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BY POPULAR DEMAND: IRANIAN ELECTIONS, 1997-2001
Five years, five elections. If the results are any indication, the Iranian public has given its endorsement, time and again, to the reformers in Iran who say they are trying to fashion a more open society.

1997 - PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

In 1997, the Speaker of Parliament, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, enjoyed the implicit endorsement of Supreme Leader Khamenei as successor to Iran's outgoing president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Nateq-Nouri was a hojjatoleslam, a clerical rank just below ayatollah, and had been the Minister of the Interior in the 1980s. He had been the Speaker of Parliament since 1992, where conservative deputies like him held the majority. He was, in effect, the third highest ranking official in the Iranian government, after the Supreme Leader and the president.

Nateq-Nouri also had the outright endorsement of the Militant Clergy Society, to which many of the clerical establishment's leaders belonged. In most circles, his ascendancy to the executive was considered a given. "Never had Iranian officials been so blatant in their backing of a single candidate," writes Robin Wright, a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, in her book The Last Great Revolution (2000).

His candidacy was given an official nudge forward by the Council of Guardians, which was dominated by conservative clerics and had the awesome power to decide which candidates were fit to run for president. The council disqualified more than 200 other candidates -- 230, to be precise, including all of the women -- who had registered to run. Four men were left, among them Nateq-Nouri and Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who held the relatively obscure post of director of the National Library and was hardly seen as a threat to Nateq-Nouri's candidacy.

Khatami was not a new face in Iranian politics. In 1992 he was forced to resign his post as minister of culture and Islamic guidance, where he was tasked with enforcing the republic's censorship policies. In the first few years he held the post, he strictly enforced the rules; in the latter part of his tenure, however, he relaxed restrictions on films, art, music, and literature, stirring the ire of the conservative-dominated Parliament. President Rafsanjani allowed Khatami to submit his resignation, a political gesture meant to appease the clerical establishment, and Khatami was transferred to the National Library.

That Khatami clashed with the clerical establishment might be seen as ironic. The son of a prominent cleric and a supporter of the 1979 revolution, Khatami's clerical credentials are solid. He, too, is a hojjatoleslam, educated at the theological institutions in Qom, where he became a disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a close friend of Khomeini's son. He also studied philosophy at secular institutions in Iran, where he was exposed to Western ideals of democracy. The possibility that democracy could blossom within Islam, in fact, would go on to dominate his political thought.

Khatami's political support in the 1997 election came from a coalition of strange bedfellows, including traditional leftists, some of whom had participated in the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979, and business leaders who wanted the state to open up the economy and allow more foreign investment. Women and younger voters also got behind Khatami's candidacy. A longtime supporter of the freedom of speech and the press, he promised to enforce constitutional civil rights. He campaigned tirelessly.

"He was a populist candidate, would get on a bus and kiss babies and shake hands," says The New York Times' Elaine Sciolino, author of Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran. "And he had such an extraordinary personality and such charm. It sounds sort of trite or superficial, but he's as charming as Bill Clinton. And that goes a long way. He charmed the people of Iran. He charmed them with his personality, with his good looks, and with his promises."

The presidential campaign lasted only 12 days, and most candidates' access to the state media, including the television and radio networks, was effectively restricted. But though Khatami had little airtime, he more than made up for it in the televised presidential debates, where it became clear to most that Nateq-Nouri could not compete with Khatami's formidable intellect.

In May 1997, Iranians went to the polls in droves. Nearly 80 percent of eligible voters participated, and fully 70 percent of them voted for Khatami, giving him and his reform agenda a resounding endorsement. Even in Qom, the center of theological training in Iran and a conservative stronghold, 70 percent of voters cast their ballots for Khatami.

In August of 1997, Supreme Leader Khamenei confirmed Khatami as the fifth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

1998 - ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS ELECTION

The 1998 election for the Assembly of Experts was the first election to follow Khatami's upset win in the 1997 presidential race.

The assembly, which meets for one week every year, consists of 86 "virtuous and learned" clerics that the public elects to eight-year terms. Its members, in turn, elect the Supreme Leader from within their own ranks and periodically reconfirm him. It has never been known to challenge any of the Supreme Leader's decisions. While its duties are weighty, the Assembly of Experts is the "most obscure of Iran's many [governing] bodies," according to Robin Wright, author of The Last Great Revolution, who compares it to the Vatican's College of Cardinals.

