatami majority in parliament is the main outlet for the reformist message to ordinary Iranians.

July’s unrest at Tehran University and elsewhere reinforced the power of the pro-Khatami press as an instrument of reform; it was partly the banning of Mr. Khoeniha’s Salam, the oldest and best-established of these newspapers, and partly the ratification of the draft of a restrictive press bill, that brought reformist students into the streets. This in turn prompted the deadly attacks by hard-liners on reformers. In September, it was the turn of Neshat, another reformist daily, to be banned (for, among other things, questioning the Islamic view of capital punishment). Latif Safari, Neshat’s publisher, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, although he remains free pending appeal.

The list of aggrieved journalists now grows larger week by week. In September, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, who was Neshat’s editor-in-chief (and now edits a hastily put-together replacement), was in court for “insulting the sanctity and tenets of Islam,” and Abdullah Nouri, a cleric, former interior minister, and proprietor of Khurdad, was found guilty by a clerical court of charges which may result both in a prison sentence and in his being banned for life from politics. Mr. Nouri has attracted wide attention not only for courageously challenging the authority of the court but for suggesting that the Supreme Leader is subject to the law, just as other citi-zens are, and that religious doctrine supports democratic values. Sobh-e-Emruz may be next; Saeed Hajarian is expected to be summoned soon to face some seventy charges on behalf of his newspaper. What is more, when they are called before Tehran’s special court dealing with the press, few editors or publishers expect a fair trial. “The decision to close the paper has been taken elsewhere,” one courtroom observer told me on the final day of the Neshat trial, “and we’re here to watch the court rubber-stamp it.”

The other institution which is currently making life difficult for Mr. Khatami and his supporters is Iran’s parliament. Since many deputies abstain on crucial votes, not wanting to risk taking controversial positions, conservatives can quite often enact repressive legislation with the votes of just a minority of deputies. They are currently putting in final form the same press bill whose draft ratification brought the students onto the streets in July. If enacted, this bill would make it harder for banned newspapers to reopen under a different name (as Neshat has effectively done). It would make journalists legally answerable for what they write (at present, the publisher is liable), and transfer some press offenses to juryless courts.

All in all, the news for reformers is bad. The dovom Khurdadis are under heavy pressure.


The virulence of the judicial and parliamentary campaign against the reformers lends weight to an important dovom Khurdadi argument: Iran’s conservatives are clamping down on reformers because they themselves are losing a battle of ideas. Senior clerical conservatives are dismayed by declining mosque attendances and the support expressed by young Iranians for the “dialogue of civilizations” called for by the President. They find particularly disturbing the fascination of young Iranians with Western culture, and with the US in particular. The seminaries of Qom and Mashhad have been divided by the progressive theology promoted by clerics like Ayatollah Montazeri and lay philosophers like Dr. Soroosh, and by persistent doubts over the fitness of Ayatollah Khamenei for the position of vali-e-faqih.

Wandering through the cloisters of the seminary at Qom last month, I met students who described themselves as far more “open-minded” than their predecessors who studied there a generation ago; they are enthusiasts, they say, of both dynamic ijtehad and the films of Steven Spielberg. In private, some senior clerics fear that the insertion of religion into the bureaucracy, the courts, and the parliament has been to the detriment of Shi’ism’s essential mysticism. In their recent book Farhadid Khosrokhavar and Oliver Roy argue convincingly that the revolution has reduced the “transcendence” of the religious sphere. Islam has become banal.

As the conservatives’ ideology has lost its suppleness, so the organizations and groups closely associated with them have seen their authority diminish. Iranians are much less committed revolutionaries than they were during the Khomeini years, when the Islamic regime was for export, and a holy war with Iraq and its Western backers was underway. Volunteers in the Basij civil defense force and members of the better-trained, paramilitary Pasdaran no longer have the prestige they had during the war; the civil defense force has no defined peacetime role, and reformist ideas are said to have gained currency in the Pasdaran. The Komitehs, the associations of vigilantes notorious for their enforcement of Islamic restrictions on dress and behavior—what Moin calls the regime’s “eyes and ears”—are less heavy-handed and, consequently, less feared than they were. Some senior conservatives appear to be withdrawing the protection they traditionally provided to the Hezbollah, a loose collection of thuggish hard-liners who are reputed to be involved in organized crime.

