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Khatami and the Search for Reform in Iran
By Ahmad Siddiqi

If you interpret reform as a movement within the government, I think yes, this is the end. But if you regard it as a social phenomenon, then it is still very much alive.
—Reza Yousefian, former Majlis (Parliament) member

On May 23rd, 1997, Syed Muhammad Khatami swept to victory in the Presidential elections in Iran, winning nearly 70% of the popular vote. A reformist, Khatami promised increased economic opportunities for Iran’s youth, social justice, individual freedoms, political tolerance, greater rights for women and the rule of law.1 His triumph over the establishment-backed candidate, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, was widely seen as a signal of popular dissatisfaction with the ruling elite. This success helped inspire the emergence of a reformist movement in Iran that casted Khatami as its most prominent advocate capable of bringing real change for the better. Yet as President, he has had to steer a narrow path, repeatedly criticized by the conservative establishment for being too swift with reform and by the liberal press for failing to bring about any tangible improvement in the standard of living. Seven years since first becoming President, many of the changes Khatami advocated have yet to materialize, and the future of his reformist movement is looking increasingly uncertain.

My goal in this paper is to study Muhammad Khatami’s rise to the Presidency, his vision for Iran and the extent of his success, if any, in achieving it. I will first discuss his political and social views, examining how they made him the people’s choice in 1997. Then I will devote the majority of this analysis to assessing Khatami’s domestic policies during his years in office and the obstacles he encountered in pursuing them. Finally, I will speculate on the future of the reformist movement in light of the outcome of the February 2004 Majlis, or parliamentary, elections, now that Khatami’s own role in the movement draws to a close.

A Brief Biography

Syed Muhammad Khatami was born in 1942 to a middle-class clerical family in the town of Ardakan, located in the province of Yazd in central Iran. His father, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khatami, was widely respected for his piety and progressive views. In 1961, Khatami left for Qom, where he pursued religious studies and became a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1965, he entered the University of Isfahan to study philosophy, eventually obtaining a bachelor’s and later a master’s degree. He became involved in political activity from this time on and returned to Qom to further his religious studies. In 1978, he was chosen to head the Hamburg Islamic Institute in Germany, which played an important role in organizing revolutionary activity in the Iranian Diaspora. After the revolution, he was appointed director of the Kayhan publishing house, a position from which he later resigned. From 1982-1992 he served as Minister for Culture and Islamic Guidance, resigning in 1992 amid criticism from hard-line clerics. He was subsequently appointed head of the National Library of Iran and cultural advisor to President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, positions that he held until his rise to the Presidency.2

Religious Conviction, Intellectual Thought

Khatami’s political views are laid out in his book Islam, Liberty and Development, published a year into his first Presidency. He is a staunch supporter of the principles of the revolution, which he regards as “a great historical transformation.”3 In Khatami’s opinion, the challenge facing Iran is to overcome the crisis that accompanies the birth of a “new civilization.”4 He views civilization as “an answer to the curiosity of humans who never stop questioning their world.”5 Civilization emerges to address these questions and needs. But the needs are not constant across all times and places, and thus “civilizations change and there is no such thing as an ultimate and eternal civilization…With each question that is answered and each need that is fulfilled, humans are confronted with new questions and needs…”6

Khatami spares little criticism for Western politics, which he argues aim “to govern all corners of the world and to dominate the theory and practice of international relations.”7 But he makes a very clear distinction between the West’s politics and Western civilization as a whole. Western civilization, he argues, has important weaknesses, but also important strengths. The West has advocated the ideals of liberty and freedom, which are “the most cherished values for humanity in all ages.”8 Importantly, the West has cast away the notion of authoritarian rule and “freed humans from the shackles of many oppressive traditions.”9

Not surprisingly, Khatami advocates a moderate path. He is critical of those Iranians who regard themselves as secular intellectuals, arguing that their movement is “superficial and cut off from the people,” who want a place for religion in their lives.10 But he is also highly critical of “the parochialism and regressive visions of dogmatic believers.”11 He argues that much of what is considered to be religion today is nothing more than old traditions that have been given an artificial veneer of sanctity. Moreover, Khatami makes it very clear that most religious laws are open to reevaluation in accordance with the needs of a particular civilization.12 Criticizing those who would impose censorship as a solution to divergent viewpoints and interpretations, Khatami cites Ayatollah Khomeini in a quotation worth repeating in full:

“In Islamic government there should always be room for revision. Our revolutionary system demands that various, even opposing viewpoints be allowed to surface. No one has the right to restrict this. It is crucial to understand the demands of society and governance such that Islamic government can make policies that benefit Muslims. Unity in method and practice is essential. It is here that traditional leadership prevalent in our seminaries will not suffice.”13

The reformists, as represented by Khatami, do not wish to do away with the Islamic Republic, but to make it democratic, tolerant, progressive, and in tune with the needs of the people.

