Towering over a Tehran highway, there stands a billboard commemorating the death of an early 20th century Muslim cleric, Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri. The billboard, like many of the pictures of gray-bearded clerics or revolutionary soldiers, is meant to sell a political viewpoint. Nouri is remembered chiefly for his vigorous opposition to Iran's first democratic movement, the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11. For his spirited defense, he was enshrined in the Tehran billboard by Iran's new clerical rulers after the 1979 revolution.
Nouri's image on the Tehran billboard is particularly relevant to Iran's current political struggle between reformists calling for greater social and political liberalization and conservatives resisting any changes to the status quo. In today's Iran, Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri's heirs - Iran's ruling conservative clerics - have taken up his cause in the early 21st century.
Over the past few months, Iran's conservative clerical establishment has carried out a sustained counteroffensive against the leaders of Iran's democratic reform movement. Tehran's prisons overflow with jailed journalists. Reformist newspapers have been shut down and Iran's reformist-dominated Parliament has been outmaneuvered numerous times. Last week, members of a barely tolerated opposition group of democratic-minded religious nationalists, known as the Freedom Movement of Iran, were arrested en masse.
In describing the arrests in a Friday prayer sermon broadcast on conservative-controlled Iranian state radio and television, senior cleric Sheikh Mohammad Yazdi used language reminiscent of Nouri: "They were trying to establish a Western-style government," Yazdi proclaimed in the Friday prayer sermon. "They were conspiring against the state," he added. Indeed, the "conspirators," he whispered, were also involved in prostitution and drugs.
In Nouri's time, a coalition of intellectuals, journalists, and liberal-minded clerics and merchants joined forces in a movement designed to curb the absolute power of Iran's kings, and to limit the influence of foreign powers in Iranian politics. The Constitutionalists, as they were called, advocated democratic ideas of free speech, political pluralism, and the rule of law - much like the ideas espoused by today's Iranian reformists. All this, the movement's leaders said, must be enshrined in a written Constitution, which also created a representative Parliament for the first time in Iran's history. Nouri led the conservative countercharge against the Constitutionalists, warning of the grave dangers to Islam of "Western-style government." Among the accusations that he hurled at the Constitutionalists was the promotion of prostitution.
Yazdi is a member of a group of powerful conservative clerics that are maintaining their grip on power in the face of widespread popular resentment. They do this by manipulating their still-decisive control of key institutions - the judiciary, the security services, state radio and TV, and the military. As a result, an Iranian reform movement which gained prominence after the overwhelming election of the democratic-minded cleric Mohammad Khatami in 1997 -- has largely crumbled from the conservatives' prolonged pressure.
Today, Iranians are wondering how it came to this. Less than two years ago, Iranians voted overwhelmingly in favor of reformist candidates in the Parliament. Pro-democracy newspapers were being hawked on every street corner. Political parties sprouted. President Khatami smiled and talked of dialogue and democracy. Campus pamphleteers talked of a new dawn. Now, the stumbling movement is in disarray. Iranians are playing a waiting game, watching and wondering what President Khatami's next move might be. So far, the President has been coy about his plans for the next election. Will he run or won't he? As of yet, the President won't say.
Iranian political observers believe that Khatami has already made a decision: he will run in June's Presidential elections. There is talk of a meeting that took place between key reformist leaders and Khatami in which the cleric laid out his plans for a second term.
Still, Iranians are losing patience. Cynical jokes about Khatami's inability to deliver on promises are making the rounds. Election observers expect a lower turn-out than in 1997, when Khatami was given an overwhelming mandate of 20 million votes, or 70 percent of the total ballots cast. Even Khatami's ardent supporters including imprisoned journalists - are beginning to question the moderate cleric. One leading journalist, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, wrote an open letter asking Khatami to either stand up to his conservative foes or step aside and let others do so.
Despite the fraying coalition of reformists and the successful conservative crackdown, Iran's population numbers and hostility toward the ruling conservative establishment act like a ticking clock to Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri's heirs. The country's overwhelmingly young population (more than two-thirds are under the age of 30, and half are under 21) are beginning to overtly show their frustration with the status quo. Confrontations between students and Iran's morals police - aggressive government-backed purveyors of a narrow religious morality - are on the rise. What's more, popular frustration with clerics is evident all over the country. Taxis routinely refuse to pick up clerics, and jokes about clerics - usually centering on greed and corruption are circulating widely.
Clearly, the conservative establishment has no popular mandate. What is less clear is the extent to which they are willing to back their crackdown with force. So far, large-scale violence has been avoided. Iran's reformists continue to turn the other cheek. Also less than clear is the loyalty of rank-and-file soldiers, the majority of whom reportedly favor reform. Alas, Iranian history reminds us that Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri's opposition met with mixed results. Though the cleric and his supporters (including Russia) managed to beat back the Constitutionalists in the early stage of the struggle, Nouri paid a dear price later. In the summer of 1909, in a moment of Constitutionalist ascendancy, Nouri was hanged by a cheering crowd.
Afshin Molavi is a journalist based in Tehran, Iran. His work has appeared in the Washington Post.