Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

June 2000 (Vol. XXIV No. 3)


Conservatives, Liberals and the Struggle Over Iranian Politics
By Shah Alam *


The emergence of various factions in the Iranian political spectrum and their grouping into two major blocs signalled the evolution of bifactional polity–Conservatives and Liberals. The Iranian polity is heading towards pluralistic political culture but the slow process of political socialisation has delayed the emergence of formal political parties. With Khatami's victory in the Presidential election in 1997, many hoped that participation in the system would be open and the ban on party activity would be lifted. However, the establishment of parties by various factions and civil groups is a direct threat to clerical control of the regime. It will further accentuate problems for the theory of divine legitimacy of the regime which was founded on a dual legitimacy, religious and political and this was coalesced by Imam Khomeini. The constitution, Imam Khomeini's words and actions and the political crisis since his death have resulted in the political aspect coming in the way of defining the role of religion. Politics is now superseding religion, and this will shake the foundation of the regime. These two opposite tendencies will accelerate complexities in the politics of post-revolutionary Iran.

Sayyid Muhammad Khatami's election as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran in May 1997 has explicitly shown the emergence of bifactional polity in the political spectrum of Iran, and is heading towards a more open and democratic society. By electing Muhammad Khatami as President of Iran, the people have expressed their desire for change since they regarded him before the election as an agent of change. The recent political development has shown that two different tendencies are emerging in the Iranian polity. This changing political scenario of Iran is a reflection of internal pressures and the effect of economic liberalisation during the Rafsanjani era which continues under Khatami. The era of Khatami is perceived as a liberal era in the matter of freedom of expression and political activities which were stifled by the regime since its inception.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution was carried out by an ideologically diverse coalition cutting across class lines and ideological differences. The principal reason which brought all factional groups of society on a common platform was diehard and uncompromising opposition to the Pahlavi regime–of Muhammad Reza Shah. It was the time when diverse sections of society sank their differences (like the 1905-6 Constitutional Revolution in opposition to a despotic monarch) overthrew the monarchy, and the Islamic Republic was installed in Iran. From the very beginning, the Iranian Islamic Revolution's theme and content was based on dual legitimacy–religious and political, through the concept of Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of Jurisprudent). It indicated that the highest authority of Iran, Rahbar (Leader) should be both marja e-taqled (source of emulation) and the political leader, who understands his time" (agah ba Zaman), and could henceforth lead a mass movement. The 1979 revolution was directed against the monarchy and by voting for "an Islamic Republic the people had opted to limit their future selection within the boundaries of the new theocracy". 1 At any level, if anyone challenged the notion of the cleric's rule, that person was excluded from political life. This allowed the system to continue on ideological lines.

This phase of freedom of expression and politically active life was ephemeral; consequently dissensions and conflicts quickly came to the surface and polity was broadly divided into two major groups: "Liberals" or "Moderates" on the one side and "Conservatives" or "Militants" on the other. From the very inception of the Islamic Republic, the struggle to control the embryonic state polity began between the conservatives and liberals, but ultimately the race to control it was won by the conservatives under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. The hostage crisis in Tehran in November 1979, and the eruption of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980 strengthened the hand of the radicals and militants. It sealed the fate of the liberals, and stopped the liquidation of the new regime as anticipated by the neighbouring countries, USA and the West. The imposed Iran-Iraq war squarely sealed the fate of the liberals, and any type of dissension was dealt with an iron hand.

At the outset, the clergy employed various means to exclude the "liberal enemies of the revolution". The fight between liberals and conservatives to control politics commenced at the very beginning, since the birth of the Islamic Revolution. The ethnic uprising, like the Kurdish unrest that had challenged the central authority of the Islamic Republic since 1979 and which had the support of some radical-militant groups, coming on top of the national security crisis due to Iraq's invasion of Iran in September 1980, provided an opportunity to stifle dissent. The cleric's exclusionary acts provoked both peaceful and violent reactions from political organisations such as the Mojahedin-e Khalq. The confrontation came to the surface and violence perpetrated by both sides led to further suppression of freedom and a complete intolerance of diversity of thought and expression entered the political spectrum.

By mid-1982, suppression and repression reached their zenith and the Iranian polity was sharply divided and polarised. It resulted in massive repression, both at the social and political levels. The new regime was tightening its control over society by imposing restrictions on the activities of various groups which were perceived as enemies of the revolution and who then might threaten the clerical hegemony over Iranian politics. Those who had opposed the clerical rule either went into exile or restricted their public appearances and activities; "as more than a million people–many outspoken and sworn enemies of the regime left the country". 2 Those in the opposition who remained in Iran went into oblivion. The political life of the country sank into atrophy, and finally elimination of the various civil groups which were considered anti-revolution took place. The clerical consolidation of power was accentuated by the development of malleable and fluid factions within the governing elite. 3 The Iran-Iraq war helped the clergy in the consolidation of power over the central government. The outbreak of war created the necessity for the regime to mobilise the masses for the war. This helped the radical, economically leftist factions to assume positions of power in the government. Their influence led to a relative loosening of restrictions in some areas.

Mir Hossein Musavi, who assumed power as Prime Minister in October 1981 had a relatively liberal attitude towards culture and polity. Musavi and his council of Ministers were associated with a faction that can be called "modern left". The feature of this faction is that it has less restrictive attitudes towards culture. Muhammad Khatami, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) (1982-92) was considered to be a liberal minister who helped in the development of a more open cultural atmosphere. This liberal attitude towards culture was not liked by the conservative factions but they could not do anything because the Musavi government enjoyed the support of Ayatollah Khomeini. However, the conservative's criticism of MCIG, supported by Ayatollah Khamenei, left no option for Muhammad Khatami but to resign in 1992 from his post.

Factionalism in politics prevents the emergence of one centre of power and restricts the ability of the state to act autonomously in respect to civil society. While various factions compete for political power, they seek approval from different societal groups who in exchange, place their specific demands on the factions. In such factional polity, demands gain institutional dimensions, and lead towards pluralistic politics, a strong civil society and eliminate the sharp distinction between the state and society as opposing entities. Theoretically, diversity exists in pluralistic society, which ensures political pluralism. So, Khatami is making an effort to achieve a pluralistic society for the realisation of political pluralism.



The defeat of Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the speaker of the Majlis in the May 1997 Presidential election, who was supported by the conservative faction, at the hands of his arch-rival, Muhammad Khatami, who was considered a liberal and was backed by various factions and groups, severely jolted the conservative establishment. This fierce competition can be considered in the context of an Islamic pluralism that has evolved during the history of the Islamic movement in Iran. The pluralism has contributed to the development of political factions in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, and especially after the dissolution of the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) in June 1987. The 1989 revised constitution delineated the parameters of this pluralism. The polarisation of Iranian politics and its division into two major blocks has explicitly given an impression of bifactional polity. Various groups and factions of society are moving towards vertical division into two groups of the political spectrum. One of these organisations is Jame'eye Ruhaniyat-e Mobarez (JRM) (Association of the Militant Clergy of Tehran), it represents the right-wing conservatives. The second is Majma-e Ruhaniyun-e Mobarez (MRM) (Assembly of the Combatant Clergy of Tehran) which is considered "Liberal" or "Moderate" and has a less restrictive attitude towards culture and polity. The impression of bifactional polity was strengthened by the domination of the representatives of one or the other of these two groups in the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Majlis sessions. Election of the Fifth Majlis in March and April 1996 has provided an ample parameter to gauge "the shifting balance of power between liberals and conservatives in Iranian politics." 4 From the very beginning, both groups have been loosely organised and have represented different segments of society, have different views, but not unified stand on all matters.

With the passage of time, new terms have been developed in the Iranian political culture that represent different factions. At present, there are four active factions in Iranian politics which are divided between two groups, and represent two different tendencies. The institutional expression of these two competing tendencies was explicitly reflected in the May 1997 Presidential election. These four factions are Rast-e Sunnati (Traditional Right), Rast-e Modern (Modern Right), Rast-e Efrati (Radical Right), and Chap (Left). The first and the third factions represent the conservative's bloc, and the second and fourth form the liberal's bloc in the Iranian political context. Each faction consists of small groups, brings out its own newspapers and is supported by religious leaders and eminent politicians. All these factions profess Islam and follow the Islamic culture, and express their commitment to adhere to the principles of the constitution. Only those are allowed to participate in the political process who accept and adhere to the notion of the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent) which is the basic concept of the Iranian political system. For instance, the leader of the Freedom Movement of Iran, Ibrahim Yazdi, refused to accept the basic concept of the Iranian political system in the last Presidential election, so, he was disqualified. It is the responsibility of the Council of Guardians to enforce this rule. More than 200 candidates alongwith Yazdi were disqualified from participating in the Presidential election of 1997.