Revolutionary Realities

This was a message that the Iranian people urgently needed. The Islamic Revolution had raised high hopes of freedom and prosperity among the people, hopes that remained unfulfilled after nearly twenty years. The war with Iraq in the 1980s had significant costs for the economy of the country, as well as for the task of bringing stability and development in the aftermath of the revolution. People had been patient; after all, it was a war that had been started by Saddam Hussein. But in 1997, nine years after the end of the war, there still were no substantial improvements. The Iranian youth, most of whom had not been born at the time of the revolution, had grown to resent a government that restricted civil liberties notably freedom of speech and meddled in their social lives without providing answers to any of the socioeconomic problems they faced. Discontent with the government’s policies resulted in a series of riots in April-May 1992, August 1994 and April 1995.14 Disparaging comparisons were made between the economy under the Islamic government and under the Shah a devastating critique for a government that had, after all, been formed as a result of a revolution against the Shah. The fact that such criticisms were voiced by former stalwarts of the revolution, such as Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali and Hojjat ul-Islam Ali Akbar Mohtashami, added to their effect.15

Under these circumstances, the candidacy of Khatami generated great enthusiasm among Iranians. Throughout his campaign, Khatami stressed the importance of good governance over revolutionary ideology. He advocated “investment in ‘job-generating projects,’ called for ‘change in the educational system,’ and stressed the need to solve the country’s urgent housing problem.”16 He reiterated his commitment to civil liberties, arguing that all Iranians should enjoy “security and freedom within their private life.” He also called for increased women’s rights and an end to “male supremacy” in Iran.17

Moreover, Khatami was careful to phrase most of his promises in the context of Khomeini’s legacy. The fact that he was able to quote Khomeini saying, “Our revolutionary system demands that various, even opposing viewpoints be allowed to surface”18 and that “the government…can prevent any matter, whether religious or secular, if it is against the interests of Islam”19 added to his authority and blunted the effect of criticism from the conservatives. The outcome of the May 1997 elections left no one in doubt. Muhammad Khatami had a popular mandate to fulfill his electoral pledges. It remained to be seen whether that would prove sufficient in the corridors of power.

Khatami In Government

Khatami’s election as President was no small achievement for the reformists, but major challenges still remained. Since foreign policy is beyond the scope of this analysis, I will focus exclusively on Khatami’s domestic policies and the extent to which he was able to achieve his goals in these areas, given the opposition he faced within Iran.

The greatest obstacle for Khatami was that the Presidency was only one of many centers of power established in the Iranian constitution, and it was by no means the most powerful. In pursuing his policies, he would always have to consider the effect they would have on each institution.

The Majlis, or parliament, was still dominated by conservatives in 1997, and posed considerable problems to Khatami and his Cabinet until the victory of the reformists in the February 2000 Majlis elections. In 1998 and 1999 the Majlis moved against several of Khatami’s supporters, including Cabinet ministers Abdollah Nuri and Ata’ollah Mohajerani.20

The Guardian Council (Shura-e Negahban) was perhaps Khatami’s most uncompromising opponent. With final say over legislation passed by the Majlis, the Guardian Council has historically rejected a great deal of legislation on the grounds of its Islamic or constitutional violations. The Guardian Council has also appropriated the power of vetting election candidates to ensure that they are “sufficiently Islamic,” arguing that this power derives from its constitutional right to supervise the elections.

The Expediency Council (shura-ye tashkis-e maslahat) was formed by Khomeini in 1988 to resolve disputes between the Majlis and Guardian Council. The head of the Expediency Council through the duration of Khatami’s Presidency was the former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Though viewed as a pragmatist during his terms as President, Rafsanjani has stayed clear of supporting Khatami in his disputes. Up to the Sixth Majlis elections, Rafsanjani “appeared to opt in favor of sitting on the fence, failing to put his full weight behind any of the two main rival groups.”21 Since then, whether through personal conviction or political rivalry, he has moved closer to the conservatives.22

The most powerful position in the Iranian constitution is undoubtedly that of the rahbar, or Supreme Leader.23 The Supreme Leader appoints six of the twelve Guardian Council members as well as all the highest judicial authorities. As commander of the armed forces he is “empowered to appoint the chief of staff and commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”24 Moreover, he has the right to dismiss the President if the Supreme Court or Majlis rule that the President has harmed the national interest through “incompetent or illegal acts.”25

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not as extreme as some of his supporters, which include paramilitary groups such as the Ansar-e-Hezbollah and the Basij. As the faqih, he has often remained above the fray as far as the day-to-day running of government is concerned. However, he does clearly identify with the conservative faction, its hostility to the United States, and of course, its support of the concept of Velayat-e-faqih (Rule of the Jurist).

