IRAN LAUNCHED the new millennium with an election. The timing was appropriate,
since the stakes were nothing short of the country's identity in the
The poll was for an expanded new Parliament. But Iranians were really voting on
a single proposition: Was Iran still an intolerant revolutionary state -- in
which traditional Islam was the state's foundation and a single Supreme Leader
held ultimate power? Or was it an Islamic country ruled by the people's
representatives -- and headed with determination down the road of democracy and
globalization, the prerequisites for participation in a new era?
The Islamic republic had been riven for months in anticipation of the critical
vote. In the end, however, the campaign was short -- and skimpy. It lasted a
mere week. Most campaign props -- color posters, banners and loudspeakers --
were outlawed. Candidates received no radio or television time. Publicity was
limited to small flyers and brochures with the candidates' biographies and a
few lines about their platforms.
But, given real choices, Iranians can be passionate about politics, even in a
week. And there was a lot to be passionate about this time around.
The February contest was wide open, the array of choices unprecedented. More
than six thousand candidates competed for two hundred and ninety seats -- an
average of more than twenty candidates per seat. Fewer than ever were clerics.
Most were instead professionals -- doctors, professors, newspaper editors and
writers, engineers, teachers. Hundreds were young, in their thirties and too
young to remember much of the revolution or what preceded it. Dozens were
The outcome was decisive. Three quarters of the seats were won by a broad
coalition of reformers and their independent allies. In Tehran, twenty-eight
of thirty seats allocated to the capital went to reformers. After three years
of escalating tension between reformers and conservatives, the election proved
to be a resounding endorsement for change -- and for President Mohammad
Khatami. It also meant that two of the three branches of government, the
executive and legislative, were firmly in the hands of reformers.
The problem remained, of course, that Iran's "government" represented only half
of the country's ruling powers. Conservatives still controlled the judiciary --
plus Iran's military and intelligence units, the Council of Guardians and, last
but not least, the Supreme Leader's office.
Yet the losers were telling. Former President Rafsanjani, who always came in
first when he ran in the 1980s and who served for eight years as speaker of
Parliament, came in twenty-ninth out of Tehran's thirty seats. His campaign to
be speaker again was totally crushed. He was no longer the "teflon mullah." A
blatantly manipulated recount a few weeks later raised him to twentieth, but
students quickly protested, brazenly shouting, "Down with the shah. Down with
Akbar shah," a play on Rafsanjani's first name. The slogans basically equated
the man who'd dominated Iranian politics for a decade with the monarchy and
even implied that he was trying to create his own political dynasty. Within
days, Rafsanjani felt compelled to resign his seat altogether. His daughter,
who'd won the highest vote in the 1996 parliamentary election, didn't place at
all, a strong reflection of public antipathy toward the whole Rafsanjani
In contrast, the top winners were all prominent reformers or relatives of
jailed reform clerics. Ali Reza Nouri, the youngest of eight children, is a
vascular surgeon with an easy manner and an impish sense of humor. He had no
interest in a political life until the night before his older brother, Abdullah
Nouri, the charismatic cleric and Khordad publisher, went to jail.
"We stayed up all night and I listened to him talk about his ideas, about the
need for free speech and a free press, about finding the serial killers (of
Iranian intellectuals and dissidents) and about the need for distance between
religion and government," Nouri told me when I interviewed him at his
The younger Nouri not only listened; he ran for Parliament in his brother's
stead: "I used a sentence from his testimony as my campaign slogan: The only
way for Iran to survive is reformation," he said.
He came in third. And now he's quite passionate about politics.
"Reform is like water. You need it to live, especially in the twenty-first
century. If we don't accept reform, we will automatically be isolated," he
One of the other big winners was Jamileh Kadivar, city councillor, former
presidential adviser, wife of the embattled minister of culture and Islamic
guidance and sister of imprisoned cleric Mohsen Kadivar. She came in second.
Despite the obstacles ahead, she predicted that reform could no longer be
derailed. Slowed, maybe, but not derailed.