The Rast-e Sunnati (Traditional Right) which is an ally of Jam'eye Ruhaniyat-e Mobarez (Association of the Militant Clergy of Tehran), favours free market, cultural conservatism, and social traditionalism. The powerful Jame'eye Modarressin Hawzeh Elmiyeye Qum (Association of the Teachers of Qum Seminary) and Jamiyat-e Mutalefe-e Islami (Islamic Coalition Society) comprise various guild and merchant groups. The Jamiyat-e Mutalefe-e Islami is dominated by the Bazarris (the traditional merchant class) and its members want heavy restrictions on cultural issues. The views of this faction are reflected in the newspapers Resalat, Shoma, and Farda. Its supporters are the speaker of the Majlis, Nateq-Nuri, the head of Imam Sadeq University Muhammad Reza Mahdari Kani, the head of the judicial branch Muhammad Yazdi, ex-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayti, Javad Larijani, Muhammad Reza Bahonar, Murtada Nabavi, Habib Asgaroladi, and Abbas Ali Amid Zanjani.

The Rast-e Modern (Modern Right) is also called Janah-e Miyaneh (Modern Faction) which supports Rast-e Sunnati on economic matters, but its adherents prefer a more open and pragmatic approach towards cultural matters, social modernism, and polity. For many years Rast-e Modern has been cooperating with the Rast-e Sunnati, and formed its own faction in the early 1990s. In the election of the Fifth Majlis in 1996, a section of technocrats and officials formed a group, Khedmatgazaran-e Sazandegi (Servants of Construction), but later on its name changed to Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (Executives of Construction) which has drawn many educated Iranians. This organisation was founded by six close associates of the ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani–cabinet ministers, deputy presidents, the president's chief of staff, and the Mayor of Tehran. 5 In the summer of 1998, it was declared a political party and was led by Gholam Hossein Karbaschi. Moreover, the Rast-e Modern has support of the Khane-e Karegar (House of the Worker). Faezeh Rafsanjani, daughter of the ex-President Rafsanjani, Mohsen Nurbakhsh head of the Central Bank, and the newly emerging middle class support this faction. The newspapers Hamshahri, Iran, Akhbar, Kar Va Karegar, and Iran News represent their views.

The Chap (Left): this faction wants political and cultural pluralism, and its adherents favour a more open political and cultural atmosphere. In its cultural outlook, this faction to some extent has been aligned with the secular and liberal elements of society. This faction comprises various prominent groups like Sazman-e Mujahedin-e Enqelab-e Eslami (Organisation of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution), Majma-e Ruhaniyum-e Mobarez (Assembly of the Combatant Clergy of Tehran formed on March 20, 1988 by Mehdi Karrubi and Muhammad Musavi Khoeiniha), Daftar-e Takhim-e Vahdat-e Hawzeh Va Daneshgah (the Office of Strengthening Unity between the University and the Religious Seminaries), Anjoman-e Eslami-e Mudarressin-e Danishgah (the Society of Islamic University Teachers), and the newly founded pro-Khatami party in December 1998, Jabheye Masharekat-e Iran-e Eslami (the Front for Participation in Islamic Iran). The newspaper, Salam, biweekly Asr-e Ma, and the short-lived newspaper Jame'eh and Khordad 6 reflect the views of this faction. The left has support of Mehdi Karrubi, President Khatami, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Behzad Nabavi, and the intelligentsia.

The faction Rast-e Efrati (Radical Right) comprises Revolutionary Guards, and Basiji. 7 The Revolutionary Guards who have been incorporated into the government apparatus, particularly in the Ministry of Jehad for Construction, are the main government contractors. The Basiji have come back to their studies and have become politically more active. The former Intelligence Minister, Muhammad Reyshahri founded an organisation shortly before the Majlis elections 1996; Jamiyat-e Defa'az Arzeshha-ye Enqelab-e Eslami (Society for the Defence of the Values of the Islamic Revolution) constitutes this faction. Another vocal organisation of this faction is the Ansar-e Hezbollah (Helpers of the Party of God) which manifests intense authoritarianism and anti-intellectual positions towards culture and life-styles. This group comprises mostly young men who seek to maintain the Islamic social code and break up any social gatherings which are oriented against the establishment. They also organise street protests and disrupt liberal gatherings. This faction's views are supported by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Mehdi Nassiri, Ahmed Pournejati, Muhammad Reyshahri, and Hossein Allah-Karam. The monthly, Sobh, and the newspapers Kayhan, Shalamche, Arzeshha, and Lesarat al-Hossein represent their ideas.

The pluralism in the institution accentuates political and cultural developments to power struggle among emerging political factions. 8 Although, every faction vowed to uphold Islamic cultural ideals and its code and conduct, yet all consensus vanished when it came to the question of what these ideals were and how to achieve them. Despite their differences on these issues, various groups, subgroups and individuals are divided into two major blocs, the conservatives and liberals. The conservatives represent the puritanical interpretation of Islamic axioms and seek to limit freedom of expression to themes relating to religion and war and not anything to do with politics. They want heavy restrictions and endorse a greater role for official coercive forces in imposing cultural and social mores. 9 Many institutions and groups support them such as the Qum Centre for Religious Studies, members of Bazaar, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Council of Guardians and the prominent members of the judiciary. Basically, the conservatives belong to the older generation of established clerics and come from conservative theological backgrounds. They are less tolerant of voices of dissent.

In the Iranian context, the position of the liberals can be defined and redefined within the paradigm of Islam. Those who are liberals hold their position by accepting the constitution and the political system of Iran. The liberals advocate freedom of expression and a tolerant attitude. They argue in favour of minimum restrictions on art and culture, and say that the advanced technology of the world like worldwide satellite telecommunications, have made the policy of repression and suppression ineffective. 10 Both the liberals and conservatives represent varied generational and theoretical reactions to modernity within the paradigm of Islam. The liberals have emerged in reaction to the conservatives, and at the same time are a product of modernisation and globalisation, 11 which has deeply influenced Iranian society. Both are motivated to establish an alternative system to the secular one. Sociologically speaking, the conservatives belong to the old guard and they have mass following, whereas the liberals generally belong to the middle class and the intelligentsia. The liberals come mostly from the younger generation of upwardly mobile, and better-educated individuals. Although, they are devout Muslims, they think that Islam need not be intolerant. Many government officials who have acquired positions in various government agencies are identified with the liberal position. The liberals advocate Fiqh-e Puya (Dynamic Jurisprudence) whereas the conservatives follow Fiqh-e Sunnati (Traditional Jurisprudence). The liberals argue that "the survival of the Islamic Republic depends on its flexibility and adaptability". 12 The liberals have a pragmatic approach towards the state and society in handling and settling problems. The conservatives follow the Islam of seminaries and old schools, while the liberals echo the Islam of modern universities with modern ideas. The conservatives are universalist in their approach, literalist in their method, and follow tradition. They have a totalitarian approach in teaching Islam and believe that their interpretation and version of Islam should regulate all aspects of the lives of people. They do not believe in the notions of plural democracy or civil society. Contrary to Muhammad Khatami's notion of civil society, the conservatives advocate the Jame-e vallai (the guarded society), a society under divine guardianship. They follow the same path and share the logic of proponents of the "clash of civilisations" 13 as the Islamic Republic's leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sided with the conservatives and stated, "what the enemy is culturally engaged in is not only a cultural aggression but a cultural looting, a cultural massacre." 14 This statement was issued by the Velayat-e Faqih, Ayatollah Khamenei, when Muhammad Khatami was the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Following accusations by the conservatives that the agency and its leader were permitting "Western cultural aggression" against the Islamic Republic, Muhammad Khatami resigned as the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the summer of 1992. This was considered a victory for the conservatives. The newspaper, Kayhan, directly and indirectly denounced Muhammad Khatami. 15 The newspapers Salam, and Abrar made an attempt to counterbalance the conservatives onslaught. 16 Khatami supported dialogue and openness rather than isolation and repression. The noted international relations theorist, Fareed Zakaria's notion of illiberal democracy very aptly conforms with the conservative's vision of society where a polity in which democratic process is adopted and nicely invoked, but the power of majority is limited and confined, yet the constitutional guarantees, like the rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association, freedom to assemble, separated power, and property rights are not encouraged and appreciated. 17 The liberals, on the other hand, advocate the liberal face of Islam within the paradigm of Islam. They argue reconstruction of Islamic civilisation through the Islamisation of modernity. They seek reform in Islamic axioms and argue for changing religious thinking by incorporating modernity.

