terror and tehran
homeaxis of evilinside iraninterviewsdiscussion

Iran at the Millennium by Robin Wright
An excerpt from The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran (2001).

No one, no matter how powerful, can stop the free flow of ideas. Islam gives complete freedom for the free flow of ideas, whether others like it or not.
-- Reform cleric and former vice pesident Abdullah Nouri

Only stone can break stone.
-- Persian saying

I RETURNED TO IRAN twice after completing the first edition of this book. Each time, the pace of change, not to mention the explosive passions that went with it, stunned me. The turmoil hadn't ended, but it was increasingly giving way to transformation. And no sector of society was untouched.

I spent one weekend evening in late 1999 on fashionable Africa Boulevard, one of Tehran's main drags. From dusk until well past midnight, teenagers and twenty-somethings cruised in colorful Japanese and Korean compacts back and forth past boutiques, fashionable new apartment buildings and fast-food joints -- and, more important, each other. It was a raucous, noisy scene. A cacophony of car tape decks blared Backstreet Boys pop, Ricky Martin salsa and a rhapsodic Iranian version of New Age.

Traffic was so slow that it often took ten minutes just to move a block. But no one cared. For most, that was exactly the idea. Everyone seemed to be talking -- some to other passengers, but many on cell phones (possibly to others also dragging the strip, judging by some of the glances exchanged across the lanes). One young man entertained his two male passengers by repeatedly gunning his Nissan sports utility vehicle, only to squeal it to a halt after a few feet because of the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Strutting his stuff. Youth was on the prowl.

Robin Wright has reported from more than 120 countries as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, CBS News, The Sunday Times (London), and The Christian Science Monitor. She won a National Magazine Award for her reporting on Iran for The New Yorker. She is also the author of Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam, In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade, and (with Doyle McManus) Flashpoints: Promise and Peril in a New World.

And it could have been anywhere in the world.

Changes were visible everywhere I turned. On a triad of billboards, huge ads for Nokia mobile phones and Cartier watches flanked a billboard heralding Ayatollah Khomeini's hundredth birthday. Digital movies on sale at Tehran shops ranged from Saving Private Ryan starring Tom Hanks to Men in Black with Will Smith, from Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory to Tommy Lee Jones in U.S. Marshals. At Ferdowsi Park, I chatted with a fifteen-year-old girl named Tahmineh whose idea of Islamic dress was an oversized black sweatshirt that reads PLANET HOLLYWOOD-LAS VEGAS and a long black skirt. And cyber cafés had become the rage.

Ravenous for relief from revolutionary rigors, Iranian society was turning to entertainment and consumer goods. And globalization was changing the face of Iran as much as it was most other countries.

The scenes were a stark contrast to the revolution's early years, when I spent weekends either at Friday prayers monitoring the weekly political musings of the senior clerics or at Zahra's Paradise, the cemetery in Tehran's arid southern desert named after the Prophet's daughter. One of the world's largest graveyards, it was also one of the few places to socialize in public. Families picnicked amid the graves of loved ones or friends lost during the bloodiest modern Mideast war, between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.

Communing with the dead was no longer the favored outlet, however. Play and profit were replacing piety as the public's priorities.

But the transformation of Iran ran far deeper and reached far beyond just the young and the residents of cosmopolitan Tehran. And most of the changes emanated from within Iran and Islam.

In the summer of 2000 I drove to Qom to call on Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, one of the dozen most revered clerics in Shi'ite Islam, a man who'd devoted more than half a century to religious scholarship. He had all the right credentials. Before the revolution, he'd been a protégé of Imam Khomeini, who once bragged that he'd brought up Saanei "as a son." After the revolution, Saanei served on the first Council of Guardians and then as Iran's chief prosecutor.

The grand ayatollah also looked and lived the part. He had a wispy white beard that hung like a fringe under his chin. He issued many of his fatwas sitting on the floor of an austere room with no furniture except a bookcase, the same place where he received followers and guests. Above him, a lone lightbulb dangled from the ceiling and a slow fan struggled unsuccessfully against the searing desert heat of Qom.

Yet Saanei, at seventy-three, had turned out to be a thoroughly modern mullah.

With a couple of young followers sitting in on the conversation, he was quite blunt from the beginning -- no opening niceties, no need for a question to warm him up. "It's my interpretation from the Koran that all people have equal rights. That means men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims too. Oppression doesn't exist in Islam," he started off, with gentle certainty. "And in a society where all people have equal rights, that means all people should make decisions -- equally."