Although the future of these highly ideologized organizations and associations looks uncertain, the vastly more influential economic superstructure erected by the revolutionary authorities during the 1980s remains intact. Under this system, the public sector was enlarged to the point where it now accounts for 80 percent of Iran’s economic activity. Besides benefiting from fiscal laxness which has cut tax revenues to “half of what can legitimately be expected,” in the IMF’s view, loyalist bureaucrats and some of the merchants called bazaaris were also given access to hard currency at a privileged rate of exchange, fostering speculation and discouraging investment in production. These inducements stiffened support for the revolutionary government, but they also created centers of influence whose concerns the authorities could not ignore. In the 1980s, for instance, the opposition of many of Iran’s more than two million civil servants and of key bazaaris forced President Rafsanjani to drop plans to privatize parts of the public sector and to permanently abolish multiple exchange rates. Clearly, economic interest groups will have something to say about the pace and nature of reform.

Among the most powerful of these are Iran’s charitable institutions and foundations, some of them inherited from the Pahlavi era. Others were set up to manage assets confiscated from the former regime and its supporters. They are run by clerics and lay ideologues appointed by the Supreme Leader, and their senior positions have traditionally been filled by former members of organizations like the Pasdaran. With considerable power over the major industries and exempt from taxation, they have developed into vast holding companies with sidelines in social services. The most-cited example is the Foundation for the Disinherited and War Disabled. In 1997, the foundation’s 30,000-odd employees were responsible for controlling production of 28 percent of the textiles manufactured in Iran that year, as well as 42 percent of the cement, 45 percent of the soft drinks, 28 percent of the tires, and 25 percent of the sugar. “When you step into the foundation’s headquarters,” says one diplomat lucky enough to receive an invitation, “you feel the power.”

For an idea of the autonomy enjoyed by some of Iran’s charitable institutions, a visit to Mashhad, capital of the northeastern province of Khorasan, is instructive. This city of more than two million people owes its importance to the shrine complex that has grown up around the tomb of Imam Reza, the most important Shi’ite figure to be buried within the borders of modern Iran; its prosperity depends on the millions of pilgrims who visit the shrine every year. The shrine is run by the Astan-e-Qods-e Razavi, a charitable institution seized by the new government soon after the revolution, and informally abbreviated to Astan-e-Qods. When asked to identify the most important man in the city, Mashhadis do not name the mayor, but rather the cleric who has spent the past two decades heading the Astan-e-Qods: Ayatollah Vaez Tabassi.

For a visitor to Mashhad, the source of the Ayatollah’s authority soon becomes apparent. Since the revolution, the Astan-e-Qods has grown from a modest concern into a conglomerate employing 19,000 people. Thanks in part to the generosity of pious Shi’ites, the foundation owns most of the city’s real estate, renting out shop space to bazaaris and land to many of the city’s eight-hundred-odd hoteliers. According to the head of the Astan-e-Qods international relations department, the land occupied by the shrine has grown fourfold since 1979; at the moment, the vast skeletons of two future administrative buildings flank the open space at its entrance. Since the Astan-e-Qods is a religious institution, its commercial activities are not taxable; requests to learn the cost of the shrine’s splendid new library are politely deflected. It is virtually impossible to guess the size of Ayatollah Tabassi’s empire. But everyone recognizes its power.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Iranian presidents try to avoid offending institutions like the Astan-e-Qods, and Mr. Khatami is no exception. Challenging these institutions directly could easily backfire, nudging them further into the conservative sphere from which they came, and setting up a popular cause around which demoralized hard-liners could rally. Furthermore, the Astan-e-Qods and the Foundation for the Disinherited and War Disabled are not immune to the currents of change in Iran. It is possible that Mr. Khatami might never have to confront them. If he waits, they might drop into his lap.

A similar prognosis might be advanced for the bazaaris, who control some 10 percent of the economy, and whose influence helped Ayatollah Khomeini to strengthen his grip on power after the revolution. Conservative-minded guilds retain the authority to shut individual bazaars to make a political point—they shut the Tehran Bazaar for a few hours on September 27, in protest against the student play to which Ayatollah Jannati had taken exception. But many of the bazaaris I spoke to that day had pulled down their shutters reluctantly. They ignored invitations to hear Major General Yahya Safavi, the Pasdaran commander-in-chief, denounce the liberals in a nearby shrine. Although most guild leaders are conservatives, many of their members voted for Mr. Khatami in 1997.