Khatami has been aware of the limits of his power from the outset. Realizing that far-reaching reform measures would be vetoed by the conservative centers of power, he has moved slowly, attempting to forge a consensus whenever possible. Significantly, he has never questioned the concept of Velayat-e-faqih and has refrained from openly criticizing Khamenei. When he presented his ministerial nominations before the Majlis, he was quick to stress that none of his Cabinet Ministers held views opposed to those of Khamenei.26 Throughout the duration of his Presidency, Khatami tried to get Khamenei’s support for his policies, realizing that the Supreme Leader’s backing would provide him with the authority he needs to implement his reforms. In pursuit of his goals, he has also avoided antagonizing Khameini over issues about which the two have held conflicting views.27 Unfortunately, though he has obtained Khamenei’s support in some issues,28 the Supreme Leader has more often identified with the conservatives. As a result, many of Khatami’s policy goals have been frustrated and he has hesitated to raise highly controversial issues in public. Many of his supporters have found his apparent weakness and disinclination for confrontation disappointing from a man on whom they had counted to bring real change. Though Khatami may be “cautious, carrying out his reforms with a certain stealth, determined not to upset the apple-cart by going too far or asking for too much,” his policies have brought about some changes and have attempted many more that were blocked.29 I will now turn to examining the major events of his Presidency in relation to the two domestic policy issues that propelled him to power: the economy and civil liberties.

The Economy

The Iranian economy, as noted above, floundered in the years following the revolution. For much of his first term, Khatami saw through the implementation of Iran’s second five-year development plan. On 15 September 1999, Khatami presented a new five-year plan to the Majlis. Aimed at the period from 2000-2004, Khatami’s five-year plan called for economic reconstruction in a broader context of social and political development. The specific economic reforms included “an ambitious program to privatize several major industries …the creation of 750,000 new jobs per year, average annual real GDP growth of 6% over the period, reduction in subsidies for basic commodities…plus a wide range of fiscal and structural reforms.”30 The Majlis approved this five-year plan, though with some reservations as to its budgetary requirements.

The first two and a half years of Khatami’s Presidency did not see any significant economic achievements, a fact that conservatives exploited to target him in the run-up to the Majlis elections. In a meeting with the Cabinet on 24 August 1999, Khamenei delivered a speech in which, while praising Khatami, he reminded the President that “the most important problem of the country today…is the economic problem,” which Khatami needed to pursue more seriously, rather than dwelling on “secondary and minor issues.”31 Khamenei’s speech was seen as a signal to criticize the President by numerous figures across the conservative spectrum. They attacked Khatami for focusing on political development at the expense of the economy and portrayed “a very gloomy picture of the economy…[placing] an astonishing accent on Khatami’s failures.”32

Much of this criticism seems to have been unjust. The economy was facing substantial problems when Khatami came to power, and he could not reasonably have been expected to solve them in just two years. Inflation and unemployment in 1997 both hovered around the 20% mark. Oil prices had declined and remained low for the first two years of Khatami’s Presidency, posing considerable problems for an economy largely dependent on this one commodity. Furthermore, foreign debt had increased substantially during Rafsanjani’s Presidency. This increase imposed significant budgetary constraints, particularly as a number of the loans were short-term. Rapid population growth during the 1980s had resulted in considerable demographic problems. While a record number of Iranians were entering universities and the gender-literacy gap had closed substantially, the job market had not expanded correspondingly. Solving Iran’s economic woes thus required major structural changes, which would yield little benefit in the short-term. And Khatami’s freedom to act was notably constrained, particularly until the 2000 Majlis elections.

Since then, the Sixth Majlis has come out in strong support of Khatami’s five-year plan. An increase in oil prices in 1999 helped matters along and over the first four years of its implementation, the plan has met with some success. Real GDP growth has remained below the level set in the plan, but still healthy at 5.9% for 2002, and projected 4.5% and 4.4% for 2003 and 2004, respectively.33 Inflation has been reduced to around 14%, and some decrease in unemployment has been achieved. While real GDP is still well below pre-revolutionary levels, it is steadily improving.