These two trends that are developing in Iranian society represent an interesting form of Islamic pluralism. Modernisation and globalisation has left its deep and far-reaching impact on both factions. It has pushed the conservatives to be more rigid and extreme and the liberals to be more pragmatic. The conservatives favour the idea of the clash of civilisations whereas the liberals are very critical and are opposed to it. The development of these two trends can also be seen within the historical evolution of the Islamic Revolution since 1979. When Khomeini was alive he moderated the balance between these two trends. The Iran-Iraq war however, prevented the dominance of any particular faction within the polity. Even the slightest criticism of government in the 1980s was considered as opposition to "the defence of the Islamic motherland against the infidels". But in the 1990s the situation has changed. The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 and Ayatollah Khomeini passed away in June 1989. Ayatollah Khomeini's successor does not have the status that Khomeini had, so, Sayyied Ali Khamenei, has not been able to play the same role as his predecessor. The fierce struggle to gain control over Iranian politics between these two blocs has been explicitly reflected in the Fourth and Fifth Majlis elections and in its sessions. Both groups are fighting inside and outside the Majlis to have control over politics.

During the Majlis elections in 1992, the two major factions of political clerics, the conservatives (JRM), and the liberals (MRM), clashed over control of Iranian politics. Each of the two major factions brought out a list of its candidates for the Majlis elections. But the liberal faction was jolted severely when most of the candidates were disqualified to contest the Majlis elections. The right-wing JRM, gained victory over the left-wing MRM, and obtained majority of seats in the 1992 Majlis elections. The JRM's main partners were the Council of Guardians, the judiciary, and above all, Ayatollah Khamenei, who brought into play the conservative Majlis to exert his personal dominance over Rafsanjani. The conservatives also controlled the key ministries.

The MRM declined to offer a list of its candidates in the 1996 Majlis elections, 18 so the JRM and its allies felt at ease and looked forward to controlling power. The JRM and its allies were confident of a single-faction Majlis in 1996 elections, and the Majlis speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri would be elected President in 1997. In this situation, the executives and legislative branches of the government would then be in line with Khamenei, like the Council of Guardians and the judicial system. But Kargozaran-e Sazandegi came out to oppose the JRM backed candidates to the 1996 Majlis elections. The Kargozaran-e Sazandegi added in its list those names who were on the JRM's list as well–including Nateq-Nuri. This group's prime aim was to stop the JRM candidate–Nateq-Nuri. The Kargozaran-e Sazandegi gained unexpected success in the first round of the 1996 elections which shocked the right-wing. Nateq-Nuri only barely won a Tehran seat by edging out Hashemi Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh Hashemi. Most of JRM's candidates could not go on to the second round in the 1996 Majlis elections in the provinces. 19 The Kargozaran-e Sazandegi's impressive success in the first round created trouble for the right-wing. Nateq-Nuri charged that liberals sought dialogue with the United States and compromise on the Salman Rushdie affair. 20 He stressed that liberalism was a serious threat to the revolution and called on Basiji to destroy liberal ideas. 21 The Ansar-e Hezbollah campaigned for the JRM candidates and used violence against liberals. The turnout for the second round of the 1996 Majlis elections was light compared to the first. The right-wing JRM, became victorious in the Fifth Majlis elections. But the tension continued even after the elections were over. This was the political environment a year before the 1997 Presidential election. In the months following the elections, the liberals were harassed by the right-wing supporters. The right-wing allies and the politicians of the JRM vowed to protect the status quo to defend their political power by preventing challenges from gaining ground. Nateq-Nuri and the conservative forces had again prevailed. The prospects for political pluralism appeared bleak.

However, the repressive environment that followed the Majlis elections ended within a few months. Now the regime felt that excess repression would aggravate the situation and the regime's security would be endangered. By October 1996, the political environment had calmed down so the MRM announced that conditions were favourable for their return to politics. The 1997 Presidential election was fought between these two factions, the JRM and MRM, and various small groups were vertically divided between these two factions and supported their own candidates.


Evolution of Political Parties

In the 1997 Presidential election it became apparent that Iranian polity was heading in the direction of forming political parties in the highly factional polity. The emergence of various factions and their division into two major groups had been clearly signalled for the formation of political parties. These factions were broadly divided into two blocks and identified with them.

Article 26 of the 1979 constitution of Iran clearly states with regard to party formation that:

the people shall be free in the establishment of religious, political and professional parties, associations and Islamic societies or the societies of recognised religious minorities provided that association is not inimical to the principles of the independence, liberty, sovereignty, national unity and the Islamic precepts and the formation of the Islamic Republic. Individuals are free to participate in such groups. No one may be prevented or forced to participate in such groups. 22

The 1979 constitution has clearly laid down the set of rules for the formation of the political parties. So, after the revolution, nearly one hundred organisations sprang up where none had been legally functioning during the last days of monarchy except the Shah's official parties. The Shah had banned all the parties. The sudden emergence of numerous parties and organisations and their varied ideas threatened to undermine the Islamic Republic. Parties like Tudeh Party and Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation opposed clerical rule. So, on the behest of Ayatollah Khomeini, the regime reacted harshly, and a political parties law was passed in September 1981 that delineated what constituted a political party and the time and manner in which it could function.

The new law was made to ensure that parties principles and activities would be in harmony with the Islamic Republic and would get permission in their formation from the Ministry of Interior. Articles 10 of the law set up a commission consisting of two Majlis deputies, two representatives from the judiciary, and one from the Interior Ministry, to issue the permits. The Commission was empowered to supervise and regulate the activities of the parties and organisations it approved, and could issue orders for dissolution of parties which engaged in activities contrary to the law. "Those activities come under offences which will undermine the foundations of the Islamic Republic or Iran's independence, sovereignty, or intensify conflicts within the Iranian nation." 23

Those parties and organisations, which emerged between 1979 and 1981 had been outlawed well before the political parties law was passed. Now Iran became a one party state under the Islamic Republic Party. The Islamic Republic Party that had emerged in the course of the revolution, dissolved itself in 1987 when its leader, then-President Ayotallah Khamenei and then-speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, stated that it no longer served any useful function. Asadollah Badamchian, a senior founding member stated, the party was closed down when there was "no longer a need to oppose groups that were hostile and in opposition to the government and the revolution." 24

The new parties law could not be implemented due to the prolonged Iran-Iraq war; procrastination in the implementation of parties law was defended by the Interior Minister, Ali Akbar Mohtashami in 1988 when it was stated that "dire and difficult situations in which the nation's entire power, ability and potential was directed towards the national struggle and defence." 25 After the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Interior Ministry issued an order for submission of applications for registration from December 30, 1988 to March 20, 1989, and instructed that each group would submit its constitution and platform on which it had to function. The basic requirements to get registration were allegiance to Iran's constitution and an absence of links with foreign interests. Those debarred from forming parties were the former ministers of government of the Shah or officials of the Shah's Rastkhiz Party, SAVAK, Freemasons and "those who have lost or will lose their social rights according to court rulings based on Islamic codes." 26 Many applications were submitted to get registration to the Ministry of Interior like those of Nehzat-e Azadi-e Iran (the Freedom Movement of Iran [FMI]) 27 , the Women's Society of the Islamic Republic (headed by Ayatollah Khomeini's daughter, Zahra Mastafavil), Islamic Futurist Party, Islamic Jehad Party, and Navab Safavi Party.

But many parties did not apply for permission and yet functioned as political parties. The right-wing JRM, dominant political organisation functioned more like a party than any other organisation, but it did not bother to apply for a permit from the Interior Ministry. Some organisations lodged complaints as early as 1989 against the JRM; Mohtashami, the Interior Minister, obliged them to get permission. Now there is no difference whether a group has been recognised by government as a party or not. The Kargozaran-e Sazandegi was active politically in the 1996 Majlis and the 1997 Presidental elections without having a permit from the Article 10 Commission. The head of the Commission Badamchian stated that Kargozaran-e Sazandegi did not have a central council or assembly, no provisional branches or even identifiable members. But Badamchian granted a permit to Reyshahri's Jamiyat-e Defa az Arzeshha-e Envelab-e Islami (the Society for the Defence of the Values of the Islamic Revolution [SDVIR] although it lacked a central council or a constitution. 28 In August 1995, a member of the Article 10 Commission, Ali Movahedi Savoji stated that political parties are free to be active and contest elections whether they have obtained a permit or not. 29 The secretary general of the FMI, Ibrahim Yazdi, was debarred from contesting elections in 1996 and 1997 but his party was free to be active in the political arena without having a licence from the Ministry of Interior.