What seems clear is that a popular yearning for reform has prompted an evolution even among conservatives. This view gets additional support when one examines the President’s dealings with the most influential of them all, Ayatollah Khamenei. The Ayatollah is no dovom Khurdadi. As Supreme Leader, he is in overall charge of the hard-line judges who have banned four reformist newspapers in the past twelve months. This spring they charged thirteen Iranian Jews and a handful of Shi’ites with spying for Israel (they have yet to come to trial), and they recently sentenced to death four students involved in July’s unrest. Plenty of issues divide the Supreme Leader and his President—not least the President’s popular mandate. In 1997, Mr. Khatami won more than 69 percent of the vote from an exceptionally high turnout and, this February, reformist-minded candidates scored a resounding victory in the republic’s first municipal election. Nevertheless, their relationship has much more to it than the “barely concealed tension” described by Khosrokhavar and Roy. Mr. Khatami’s studied moderation and his repeatedly expressed support for the institution of the velayat-e-faqih have not gone unrewarded.

The Supreme Leader has shown the most flexibility in foreign policy. Had the President not had the Ayatollah’s support, his assurance that the Rushdie fatwa would not be pursued would have carried little weight, and relations with EU countries would likely not have improved as dramatically as they have. It would have been far more difficult for the president to make a visit to Italy this spring, and another—acknowledged to be a success even by Iran’s conservatives—to France in October. Nor would European diplomats be saying that Iran is no longer committing terrorist acts abroad, that it is now more cooperative with international monitors investigating its capacity to make biological and chemical weapons.

In some foreign policy matters, however, the President has not won substantial concessions, and may have judged it unwise to try, especially in Iran’s relations with the US, whom many Iranians still regard as the regime’s most implacable enemy. Since 1997, Mr. Khatami’s vague but friendly call for a “thoughtful dialogue” between Iranians and Americans has received a cautious welcome in Washington. Instead of advocating the collapse of the revolutionary regime, the US now proposes face-to-face talks. Mr. Khatami, however, cannot afford to reciprocate until the US unfreezes several billion dollars’ worth of Iranian assets and lifts sanctions against Iran, which were renewed by President Clinton this month. Expressions of good will on Mr. Khatami’s part would hardly amount to the rapprochement “as equal partners” that Iranians demand, and would provoke damaging domestic protests. The speeches of Ayatollah Khamenei remain full of anti-US rhetoric.

Closer to home, though, the President has had better luck. Although Mr. Khamenei’s condemnation of the student violence this summer lost him points with some reformers, equally significant was the Supreme Leader’s unprecedented condemnation of the students’ attackers, some of whom were Hezbollahis. Since then, the Ayatollah has sacked several virulent hard-liners from his entourage, praised Mr. Khatami’s contribution to the “rebirth of Islam,” and approved a modernizing shake-up in the Foundation for the Disinherited and War Disabled. He has ceded to the President prac-tical control over the police and Intelligence Ministry, and endorsed the unprecedented arrest of several intelligence officials who were suspected of the murders of the progressive intellectuals. (The leading suspect died mysteriously in prison, and the trial of the remaining suspects has yet to start.) The Supreme Leader may even have had a hand in the relatively light prison sentences handed down in the beginning of November to the authors of that controversial campus play. If we bear in mind that Ayatollah Khamenei spent much of the 1980s as Ayatollah Khomeini’s president and close confidant, we can see how much he has changed his position.

In doing so, he has permitted the emergence of a pragmatic Iranian conservatism, which sees the wisdom in reaching an accommodation with the country’s dominant political current, Mr. Khatami’s pragmatic Iranian reformism. Such an accommodation is certainly not smooth, as can be seen from the prosecution of several dovom Khurdadis on flimsy charges; but both sides are profiting from it. The conservatives avoid pitting themselves more visibly against the wishes of the majority of Iranians. Mr. Khatami, for his part, is shielded against Iran’s most uncompromising hard-liners, who press the Supreme Leader to use his constitutional and moral authority to derail the reform movement.


Twenty-nine months of reformist rule have given Iran a vigorous press and a less doctrinaire foreign policy. But Mr. Khatami’s achievements in government have been modest. In the words of Ms. Adelkhah, the Islamic Republic is “continuing basically along the same course” it has followed since the revolution. About many aspects of Iranian life, a voter might ask: Are the dovom Khurdadis really reformers at all?

Take women’s rights. Back in 1997, millions of Iranian women hoped that the new government would dismantle the many impediments to equality of the sexes which were erected by the revolutionary authorities. In the intervening period, however, the only legislation enacted in favor of women was a law indexing the mehrieh—the sum of money pledged by husband to wife in case of divorce—to the rate of inflation. Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent lawyer with a particular interest in women’s rights, describes this law as an “aspirin,” criticizing the indifference among reformists to the legal plight of Iranian women.

