Iranians, especially young Iranians, voted for change last week. At a polling station reserved for women in working-class South Tehran, 18-year-old Mitra Allaverdi picked "new faces" for Iran's Parliament. "I think all the men elected before did not do good things for us," she said. Downtown near the old American Embassy (still called "the nest of spies"), graduate student Ramazan Ali said proudly, "I'm shaping my future with my own hands." Across town at the Jalili Mosque, 19-year-old Somaya Arabi said, "God willing, these elections will stop the country from being ruined. If only the politicians will keep their promises."
In Iran, as elsewhere, that's an enormous "if." The ultraconservative mullahs who have dominated the Islamic revolution will not easily be overturned. Led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, officially the "Supreme Leader," they may not have the numbers of popular supporters they once had, but they've still got the guns, the courts and the secret police in their hands. The risk of violence--of chaos--lurks just beneath the political surface. As Washington knows, the stability of the entire Middle East depends on stability in Iran. President Clinton's hopes for a new "constructive partnership" with Tehran, announced last week, can work only if the spirit at the polls becomes the policy of the government.
No politicians, even those in Iran who think they get their authority from God, could fail to see the quiet passion of the people who crowded around the ballot boxes last Friday. Their faith was in democracy. At least 30 million voted, more than 75 percent of the electorate. The final tallies won't be in until later this week, but government sources told NEWSWEEK trends indicate a resounding victory for the coalition supporting President Mohammed Khatami. Since he came to office on May 23, 1997, a date every Iranian remembers, Khatami has promised a "civil society" with more freedom, clearer justice and greater tolerance than Iran has known in the past 20 years--or ever.
Clearly a revolution is at hand, but rarely has one looked so much like a picnic. Balloting was secret if you wanted it to be, but few people seemed to care. There were no booths or curtains, and whole families got into the act. Schoolchildren helped their grandmothers fill out the complicated ballots. Even toddlers pretended to be scratching names onto lists. Able to vote at 16, adolescents turned out in force. "Young people should have more freedom," said Morteza Abedi, an 18-year-old tailor supporting his family in a working-class neighborhood. In a country with more than 35 percent unemployment, "young people should be able to get jobs," he said.
Whatever the people of Iran may want, however, none of their freedoms are guaranteed. In fact, their future is very much up for grabs. As Khamenei and Khatami square off, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is trying to maneuver between them. Conservatives are looking to him to stop the reforms; some of Khatami's supporters hope he will be able to consolidate them. Most likely, he will push to dilute them. He knows that, desperate as many Iranians are for change, they are also afraid it will come too fast and, like an overheated engine, the country will blow. Nobody who lived through the years of suffering and conflict that followed the overthrow of the shah wants to go through that kind of violent upheaval again.
"We have a controlled democracy," said Mohammad Atrianfar, editor of Tehran's most popular daily, Hamshari. It is a system of clerical rule where the Supreme Leader, an ayatollah, is head of state; a system of checks with no balances. There is a president and a Parliament. But committees dominated by mullahs have the last word on lawmaking and elections. In case that message was lost, hundreds of candidates, many of them reformers, were barred from running in the elections. Others were taken to court and sentenced to jail on trumped-up charges. To give Iranians the kind of freedoms many thought they voted for, the whole system would have to be changed. Yet even to talk about such measures risks violent reprisals.
The movement begun on May 23, 1997, is an epic," said Atrianfar. "It has a hero [President Khatami] who represents everything good. He wins battles. But most epics, you'll recall, end in tragedy. What do we do to keep this epic from ending in tragedy?" That is the question.
Not everyone believes tragedy is inevitable. Reformers in Iran, as in most other countries, have large ambitions but seek to achieve them slowly and carefully by working within the existing system. "We don't look at the Parliament as if it's going to solve all the problems in one night," said Mohammed-Reza Khatami. The president's youngest brother, he heads the ticket of the Islamic Iran Participation Front. His party received widespread support at the polls, and will probably lead the majority. "That's the difference between reform and revolution. If the Parliament takes us a few steps forward, we are happy." Khatami and other reformers in Parliament intend to push for still more freedom of expression, a policy that has served them well in the last three years (sidebar). Now they want to liberate not only magazines and newspapers, but television and radio too. They also intend to change the election laws, which currently limit official campaigning to one week and discourage political parties. "We think if we want to implant democracy we need independent institutions like parties and syndicates," said Mohammed-Reza Khatami.