However, a number of issues related to privatization and foreign investment have remained politically explosive among Iran’s institutions of power. In May 2001, the Majlis passed a bill that aimed at encouraging foreign investment by taking measures such as streamlining procedures and guaranteeing profit repatriation.34 It was the first bill relating to foreign investment to be passed since the revolution, and was soon rejected by the Guardian Council, which argued that it was unconstitutional. Amended versions of the bill were similarly rejected until the Expediency Council finally stepped in to overrule the Guardian Council ruling in May 2002. The bill was submitted to the government for implementation in January 2003. With its potential for attracting foreign investment, and consequently capital and increased employment, this bill represented a significant step forward; a step that was nonetheless tempered by the amendments and delays that accompanied it.35

Unemployment remains a major problem, with Khatami’s five-year plan lagging behind in job creation. Only 300,000 new jobs were created in the first year of the plan, well short of the 750,000 that the plan called for.36 The 2004 World Bank report on Iran concludes that “after 24 years marked by internal post-revolutionary strife, international isolation, and deep economic volatility, Iran is slowly emerging from a long period of uncertainty and instability.”37 Progress is taking place, but slowly, and Khatami’s failure to solve the job shortage has been a major cause of disappointment to his supporters, especially the Iranian youth.

Civil Liberties

Khatami’s critics accurately observed that he was not devoting his full attention to economic issues. A major part of his policy was to ease the restrictions on civil liberties in Iran, particularly the right to freedom of expression. In this regard, he initially met with some success. The Economist noted on 17 February 2000, “under the benign influence of the president and his men, many of the petty rules and regulations that made things so drab for ordinary families have been forgotten about or, at least, are not so severely enforced. It is easier, for instance, for a boy and girl to go out together, for a family to own a satellite dish (though these are still officially banned), or for anyone to read a lively, dissenting newspaper.”38 Indeed, the first years of Khatami’s presidency saw the rapid multiplication of reformist newspapers across the country. People were openly discussing issues, such as the role of the faqih and relations with the United States, which had long been considered taboo. David Menashri observes that “During Khatami’s first three years as president, there were in fact some signs of unprecedented criticism and free expression. At the same time, however, political repression also reached new heights.”39

The hard-line judiciary banned numerous reformist newspapers; many more sprung up to replace them, often with the same editorial team and the same policies.40 Many individuals, such as Hojjat ul-Islam Mohsen Kadivar, a friend and ally of Khatami, were brought to trial in special courts, often “for political offenses not even defined by law.”41 In 1998, several prominent intellectuals known for their criticism of the government disappeared and were later found dead.42

The crackdown on civil rights added to the frustration that Khatami’s supporters felt over the job shortage and the sluggish economic recovery. While Iran’s youth had come out overwhelmingly in support of the President during the elections, they were nonetheless impatient for him to produce tangible results. This frustration eventually boiled over into the student riots of July 1999. These riots would further serve to demonstrate the resolve of the hard-liners to limit the frame of acceptable discourse in Iran.

The July 1999 Student Riots

The student riots were the first major domestic crisis that Khatami faced in his tenure. They began as a protest against the closure of the reformist newspaper, Salam. On 8 July 1999, police and hard-line vigilantes attacked student protestors, with violent confrontations taking place in university dormitories. These clashes triggered a wave of protests that culminated in six days of street riots in Tehran and other cities. The viewpoints expressed were diverse; “In fact, at one stage it was not clear if the students were protesting against the revolutionary system, the Supreme Leader, or against the politics and actual failures of the ruling elite. Their charges combined them all.”43 Some of the slogans demanded Khatami to take action, a call that was ignored.

On 12 July, Ayatollah Khamenei delivered a speech in which, while deploring the attack on the dormitories and promising an official investigation, he nonetheless condemned the students and argued that the unrest was planned by enemies of the revolution and financed by the US.44 Significantly, Rafsanjani came out in support of Khamenei and the conservatives. Moreover, 24 commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, the internal security force of the Islamic Republic, wrote a strongly worded letter to Khatami demanding immediate action and concluding that, “our patience has run out. We cannot tolerate this situation any longer.”45 The Ansar-e-Hezbollah also demanded to be armed to deal with the rioters.

