Ayatollah Khamenei
Ayatollah Khamenei; drawing by David Levine


On November 22, I was a guest at a barracks of the Islamic militia (officially called the Basij, or the Mobilization of the Oppressed) in a suburb of Tehran. Some thirty militiamen in their late teens and early twenties had gathered to celebrate the birthday of Ali Ibn-Abu Taleb, the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law, the first Imam of Shia Islam. Before the ceremony started, a middle-aged man entered the room, holding a copy of Keyhan, the main newspaper of the conservative establishment. From the polite greetings he received and the superior manner of his responses, it was clear that he was a figure of authority. Without noticing me, the only foreigner in the room, he sat on the floor, cross-legged, and began speaking.

At the time, Iran’s politics had been convulsed by nationwide student demonstrations protesting against the death sentence that had been given to a freethinking academic, Hashem Aghajari, for apostasy. The demonstrations—which began the day after Aghajari’s sentence was made public, on November 6—were supported by the reformist government of President Muhammad Khatami, and were mostly confined to university campuses. Although none of the demonstrations is thought to have attracted more than five thousand participants, they were Iran’s most serious protests since 1999, when the suppression of riots at Tehran University left one student dead. Alarmed by the scope of the current demonstrations, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a review of the verdict against Mr. Aghajari, but he issued a warning as well. If trouble continued, he would not hesitate to deploy “popular forces.” He was partly referring to the Ansar Hezbollah, a fellowship of Islamic thugs who take orders from senior conservatives. But most of the regime’s “popular forces” are members of the Islamic militia, such as the young men I was visiting.

In this modest Tehran suburb, Khamenei’s words hung in the air. The speaker assured the militiamen that the Islamic Republic faced mortal danger. They should not, he urged, suppose that the campus demonstrations were spontaneous expressions of dissent; they had been meticulously planned by Iran’s enemy, America. America’s aims, he said, were to make Iran seem divided and, eventually, to bring down the Islamic regime. “Do you think,” he asked rhetorically, “that America intends to stop after it has dealt with Iraq? Do you think that’s the sum of George Bush’s ambitions for the region?”

Supported by America, he said, Israel also posed an immediate danger. Its ambition was to expand as far as the Euphrates, putting it on Iran’s doorstep. Everyone knew, he said, that over the years Iran had supported the oppressed Palestinians and opposed Israel. In a week’s time, on Jerusalem Day, which falls on the last Friday in Ramadan, and was used by the late Ayatollah Khomeini as a means of showing Iran’s solidarity with the Palestinians, it was vital that Iranians exhibit their resolve.

“This Jerusalem Day,” he went on, “must be different from other Jerusalem Days.” Any member of the militia who did not participate in the state-sponsored marches, he said, would be guilty of “the greatest betrayal of Islam.” The Americans and their lackeys, the British, would be observing the marches; they would seize on signs of faltering zeal. Unless Iran made an impressive show of unity and strength, he concluded, “we might as well recite the fateheh [prayer for the dead] over the corpse of the Islamic Republic.”

The following day, Khamenei delivered the sermon during Friday prayers at Tehran University. He castigated the Americans for coveting the material wealth of the Islamic world, and accused them of supporting the “unprecedented violence” being inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians. In an oblique reference to the protesting students, he declared that anyone who accused the Islamic Republic of despotism was either “the agent of the enemy, or its dupe.” Another part of the sermon seemed to have nothing to do with America or the students, although in fact it was a reply to both. Khamenei recalled the thousands of Iranians who “had been persecuted and whipped” by the Shah’s “diabolical regime.” They had not endured these persecutions, he said, “in order to bring about Western democracy.” Then, referring to the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, he said, “Those mothers who swelled with pride at the sacrifices they made—at losing two or three sons, a son-in-law, a husband—they weren’t pursuing Western democracy.” “Back then,” the Supreme Leader continued, “the people longed for spiritual development and material welfare under the shelter of Islam, and for the boon of the sovereignty of Islamic law. Now, too, that remains the case.”

If Khamenei’s office or other institutions under his control have based their rhetoric on opinion polls, their findings have been kept from the public. In fact, the conservative establishment seems terrified by any attempt to find out what Iranians actually want, to judge by the trial that began in December of Behrouz Geranpayeh, Hossein-Ali Ghazian, and Abbas Abdi, all of them pollsters and public opinion researchers. The public prosecutor accused Ghazian, who runs a polling institute with Abdi, of having contacts with “agents associated with foreign intelligence and security services.” He told the court that Geranpayeh, who runs another polling organization, had given “a false picture of public opinion‚” sold information to foreigners, and been in contact with “counterrevolutionaries.” According to the editor of Keyhan, the authorities had “unearthed the ultimate base of American espionage, and the operations center for a fifth column.”