In late 1996, various organisations called for legalisation of parties, because with party platforms the public would understand the activities and the purpose that various politicians stood for. It was argued by them that if politicians come to power on the basis of platforms to which he/she belongs then it "would be easier to assess and scrutinise their behaviour after the elections." 30 The protagonists of parties' legislation also argued that it "would automatically lead to accountability of parties and party members to the nations." 31 The protagonists of the party system argued that it would attract the people in groups and individuals who would otherwise show distaste and get alienated from the system. The defeated Kargozaran-e Sazandegi candidate in the 1996 Majlis elections argued that those groups which had disappeared and felt hopeless regarding their opportunity in participation in political activities should be allowed into the political arena otherwise their alienation from the political issues would alienate them from the system. 32

Muhammad Khatami also advocated the formation of parties with the proviso that it should not alarm the defenders of the conservative establishment. He stated several times that they should be properly formed and not imposed from above or planted from outside. He stressed that a self-sufficient and advanced society "cannot last without civil societies, which include parties". 33 Khatami's landslide victory has created euphoria and great expectations among the people who are "assuming that the system (would) permit the re-establishment of political parties and application of democratic process in politics." 34 To get legal status, various groups applied for recognition as a party in the Interior Ministry. A political party for workers was founded by the labour organisation known as the Worker House.

Karrubi, secretary general of the MRM, without citing any reason has explicitly stated that the MRM which was the main faction in the 1997 Presidential election will not be a full-fledged party. The MRM is an organisation of politically active clerics. Similarly, the JRM, which is the MDM's rival and parent organisation never sought to be a formal party. Why do both the main organisations of Iran not want to be a formal party? Do both organisations think that they cannot enlarge their membership or that they would meet the same fate as the 1906 Constitutional Revolution? The clergy led the masses against the monarchy and were ultimately pushed to the periphery by the secularists who had organised themselves into parties along Western lines. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906 had lost most of its Islamic characteristics and the clergy had to return to the mosques. This distrust existed among the clergy across party lines; hence, they were not interested in being a formal political party. The legacy of distrust has been reflected from the earlier revolution and from the early years of the Islamic Revolution when various small parties had clashed with one another, and several leftist parties had turned against the new state; hence, Khomeini opposed all parties other than the Islamic Republic Party that ultimately dissolved itself. Therefore, both major factions, the conservatives and liberals have pointed out, that political parties are a Western concept. The conservatives, who are opponents of party formation want status quo and argue, that the party has no place in Iranian culture. On the other hand, the liberals argue that parties are needed but should be developed and emerge in genuinely Iranian form within its culture. Muhammad Khatami who represents this group, has maintained that since the notion and idea of political party came from Europe rather than through Iran's own social and historical evolution, so, an effort must be made to nurture parties on the basis of Iranian institutions and philosophical tendencies. 35


Religio-Politico Crisis

The May 1997 Presidential election has unfolded contradictions which already existed in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Islamic Revolution was founded on dual religious and political legitimacy, which was brought about by Ayotollah Khomeini. But this combination seems to be fragile. The status and role of religion is defined by political institutions, not religious ones. Politics rules over religion. The crisis of religious legitimacy is contributing to the supremacy of politics, and subsequently to a de facto secularisation.

Ayatollah Khomeini preferred Ayatollah Montazeri to be his successor, and he was chosen by the Council of Experts as Khomeini's successor in 1985. Khomeini preferred him because he did not trust the true marja-e taqlid (source of emulation) of whom he was the junior most in age. They criticised and publicly called for the clerics to return to the mosques. Montazeri was a marja-e taqlid, and also a political activist with a better religious and political understanding than others. Ayatollah Montazeri was a tolerant cleric and often argued moderation. In February 1986, Montazeri appealed to militant students to behave with moderation, avoid sloganeering and physical harassment. In June 1986, Montazeri appealed for the "halt of persecution of liberals and moderates and demanded that the Friday mosques prayer leaders do all in their power to block extremism". 36 He also states, "sending a group to beat up these liberals and moderates is not right. It will lead to chaos." 37

Ayatollah Montazeri, the heir apparent of Ayatollah Khomeini resigned in March 1989 due to differences with Khomeini. The crisis of succession precipitated, and the Islamic Republic lost its stability, owing to uncertainty of succession. His departure precipitated a constitutional crisis since there was no suitable candidate to fill the post of the Faqih. The constitutional solution has been collegial. 38 If the single Faqih who is accepted and recognised by the majority of the people, failed to emerge naturally, then a council of three or five religious leaders would take charge of the leadership. The revised constitution of 1989 removed the collegial option for leadership, 39 and the notion of the Velayat-e Faqih was radically revised. The collective leadership formula was left because in collective leadership the judgement might lead to indecision. Ayatollah Khomeini insisted that a leader should have immense religious knowledge and vision and be a "reluctant" politician was replaced by the need to select a person who had the correct political vision. It is clear from the amended constitution that the individual who shall have stronger insight in matters involving jurisprudence and politics shall have preference. 40 This revised constitution has given politics precedence over religion, and declared that political far-sightedness and vision is more important than religious erudition. The new leader had to be a fearless source of emulation marja-e taqlid) in terms of justice and probity; he had to be prudent and have good political judgement and sufficient religious knowledge. 41

The flaw in the amended constitution of 1989 has created a crisis for the legitimacy of the Velayat-e Faqih; that if the Faqih is not the marje-e taqlid then who has absolute authority to rule in the name of God? Ayatollah Khomeini has clearly stated in his book, that the powers of the Velyat-e Faqih are in no way inferior to those exercised by the Messenger of God and Ali; his power and authority for governing society is exactly the same as they had. 42 The marjaiyat cannot be separated from the leader because the theory of the absolute obedience of people would be surrounded by controversy and the people would be reluctant to obey a mere fallible man. The marjaiyat legitimises his absolute authority to be obeyed by the people. This amended constitution has struck at the root of the foundation of the Islamic Revolution by superseding politics over religion. After Ayatollah Khomeini's death, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei was elected as the Velayat-e Faqih though he was not marja-e taqlid. This has precipitated two conceptual questions: should Rahbar (the Guide) primarily be a leading religious authority or a political one? Second, how could an Islamic Revolution bypass, through a political appointment, the highest religious authority of the time? The situation is fast changing in Iran as was reflected in the May 1997 Presidential election, when Muhammad Khatami won the Presidential election against the wishes of the Velayat-e Faqih. Ayatollah Khamenei has brought the two legitimacies into contradiction, even though the newly elected President has officially recognised the supremacy of the Rahbar. If the Rahbar, who already lacked some religious credentials, is now losing his political support as well, on what legitimacy then would his leadership be based?

After the death of Khomeini, the appointment of Khamenei, as the Velayat-e Faqih created a stir among the clerics who tried to promote either Ayatollah Golpayegani or Ayatollah Araki as the new marja-e taqlid. This act of the clerics has restored a dual order and separated the religious from political legitimacy. But later on Araki issued a fatawa in favour of the appointment of Khamenei as the Velayat-e Faqih. It was argued among the clerics that his appointment as the Velayat-e Faqih "would prevent politics and religion from being separate." 43 Khamenei's accession to the Rahbar was not easily sorted out, as various groups among the clergy had different ideas on this issue. It indicates that Khamenei's nomination as the leader was not unanimous among the clergy. After the death of Ayatollah Golpayegani and Araki, in 1993 and 1994 respectively, both of whom were universally accepted marja-e taqlid, the government launched a major effort to recognise Khamenei as a marja-e taqlid to restore the conjunction between the two legitimacies, in favour of the state. This government policy was opposed by the clergy of Qum such as Ayatollah Ahmad-Qomi, Fazael Lankarani, and Taqi Behjat. But this opposition was an under-current and did not come to the surface. The Jama-e ye Mudarression-e Hawzeh-e Qum (the Association of Qum's Religious Teachers) which is composed of 30 leading clergy of the holy city (Qum), started to distance themselves from the politics of Tehran. However, they supported the Islamic Republic. Some directly attacked Khamenei's credentials for being the Velayat-e Faqih as Ayatollah Montazeri was attacked in December 1997, before holding the meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conferecne (OIC) at Tehran. But the President, Muhammad Khatami sided with Ayatollah Khamenei to avoid further complexities in the system.

As the Islamic Revolution's euphoria evaporates, the clerics are largely divided. They are divided on the sharia and moral order issues, but they are also deeply divided on political matters, and more precisely on the issue of the Velayat-e Faqih and participation of the clergy in state politics. Among the clergy, a small liberal group is slowly emerging and trying to express their views in a religious language; and this new trend that is developing is changing Iranian society.

The constitutional flaws were exposed in this Presidential election when Muhamad Khatami won the presidency against the wishes of the Velayat-e Faqih. The result of the election shows that the Velayat-e Faqih is passing through a legitimacy crisis where the Rahbar has lost the peoples support. Such political crisis unfolded only after the May 1997 Presidential election; and will lead to factional politics in the Iranian political panorama. By losing the election, in the religious and political legitimacies, the Faqih has lost one major legitimacy, the political legitimacy having evolved and been incorporated in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both legitimacies, religious and political, are moving apart, and both these legitimacies are not fully enjoyed by the present Faqih. No doubt Khatami has won political legitimacy through the election. In these circumstances, what will be the Faqih's function and what will be the pattern of relationship between the President and the Faqih and what pattern of relations will evolve? It will foster factional politics in Iranian political culture.