The student protests presented a serious dilemma for Khatami. After Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards’ warnings, he could not openly support the protesters. Nor was he willing to endorse their critique of the faqih, in view of his policy of realizing reforms by working with Khamenei. On 13 July, he declared, “What started as a peaceful protest by students…had degenerated into a riot led by people with ‘evil aims’ who intended ‘to foster violence in society.’”46 He then appeared to have been embarrassed into silence, making no public statements for the next two weeks. Finally, on 27 July Khatami “reiterated his determination to pursue his reform program and lend the students some indirect support.”47 He condemned the attack on the university dormitories, promising a full investigation and severe punishment of those who were responsible. He stressed that the Islamic Revolution aimed to form a government of the people. Stating that his reforms were supported by Khamenei, he pledged to “renew [his] covenant with the entirety of the Iranian nation” and defend the principles for which he had been elected.48

In the aftermath of the July riots the judiciary took harsh action against many students who had been involved. However, to a great extent the outcome strengthened the resolve of the Iranian youth to oppose the conservatives. This fact became evident in the February 2000 Majlis elections. Amid unprecedented levels of free expression on the part of the reformist press, pro-reform groups won by a landslide, securing nearly 200 of the 290 Majlis seats. The battle, however, was far from won.

The Press Law

Indeed, the swiftness of the conservative response was startling. In May 2000, the judiciary banned no less than 18 reformist newspapers. However, worse was to come. In accordance with their electoral promises, the Majlis tabled a motion to amend the press law that had been passed by the previous, conservative-dominated Majlis in July 1999. The July 1999 press law had imposed numerous restrictions on the freedom of the press. Measures included “compelling journalists to reveal their sources, barring opposition journalists and editors from ‘any form of press activities,’ and strengthening conservative influence over the media.”49 The new press law that reformists sought to pass would have eliminated these measures, creating “an open atmosphere for the press to work free of constricting supervision and control.”50

However, no sooner had the Majlis started debating the law, than Khamenei in an extraordinary move intervened and demanded the bill’s immediate withdrawal on August 6th, 2000. Speaker Mahdi Karrubi was forced to comply, saying that it is “our duty to obey the leader’s order.”51 Muhammad Reza Khatami, the President’s brother and leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (Jebheh-ye Mosharekat-e Iran-e Islami), hinted at “special schemes” aimed against the Majlis had it not bowed to Khamenei’s will.52

Given that the Guardian Council and Expediency Council were both likely to block the bill, Khamenei’s intervention was hardly necessary. The fact that he chose to do so sent a very clear message of who was really in charge, despite the outcome of the popular elections. Worryingly, the intervention was a strong indication that Khatami’s policy of achieving reform by working within the present system of government through Khamenei was failing.

Some analysts saw the hand of Rafsanjani behind the press crackdown and the scrapping of the bill. Rafsanjani had attempted to make a comeback in the Majlis elections, likely in preparation for a return to the position of Speaker. However, throughout the campaign he was mercilessly targeted by the reformist press for his opposition to Khatami and emerging alliance with the conservatives; ultimately, he suffered a humiliating defeat. Harboring “a deep grudge against the press,” Rafsanjani may well have decided that it was time their threat be put to an end.53

Khatami Takes A Stand

It was no secret that Khatami was reluctant to contest the Presidential elections of 8 June 2001. The controversy over the press law had driven home the reality that even with a reform-dominated Majlis, his ability to bring about change remained extremely limited. In a speech in 2001, on the anniversary of the revolution, he was surprisingly critical of the hard-liners, declaring that “the commandeering of this revolution and religion to the benefit of parochial and dark views which oppose the interests of the people is immoral…They have declared that anyone who disagrees with this parochial and dark viewpoint should be crushed and destroyed.”54

Ultimately, he decided to run; after all, reformist control of the Presidency and the Majlis was still an improvement over the first three years of his Presidency, and he may have hoped that future reforms would cause less trouble than the press law. In his campaign speech, he made “no wild rhetoric and no big promises. It was just the same vision that he held out four years ago of an Iran moving slowly and painfully, but inevitably, towards a future of democracy and justice for all.”55

Though turnout was lower than in the previous election, Khatami still won an impressive 77% of the votes cast, a surprise to many analysts who had expected the President to win with a lower margin than he had in 1997. It was a clear mandate to continue with reform. Unfortunately, in the absence of support from Khamenei or from Rafsanjani’s Expediency Council, and with the Guardian Council vetoing over fifty bills passed by the Majlis since February 2000, little headway was made. By the end of August 2002, it seemed that the President finally had enough.