The practical results of reformist efforts to deepen representative government have disappointed many Iranians, too. By shouldering a longstanding (and long-ignored) constitutional responsibility to hold municipal elections, Mr. Khatami, it is true, gave substance to his pluralist rhetoric. The councils that were elected last February, on the other hand, have left voters cold. “We’re told to be pleased that we have our representatives in the council,” said one taxi driver in the small town of Kelardash, a few miles south of the Caspian Sea, “but our council has no power.” The new municipalities have no budget and, except for the right to choose the mayor, few responsibilities.

The government’s worst omission, however, is economic. In depressed south Tehran there is less talk of civil society than of unemployment (independently estimated to affect 15 percent of the workforce) and inflation (which hovers around 25 percent). The economy is not providing enough jobs to accommodate the 800,000-odd Iranians who enter the workforce each year. As a result, according to one foreign economist, more than 50 percent of Iranian university graduates cannot find a job.

The problem has been compounded by confusion over Mr. Khatami’s economic convictions. He has declared that economic reforms are contingent on political change, but no one knows what he means by economic reforms. Many of his advisers wish to preserve the state’s dominance over the economy, and the President himself has said nothing to suggest that he is drawn to free markets. As a result, few independent analysts are inclined to believe recent government promises to cut inflation and unemployment, to reduce Iran’s dependence on oil revenues (which currently account for some 85 percent of Iran’s hard-currency earnings), and to privatize 30 percent of the economy.

In spite of this gloom, few of the Iranians who helped elect Mr. Khatami in 1997 show signs of missing the austere certainties of conservative rule. While some experts predict that many citizens will not vote in February, huge and exuberant crowds greet the President wherever he goes. In February, say reformers, the momentum of the parliamentary election campaign will carry reform-minded Iranians to the polling stations.

There are good reasons to support such a view. Although their record in government has been mixed, Mr. Khatami and his supporters demonstrably occupy the center of Iranian politics. Furthermore, they promise to mount a strong defense of their biggest achievement, which was summed up by the same man in Kelardash who had been criticizing the practical outcome of February’s municipal elections. When I asked whether life under reformist rule had changed, he replied: “Before Khatami, we would have been unable to have this conversation.”

So far, the Iranian taste for debate has had one beneficiary: Mr. Khatami himself. Conservative strong-arm tactics, combined with the President’s own precarious position, have persuaded his supporters to exercise restraint. This, however, will only remain the case as long as Iranians perceive the dovom Khurdadis, in or out of government, as an embattled opposition. If pro-reform candidates gain control of parliament next February, they may demand that a wider range of issues be debated. This may not be in Mr. Khatami’s interest. An expanded debate would oblige Mr. Khatami and his circle to confront the repressed heterodoxy inside their own movement. On the few occasions Khatami and his close allies had to do this, as in the aftermath of this summer’s student arrests, they have taken defensive positions, which have alienated their less patient supporters. In October, too, Mr. Mohajerani, that staunch advocate of freedom of expression, was forced to concede that, if they were found to have insulted the twelfth imam on purpose, the student playwrights should be “punished.” The minister insists that the liberty he and the President speak of is “in complete accord with Islam.” Nevertheless, they look uneasy when this notion is put to the test.

If reform-minded candidates win in February, they are likely to be tested further. As Iran’s foreign policy becomes more open, for instance, Western-influenced arguments about human rights will be increasingly heard. At present, airing such arguments can earn you a jail sentence or worse. Does the President’s support for “freedom to oppose” include those who demand greater liberties than those he himself seeks? What if the reformers were to demand that religiously sanctioned laws that discriminate against women be annulled; that Iran’s charitable institutions be privatized; and the constitutional basis of the Islamic Republic be scrutinized?

It is possible that these questions will never get asked. Iran’s progress toward greater openness is not assured. If Iranian conservatives wanted to stop progress toward reform they would have to take harsh measures against ordinary Iranians, but they are still capable of this. It is possible that the fragile détente between the President and the Supreme Leader could break down, and pragmatic conservatism could give way to old-fashioned repression. The cause of reform could suffer setbacks, sidelining Mr. Khatami; it might reemerge in new, and perhaps more radical, forms.

That would be tragic, since Mohammad Khatami represents most of his people very well. His goal—a version of Islamic government answering to both a yearning for freedom and an allegiance to God—seems to be theirs.—November 16, 1999

This Issue

December 16, 1999