The crisis of religious and political legitimacy has deepened in the system and may aggravate problems. However, Khatami has adopted a conciliatory tone towards the Faqih and is resolving the issues very sensitively. Khatami's behaviour clearly indicates that he endorses the concept of the Faqih. According to Khatami whoever holds the office of Faqih "not only has the power to control the actions of the President but is also responsible for the moral conduct of society." 44 At the same time, Muhammad Khatami has tried to stress that the constitution tries to "weigh both factors equally". 45 This liberal interpretation of the constitution implies that Khatami accepts the supremacy of the authority of the Faqih, and at the same time he does not consider the Faqih immune from criticism and believes that no one should be above the law. Khatami's interpretation of the constitution refers to a kind of "Faqih-guided democracy." 46 This is the position of the liberals on the concept of the Velaat-e Faqih.


The Message of 1997 Presidential Election

The May 1997 Presidential election's message is loud and clear. The winds of change have finally begun to blow. Various developments that have taken place, marked the beginning of a new era in the politics of Iran, which is moving towards change because the existing order has been unable to fulfil the aspirations and expectations of the people. The voting behaviour of the 1997 Presidential election has reflected all these things and unfolded the shortcomings of the existing regime. After getting a taste of economic liberalisation during two terms (1989-97) of Hashemi Rafsanjani's administration, the young Iranians' expectations favour greater liberalisation at every level of society. The voting behaviour of the 1997 Presidential election is a classic example where a massive turnout of young men and women have changed the direction of Iranian politics. The previous administration's experience has attracted the people, particularly the new generation, as they have begun to enjoy a better standard of living than their parents, so, now they want a freer social and political sphere. Iranian society has begun to witness "a renaissance of social and political thought that engulfed secular and religious intellectuals alike." 47 The young Iranian's movement is for an open society, a larger public space, and consequently their active participation in public life. One striking feature of 1997 Presidential election is the participation of women in large numbers.

The liberals worked tirelessly to garner local support and their hard work bore fruit in the Presidential election 1997. Since the 1989 Presidential election, Muhammad Khatami and his associates have been working hard to present themselves as the most acceptable political force of the country. The result of the 1997 Presidential election reflects that Khatami's hard work has produced a solid alternative political force in the political spectrum. For instance, the newspaper, Salam, headed by Khoeiniha, an eminent cleric and leader of the 1979 hostage crisis at Tehran, has openly advocated republicanism and become a defender of civil society and the rights of citizens. The newspaper launched a campaign against the revision of the constitution to help Rafsanjani get elected for a third term. When the debate was going on it conducted a survey and came to the conclusion that it would not be acceptable to the people of Iran, and any suggestion to revise the constitution "would not lead to strengthening the state, but rather it would bring further weakness." 48

In the May 1997 Presidential election, out of 238 candidates only four were approved to contest as President: Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, Muhammad Khatami, Muhammad Muhammadi Reyshahri, and Reza Zavara'I, the first three professional clerics within the Shii hierarchy. The first two became arch-rivals in the Presidential election and the whole society was vertically divided between these two forces and various social groups virtually bifurcated in supporting their candidates, and Iranian politics was divided into two forces: conservatives and liberals. The last two candidates could not garner more votes although they were supported by the organisations. The right-wing, conservative candidate, Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri was backed by various organisations. To win the presidency, he was supported by the most powerful political organisation of the clerics, the right-wing conservatives, the JRM. Nateq-Nuri was also favoured by the JRM's Bazaari ally, Jamiyat-e Motalefeh-e Islami (the Islamic Coalition Society), Association of the Teachers of Qum Seminary, and various smaller clerical, professional and trade organisations. The most important among them was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's support to the conservative candidate, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri. The left-wing, liberal candidate, Muhammad Khatami was backed by a major political organisation, the MRM. Khatami was supported by even the non-clerical organisation, Sazman-e Mojahedin-e Enqelab-e Islami (Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organisation [MIRO]. More important, he was favoured by Kargozaran-e Sazandegi, whose performance was good in the 1996 Majlis elections.

The 1997 Presidential election verdict explicitly reflects that winds blew in favour of change, so, Khatami got a landslide victory over his arch-rival the conservative candidate, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, who sought to preserve the status quo. Even after getting support of Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Nateq-Nuri suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Khatami. When Ali Khamenei perceived that Iranian women were unhappy with the status-quo which Nateq-Nuri represented, he tried to get their support by stating in a televised speech that women had permission to be involved in all spheres of society and assured them that whoever said otherwise "had spoken against Islam". Despite these type of statements from the conservative side, women overwhelmingly voted for Khatami since they considered him to be an agent of change. The newspapers were divided between these two factions in support of their respective presidential candidates. The newspaper, Salam, favoured the MRM whereas the Resalat supported the JRM. Several newspapers explicitly favoured Khatami such as, Iran News, Iran, Tehran Times, Ettela'at Hamshahri, and Akhbar.

The 1997 Presidential election result has forced Khatami to come out with a fresh basic agenda: the creation of civil society with an emphasis on the rule of law, a more pluralistic society which avoids monopolisation of truth, and a more conciliatory foreign policy. These three notions which Khatami proposed hit hard at the core of the clerical rule. His advocacy of the rule of law strikes at the arbitrary power of the Hizbollah, and calling for civil society threatens the clerical monopoly of public appointments. He rejects absolutism in any form; that implies rethinking for the institution of the Faqih. In the political spectrum, hostility against the US is a basic premise of Iranian politics which strengthens the hand of the conservatives.

The Presidential election of 1997 indicates that the consensus among the ruling elite has by and large eroded. The eight year Hashemi Rafsanjani administration has made economic liberalisation without questioning the basic tenets of the regime. Now drastic changes have been undertaken. The social and economic situation is not without tension. Increasing corruption and embezzlement among the new upper class has antagonised not only the middle class, but also the lower classes, who provided the bulk of the regime's support. The Basiji are still devoted to the Velayat-e Faqih, they openly criticise the weakening of the revolutionary spirit and the spread of "materialism". The youth who have been brought up under the Islamic regime are fed up with the "moral order" and would like access to the kinds of entertainment which have been banned since they express "foreign cultural aggression" and "immorality". They want no banning of satellite dishes, videotapes, culturally incorrect movies and censorship on the press. Khatami is not questioning the foundations of the revolution, which is the heritage of Khomeini. If he questions the foundations of revolution then his critics and opponents might go against him and refer and invoke the "Will" of Imam Khomeini. Questioning the symbols of the Islamic Revolution will not be only symbolic in Iran but will have an all pervasive impact on politics and will have dire consequences.

Khatami after being elected as the President has adopted very cautious policies. He wants social justice, the rule of law, a civil society, individual freedom, participatory democracy, and government responsibility. Khatami's view of the rule of law means that not any type of autocracy should be tolerated, and his notion of social justice calls for a more equitable distribution of wealth. Khatami's concept of participatory democracy means an open participation of the people at every social and political level.

Muhammad Khatami made a distinction between the "Islamic civil society" and "Western civil society". According to Khatami, the Western civil society is rooted in the Greek notion of the city-state whereas the Islamic civil society arises from the concept of Madinat al-Nabbi (the city of the Prophet). He stated that "Western civil society from both historical and theoretical point of view, originated from the Greek city-state and Roman political system". 49 By contrasting it, he maintained that "our society has its origin, historically and theoretically speaking in Madinat al-Nabbi." 50 This distinction between these two societies is intended to highlight the spiritual and moral emphasis of the Islamic society as contrary to the Western one. But differences between these two concepts of society from the historical and cultural roots does not necessarily make them incompatible today. Khatami again stated that:

the two concepts of civil societies are not necessarily in conflict with each other in the area of its identity and consequences, although their nature and the quality may be different. It is due to this characteristic that we should not become oblivious of judiciously adopting some of the constructive aspects of the Western civil society. 51

He favours "dialogue of civilisations". Muhammad Khatami's concept of individual freedoms covers social, political, economic and cultural liberty. He stressed that:

respect for human rights and the observance of its norms and criteria in this society is not based on the political expediency or merely due to creation of concord with other parties involved...such an attitude is an outcome of our religious teachings and divine code. 52

After winning the Presidential election, Khatami sought to implement the "rule of law". The rule of law is an euphemistic expression to convey that the various components of the clergy establishment including the office of the Velayat-e Faqih, and the constitutional and administrative bodies under his control should be just as subject to the law as any other social institution. The Khatami government is making an effort in this direction to make it a national debate as wide as possible by liberally issuing licenses for new publications, and on the other hand, the conservatives have retaliated by using the plethora of courts at their command to close one publication after another. No doubt, Khatami's efforts for the creation of freedom are gaining ground, which becomes clear from the dawn of numerous liberal newspapers which support the pro-reform agenda of Khatami and which have a deep and far-reaching impact. 53