Declaring that “my repeated warning on violations of the constitution have been ignored,” Khatami announced his plan to present a bill expanding his executive powers, allowing him to intervene to prevent and reverse actions by the judiciary that violated the constitution.56 He also ordered a second bill to be drafted, which would curb the powers of the Guardian Council by limiting its right to vet candidates.57 Expressing his confidence that the bills would come into force, Khatami stated, “The Guardian Council can either say a bill is against Islam or the constitution. The bill I’ll present is part of the constitution and it is definitely not against Islam.”58 Both bills were adopted by the Majlis in November.59

Khatami’s assurance notwithstanding, it seemed unlikely that either the Guardian Council or the Expediency Council would approve the bills. In that event, Khatami indicated that he would hold a popular referendum. If, despite having demonstrated popular support, the bills were still not approved, or if Ayatollah Khamenei were to veto a referendum altogether, Khatami’s supporters suggested he would resign, causing a crisis of legitimacy for the regime.60

Unfortunately, the government was almost immediately distracted by other events. In November, the judiciary sentenced Hashem Aghajari, a history professor in Tehran and veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, to death for apostasy.61 Iran’s universities “erupted” and even an assurance by Khamenei that the sentence would be reviewed was not enough to restore calm.62 Larger in scale than any since the July 1999 riots, the protests lasted into December, completely obscuring the issue of the reform bills. They eventually died down, perhaps more due to Khamenei’s threats to “unleash the force of the people” and a 10,000 strong rally by the Basij, than due to his assurances.63 Once again, many student protesters were summoned before special courts or disciplinary committees over their role in the riots.64

The Guardian Council also adopted a delaying strategy, indicating that it would be willing to work on the bills to make them more acceptable rather than rejecting them outright. Majlis Speaker Mahdi Karrubi announced on 29 April 2003, that the Guardian Council was working with the Majlis to make a breakthrough in ratifying the bills.65 When the Guardian Council finally rejected the bills, much of Khatami’s momentum had been lost. It was too late into his term for a dramatic political showdown to have much effect. He did raise the prospect of his resignation in a speech on July 12th.66 Ultimately, though, he decided to stick out the remainder of his term, perhaps in order to see through the February 2004 Majlis elections. They would turn out to be yet another setback for the reformists.

The Guardian Council Strikes Back

On 11 January 2004, the Guardian Council disqualified an astonishing 3,600 candidates out of 8,157 from running for the Majlis elections. They included 83 serving members of parliament, most notably Muhammad Reza Khatami. In response, reformists staged a sit-in at the Majlis for three weeks. Reformist parties threatened a boycott of the elections. Khatami and Karrubi called upon the Guardian Council to carry out a “fundamental review” of the disqualifications.67 They also attempted to pass legislation laying down guidelines that limited the circumstances under which candidates could be disqualified. The bill was based on a speech delivered by Khamenei in which he had asked the Guardian Council to review the disqualifications. It was duly rejected by the Guardian Council on the grounds that it violated Islam and the constitution.

Under pressure from Khamenei, the Guardian Council eventually reinstated roughly 1000 of the candidates it had previously disqualified on 30 January. It was hardly a compromise. With 2530 candidates still barred from running, reformists argued that the disqualifications had created 132 seats that were guaranteed to go to the conservatives due to lack of any serious contender. The Interior Ministry declared that it was impossible to hold free and fair elections under the circumstances.

Khamenei’s intervention was of interest, given his general support of the conservative faction. He may have genuinely felt that the disqualifications were unfair to the reformists. Or he may simply have been worried about the doubts that disqualifications would cast on his later claim that the elections were legitimate. In any event, his intervention failed to convince the Guardian Council to reinstate nearly enough candidates to allow for genuine elections.

When the final list of candidates was announced, over 120 members of the Majlis handed in their resignations in protest. Reformist parties threatened a boycott and Khatami indicated he would resign or delay the elections. That prospect was unacceptable to the Supreme Leader, who demanded that the elections go ahead on time. Eventually, Khatami caved in to his demands, stating that the Interior Ministry would carry on the elections as planned.68


The February 2004 Majlis elections saw the conservatives return to power amid boycotts from several reformist parties, notably the Islamic Iran Participation Front. The loss of the reformists can be attributed as much to the mass disqualification of their candidates and the subsequent boycotts, as to voter apathy. Just 51% of Iranians bothered to turn out for the polls, over 15% less than in the previous election. With a Majlis now dominated by conservatives, and with Khatami’s second term soon coming to an end, the reform movement in Iran appears to have reached a dead end.

This perception is accurate, but only in one sense. The reform movement has undoubtedly suffered a setback, but it has only come to an end in its current form. The events of Khatami’s tenure testify to the difficulty of achieving reform through political participation in the present system. One may wish Khatami had followed the advice given by Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri. Once Khomeini’s successor, Montazeri fell out of favor with him two months before the Imam’s death for his constant criticism of the regime’s human rights record. In a remarkably prescient letter to Khatami in November 1997, Montazeri warned the President that “…‘with the style he is pursuing, he will not achieve anything.’ He urged Khatami, therefore, to be more assertive in pursuing his reform program and in demanding authority. Montazeri suggested that Khatami go to the Supreme Leader and point out to him that over 22 million people had voted for him, knowing full well that his views were different from those of Khamene’i…If the president’s conditions were not accepted, Montazeri advised him, he should resign.”69

That could have worked. Had Khatami resigned early in his Presidency when his efforts were first frustrated, protests would undoubtedly have arisen. The ruling conservatives may well have concluded that they could not control the scale of the public response and given Khatami more authority in implementing his reforms. Of course, it is just as likely they would have shown the same ruthless determination that they did in quelling the 1999 and 2003 riots. By holding firm long enough, they may have been able to ride out the storm.