"I'm optimistic about almost everything. When President Khatami came to power,
the atmosphere was very bad and no one believed that he could achieve his goals
because all the instruments of power were in the hands of conservatives. But
now the president has the majority in Parliament and the atmosphere is much
better than before," she told me when I called on her in mid-2000, shortly
after the new Parliament began meeting.
"Because of the press, people's awareness has increased and they're now putting
pressure on the institutions controlled by conservatives. They're making them
answer the needs of the people."
I asked how she could be so upbeat. Her brother was still in prison. Her
husband still faced constant condemnation and calls for his resignation from
conservatives and the right-wing press. And she had almost been disqualified
from running by the Council of Guardians.
"Well," she said, smiling, "my brother will be freed in a month and he'll begin
his regular activities. My husband is still at the ministry. And I'm very
strongly defending the rights of women -- and all the people who voted for me
-- in parliament. So what are the grounds for being pessimistic?"
But the top winner -- Reza Khatami, younger brother of the president -- was
the most telling of all. Like the younger Nouri, he too had had no political
ambitions. He too was a physician, a London-trained kidney specialist. He too
was inspired by the conservatives' challenge to his older brother. He too
pushed the political envelope, founding Iran's largest and most popular new
political party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front.
And he too won big -- more votes than any candidate had ever received in any of
Iran's six parliamentary elections since the 1979 revolution. Overnight, he
became the reformers' chief strategist in Parliament. Iranians even began
talking about the Khatamis as the Kennedys of Iran.
The younger Khatami also had an important edge in establishing his credibility
-- his wife. As head of the government's Women's Commission she's played a key
role in promoting women's issues -- and bringing along the women's vote, one of
two key electoral blocks behind the reform movement. She also happens to be
Imam Khomeini's granddaughter.
I talked to the younger Khatami on the night before he was elected deputy
speaker of Parliament. The party headquarters is in a starkly simple building a
couple blocks from the old American Embassy. A single male receptionist, who
doubled as the telephone operator, sat at the entrance. In between calls, he
showed me to a simple conference room with whitewashed walls and several
Khatami rushed in breathless a few minutes late from another meeting, but he
was almost early by the standards of Iranian punctuality. He came alone, no
aides or flacks or party officials. Although he's sixteen years younger than
his brother, his hair is already silvery. He was dapperly dressed in a sports
coat and shirt. He was candid and engaging as he reflected on how the Islamic
republic had changed -- and what Iranians wanted in a new political era.
"The original goals of the revolution were freedom, independence and the
creation of an Islamic republic. But ideas change with time. Today, an Islamic
republic means cooperation and compromise between religion and democracy.
Today, the most important thing for people is freedom," he said, smiling
"In this election, people were asking for their legal rights and we now want to
restore those basics, including freedom of speech, press and privacy; the right
to go to court, to have a lawyer, the assumption of innocence until proven
guilty and a ban on torture; a ban on censorship, surveillance or listening to
conversations; and the universal right to housing, free education and free
"Today there's intervention and interference with the daily life of the people,
which is not according to the law," he added. "One of the most important
priorities of Parliament is to pass some laws that prevent the police forces
and informal forces from interfering in the life of the people."
As with all reformers, I pressed Khatami on how reformers could overcome the
hurdles put up by conservatives. I told him that Iran's parallel centers of
power often made it difficult to tell just who spoke for the government and who
He laughed. "Yes, our traditions are much different from other countries.
Government is not only the three branches of government. There are some powers
outside. The clerical institutions, which have branches in every part of the
country, are very important and no one can ignore them," he conceded. "Most are
behind reforms. But some traditional organizations among the clergy are made up
of good people who can't understand the modernity that people need and want
I asked him what that meant for the future.
"If we're not able to compromise between these things, then the future of the
revolution will be at stake," he replied after musing for a moment. "But public
opinion is behind us and the public wants to continue along our path. It
doesn't matter if it is not so fast. So we're not in a hurry to get all of
these things done in just four years. We must have time. After all, it took
twenty years to get this far."
"Epilogue: Return to Iran," from The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and
Transformation in Iran. Copyright © 2001 by Robin Wright. Reprinted by
permission of International Creative Management, Inc.
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