Letter From Iran
by Patricia Smith
The Nation magazine, Feb. 28,
In a gritty neighborhood of South Teheran
not long ago, Iran's animated opposition movement gathered at
a mosque to mark a grim occasion. It was November 23, a year since
state security agents assassinated Dariush Foruhar, the longtime
leader of an old, outlawed party of left-liberal nationalists.
In the courtyard, pictures of Foruhar were wreathed in flowers.
Koranic chants wafted over the crowd from the mosque's arched
entrance. In the course of an overcast winter afternoon, several
thousand mourners came, conversed and went. Outside the gates,
the Islamic government's goons might as well have worn sandwich
As snapshots go, this one is rich in revealing
detail. The mosque is sanctuary in Iran; by tradition, not even
the shah or the police could invade it. And it is in the inviolable
space provided by the mosque that Iranians now gather to rethink
a revolution that, after deposing the last shah in 1979, has put
the mosque before all else. Across a sea of faces-some fresh from
university dorms, some with fifty years of politics etched into
them-you see mourning remade as anticipation. Foruhar and his
wife died of stab wounds, the first in a wave of murders since
traced to zealots in the Intelligence Ministry. And now, a year
later, the mood is something close to jubilant. Killing Foruhar
gave Iranians another image of themselves, another face to remind
them of what they aspire to be.
On the eve of elections to the Majlis,
as Iranians call their national assembly, this nation survives
on a bittersweet diet of impatience and exhilaration. Since the
stunning victory of President Mohammad Khatami three years ago,
the desire for civil, social and political reform has been as
evident as the snowcapped peaks that surround Teheran. But Khatami
bears two decades of "political Islam" on his back.
He lives in an all but unworkable cohabitation, as the French
say, with a conservative majority in the Majlis and a hierarchy
of orthodox ayatollahs whose powers supersede his own: divine
law above civil law. The polls scheduled for February 18 will
do little to alter the President's uneasy relations with the clerical
establishment. But if Iranians elect a reformist majority, as
they almost certainly will, Khatami and the "civil society"
movement gathered behind him will have their first real chance
to alter Iran.
There is far more than a new political
equation at stake. What is the place of the clergy, and of the
popular will, in the Islamic Republic's political structure? More
specifically, where should power reside-in an elected legislature
and the civil code it produces, or in religious authorities who
preside above both? These are not easy questions-not in a nation
that has given the ulema, the religious authorities, a place at
the political table since 1500, and not now, when defenders of
the Islamic Republic assert vigorously that they have resolved
Iran's longstanding conundrums.
To his credit, Khatami has not only articulated
these questions anew; he has encouraged Iranians to answer them
through a kind of national reinvention. Reformists have been at
work in Iran for more than a decade, long before Khatami's rise
to prominence. But Khatami has given them direction and coherence.
And in the elections this month, the inchoate process of re-imagining
Iran stands to be confirmed-implicitly, at least-as the nation's
stated direction. "Iran is pregnant. We are expecting,"
says Ebrahim Yazdi, a reformist of many years' standing. "All
the hustle and bustle, all the back and forth you see every day-these
are the labor pains."
The labor pains have come frequently since
Khatami assumed office in 1997. Orthodox ulema control the judiciary
and maintain close ties with the police and security bureaucracies.
Through these, they have engaged in a pitched guerrilla war with
Iran's newly invigorated press, which has been essential to the
advance of reformist thinking [see Geneive Abdo, "Publish,
Then Perish," November 29, 1999]. Along with journalists,
publishers, students, reformist officials and others, an unknown
number of liberal ayatollahs now languish in Evin prison, a gruesome
sprawl in tony North Teheran that is left over from the era of
the shahs. Notable among the incarcerated is Abdullah Nouri, who
was Khatami's interior minister until the Majlis impeached him,
and a newspaper publisher until he was jailed and his paper closed.
