Three months ago, Iran's democratic reformers overwhelmingly swept Parliamentary elections, proclaimed a new era of reform, and basked in the cheers of a triumphant voting public. In last week's opening session of Parliament, they were just happy to take their seats.
Shortly after the elections, Iran's still powerful conservatives orchestrated a concerted campaign against the country's fledgling reform movement, closing pro-democracy newspapers, jailing leading reformers, and nullifying several reformist Parliament election victories. The early reformist euphoria was tempered by a bitter reality: Iran's conservatives were raring for a fight.
"It has been a long three months," said newly-elected Parliament member Ahmad Bourghani. "We are glad that the people's vote has been respected despite the delay. Now, its time to get to work."
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who was overwhelmingly elected in May 1997 on a platform of political and social liberalization, said the new MPs bear "a grave responsibility." He urged the Parliament to help the government in its efforts to boost Iran's "sick economy" and institutionalize democratic reforms.
The outgoing conservative-dominated Parliament proved to be a major obstacle to Khatami's liberal reform efforts. The pattern had become familiar to Iran observers: Khatami would extol freedom of the press, the parliament would respond by passing draconian press laws; Khatami would call for greater transparency in government, Parliament would pass laws granting immunity to senior conservative officials.
As a result, there is little institutionalization of reform by way of legislation other than a handful of presidential executive orders. "For us, dealing with a Parliament that went against every one of our goals was extremely difficult," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Khatami's chief of staff. "That's why we are looking forward to working with the new parliament to institutionalize some of our reforms."
Still, Iran's reformers face stiff obstacles and must learn the age-old political art of compromise. The choice of the new Speaker of Parliament, Mehdi Karrubi, is a good example. Karrubi, a formerly radical cleric who led the highly controversial anti-US and anti-Israel rallies during the annual Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca, is now a member of a group of reformist clerics, which includes President Khatami.
"Karrubi is not our first choice," said one reformist MP, who asked not to be named. "But since he is a cleric and an old friend of the late Imam (Ayatollah Khomeini), we agreed that he would make for a strategic choice as Speaker." The leading reformist faction, known as the Iran Islamic Participation Front (IIPF) led by Khatami's brother, has no senior posts in the Parliament despite their commanding position. All told, the reformist coalition owns more than 200 of the 253 confirmed seats, with 47 remaining for final approval. Of those 200 seats, 150 are claimed by the IIPF, which prompted many reformists to call for the Speaker to come from the ranks of the IIPF.
Karrubi, however, has the blessing of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has virtual veto power on all matters of state. Khamenei, a conservative cleric who is suspicious of some of the secular tendencies of IIPF members, has nevertheless stepped in to help reformists at critical junctures. Most recently, he demanded that a conservative-dominated election supervisory body ratify the recent reformist election victory after months of foot-dragging.
Aides close to Khamenei say that he became uneasy after the Parliament elections and the gloating rhetoric of reformists. As a result, he sought to slow down the process by looking the other way as newspapers were shut down and liberal reformers were jailed. In a delicate balancing act, the Supreme Leader is seeking to manage the reforms before they could potentially overwhelm the system, many analysts feel.
Karrubi, the new Parliament speaker, belongs to a class of radical, leftist clerics that were shunted aside in 1992 in a power play orchestrated by then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was widely seen as a centrist and pragmatic moderate. From 1981 to 1992, Karrubi led the dominant radical faction in Iran's Parliament. This group was characterized by a militant anti-US stance and leftist economic policies. Their main opposition group was more pro-business and equally xenophobic and hegemonic.
Neither group supported liberalization of Iran's rigid political system. After Karrubi's fall from power in 1992, Iran's conservatives began to dominate Parliament - until today. Several reformists have already said that they plan to overturn the country's tough press laws and legalize the private use of satellite dishes, currently only used by government officials and an increasing number of upper middle-class families willing to pay the potential heavy fines. They also have talked about breaking "the monopoly" of conservative power, without specifying which institutions they are referring to. Currently, the conservatives exert overwhelming influence on state-run radio and television, the security services, and the judiciary.
Reformists say that Karrubi, like many former radicals, has sincerely changed his views. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, he indicated that he favors a less restrictive social policy, lamenting the intrusions into people's personal lives by police who enter homes looking for legally prohibited items like alcohol. He also echoed many of the themes that have made Khatami popular.
"From our view, reform means freedom of thought and participation as well as the rule of law and no monopolization of economics or politics," Karrubi said in the interview. Iran's reformers, though pleased by their election results in February, were chastened by the conservative reaction. As a result, they are displaying a willingness to move forward in a more careful, plodding manner.
Still, most reformists interviewed said that this tactical shift should not be viewed as surrender. They all indicated that they plan to move forward with their platform of political and social liberalization, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and democratic reform. During a recent Tehran strategy session of reformists, one speaker stood up and said: "We will do this for however long it takes. We won't back down. We are here to stay."
Afshin Molavi is a journalist based in Tehran, Iran. His work has appeared in the Washington Post.