Iran: Don't Write Off The Reformers Yet

The atmosphere in Tehran is tense. Hard-line conservatives have launched a harsh counterattack on reformists who won a sweeping majority in the February parliamentary elections. They're throwing out some election results, closing down independent newspapers, and jailing several key associates of President Mohammed Khatami, the reform movement's leader. The Iranian capital is rife with rumors that the new Parliament may never be permitted to sit and that some sort of coup against Khatami is in the making.

It is too early, though, to write off the budding Iranian reform movement. Iran's top two leaders may yet work out an agreement that would allow reform to continue at a gradual pace. Khatami may be President, but Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the Supreme Leader, controls the courts and the security forces. Most observers inside Iran are skeptical that Khamenei will allow hard-line clerics to blatantly disregard the constitution by blocking the new Parliament. While Khamenei has gone along with the clampdown on the press, he has warned the hard-line clerics and their associates in the security forces against trying to oust Khatami. These factions are much more conservative than the pragmatic Khamenei, who believes reform is necessary to preserve the Islamic regime.

GLEEFUL. The question is whether religious hard-liners on one side and youths fed up with the repressive aspects of the regime on the other will go along with compromises. Exhilarated by their parliamentary victory, reformers have been gleefully planning to launch probes into key institutions of the regime: There has even been talk of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani bearing some responsibility for the murder of several reform figures. On the other side of the divide, hard-line clerics don't want to lose the near totalitarian power they have wielded for two decades in the Islamic Republic. Many are much more conservative than their leader, Khamenei.

Khamenei is trying to calm things down by orchestrating checks on what the hard-liners consider the more threatening aspects of reform. For instance, the Expediency Council, which resolves intergovernmental disputes, recently barred the new Parliament from investigating organizations such as the Revolutionary Guard and the Islamic Foundations that have gained control of vast swathes of the economy.

Khatami, too, has been urging restraint, fearing that violent demonstrations by his supporters might give the extremists an excuse to void the February election, or worse. His election in May, 1997, aroused much hope, but he has delivered little in the way of specifics.

His young backers are getting frustrated. In Khalkhal, a northwestern city, angry demonstrators attacked government offices, a theological school, and the homes of conservative clerics, after the election of a reformist parliamentary candidate was thrown out. In Rasht, a north-central city, protesters clashed with the morals police, who had confronted a young unmarried couple. "We told them that their days of tyranny are over," says a combatant.

Containing these forces depends on the political skills of Khatami and Khamenei. The optimistic scenario is that Khamenei will allow selected reforms to proceed under the new Parliament. Analysts, for instance, say a sizable number of new parliamentarians in both the reform and conservative camps seem in favor of free-market measures such as cutting subsidies. The crackdown, meanwhile, is teaching reformers they can't just steamroll opponents. "This was a good lesson for the reformers," says Siamak Namazi, director of business consulting at Atieh Bahar Consulting in Tehran. "You have to make some deals with the devil." And the devil's playing a hard game.

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