Charged with heresy, Nouri began a five-year sentence late last
Nobody here is under any illusion that
this month's elections will transform Iran overnight. Constitutional
revision is essential if Iran is even to modify the concept of
velayat, or religious guardianship. And however the elections
turn out, rewriting the basic law will be no easier here than
it would be anywhere else. Civil institutions are few and weak.
The last shahs-the deposed Mohammed and his father, Reza - built
few and destroyed many during their half-century in power, with
the modest exception of those needed to keep the small, Westernized
elite minimally content. Even the press, though its influence
has been immensely positive, has little notion of disinterest:
Papers function less as common social assets than as substitutes
for political parties, which are banned.
The economy is in rough shape, too: Last
year it contracted marginally, and will grow only modestly this
year. Inflation, now at roughly 25 percent annually, is chronic;
the rial, which traded at about 70 to the dollar before the revolution,
now trades at almost 9,000 on the black market. Khatami has carefully-and
wisely, one must conclude-made social and political reform his
priority. Iran's oil and gas reserves have saved it from economic
calamity, and the sanctions Washington continues to insist upon
are crumbling; at this point they isolate the United States more
than Iran. But the economy needs serious attention, particularly
in view of Iran's extraordinary demographics: Three-quarters of
its 60 million people are under 35, half are under 20. This is
potentially a time bomb. Unemployment is already running at 20
Iran's youth, however, are more an asset
than a liability. They have lent vitality and momentum to the
reformist project. Indeed, after renewed student demonstrations
last summer, Khatami must worry that however bloody his battles
with the orthodox ulema, he will have trouble riding the tiger
he has helped unleash if he fails to satisfy the younger generation's
expectations. This reflects one of the revolution's larger ironies.
For the majority of Iranians-poor, of traditional backgrounds
and beliefs-its social impact has been unquestionably positive.
Literacy has climbed sharply, for instance. And women have made
some of the most striking gains: They are now prominent in the
work force and an important political force. The university population,
less than 25 percent women in 1979, is now 55 percent women. Another
feature of post-revolutionary Iran is also at work: The nation's
drift to the cities has been swift and without letup. At the moment
of the revolution, the urban population tipped from 49 percent
of the total to 51 percent; it is now approaching two-thirds.
For the first time in history, a majority of Iranians have never
known the village mosque or sought the guidance of the local ulema.
Anticipating the elections, the conservative
bloc in the Majlis has done much to manipulate the process. Not
surprisingly, the conservatives began with the voting age: Last
year they I raised it from 15 to 16, which probably cost the reformist
slate close to 1.5 million votes. The Guardian Council, a clerical
body authorized to vet political slates on the basis of their
Islamic credentials, went to work in January, disqualifying roughly
10 percent of the 6,700 candidates who intended to run for the
These measures have hobbled the opposition,
and Khatami's caution in dealing with his adversaries is evident.
Everyone in the reformist camp is forced to speak in code. But
the price paid by the conservative ayatollahs is even greater.
Iran is a nation of believers; the ulema have enjoyed close ties
with the populace for centuries. It was because of their influence
among ordinary Iranians that the clergy was able to consolidate
its power in the years after the revolution. But by failing to
register the many social changes, the ulema have lost the old
This is a momentous break, and the numbers
one hears confirm it: Assuming the elections are fair, reformist
candidates stand to take at least the 70 percent of the vote that
carried Khatami to power three years ago. In the major cities-Teheran,
Isfahan, Shiraz and others-the figure could approach 100 percent.