The tussle between the judiciary and Tehran's municipal authorities was a remarkable and noteworthy tussle between two forces, which represent different tendencies. The judiciary, headed by Ayatollah Yazdi, an appointee of Ayatollah Khamenei, arrested staff from the office of Tehran's Mayor on charges of misusing municipal funds to help Khatami's election campaign. Whatever the legal charges and its implications, it was widely seen as politically motivated. However, they were released on bail. But Tehran's Mayor, Gholam Hossein Karbaschi was also arrested, which created ripples in Iranian politics and this factional division manifested itself in the form of protests and demonstrations. Students organised a protest rally in support of the Mayor, on April 14, 1998, which turned into an institutional expression. The Hizbollah, backed by the conservatives, threatened to disrupt it. Abdullah Nuri, Interior Minister, gave permission to the students rally. So, Tehran's streets turned into a battleground, till the President intervened, requesting the students to call off the rally. The students accepted Khatami's request but kept it to themselves. After the intervention of Khamenei, Karbaschi was released. In July 1998, the Mayor was sentenced to five years imprisonment, fined one billion rials and banned from holding public office for twenty years. 54

The closing down of newspapers one after another and the arresting and sentencing of liberals one after another has blown apart Khatami's notion of civil society and the rule of law. Factional politics has sharpened in Iran today. The whole social and political system is divided between two tendencies which is clearly reflected in the latest political development in Iran. The arrest and sentence of Abdullah Nuri is the most recent illustration of stifling of freedom of speech and expression. The Majlis, which is dominated by the conservatives sought to sack Abdullah Nuri, Interior Minister, by passing a no-confidence motion against him because he granted permission for pro-reform rallies and publications. But Khatami wanted to retain him in the structure of power, so, he appointed him as deputy President. Now Nuri has been convicted on the charge of defaming the leader of the revolution and Islamic principles. Nuri, a cleric and close ally of President Muhammad Khatami, has faced "charges of defaming the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, challenging Islamic principles and backing renewed ties to Iran's arch-foe, the US." 55 The head of the Special Clerical Court, Hojjat ol-Eslam vol-Moslemin Mohsen-Ezhei said about the arrest of Nuri that, "he was arrested because he insulted the great leader of the revolution. A person who describes the Imam (Khomeyni) as an innovator (introducing things into religion not originally there) cannot possibly be described as a thinker." 56 After his arrest, Nuri adopted a defiant posture, and questioned the very foundation of the revolution. Nuri's comments and his public defence have tackled some of the most sensitive issues in the Islamic Republic. His newspaper, Khordad, broached many taboo subjects, which were earlier discussed only in private. Nuri has struck at the very roots of the Islamic Republic such as constitutional limits on the absolute powers of Iran's supreme leader, the treatment of dissidents and others outside the official political mainstream and relations with the arch-foe, the United States. Nuri denounced "as illegitimate the immense power wielded by unelected clerics." 57 The conservatives have taken his statements and publications seriously as a campaign to "sweep away the Ayatollah's authoritarian legacy." 58 In just six sessions the Special Clerical Court, which is dominated by the conservatives, delivered its verdict on November 27, 1999 for spreading "anti-Islamic propaganda". The Special Clerical Court convicted Abdullah Nuri with "a five-year prison sentence and a five-year ban on political activity and closed down his newspaper, Khordad". 59 This verdict is a dispiriting signal for liberals that Iran's hardliner's continue to hold the upper hand in an increasingly sharp power struggle. This verdict created a bitter row over the compatibility of freedom, democracy, and civil society–the core of Muhammad Khatami's platform with Islamic and revolutionary values. The MRM decried the jailing of Abdullah Nuri and the closure of his popular newspaper, Khordad, by a conservative court as an unfair decision motivated by partisan politics. This group said "the unjust sentencing of Nuri has left Khatami supporters embittered and distressed and revealed the factional slant of the clerical court." 60 The group also stated that the verdict of the conservative Special Clerical Court "risks setting off a new wave of tension" 61 across the nation, just four months after the closure of another pro-reform newspaper, Salam, sparked six days of bloody riots. Muhammad Khatami stated at the court verdict on Abdullah Nuri, that "the different expression of views" 62 should lead to open debate and that any other result is harmful for the nation. Muhammad Khatami denounced explicitly the court's verdict in the protection of the freedom of expression. A group of Iranian students held a rally on December 5, 1999 to protest against the imprisonment of Abdullah Nuri. The students gathered at Alameh Tabatabai University in central Tehran, termed the conviction of Nuri by the Special Clerical Court on dissent charges "as a move to torpedo president Muhammad Khatami's policy of cultural and political opening." 63

Abdullah Nuri appeared before the court and blew up a virtual philosophical landmine beneath the clerical establishment. Nuri accused the clerical establishment of being behind the violation of civil rights of citizens and the murders of numerous secular intellectuals over several years. He also said that the clergy had distorted religious interpretation for political gain. The Nuri trial has brought to a breaking point the basic issue which has gripped Iran for at least a decade: whether Islam should be interpreted as monolithic ideology and the value system as conservatives argue, or whether it should adapt to the demands of modernity and modern values, as liberals such as Nuri advocate. Nuri said in a recent interview, "Khomeinei did not believe Islam was a dogmatic ideology." 64 He reiterated, "from the early days of the revolution, our belief was that there is complete compatibility between Islam and democracy." 65 In a legal defence, this verdict has become one of the most important documents of Iran. Nuri blasted almost every single taboo, which has constrained the nation. He questioned the legitimacy of the court and when told that its legitimacy was unquestionable since it had been set up by the leader, Nuri retorted that the leader's action was itself illegitimate since he had never been vested with limitless authority Abdullah Nuri's defence stated in an editorial in a pro-reform newspaper, Sobh'e Emroz, "showed one should offer a rational interpretation of the values and principles of the Islamic revolution, an interpretation that is different from the official readings broadcast by the propaganda speakers of the monopolistic faction." 66

One of the noteworthy issues is that his trial has called into question the legitimacy of the Special Clerical Court which was set up by Ayatollah Khomeini to investigate illegal and improper behaviour among the clerics. In recent years the conservatives have misused the court to damage and denigrate their opponents. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme spiritual leader, who represents the conservatives, however, had defended the court's legitimacy by saying "the Supreme Clerical Court can better try the clerics. Its functions are legal. So far they have not committed any injustice". 67 The head of the Special Clerical Court emphasised that "the philosophy behind the existence of the court was consistent with the constitution." 68 He stressed on the performance of the court, "the Special Clerical Court will continue to perform its task with determination and it will investigate the crimes committed by clerics." 69

Both the liberals and conservatives are fighting for control over Iranian politics. However, the conservatives dominate over Iranian politics due to their entrenched penetration of the structure of power and institutions. Since under the Iranian system, religion is the fountain-head of all laws, the clergy is indispensable to the judicial system. Power of the judiciary is almost equal to the executive, therefore the conservatives who dominate the judiciary have been able to thwart the government's reform efforts. The liberals have adopted a strategy to bring the factional dispute to the political plane while the conservatives would depict it as a purely religio-juristic one. The liberals argue that there is no unanimity on religious interpretation and each group insists on the superiority of its own interpretation over the other. On the other hand, the conservatives instead of joining an open political debate, are using their control over the judiciary to stifle the debate.

Khatami's pro-reform allies have swept to a stunning win against entrenched conservatives in the February 2000 Majlis elections. A reformist coalition, inspired by the 1997 election of President Muhammad Khatami on a platform of civil reform and openness has broken the conservative control of the Majlis and gained enough seats in the 290–member Majlis to pursue their policies and bring changes at the social level blocked during Khatami's first years in office. The reform coalition now has to forge a common strategy to confront the hardliners who had dominated the Majlis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The result of the February 2000 Majlis elections is in many ways a vote against the conservatives. The conservatives blocked many of the changes which he had tried to institute. Control of the Majlis gave them the ability to impose a conservative legislative agenda and even impeach Khatami Cabinet members.

