AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
Reform in retreat
The movement for change has suffered a set back. But...
By Rasool Nafisi
April 27, 2000
The reform movement in Iran has had ebb and flows, but this
time it seems to have hit a major obstacle. Mohammnad Khatami is still
the president and the sixth Majlis will open soon, but the main vehicle
of reform, i.e. the independent reformist newspapers, have nearly all been
banned and many well known journalists have been imprisoned. The main architect
of the reform movement is still struggling for his life with a bullet lodged
near his spine, and the Vali-e Faqih has unabashedly lashed out against
the press. What can the reform movement expect in the future?
The number one issue that has come to surface is the movement's fragility.
Pro-reform newspapers were beneficial as a means of propaganda and mass
mobilization. But the reform movement has had little institutional support
within the system. The reformists do not control military and security
organizations which are the traditional sources of political power in Iran.
The president has no control over the state radio and TV, or the infamous
foundations that control a major portion of the national wealth. In fact,
these organizations and all others controlled by the office of the Leader
are not accountable to the Majlis.
The reformits' achievements in the last three years are mostly due to
general disillusionment with the revolution and political violence, popular
demands for change, as well as Khatami's personal integrity and effective
tactics. However, a lack of institutional support will bring the reform
movement to a halt at the governmental level. Can the movement now deepen
its roots and bring about substantial changes?
So far, reformists have tallied three major victories: capturing the
presidency, and winning a majority in the municipal as well as the parliamentary
elections. The reformists have pledged that their top priority in the new
Majlis will be to liberalize press laws, eliminate the Special Court of
Clergy, and end the approbatory powers of the Council of Guardians to vet
Majlis candidates. To achieve these goals, the reformists need to make
sure that the new Majlis convenes on schedule. Thus they are continuously
warning the public against violent anti-conservative demonstrations that
may interrupt the opening of the new Majlis.
On the other hand, the so-called "right wing," fearing for
its future, has clamped down on the free press to silence the populace,
while revoking a sizable number of election results. So far elections in
11 constituencies -- all won by reformists -- have been voided. However,
it seems that even a weakened Majlis will be acceptable to the reformists.
Based on current events, leaders and supporters of the reform movement
should take the following into consideration:
1. The road to reform is a long and arduous one. The Islamic Republic
has taken away many elementary rights, and to regain them through legal,
peaceful, means may take decades.
2. Although the alternative, meaning violent political action, may seem
attractive, the historical experience of Iranians and their neighbors bear
witness to the futility of revolutions and civil wars. Any reform, no matter
how slow and insignificant, may prove to be preferable to a full-fledged
3. The reform movement should have no illusions about the scope and
expanse of reforms. Many constitutional institutions, such as the Council
of Guardians, the Expediency Council, the office of the Leader, and last
but not least the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, are well entrenched. They
are determined to perpetuate clerical rule in Iran. Only an enduring reform
movement may be able to erode aspects of the semi-totalitarian regime and
increase the scope of democracy.
4. The reform movement doesn't have many tools at its disposal. The
print media has been its main instrument of political action thus far.
One may suggest that at this juncture civil disobedience without adhering
to violence can be called forth. The bazaar merchants did not respond to
a call by the conservatives to close shop. In fact, in time, the bazaaris
may respond in favor of the reformists.
5. The city councils led by the reformists can function as the main
channel of approaching citizenry. Reformists need to look at this particular
civic organ to hold public meetings and inseminate ideas. City councils
may publish newsletters to make up, to some extent, for the closure of
the reformist daily papers.
6. The reformists should use the Internet, to convey their messages.
Although Internet users in Iran are small in number, they can become the
opinion makers of the country. Making accurate information and bias-free
analysis available through this channel will help the movement grow. Also,
Iranians rely heavily on international radio stations for information.
Reformists must not shy away from the foreign news organizations but should
in fact use them to spread their views, just as the Shah's opposition did
7. On the psychological front, the movement needs to create an air of
hope and optimism. Iranians have suffered long from a national malaise
under dictatorships and tend to get easily frustrated by political upheavals.
People need to be reminded of the long road to democracy, but also the
possibility of attaining it through concerted political action.
It is of vital importance to make clear to Iranians that only they can
shape their destiny. Great Britain or the U.S. have little to do with what
is happening in Iran. Those within the regime with entrenched interests,
will try their best to make the people frustrated, frightened, and indifferent.
The reformists should prevent it by keeping their cool and slowly but surely
Rasool Nafisi, Ph.D., is the Discipline Advisor of General Studies
at Strayer University in Northern Virginia. He is currently working on
a book on resecularization of the state in Iran.