Public prosecutors hope to use classified documents, allegedly found in one of the polling institutes, to implicate other reformists in the affair. Another explanation for the trial may be that the public opinion surveys of the two polling institutes were unpalatable to conservatives, particularly their findings that 74 percent of people living in Tehran favor the restoration of official dialogue with the US, and that 64 percent want full bilateral relations. (Geranpayeh had also polled people in Tehran on their favorite leaders, and found that President Khatami came near the top of the list, with conservative leaders trailing far behind.) It is possible that Abdi, who is an influential political strategist, is being punished for publicly urging reformists to refuse to cooperate with the authorities as a means of pressuring conservative institutions to give up some of their power. As an indication of conservative thinking, the most enlightening part of the charge sheet was its reference to the crime, allegedly committed by one of the polling institutes, of gathering “precise and comprehensive data about the views [and] beliefs of people across the country.”

There is a widespread belief that the judiciary will arrest reformists in parliament if they decide to carry out their longstanding threat to call for a referendum on the arbitrary powers of the senior conservative clerics. The sole empirical evidence available for the Supreme Leader’s account of Iranians’ desires may be the referendum held a few weeks after the 1979 revolution which asked, “Should Iran be an Islamic Republic?” More than 98 percent of the replies were positive. But Iran has changed a lot since then.

Taken together, the Supreme Leader’s sermon and the pep talk given to the militiamen are revealing. The conservatives have rarely felt so embattled; they blame America—along with Israel and Britain—for their recent vulnerability. Moreover, they have identified the ideology that threatens them. It is not the nostalgic monarchism that animates many Iranian exiles who are drawn to Reza Pahlavi, the elder son of the late Shah, who is living in the US. Nor is it the Islamic-leftist movement that was popular as well as murderous in the early years of the Islamic regime. It is something else, inchoate but ominously associated with the enemy: liberal democracy.


At present, there are few declared liberal democrats in parliament or among the ministers and bureaucrats who make up Khatami’s reform movement. Most of the reformists continue to argue for the “Islamic democracy” that Khatami has been trying, ineffectively, to install since he became president five years ago. Khatami’s followers present Islamic democracy as a third way—between religious dictatorship, which is what Iran increasingly resembles, and secular democracy, which it has never known. Illegal arrests and the suppression of free speech; the disqualification of reformist candidates for office by the powerful Council of Guardians, half of its members appointed by the Supreme Leader; and the wholesale spiking of legislation by the same body—all of these stem, they claim, from a despotic and willful misinterpretation of the constitution established under the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and later amended, not the constitution itself.

But Khatami’s “Islamic democracy” seems to be running out of steam. This isn’t because it cannot work—that hasn’t been proved either way. It is because the Islamic conservative leadership hasn’t given it a chance to work. Parliament’s reformist majority is making a final effort to save Islamic democracy by working to ratify two legislative bills that were put forward by Khatami. The first of these would, in theory, allow him to end such constitutional violations as the trial without jury of political prisoners and the arbitrary vetoing of legislation by the Council of Guardians. The second would curtail the Council of Guardians’ power to disqualify reformist candidates from public office. (The council, it is widely believed, intends to abuse this privilege before the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2004.) Conservative deputies have in effect been filibustering the legislation by proposing hundreds of amendments to it; but Mustafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist and former senior government official, expects that parliament will pass both bills by the end of April.


It seems unlikely, however, that the bills will be ratified by the Council of Guardians, and then implemented. If they are, this would signal a profound shift in Iran’s politics, and President Khatami’s prestige would rise. If the bills are vetoed, or their implementation is obstructed, Islamic democracy will be further enfeebled. Khatami, his allies insist, would submit his resignation. (He would probably be accompanied by members of the cabinet, and perhaps by some parliamentary deputies.) Whether or not the Supreme Leader accepts Khatami’s resignation, Iran could fall into political crisis.

Khatami, because he has twice been overwhelmingly elected to office, represents the Islamic Republic’s last claim to popular legitimacy. His friendships with European leaders might have a moderating effect on George Bush, who has been urged by Ariel Sharon to take aggressive measures against Iran, once Iraq is dealt with. Anything other than outright victory for Khatami would signal his political eclipse, and a huge setback for Islamic democracy. The President’s former supporters would have to search for new ways of expressing their aspirations; many will probably turn toward Western models.

Earlier this year, Akbar Ganji, a courageous journalist who was jailed in 2000, ostensibly for attending a controversial conference abroad, posted his “Manifesto for Republicans” on the Internet. Ganji used to be an Islamic democrat. But in his recent manifesto, which he wrote behind bars, he accused many reformists of using democratic jargon to disguise their essentially authoritarian tendencies. He contradicted the preeminent reformist philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, who has argued that religious government, if it is authentic, cannot be anything but democratic. The only way to avoid conflict between democracy and religious law, Ganji maintained, is for religion “to retreat from the domain of the state, into the private sphere.” He called for a referendum on a new, democratic constitution.