The Council of Guardians once again whittled down the list of candidates for the assembly election. Of the 396 candidates, fewer than 150 made the final cut; none of the women or nonclerical candidates were approved. In fact, the Supreme Leader's younger brother, Hadi Khamenei, was judged to have insufficient theological qualifications, despite the fact that he had received years of clerical training in Qom. But he was one of Khatami's key advisers, and as a newspaper editor had been critical of the conservatives. In addition to the Supreme Leader's brother, most of the reformist candidates had been disqualified for one reason or another.

Only half of the eligible voters showed up at the polls in October 1998, an unimpressive turnout by Iranian standards. Predictably, the conservative establishment won a majority of the seats on the assembly.

1999 - MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS

Articles 100-106 of Iran's Constitution laid the framework for the many municipal bodies that would help govern economic, social, and cultural affairs, among other things. And, according to Article 100, "Members of these councils will be elected by the people of the locality in question."

But no Iranian government had ever implemented the constitutional provision that called for the municipal elections and the local councils were never established, partly out of fear that they would ultimately diminish the power of the centralized government, and partly because there were more pressing concerns -- the Iran-Iraq war, for one, along with a depressed economy. Before 1999, Iranians had only gone to the polls to elect the president, the members of Parliament, and the Assembly of Experts.

Khatami's Interior Ministry changed that when it announced that it would finally call the elections. More than 334,000 individuals, 5,000 of whom were women, indicated their intention to run for office. This time, a committee supervised by Parliament -- not the conservative, cleric-dominated Council of Guardians -- determined candidates' eligibility, which gave Khatami's reformist camp some hope that it could secure enough seats to continue the momentum from the presidential election.

In February 1999, the same month that the Islamic Republic celebrated its 20th anniversary, Iranians went to the polls to fill 190,000 vacancies in towns and cities across the country. As expected, reformist candidates won overwhelmingly nationwide, and secured 12 of the 15 seats in Tehran alone.

One of the biggest winners in Tehran was Abdullah Nouri, a former Interior minister and vice president in Khatami's cabinet, and one of the president's strongest allies. In June 1998, he had been impeached by the conservative Parliament and ousted from his office at the Interior Ministry, partly because he had allowed demonstrations in support of a dissident cleric. In fact, his opponents may have sought to oust him before the municipal elections because they did not want one of the leading reformists to be in charge of running the local elections.

Khatami retaliated to Nouri's impeachment by appointing him vice president of development and social affairs, a new, special post that did not require Parliament's approval. Nouri then resigned that post in February 1999 in order to run for the municipal elections, the same races that he would have administered as Interior minister. He got the most votes of all of the candidates, winning 589,000 of the 1.4 million votes in Tehran. Despite parliamentary maneuverings to sideline both his candidacy and his election, Khatami swore Nouri into office in April 1999 as chair of Tehran's new city council.

The battle wasn't over for Nouri, however. Because he had won so resoundingly in the municipal elections, the conservatives rightly saw him as a viable candidate for Parliament, which was holding elections the following year, and Nouri almost certainly would have been a frontrunner for the speakership. In October 1999, just months in advance of the parliamentary elections, the Special Clerical Court -- a tribunal that tries clerics for crimes against the Islamic Republic -- charged Nouri with apostasy. In a televised trial that would turn out to be the most sensational in the Islamic Republic's history, the jury of theologians found Nouri guilty of 15 counts and sentenced him to five years in prison. Thus one of Khatami's key allies, and the reformists' leading parliamentary hopeful, was out of the running.

[Editor's note: In November 2002, Supreme Leader Khameneiİpardoned Nouri after the sudden death of Nouri's brother in aİcar crash. Nouri had served three years of his five-year prison sentence.]

2000 - PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS

The 2000 parliamentary elections were held in the wake of Nouri's trial. More than 5,000 people declared their candidacy for the 290 seats. The Council of Guardians disqualified 10 percent of them -- far less than the 40 percent disqualified in the previous elections, in 1996.