On balance, it seems that Khatami should have attempted the more confrontational, riskier path. After all, that path at least had a chance of success, whereas the path he has followed has seen most of his reforms frustrated. Yet commenting today, we have the benefit of hindsight. Khatami’s path, too, could have worked had the conservatives been more compromising. Khatami had some sense of respect for Khamenei and the others, and he was convinced that he could gradually persuade them to support the path to reform. In that belief, he made a misjudgment. Nonetheless, it would be unfair to characterize his Presidency as a complete failure.

Certainly, Khatami failed to implement his major reforms. But his policies have had some positive effects. The economy has started moving forward, even if progress has been slower than expected. Violations by the courts have been repeatedly highlighted, though they have not been prevented. A number of stifling social restrictions have been lifted, at least unofficially. It is still dangerous to be openly critical of the regime, but the level of free speech is unprecedented compared to the years before Khatami. Taboos have been broken; in particular, the powers of the Supreme Leader have fallen increasingly into question.

Is Iran a better country after Khatami than it was before him? Without a doubt, but only as long as Iranians do not give up on the idea of reform. The reform movement has suffered a setback, and if Khatami’s presidency has clarified one thing, it is that any significant reform through political participation in the current system is not feasible. The challenge for reformists now is to organize themselves at the grassroots level. Muhammad Reza Khatami remains optimistic: “Going outside the Parliament and even outside the government is an opportunity for us to reorganize our party,” he told the BBC. “This is one of the main problems for the reform movement, a lack of organization, the lack of a strong party, so it is very important for us. I think people’s view of reform has not changed, but they have some criticism of the reformists and their leaders. We have to make up for the time and opportunities that we’ve wasted in the past few years.”70

One thing is certain: the Islamic Republic, in its current form, cannot last indefinitely. Violent revolution seems a distant and unlikely prospect. But if the reformists make up for their failures as Reza Khatami has indicated, they may well succeed in building public support and triumphing through the will of the people, like the Solidarity movement in Communist Poland. It is difficult to say how wide-ranging the ensuing changes to the system will be, but they will certainly ensure that power is not consolidated in the hands of the few, that people have a genuine say in their government, and that rights such as the freedom of expression are upheld.

And Khatami? His political career may have come to an end, but the movement he inspired is far from over. As he said himself, “The question ‘what will happen to Iran without Khatami,’ is a joke. Khatami is a drop in the vast and wavy ocean of the nation.… What I am committed to do is to receive your demands and to walk in the direction that you decide, to the extent possible. And if I have not been able to do so, I apologize.” Ultimately, he can be satisfied that “with or without Khatami,” the Iranian nation will ensure that reform is integral to its future.71