The victory of reformists in the February 2000 Majlis elections will strengthen the hand of Muhammad Khatami and support his plan to strengthen civil institutions and increase personal freedom in this strict Islamic state. The pro-reform camp's victory in February 2000 Majlis elections has been interpreted largely as a victory of ideas "of freedom of speech over suppression of dissent; of democracy over authoritarian rule by the clerical establishment; of transparency and predictability in government over a sometimes arbitrary court and security system." 70 The mandate is an endorsement of the President's social, cultural and political reforms programme. Since coming to power in 1997 the moderate Shiite cleric has advocated creating a civil society free of the restrictions that the 21-year Islamic rule has imposed. The good performance by the reformists and their allies will allow President Khatami to push ahead his programme of political, economic and social reforms with greater vigour. Now Iranians have come to expect major changes in the society since Khatami began widening individual freedoms, freeing the press and reducing the clergy's interference in the government, the judiciary, and in people's lives. Khatami's initiatives had been stymied by the conservatives who controlled the outgoing Majlis. The February 2000 Majlis election is regarded as a referendum on Khatami's programme for "government accountability to the people, a civil society based on the rule of law and a political system with true separation of powers." 71 The supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the conservative clerics allied with him retain considerable power to thwart the reform agenda through their control of security forces, the courts and special panels that review legislation. But the pro-reform allies victory in the February 2000 Majlis elections "could loosen the clergy's tight grip over Iran's political institutions" 72 and allow the president to fulfil his promises to build a society based on tolerance and the rule of law.

In the realm of foreign policy, the process has moved from confrontation to conciliation and now the phase of dialogue with the West has been started. 73 Its clear indication was that Khatami sought rapprochement with the United States by telling the world on December 14, 1997 that "I, first of all, pay my respect to the great people and nation of America." 74 Muhammad Khatami in his interview on Cable News Network (CNN) on January 7, 1998 had clearly showed his gesture of friendship with the United States. He stated that Iran has an, "intellectual affinity with the essence of the American civilisation". 75 Muhammad Khatami called for a "dialogue of civilisations". 76 This was a major reversal of Iranian policy towards the United States; since the Islamic Revolution, no president took such a bold policy measure. It indicates that Khatami wants to move closer to the US.

However, the conservatives could not remain silent in the face of these developments. They have staked their challenges on the ideological, political, and factional planes. For instance, they depict the matter of Iran's future relations with the West as a zero sum game and they argue that any rapprochement with the West will compromise Islamic purity. Taking into account all these developments, Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his address to the Assembly of Experts upheld the validity of the anti-US revolutionary slogans and referring to Ayatollah Khomeini ruled out any relations with the US. Ali Khamenei directly attacked Khatami and stated that "dialogue with America was even more harmful than establishing ties with that country." 77 Khamenei is not in favour of having relations with the US despite Khatami's move in this direction. The conservatives have accused President Khatami of being "too lenient" towards the US in his landmark interview with CNN on January 7, 1998. The newspaper, Jamhuri Eslami, which voices the radicalism of all factions argued on January 26, 1998 that "struggle with America constitutes an important component of the culture of the Revolution and that the phrase 'death to America' is not a mere slogan." 78 The monthly, Iran Farda, which voices less radical views claims that it is not politically in the interest of Iran to resume normal relations with the West. 79 The latest development that has strengthened the hand of conservatives and is a major setback for Khatami was when harsh treatment was meted out to a visiting delegation of six Iranian clerics, who were invited by John Esposito, the most influential Islamic scholar in the United States. He invited the clerics to attend a seminar on Islam and Secularism at Georgetown University in Washington, where he is director of the Centre for Muslim and Christian Understanding. When a delegation of six clerics arrived at JFK airport in New York, they were fingerprinted and photographed. 80 This was strongly condemned by the religious community of Iran. Iranian state television in its main evening news bulletin said of the airport incident: "once again the Americans have shown they are not honest in normalising relations with Iran." 81 This incident is taken seriously by the conservative establishment because the American attitude has denigrated the clergy as a whole. Iranian radio said the delegation, headed by researcher and author Akbar Sadqi Rasad refused to participate in the seminar after their "inhuman and insulting treatment." 82 After the fingerprinting and photographing of the delegates, they withdrew from the seminar. Although, Esposito had made an attempt to convince the State Department to waive the scrutiny, he failed. He invited the delegation as a part of the people-to-people exchange that President Khatami calls "dialogue of civilisations". He stated "the US, with this kind of regulation, makes this kind of dialogue almost impossible." 83 This incident is a major step backward in behind the scenes attempts to restore relations between Iran and United States, frozen 20 years ago after the Islamic Revolution. Since Muhammad Khatami came to power in May 1997, promoting a policy of détente, there has been optimism on both sides for improved relations. "But every bit of progress is often negated, primarily because of the US actions that Iranians believe are inconsistent." 84 This incident is a major setback for Khatami and his pro-reform allies because he sought to have cordial relations with the US, but now he is in a difficult position after this episode and the hardliners have got an opportunity to tarnish the image of Khatami, and are busy discrediting him on this issue.

Moreover, the conservatives use their resources to undermine Khatami, whenever and wherever they can do so. Khatami's ardent supporters are jailed one after another. The most powerful, the Mayor of Tehran, Gholam Hossein Karbaschi was jailed on April 4, 1998 on corruption charges and now his ardent supporter, Abdullah Nuri, has been jailed on the charge of "anti-Islamic activity". Obviously, it is a political move to undermine Khatami's support. The latest incident which happened in the US has undermined Muhammad Khatami's efforts in normalising relations with that country. It is a major setback for reformers like Khatami. The two main forces to watch in future Iranian politics are the conservatives and their allies on the one side, and the liberals and their allies on the other.



An era of factional politics has been ushered in the political spectrum of Iran where a power struggle is apparent. The emerging factions and civil groups are broadly divided into two major groups, the liberals and the conservatives, which will set the future direction for Iranian society and polity. The emergence of various factions and civil groups will directly and indirectly threaten the clerical rule. The sharply divided and polarised society is heading towards lessening the influence of the clerical establishment. Whenever the conservatives feel that their power is at stake, they use institutions to curb and stifle opposition. This factional politics in Iran is the product of modernisation and globalisation. The liberalisation of the economy during the Rafsanjani administration contributed much more to the emergence of various social groups and factions because it has produced a new middle class and lower middle class in society who enjoy the benefits of economic liberalisation. These new classes desire a more open political system where they can participate in politics and enter the power structure. The privatisation, democratisation, constitutional republicanism, and economic liberalisation are the basis of the enlargement of the middle class. Both factions are opposed to each other at ideological, social, and political levels; and factionalism will further accentuate to create complexities in the political system. The effect of economic liberalisation in Iran is unfathomable because it has opened the gates of demand of participation in politics. The process of economic liberalisation affected the political system of Iran as perceived today where the two main political organisations, the JRM led by the conservatives, and the MRM led by the liberals are fighting fiercely to gain a hold over Iranian politics. The power struggle between these two main political organisations has contributed in lessening clerical influence. The conservatives are idealists and are pursuing their policies to maintain status quo so that power does not slip from their hands, but the liberals who are pragmatists, seek to accommodate broader national interest with international accountability. If the factions convert into parties and the people are involved in getting open membership and present an alternative path to power, it will threaten the clerical grip on power. But Iran is still controlled by a massive network of Shiite clergy who are disciples of Imam Khomeini. They are inter-related at various levels. So, these clerics are not about to easily abandon their grip on power.

Iran's Islamic constitution provides the conservatives ultimate control over policy and courts. The conciliatory tone and inward looking gesture of Muhammad Khatami has shown that he wants to avoid direct confrontation with the conservative establishment because he lacked support in the Fifth Majlis. Therefore, he has adapted continuously to more pro-reform policies, and if he goes too far in implementing them his own policies might meet the same fate as Bani Sadr's had. Khatami has taken cautious steps in challenging the clerical power.

The February 2000 Majlis elections have changed the scenario, the pro-reform allies victory has strengthened the position of Mohammad Khatami in implementing his pro-reform policies. The Majlis elections may accelerate economic and social reforms, loosen political and civil repression and soften Iran's hostility towards the West. The pro-reform victory in the Majlis elections has a deep and far-reaching impact on the social and political system of Iran and may be able to diminish some clerical powers. With the new Majlis what remains to be seen is whether the conservatives will continue to use their key powers to block the reformists. However, the conservatives will fight back very vigorously to defend the status quo. With their control of military and security forces, the conservatives are seriously trying to stifle the aspirations of Iranians. But with nearly two-thirds of the population of 70 million under the age of 25, the clergy will face mounting opposition if they fail to gauge and understand the demand for liberalisation. It has been clear from Nuri's trial that the conservatives are determined to squelch the notion of the "civil society" and the "rule of law" encouraged by Muhammad Khatami. The power struggle between these two political forces will set the future direction of Iranian politics.



Note *: Researcher, IDSA.  Back.

Note 1: Mohsin Milani, The Making of Iran's Islamic Revolution (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), p. 157.  Back.

Note 2: Sussan Siavoshi, "Cultural Policies and the Islamic Republic: Cinema and Book Publication," International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 29, no. 4, November 1997, p. 510.  Back.