The reformers have a foreign-policy agenda too. President Khatami has pursued policies aimed at peaceful coexistence with the West; his brother thinks the new Parliament should support them. Does that include relations with the United States? "Even if we do not resume diplomatic relations we can reduce animosity," Mohammed-Reza Khatami said. "Of course, this is part of the process of restoring relations." His brother promoted many of the U.S.-Iran cultural exchanges of the past two years that have slightly warmed relations between the two countries; wrestlers, filmmakers and football players have gone back and forth. Iran is also interested in buying agricultural products, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment from America. "We have prepared the ground for investment in the oil industry," Mohammed-Reza Khatami said--important ground indeed in a country where oil accounts for more than 85 percent of exports. "But I think the problem is in the United States."
A bigger problem, in fact, may be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. When speaking of him, reformers like the president's brother chose their words carefully. "The person who makes the final decision is the Supreme Leader," Mohammed-Reza Khatami told NEWSWEEK. "Of course, his highness will take into account public opinion and what people think."
Many in Iran are skeptical. They think the Khatamis--and those who vote for them--are naive. "The Iranian people are making emotional decisions," said 30-year-old civil engineer Behrouz Zafaris as he cast his ballot last week. "And it's a pity, because we are going through troubled times." Ezatollah Sahabi, one of Iran's most respected political activists, is more direct: "President Khatami is not a power, really. He has dignity and he's also popular. But he does not have the tools to do what he wants to do."
Before last week's elections, even some of President Khatami's closest supporters talked openly of their frustration with him. The popular former mayor of Tehran, Gholamhussein Karbaschi, was tried, convicted and eventually jailed on corruption charges. Then Khatami's Interior minister, Abdullah Nouri, was impeached by the conservative Parliament, put on trial for political offenses and sentenced to three years in jail. Khatami seemed unable--and possibly unwilling--to protect his people. "He's shy by nature and didn't want to get into this," Karbaschi said.
Certainly Khatami did not want to be provoked. With most of the tools of government in the hands of his political rivals, he is a president forced to wage a dangerous campaign of passive resistance. But Khatami is no pushover, either. The son and grandson of powerful ayatollahs, he was a longtime proteg??? of the Imam Khomeini. When he is really cornered, he knows how to move. As veteran opposition politician Ibrahim Yazdi said, "He knows the art of covert negotiations behind the scene."
Over the past year the president has been fighting a bitter battle over the rule of law. His formidable foe: the fearsome Ministry of Intelligence. In November and December 1998 four intellectuals were murdered in Tehran. There was no immediate reaction from Khatami, and panic spread among the writers and artists who had supported the new president. They knew that in the Islamic Republic secular nationalists and left-wing intellectuals could be considered infidels whose murder might not even be considered a crime. "We are apart from the system," said novelist Houshang Golshiri. "When they want to attack somebody, they always attack us."
But Khatami saw the murders as a direct assault on all he stood for. "Killing the intellectuals was like declaring war on the Khatami government," said his brother. Khatami's camp was not without resources. Among the president's supporters are several seasoned veterans of intelligence work. Saeed Hajarian, whom many consider the eminence grise of the Participation Front, was one of the founders of the Islamic revolution's intelligence service. Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-pour, one of Participation's parliamentary candidates, masterminded Iranian operations in Lebanon during the 1980s, when Hizbullah began targeting American forces there. Mohammed-Reza Khatami would not give details, but "some people inside the Ministry of Intelligence found out who was killing the intellectuals," he said. President Khatami had the killers all arrested, and forced the resignation of Minister of Intelligence Dori Najaf Abadi, who was appointed by the Supreme Leader.