1 David Menashri, Post-Revolutionary Politics in Iran: Religion, Society and Power (Frank Cass Publishers, 2001), pp. 80-3.
2 Biographical information obtained from Muhammad Khatami, Islam, Liberty and Development (Institute of Global Cultural Studies, Binghamton University, 1998), pp. 155-6; and Daniel Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran (University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 196-7.
3 Muhammad Khatami, Islam, Liberty and Development
(Institute of Global Cultural Studies, Binghamton
University, 1998), p. 40.
4 Ibid, p. 52.
5 Ibid, p. 30.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid, p. 61.
8 Ibid, p. 65.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid, pp. 72-5.
11 Ibid, p. 75.
12 See pp. 75-6, 105-8.
13 Ibid, p. 106-7. Quotation from Ruhollah Khomeini, Sahifey-e-Noor (The Book of Light), Volume 21, p. 47.
14 Supra n. 1, pp. 120-2.
15 Ibid, pp. 117-8.
16 Ibid, p. 82.
17 See pp. 80-3. For Khatami’s views on censorship, see Islam, Liberty and Development, pp. 110-4.
18 Supra n. 15.
19 Daniel Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran (University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 135-6.
20 See supra n.1 pp. 97-9.
21 Supra n.1, p. 92.
22 See pp. 149-50. The Tehran daily Neshat on 28th August, 1999, characterized the emerging alliance between Rafsanjani
36 Stanford Journal of International Relations and the conservatives to be “as amazing as bringing night and day together.”
23 Also known as the faqih.
24 Supra n. 19, p. 110.
25 Ibid.
26 Supra n. 1, p. 87.
27 “Importantly, he [Khamenei] has a close working relationship with Mr Khatami. The directly elected president, whose powers are so inferior to those of the indirectly chosen supreme leader, has never once hinted that he is uncomfortable with his boss’s supervision.”
The Economist, 17 February, 2000, “The people
against the mullahs,” < story_id=283148>
28 One such case was the approval of equal blood-money
for religious minorities. Blood-money under Shariah
law can be demanded by relatives of a murdered man in lieu of capital punishment for the murderer. The blood money for minorities was previously held at one-tenth that of a Muslim. The Majlis bill equalizing
blood-money for Muslims and non-Muslims was initially rejected by the Guardian Council. However, upon Khamenei’s intervention, the Guardian Council reversed its decision. See Payvand’s Iran News, “Iran’s minorities hail approval of law on equal blood-money,” 29 December, 2003, <>
29 Supra n. 27.
30 Energy Information Administration, “Iran Country
Analysis Brief”, November 2003, <>
31 Supra n. 1, pp. 153-4. The ‘secondary and minor’ issues referred to were the President’s attempts at social and political liberalization, which I will turn to presently.
32 See pp. 152-4.
33 Supra n. 30.
34 The bill was entitled the “Law on the Attraction and Protection of Foreign Investment.”
35 Supra n. 33. Also see Alexander’s Gas and Oil Connections,
“Iran passes its first foreign investment law,” 27 June, 2002, <>
36 Middle East Economic Digest, “Khatami’s Second
Chance,” 22 June, 2001, <>
37 The World Bank Group, “Iran, Islamic Republic,
Country Brief,” March 2004, < 073AB54?OpenDocument>
38 Supra n. 27.
39 Supra n. 1, p. 142.
40 Ibid, p. 140.
41 Ibid, p. 138.
42 Ibid.
43 Ibid, p. 146.
44 Ibid, p. 147.
45 Ibid, pp. 147-8.
46 Ibid, p. 150.
47 Ibid.
48 Ibid.
49 Ibid, p. 140.
50 Dariush Sajjadi, BBC News | Middle East, “Press caught in a power struggle,” 14 May, 2001, <>
51 Supra n. 1, pp. 319-20.
52 Ibid.
53 Supra n. 53.
54 BBC News | Middle East, “Khatami attacks hardliners,”
10 February, 2001, <>
55 Jim Muir, BBC News | Middle East, “Iran election:
People and promises,” 1 June, 2001, <>
56 Azadeh Moaveni, Time Magazine, “Why Iran’s President has Forced a Showdown,” 28 August, 2002, <http://www.time. com/time/world/article/0,8599,345297,00.html>
57 The Economist, “Last chance saloon,” 19 September, 2002, < story_id=1338551>
58 Supra n. 56.
59 BBC News | Middle East, “Iran parliament backs reformist bill,” 10 November 2002, <>
60 Supra n. 56.
61 See BBC News | Middle East, “Profile: Hashem Aghajari,” 9 July 2003, <>
62 The Economist, “God’s rule or man’s?”, 16 January 2003, < story_id=1522068>
63 The Iranian Supreme Court did eventually overturn the verdict.
64 Over 120 MPs signed an open letter criticizing the “unjust measures taken by university disciplinary committees and certain security, police and judicial services against student leaders.” See BBC News | Middle East, “Iran MPs attack student punishments,” 10 March, 2003, <>
65 Payvand’s Iran News, “Iran’s Parliament Speaker sees progress in Guardian Council’s okaying twin bills,” 29 April 2003, <>
66 BBC News | Middle East, “Iran president offers to quit,” 12 July, 2003, < stm>
67Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran, “Khatami and Karroubi call for ‘fundamental review’ of rejections,”
24 January, 2004, <
Winter 2005 37
68 I have traced the events leading up to the Majlis elections
from several sources, including:
Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran (President Khatami’s official website), <>
The Economist, “Dark days for the reformists,” 10 February, 2004, < story_id=2421331>
The Economist, “Their last chance,” 15 January, 2004,
< story_id=2350093>
BBC News | Middle East, “Q&A: Iranian election row,” 10 February, 2004, <>
69 Supra n. 1, p. 27.
70 Jim Muir, BBC News | Middle East, “Analysis: What now for Iran?”, 23 February, 2004, <>
71 Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran, “President’s
Question and Answer Session At the meeting of the university students to mark The Students Day,” December 2000, <>