These estimates are consistent and credible. Iranians are not
merely restless; they are also engaged. Spend an hour on any street
in Teheran and it becomes perfectly clear that this is a nation
that has gone far beyond the ideals of the revolution's remaining
Apparently mindful of their isolation,
Teheran's hard-liners now appear to be seeking the strongest minority
position they can get in the next Majlis. Yes, there's still plenty
of talk of blasphemy and betrayal at the huge Friday prayer meeting
in Teheran, always a reliable measure of the conservatives' latest
concerns. And yes, the Guardian Council has eliminated some important
political leaders. But the council chose its victims with unexpected
caution; it even allowed some candidates back into the campaign
by way of an appeals process. Elsewhere, the courts have begun
to ameliorate some of their most provocative decisions. In mid-January,
they reduced the sentence of two Teheran University students jailed
last year after publishing a play that made light of Islamic tradition-a
celebrated case. A few days later, supreme leader Ali Khamenei
pardoned Ghol'amhossein Karbaschi, Teheran's popular, innovative
mayor until he was jailed last year on concocted embezzlement
It looks a lot like pre-election politics,
but the implications are larger than that. The conservative consensus,
which has held through twenty years of sanctions and an eight-year
war with Iraq, is coming unwound. In effect, the Islamic revolution
has come face to face with the contradiction at its core. Few
here question the necessity of the revolution; nostalgia is limited
to the affluent quarters of North Teheran, and even there it is
generally accepted that the revolution was intended to give voice
not to the modernized few but to the un-modern many. But therein
lies the conundrum: The revolution gave Iranians a sense of identity
they never had under the shahs, but identity begins with the individual.
The revolutionaries set out to build a moral society, but morality
always begins within the individual conscience.
The rule of law, an unfettered press,
civic institutions, tolerance and social justice: These are the
components of the reformist agenda. And the orthodox ulema might
have frustrated every one of these aspirations if they were all
the reformists had on the table. But Khatami and his supporters
speak, above all, for a change in consciousness, and there is
no turning back from that. At the core of the reformists' thinking
is a transformation of the sacred space created by the revolution-Iran
as a place of religious observance, as a mosque and its courtyard-to
the public space of a modern nation. This is not only a matter
of new parks, markets and modern housing-although these have been
part of the reformist project in Teheran and other cities- but
also of the construction of public space within, in people's heads.
That is why newspapers have been the essential tools of the reformists.
The endeavor is to redefine Iran by helping Iranians redefine
The igniting spark in this process does
not derive from one figure or any group. After a century of top-down
modernization strategies, it appears to come from deep within.
Khatami, who is 56 and an intellectual of broad learning, is an
original thinker. Like Havel, like Mandela, he is capable of breaking
molds. It is a rare faculty among political figures of his prominence,
and Khatami has used it to offer Iranians a new perspective on
themselves and their place in the post-cold war world. For more
than a century Iran has wandered between a worship of the West
and its opposite, the vigorous xenophobia evident at the height
of revolutionary fervor in the eighties. The missing ingredient
has always been self-confidence, and this is Khatami's gift. He
has broken the spell cast by the West, and with it the cycle of
modern Iranian history: We know ourselves well enough to accept
influences from the West without risking "Westoxicity,"
as Khatami puts it. And we are certain enough of our own traditions
to avoid imprisoning ourselves within them. Khatami's message
has changed the essential question posed by the revolution. "What
does it mean to be Islamic?" has been transformed into "What
does it mean to be Iranian?"
The answer to this-who Iranians will be-is
not clear, and won't be anytime soon. Reformist thinkers say their
full agendas must remain hidden for now-and in this they include
Khatami's. This month's elections will almost certainly create
the space within which Khatami and his followers can make more
of their thinking known, but the political and social evolution
they propose, they readily acknowledge, is the project of a generation.
Will Iran develop a secular democracy?
It could: It had one briefly in the early fifties, under Prime
Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, before a US-inspired coup destroyed
it, and the Mossadegh era is a universal point of reference among
Iranians today. Will the country develop a wholly new relationship
between church and state, a relationship that reflects Iran's
history instead of the West's? That is possible, too. Iranians
are prepared to engage such questions. Are we in the West? Without
meaning to, Iranians raise that question, too.
Patrick Smith was a correspondent abroad
for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune.
He is working on a new book.
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