The affair quickly exploded into the worst crisis Khatami had faced and exposed the fault lines between reformers and conservatives. The confessed leader of the assassins was a U.S.-trained aeronautical engineer and veteran intelligence officer named Saeed Emami. Arrested on Jan. 25 last year, he was reported to have killed himself in prison by swallowing a bottle of the hair remover inmates are normally given in Iranian jails. Then one of Tehran's leading pro-Khatami newspapers, Salaam, published a memo Emami wrote a few weeks before the killing of the intellectuals. It called for more censorship and restrictions on the press. This is exactly what many of the Supreme Leader's followers were doing at the time: the implicit suggestion was that those who attacked the press would stop at nothing.
That was about right. The publisher of Salaam, Mohammed Mussavei Khoeiniha, was himself a mullah who had been the spiritual leader of the students who took diplomats hostage inside the "nest of spies" in 1979. His "revolutionary credentials" were impeccable. But he was put on trial by the Khamenei-controlled Special Court for Clerics, which accused him of publishing classified documents. The paper was shut down.
Outraged students staged a sit-in protest against Salaam's closure. Police were quick to retaliate, breaking into dormitories, along with armed thugs, to rough up the students and ransack their rooms.
It was too much. Suddenly, Tehran erupted. Cars were burning. Chants of protest echoed through the streets: "Thugs commit the crimes, and the leader supports them." Gunshots rang out and sirens wailed along downtown avenues. For several hours the city seemed on the brink of chaos. Khamenei and Khatami worked together to restore calm, but that was only a temporary truce. It was a lesson to all sides about how close they were to the edge.
For the conservatives, the trouble proved that Khatami was bad news. "The hardliners had announced that if Khatami came to power there would not be any security in the country," said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, one of the Participation Front's seven women candidates in Tehran. "They used the student demonstrations to prove they were right." The liberals quickly saw they were vulnerable. "It got out of control," said Meysam Saidi, another Participation candidate. Since then, he said, "the student movement has realized that if we want Khatami to continue we must [push for reform] in peace."
It may be too late for that. In the aftermath of the July riots, former president Rafsanjani presented himself as the man who could bring order back to Iran. A mullah with no great rank as a cleric, Rafsanjani built his career on his close ties to the powerful business interests of the Iranian bazaar and his ability to carry out the political will of the Ayatollah Khomeini as speaker of Parliament during the first decade of the revolution. After Khomeini's death in 1988, Rafsanjani became president and ruled Iran like a ward boss through patronage, manipulation and intimidation. He rebuilt the country after its war with Iraq, and some members of his family got so rich in the process that corruption allegations have plagued him ever since.
Yet some of Khatami's important allies are also staunch supporters of Rafsanjani. "He has a stronger personality [than Khatami]," former mayor Karbaschi told NEWSWEEK. "Even if Mr. Khatami's supporters have a clear majority in Parliament, he will not be able to do much more than he has been doing so far," Karbaschi said, since both the Supreme Leader and the religious Council of Guardians can veto Parliament's laws. Rafsanjani supposedly wants reforms, too, but has a better sense of how to work with other parts of the government.
That could be important for the United States if diplomacy is ever going to move beyond the level of cultural exchanges. Given all of Khatami's other travails, Western diplomats don't think he can or will spend the political capital that full normalization would require. According to one European envoy in Tehran, "There's a view in intelligence circles that Khatami has agreed not to confront the conservatives" over the issue of improving U.S.-Iran relations. If Rafsanjani were speaker of the new Parliament, as many people expect he will be, he might act as the go-between who brings Khamenei and Khatami together, then Iran and the United States.
Mention Rafsanjani's name to Iran's young voters, however, and they grimace. At 65, he is among the oldest of old faces, precisely the man they think "did not do good things for us." When Rafsanjani's party, Agents of Reconstruction, held youth rallies during the campaign it didn't even display his picture. His daughter Faizah Hashemi, who is running for reelection to Parliament, was the member of the family chosen to speak to the crowd. Can Khatami and Rafsanjani--the Epic Hero and the Ward Boss--work together? It's not a romantic ending, but it wouldn't be a tragedy either. And it might just be the best way for Iran's much-loved president to keep his promises.