Many of Ganji’s demands—as well as his impudent lampooning of the Supreme Leader—were echoed during last month’s protests. “We students,” Akbar Attri, a leader of Iran’s biggest student body, the Office to Foster Unity, told me, “gave up our hopes in Khatami a long time ago. Iran has mixed religion and democracy, and found that it doesn’t work.” According to Abdullah Momeni, a colleague of Attri’s, there is a qualitative difference between the student actions and the Khatami government’s own protests in the Aghajari affair. “The government,” he told me, “protested against the severity of the sentence against Aghajari. We were opposing the fact that someone can be tried for apostasy.”

In a recent issue of Aftab (“Sun”), a monthly magazine, Ali-Reza Alavi Tabar, a prominent progressive and a professional colleague of Ghazian’s and Abdi’s, outlines three stages on the road to full democracy. Iran, he writes, hasn’t reached the first of these, which would be to force conservative leaders to be more accountable by accepting critical scrutiny of activities and institutions over which they enjoy absolute control, like broadcasting and the powerful religious foundations. The second stage, according to Alavi Tabar, would be to establish a more democratic interpretation of the existing constitution. This is, in fact, the effect that Khatami hopes his two bills will have. The final stage would be more radical. It would involve building a consensus to change the constitution, and to substitute a new definition of government that would either sharply diminish the influence of religious authority or establish a secular democracy. If this were done, he makes clear, the institution of the Supreme Leader, set up by the Ayatollah Khomeini, would not survive.

At present the liberals who want democracy unrestricted by Islamic law and the Islamic democrats need each other. During the recent protests, Khatami’s education minister put pressure on the university authorities to allow campus demonstrations, and he made sure that uniformed policemen protected students from physical attack by hezbollahis, and from arrest and torture at the hands of plainclothes members of Iran’s myriad intelligence organizations. Student leaders were unhappy when the Khatemi government reacted to Khamenei’s order to review the death sentence of Hashem Aghajari by withdrawing its support for the protests; but they delayed further demonstrations until December 7, which is National Student Day. The few students who have been arrested since then, during revived on-campus demonstrations, are now in the hands of the Intelligence Ministry, which is dominated by reformists. They seem to have been arrested for breaking the peace, not for political crimes, and there have been no allegations of torture or mistreatment.

Khatami is defending people who are more radical than he is. At the height of the unrest, the National Security Council—which he chairs but which contains many leading conservatives—issued an order that forbade the arrest of prominent student activists. The edict was signed by the Supreme Leader, but was soon violated. On November 25, four student leaders, including Attri and Momeni, were arrested by agents of the Revolutionary Court, the arm of the judiciary that deals with political offenses and alleged crimes against national security, and is known for the harshness of its sentences. Khatami was furious. He ordered the students’ immediate release, and was, surprisingly to some, obeyed. He then refused to consider the demand of a senior military official that some 140 student activists—who had been identified as subversives—be arrested.

The much-respected reformist Mustafa Tajzadeh told me that this was a triumph for the students. Following the 1999 disturbances, he points out, students were tortured and condemned to long jail sentences. This time, none of the four arrested students complained of physical mistreatment. The case against them now looks as if it has been shelved; the student movement is intact, and its most important leaders are free. This is surely owing to Khatami and the support—however unwilling—that he is getting from Khamenei and some of his fellow conservatives who are anxious to avoid chaos.

Not all conservatives are as pragmatic as the Supreme Leader, however. According to Tajzadeh, ultra-hard-liners in the judiciary, the Intelligence Ministry, and the security forces—“a cancerous tumor” on the country—are searching for an excuse to launch a coup d’état against the President, in the hope of installing a strong dictatorship. They oppose the secret negotiations that are taking place between Iran and the US concerning limited bilateral cooperation against Iraq. Tajzadeh suggests that they may have been behind the admission of al-Qaeda operatives into Iran.

On November 30, these hard-liners were criticized by a conservative newspaper, Jumhuri Eslami, in a remarkable article, “The Loneliness of the Supreme Leader.” The newspaper acknowledged that Khamenei is being undermined by people who are even more authoritarian than he is. The article specifically attacked Abdulnabi Namazi, the prosecutor-general, for flagrantly defying Khameini’s order to review the Aghajari verdict. (His defiance forced Aghajari’s lawyer, against his client’s wishes, to lodge an appeal in early December.)

