Movement Likely To Eschew Politics
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 20, 2004; Page A15
TEHRAN, Feb. 19 -- In
the Wednesday night editorial meeting of a newspaper called Yas-e-No,
the final hours of Iran's reform movement played out in characteristic
fashion. Men in shirtsleeves shuffled papers and prepared to exercise
rights it was not clear they actually had.
Iranian women near Tehran University read leaflets about today's
election, in which reform candidates were disqualified.
(Morteza Nikoubazl -- Reuters)
going to publish this letter, let's publish everything because they're
going to close us anyway," one editor implored. He tapped a finger on
the text of an unusual, almost combustible epistle to Iran's supreme
leader. An hour earlier, it had been read aloud to foreign journalists,
but everyone at Yas-e-No knew how dangerous it would be when they
printed it in Thursday's editions.
Mohsen Mirdamadi, sitting across a table cluttered with page proofs and sugar cubes, thought for a moment.
Twenty-five years earlier, his angry eloquence inspired
students to storm the U.S. Embassy, humiliating a superpower. On Feb.
1, he led 124 of his fellow lawmakers in a mass resignation to protest
the disqualifications of thousands of reformist candidates from the
nationwide parliamentary elections set for Friday.
Now Mirdamadi peered into a forbidding future and
shook his head. "They're not going to do anything," he said, "until the
results of the elections are known."
They did, though. The next day, security forces shut
down Yas-e-No -- Farsi for "New Jasmine" -- and another newspaper. A
few hours later, the authorities closed the downtown Tehran
headquarters of the Iran Islamic Participation Front, the political
party most closely associated with the reform movement.
In the almost seven years since Iranian voters stunned
the ruling mullahs by thrusting a smiling reformer into the presidency,
electoral politics has been the primary vehicle for change in a country
where political power is sharply divided. Though ultimate authority
remained in the hands of hard-line Islamic clerics in appointed
positions, landslide after landslide gave reformers control over the
government's elective positions and embodied the aspirations of a young
majority craving liberty from chafing social regulations and economic
That era will end with Friday's national ballot, widely condemned as a sham that many Iranians say they intend to boycott.
The outcome of the vote is a foregone conclusion:
Iran's 290-member parliament will be dominated by conservatives, a
result that was ensured with the ban on reformist candidates.
Only the boycott campaign, led by frustrated reformers
and battered student leaders, gives the balloting an element of
suspense. If voter turnout is dramatically low, conservatives may gain
the parliament but not the legitimacy they crave.
But analysts agree the bigger question is what will become of the impulse for change.
"In these six years, there was a social demand
exhibited in Iran that was much bigger than the capacity of the
political system," said Emad Din Baghi, a sociologist and pro-reform
journalist. "It has overloaded the system. But it will find its own
Once, the way seemed clear. The 1997 election of
President Mohammad Khatami lifted the hopes of Iranians who felt
ignored by the ruling clerics, including the majority of the population
too young to cherish any memory of the 1979 revolution.
But Khatami, an erudite, soft-spoken cleric, proved no
match for the hard-liners who have dominated Iran's theocracy for so
long. Appointed conservatives repeatedly vetoed legislation passed by
parliament, so frustrating the reform agenda that Khatami was in tears
when he agreed to run for a second term in 2001. Many new lawmakers,
however, displayed an appetite for the confrontation Khatami loathed.
characteristic of Khatami that as public confidence in him receded, his
own Web site dutifully recorded the disappointment.
"Easy come, easy go!" reads a message posted after
Khatami announced that his government would administer Friday's
elections, despite an earlier promise to the contrary. "You said you
came to put people on the train of hope. You have made them get off
Another citizen attacked the president for his abiding
devotion to Iran's theocracy. "You have always said that preserving the
regime is important for you. Apparently it seems it is more important
than the nation itself!"
But the sharpest disappointment was on campus. When
student protests resulted in activists being savagely beaten by
right-wing militias, Khatami's aversion to showdowns led him to issue
indirect condemnations of protesters. Student leaders rallied instead
in recent years to leaders advocating fundamental change and
demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice for it. This week they
condemned Khatami for "slaughtering justice, freedom and people's
rights" by holding the elections.
A favorite of the students is Hashem Aghajari, a
history professor once sentenced to death for suggesting that Iranians
are not obliged to obey ruling clerics "like monkeys." Aghajari this
week agreed that reform from within the system was hopeless and
counseled passive resistance instead.
"Tell the totalitarians no," he wrote from prison.
His advice appears to dovetail with the national mood.
Iranians began a broad retreat from politics about two years ago, as
the stalemate between reformers and conservatives became clear. Voter
turnout for municipal elections a year ago barely topped 10 percent in
Tehran. And interviews in the city's working-class south side a week
ago found some people determined to sit out the parliamentary elections
even before they had heard of a boycott.
"If everybody was courageous enough not to
participate, we could make real change," said Samira Hojatti, 19. "By
not participating, we are proving the state is not legitimate. Iranians
are clever. They don't need to be told what to do. They know what to
Maryam Taleei, 18, wearing a colored scarf in a neighborhood where most women dress entirely in black, curled her lip.
"If they are going to be the same dull men in beards and women in chador, of course I'm not going to vote," she said.
But while it appears clear that a phase has ended in
Iran, there is little agreement about what's next. Even the political
complexion of the new conservative parliament is in doubt.
For all their failings, Khatami and company are
credited with at least delivering a new political agenda in the
country. The conservative camp is no longer a hard-line monolith; one
wing of the movement calls itself "pragmatic."
In that new context, some analysts hold out hope that
the new parliament will be dominated by centrists who will claim the
reform mantle as their own. This view was encouraged when the main
conservative coalition pointedly declined to include a pair of
well-known hard-liners on its candidate list.
But in a
broad swath of the capital, distrust of the system runs deep. Some
disappointed reformers, while repeating the conventional wisdom that
Iranians have little appetite for another revolution, draw unflattering
comparisons between the behavior of the current government and the
monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi that was overthrown in 1979, in
part because of sham elections.
"Our cry now is referendum," said Ali Reza, a student
at Tehran University. He echoed Aghajari's call for "fundamental
change," an up-or-down vote on Iran's theocratic system.
"We hope this can come about because no one wants
another revolution," Reza said. "What we should have is a kind of civil
disobedience . . . the kind of actions that happened in Czechoslovakia."
He spoke on the street outside the gate of the
university last week, trying in vain to get inside to a meeting between
about 200 students and a handful of reformist lawmakers. After 25
years, the quest for political change had gone back to school.
Mirdamadi and other senior reformers, who cut their revolutionary teeth
on campus, said they were looking to channel the urge for reform into
student and civic organizations.
But a student who had just emerged from the campus meeting said she saw "no hope."
"And I don't know how long they're going to stay in
power," said the student, a chemistry major named Farkhondeh. "They're
repressing every single movement."
She waved in exasperation at the phalanx of uniforms gathered at the gate.
"Just look: About 200 students are having a meeting,"
she said. "Look at all these guards, all these police, all these
restrictions. So how is change going to happen?"
© 2003 The Washington Post Company