Note 3: To get details about factionalism in Iran, see Sussan Siavoshi, "Factionalism and Iranian Politics: The Post-Khomeini Experience," Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies, vol. 25, nos. 3-4, 1992, p. 27-49; and Shahrough Akhavi, "Elite Factionalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran," The Middle East Journal, vol. 41, no. 2, 1987, pp. 181-201.  Back.

Note 4: The Middle East and North Africa 1997, 43rd ed. (Europa Publications Limited), p. 447  Back.

Note 5: Siavoshi, no. 2, p. 512.  Back.

Note 6: This newspaper was founded in the fall of 1998 by Abdullah Nuri who was Khatami's first interior minister but was removed after losing the vote of confidence in the Majlis. The President re-appointed him deputy President to retain him in power. The name of the newspaper is significant because it is the name of the third month of the Iranian calender, corresponding to May in which Muhammad Khatami was elected as the President of Iran. The first issue came out on December 3, 1998 which reflects the paper's main mission to promote Khatami's mandate: civil society, political development, and political participation. Now he has been put behind bars on the charge of anti-Islamic activism.  Back.

Note 7: Basiji: Mobilisation Forces, a large volunteer force originally mobilised for the Iran-Iraq war and young students who are now organised to combat vice in society.  Back.

Note 8: Siavoshi, n. 2, p. 513.  Back.

Note 9: See the Majlis speeches came out in "Mashruh-e Mazakrat-e Majlis-e Eslami" (MMMI) (Comprehensive Proceedings of the Islamic Consultative Assembly), Session No. 18, July 11, 1992.  Back.

Note 10: See Abrar, April 5, 1994. It criticised the Interior Minister, Ali Muhammad Besharati, who expressed the desire to confiscate satellite dishes from the rooftops of the houses.  Back.

Note 11: Bruce B. Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age (New York: 1989). He seeks to show how fundamentalism, in its various forms, is basically a new trend. Also see Nikki R. Keddie, "The New Religious Politics. Where, When and Why, Do "Fundamentalisms" Appear?", Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 40, no. 4, October 1998. In this article she has sought to highlight what are the causes which lead to emergence of fundamentalism and she has also sketched where and when it emerged.  Back.

Note 12: Siavoshi, no. 2, p. 512.  Back.

Note 13: Samuel Huntington first published an article with this title in Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, Summer 1993, pp. 22-49. Later on he converted this into a book, Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).  Back.

Note 14: See MMMI, in Razname-yi Rasmi, 13826, August 11, 1992. This statement was cited by Ali Larjani, Muhammad Khatami's successor as the Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance in his speech to the Fourth Majlis.  Back.

Note 15: See Kayhan, July 19, July 21 and July 23, 1992.  Back.

Note 16: See Salam, July 20 and July 25, 1992 and Abrar July 19, 1992.  Back.

Note 17: See Fareed Zakaria, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," Foreign Affairs, vol. 76, no. 6, November/December 1979, pp. 22-43.  Back.

Note 18: Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), February 6, 1996.  Back.

Note 19: See for detail, "Special Report on the 1996 Majlis Elections", Iran Focus, March 1996.  Back.

Note 20: Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatawa for assassination of Salman Rushdie for his book. The Satanic Verses (New York: Viking Press, 1989).  Back.

Note 21: Iran News, May 1, 1996.  Back.

Note 22: The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Tehran: Islamic Propagation Organisation, n.d.). p. 29.  Back.

Note 23: Asghar Schirazi, The Constitution of Iran: Politics and State in the Islamic Republic, trans. by John O'Kane (London: I.B. Tauris, 1997), pp. 126-127.  Back.

Note 24: Kar va kargar, Tehran, October 5, 1996.  Back.

Note 25: Tehran Radio, December 14, 1998 in Foreign Broadcast Information Service-Near East South Asia (FBIS-NESA), December 15, 1998, p. 48.  Back.

Note 26: Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) December 25, 1998 in FBIS-NESA, December 27, 1988, p. 52.  Back.

Note 27: See H.E. Chehabi, Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism: The Liberation Movement of Iran Under the Shah and Khomeini (London: I.B. Tauris, 1990). The FMI was founded by Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani and ten others in 1961. All loyal adherents of Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddeq felt the need for an Islamic-oriented party that could bridge the gap between the clergy and the nationalist parties. Despite its opposition to clerical domination of the state, the FMI continues to be tolerated because of Khomeini's support to Bazargan who became first Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The FMI is an important liberal party and plays a role as opposition in the Islamic Republic.  Back.

Note 28: Akhbar, January 21, 1997.  Back.

Note 29: IRNA, August 8, 1995.  Back.

Note 30: Tehran Times, February 21, 1996.  Back.

Note 31: Tehran Times, February 21, 1996.  Back.

Note 32: Iran, October 22, 1996.  Back.

Note 33: Iran, March 16, 1997.  Back.

Note 34: Iran, August 11, 1997.  Back.

Note 35: Iran, March 16, 1997.  Back.

Note 36: Shahrough Akhavi, "Elite Factionalism in The Islamic Republic of Iran", The Middle East Journal, vol. 41, no. 2, Spring 1987, p. 188. 37. Ibid.  Back.

Note 37: Ibid.  Back.

Note 38: Article 107.  Back.

Note 39: Article 91.  Back.

Note 40: Article 109.  Back.

Note 41: Article 109.  Back.

Note 42: See Ayatollah Khomeini, Hokumateh Eslami (Islamic Government) (Tehran, 1971).  Back.

Note 43: Fariba Abdel Khan, "Transformations of Mass Religious Culture in the Islamic Republic", trans. by Trevor Norris in Jeff Haynes, ed., Religion, Globalisation and Political Culture in the Third World (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 100.  Back.

Note 44: R.K. Ramazani, "The Shifting Premise of Iran's Foreign Policy: Towards A Democratic Peace?", The Middle East Journal, vol. 52, no. 2, Spring 1998, p. 181.  Back.

Note 45: Ibid.  Back.

Note 46: Ibid.  Back.

Note 47: Ibid., p. 179.  Back.

Note 48: Salam, November 15, 1994 cited in Farhang Rajaee, "A Thermidor of 'Islamic Yuppies'? Conflict and Compromise in Iran's Politics," The Middle East Journal, vol. 53, no. 2, Spring 1999, p. 226.  Back.

Note 49: Rah-e Islam, no. 167-168, March-April, 1998, p. 49.  Back.

Note 50: Ibid.  Back.

Note 51: Ibid.  Back.

Note 52: Ibid.  Back.

Note 53: The Hindu, Delhi, December 8, 1999.  Back.

Note 54: Steven Barraclough, "Khatami and Consensual Politics of the Islamic Republic", Journal of South Asia and Middle Eastern Studies, vol. xxii, no. 2, winter 1999, p. 7.  Back.

Note 55: Times of India, New Delhi, October 26, 1999.  Back.

Note 56: BBC's Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), ME/3711, December 7, 1999.  Back.

Note 57: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, December 1, 1999.  Back.

Note 58: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, November 29, 1999.  Back.

Note 59: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, December 4-5, 1999.  Back.

Note 60: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, December 1, 1999 and The Indian Express, New Delhi, December 1, 1999.  Back.

Note 61: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, December 1, 1999.  Back.

Note 62: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, December 1, 1999.  Back.

Note 63: Text of Report by Tehran Times Web site on December 6, 1999 in BBC's Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), ME/3712, December 8, 1999.  Back.

Note 64: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, November 29, 1999.  Back.

Note 65: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, November 29, 1999.  Back.

Note 66: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, November 29, 1999.  Back.

Note 67: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, November 29, 1999.  Back.

Note 68: BBC's Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), ME/3711, December 7, 1999.  Back.

Note 69: BBC's Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), ME/3711, December 7, 1999.  Back.

Note 70: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, February 26-27, 2000.  Back.

Note 71: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, February 21, 2000.  Back.

Note 72: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, February 22, 2000.  Back.

Note 73: See Ramzani, no. 44, pp. 177-187.  Back.

Note 74: Quoted at Khatami's news conference of December 14, 1997 in Tehran reported in FSIS-NESA, December 14, 1997.  Back.

Note 75: Barraclough, no. 54, p. 11.  Back.

Note 76: Kayhan Havai, January 14, 1998.  Back.

Note 77: Barraclough, n. 72, p. 12.  Back.

Note 78: Jamhuri Eslami, Esfand 7, 1376 (February 26, 1998).  Back.

Note 79: Rajaee, no. 48, p. 229.  Back.

Note 80: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, December 6, 1999; Hindustan Times, Patna, December 5, 1999; and The Hindu, Delhi, December 5, 1999.  Back.

Note 81: The Hindustan Times, Patna, December 5, 1999 and International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, December 6, 1999.  Back.

Note 82: The Hindustan Times, Patna, December 5, 1999.  Back.

Note 83: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, December 6, 1999.  Back.

Note 84: International Herald Tribune, Bangkok, December 6, 1999.  Back.