The extreme conservatives, most of them senior clerics, would like Aghajari’s sentence to be confirmed by a court of appeal. Ominously enough, the panel of judges who are to oversee this court includes two very conservative judges, both of whom are notorious for having sentenced reformists to death in the past. It is rumored, furthermore, that a powerful conservative ayatollah has issued a fatwa sentencing Aghajari to death; this will make it hard, even for a lenient judge, to reverse the earlier verdict. If Aghajari is executed, the ultra-conservatives would welcome the opportunity to violently suppress the intense campus demonstrations that would inevitably follow. The hard-line leaders have small numbers of fanatical supporters in the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guard, the plainclothes squads, and the intelligence organizations. They proclaim their loyalty to the Supreme Leader, but this seems a marriage of convenience.


At the height of the student protests in November, a US-based Persian-language television channel broadcast what it said was a “live” conversation with several young Iranian men who claimed to be speaking from Tehran. The young men announced that the capital was in chaos, and that they were preparing to seize control of it. The interviewer breathlessly urged them on. “Go, my dear ones!” he said. “Don’t sit there glued to the television screen!”

Such fantasies have long given heart to the Iranian diaspora. Now they color the judgment of the press and television in the US. During the recent protests, several mainstream US publications gave their readers the impression that Iran was in the throes of a revolution. On November 15, CNN interviewed a spokesman for a US-based Iranian dissident group, the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran. I know this committee; they clutter my e-mail with fictitious accounts of mass arrests, riots, and mayhem in Iran. They have referred to the recent protests as an “uprising.”

In the November 25 on-line edition of National Review, Michael Ledeen claimed that “something like half a million” Iranians had taken to the streets on November 22, “to demonstrate their disgust with the regime of the Islamic Republic.” On December 6, in the same publication, he misrepresented events as follows: “The revolution is being led by students, workers, intellectuals, and military officers and soldiers.”

So far as I know, Ledeen hasn’t visited Iran since the days of Iran-contra—in which, acting as a consultant to Ronald Reagan’s administration, he played a small and inglorious part.* His distorted analysis of events in Iran—which conflicts diametrically with my own experience—has unaccountably been given a platform by The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times. It would be interesting to know the sources of the information he and other conservative American commentators have been circulating about Iran.

There is no revolution in Iran. Most Iranians are sullen but cautious; they were merely observers of the recent protests. The biggest demonstration to have taken place on November 22, the day that Ledeen claims half a million people took to the streets, and which I observed myself, was attended by around five thousand people. Most students in Iran had nothing to do with the campus demonstrations. Even activists like Attri and Momeni disclaim revolutionary ambitions and admit that they are not leading a mass movement. They are not armed. Few are willing to die for their beliefs. (In these two characteristics they differ from the revolutionaries of 1979.) They need protection, by the police and from Islamic bullies.

They can, however, act as a catalyst, and their cause is strengthened by the relative feebleness of the forces opposing them. In theory, in times of crisis the regime can call on eight million members of the militia. The reality is different. A few boys in the Basij barracks I visited are genuine ideologues. Many more joined the militia because of the special privileges they get for doing so—basijis do three months less military service than non-basijis, and have a better chance of gaining admission to a university. The same motives can be found in hundreds of Basij barracks across the country.

The militiamen turned out, as instructed, on Jerusalem Day. In central Tehran, several hundred thousand basijis and other dependents of the regime, men and women, thronged the streets. (Perhaps this is where Ledeen got his figure of half a million.) Their attendance was hardly voluntary. Many of the participants have jobs in conservative-sponsored state institutions and were instructed to attend. The mood was lighthearted. It was hard to imagine these people physically attacking fellow Iranians.

Such attacks can be expected only from a relatively small number of hezbollahis, hard-line basijis, and murderous ideologues like Saeed Asghar, who was convicted of trying to kill an important reformist in 2000, but was freed in time to direct much of the violence against students and other demonstrators during the recent protests. The violence may, in fact, be intensifying. On December 8, some three hundred Islamic thugs stormed onto the campus of Iran’s Amir Kabir University and attacked about two thousand students who were participating in a peaceful political meeting there.

It is possible that a dramatic escalation of protest, or perhaps the death of a demonstrator, would shake more Iranians from their timidity and torpor. This may be the aim of the ultra-conservatives. Both Khatami and Khamenei are apprehensive about growing unrest. They want to get on with their own struggle for power, which they see as central to the future of Iran. The Supreme Leader is being pressured by fanatics. Khatami not only faces strong conservative opposition to his bills in parliament; he is also being outflanked by democrats who draw their inspiration not from his benign reading of Islam but from Western political traditions. The center of Iranian politics—the ground that is currently occupied by the President and Supreme Leader—is becoming more and more unstable. If this trend continues, radicals on both sides will have an impact way beyond their relatively small size.

—December 18, 2002

This Issue

January 16, 2003