With the backing of the conservative clerical establishment, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani decided to run for a seat from Tehran. His supporters expected him to ultimately become Speaker of the Parliament, a post that he'd held previously, from 1980-1989.

On election day in mid-February, 70 percent of qualified voters cast their ballots, and the country's women and younger voters -- longtime supporters of reformist initiatives -- turned out in record numbers. Reformist candidates routed the conservatives, claiming 70 percent of the seats. Rafsanjani finished a humiliating 30th in Tehran, barely capturing the last of the city's seats in Parliament. He would ultimately relinquish his seat -- the only one of Tehran's that went to a nonreformist candidate -- before Parliament convened. In fact, only 14 percent of the new deputies in Parliament were clerics, who made up more than half of the first Parliament that had been elected in 1980.

It marked the first time that the reformists had won an absolute majority of seats in Parliament. Further, two of the three branches of government -- the executive and legislative -- were now firmly held by reformists and their allies.

One of the top winners in the 2000 parliamentary elections was Reza Khatami, younger brother of the president and a London-trained physician. He received more votes than any candidate had ever received in any of Iran's parliamentary elections. He is now the reformers' chief strategist in Parliament.

2001 - PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

In 1997, Khatami was swept into office on the great hopes of the Iranian electorate. But since then, some of his prized advisers and cabinet members had been ousted; dozens of the reformist publications that had sprouted up after his overwhelming victory in 1997 had been shut down, deemed at odds with the values of the Islamic Republic; and although he had managed to change the very nature of Iranian politicking, he had, in fact, accomplished little in the way of substantive, far-reaching reform. Before the 2001 presidential elections, he had expressed reluctance to run for a second term. He waited until the last minute to announce his candidacy.

There were more than 800 other candidates for president. The Council of Guardians narrowed the field to 10, leaving Khatami the sole moderate. All of the other contenders had ties to conservative or hardline parties, and two of the leading candidates, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani and former Minister of Intelligence Ali Fallahian, had strong ties to the military. The conservatives, however, failed to put forth a candidate of their own and didn't officially back any of Khatami's rivals. Despite the incumbent's obvious reluctance, it was widely expected that he would easily retain the executive office.

On June 8, Khatami won by a landslide, securing nearly 80 percent of the popular vote. And despite predictions that the Iranian electorate, disillusioned by the constant bickering between the reformers and the conservatives, wouldn't show up at the polls, four-fifths of the 43 million eligible voters turned out. The sweeping victory added to the credibility of the reform movement. It also raised expectations.

A showdown between Khamenei and Parliament delayed Khatami's inauguration, an ominous start to his second term. The Parliament had refused the conservative Judiciary's nominations for the last two vacancies on the Council of Guardians, judging them politically biased or lacking the requisite legal training. Conservatives, however, forced the issue, arguing that all members of the Council of Guardians were constitutionally bound to be present at the presidential inauguration. Supreme Leader Khamenei intervened, postponing the inauguration until the issue was resolved. The Expediency Council, which mediates disputes between Parliament and the Council of Guardians, ultimately sided with the Judiciary and forced the appointment of the conservatives.

After the resolution of the dispute, and three days later than originally scheduled, Khatami was finally inaugurated. The New York Times described his inaugural address as "assertive." He acknowledged, briefly, the previous years' setbacks for the reform movement, and tried to stay above the political fray. "I will not paint my critics and opponents as those opposed to Islam, the revolution, freedom, or people," the president said, "but will value their lawful presence, and will respect them and avoid insulting their dignity."

RELATED FEATURES

The Structure of Power in Iran
An overview of the Iranian government and political system.

Voices of Reform
The state of the reform movement in Iran, with excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with New York Times senior writer Elaine Sciolino, the reformist Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, Iranian dissident Fariborz Raisdana, Iran's ambassador to Canada, Dr. Mohammad Mousavi; and Iranian Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar, a former student revolutionary and one of the highest-ranking women in the Islamic world.

RELATED LINK

Time Europe: Iran's Elections
Time magazine's excellent compendium of articles and other features on the 2001 presidential election in Iran, including an interview about the future of the reform movement with presidential adviser Saeed Hajjarian, who was recovering from an assassination attempt at the time of the interview.


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