To help enshrine those rights, Saanei outlined a series of his recent fatwas: He'd outlawed discrimination based on gender, race or ethnicity. He'd declared that women could hold all jobs, including his own and the Supreme Leader's. He'd raised the age of puberty from nine -- imposed after the revolution -- to thirteen. He'd declared that there was nothing wrong with any music, except for lyrics that were immoral or un-Islamic -- a huge change in a country where most music and all female singers were banned in public. He'd even issued a fatwa allowing abortion in the first trimester, not only due to a mother's health or fetal abnormalities.

"Generally abortion is forbidden. But Islam is not a religion of hard rules. Islam is a religion of compassion and if there are serious problems, God sometimes doesn't require his creatures to practice his law. So under some conditions -- such as parents' poverty or overpopulation -- then abortion is allowed," he explained, noting that he even wrote letters of consent for women to take to their doctors. "This doesn't mean that we're changing God's law." Saanei cautioned, stroking his beard. "It just means we're reinterpreting laws according to the development of science -- and realities of the times."

What happens next in Iran will be determined to an important degree by the thinking within its most conservative sector. And Qom has always been the conservative heart of Iran. Yet the holy city of yellow-brick seminaries and mud-brick homes, which in the 1960s and 1970s had provided the mullahs who mobilized millions to rise up against the shah and end 2,500 years of monarchy, had begun in the 1990s to produce clerics willing to challenge and redefine the world's only theocracy. The grand ayatollah was a symbol of the change.

"I have reached these ideas with the same methods of study and thought taught in the seminaries through the ages. Only my interpretation or what I have found in the sacred texts is different. But my conclusions are just as purely Islamic," he said. "And whatever I'm telling you is what I'm saying in the seminaries." And to the world.

To increase access to the grand ayatollah's fatwas and thought, his followers had also recently launched a Web site -- www.saanei.org. The Internet had become a vehicle for change inside Iran.

In 2000, other key reformers began reaching out as well. Ayatollah Ali Montazeri was personally selected by Imam Khomeini as his heir apparent -- until Montazeri began criticizing the regime and calling for reforms in both domestic and foreign policy. So, shortly before his death, Khomeini fired his former student. Montazeri's popularity only increased, however. So in 1997 conservatives in Iran's judiciary ordered him placed under house arrest. The dissident ayatollah also became a regular victim of thuggery, including one attack that demolished his office. Hard-liners left behind a sign smeared across the wall, HERETIC OF THE AGE. Guards were posted outside his home to ensure no one made contact.

But in 2000, Montazeri managed to reach beyond his jailors to both Iranians and the outside world through cyberspace. As with Saanei, the personalized Web site meant writers and supporters could correspond, seek guidance and even ask for his fatwas -- by email.

AS A NEW CENTURY DAWNED, some of the most zealous revolutionaries two decades earlier had been transformed into the most ardent reformers.

That didn't mean it was easy, however.

In a telling exchange after Grand Ayatollah Saanei agreed to an interview, his aide called back. "If you get a call canceling this appointment, don't believe it. He wants to talk to you," the aide said.

The reason was obvious. Despite his ties to the religious hierarchy, Saanei had also issued a bold fatwa challenging both the powers and the selection of the Supreme Leader -- a position with virtually infallible powers at the heart of the theocracy.

The grand ayatollah ruled that no one is infallible. The Supreme Leader's right to hold office and his actions instead "depend on the endorsement by the public as a whole," his fatwa said.

"Humans can always make mistakes. And no one leader or group of people is above the law or 'more equal' then anyone else," he added when we spoke. "So power must rest with the people, the majority, not individuals or institutions."

Saanei was unusual among grand ayatollahs, but by 2000 he was hardly a lone voice among Iran's 180,000 mullahs. More and more clerics were willing to exert their clout -- in defiance of their peers and at great personal risk -- to further the Islamic reformation.

As the new millennium dawned, many of Iran's most popular public figures -- and politicians -- were in fact reform clerics. The outside world often misunderstood the divide, as if it pitted conservative clerics against secular reformers and politicians. In fact, however, clerics were just as important to reform as they were to the original revolution. The most prominent was Abdullah Nouri, a charismatic former vice president and minister of interior under President Khatami who'd been impeached in 1998, in part for permitting student demonstrations against conservatives. The next year, Nouri made a spectacular comeback when he won the highest vote in the historic first election for Tehran's new city council, a move that marked the distribution of power beyond the center to Iran's cities.

Nouri also published Khordad, a new reform paper that dared to run blatant criticism of conservative clerics and daring questions about the regime's tactics, from the practice of eye-for-an-eye justice to the powers of the Supreme Leader. Khordad quickly became the most popular paper in Iran. Its circulation topped all the conservative papers combined. It was widely seen as the mouthpiece of reformers.

The popularity of Nouri, Iran's most outspoken advocate of reform, virtually ensured that he would also win the highest vote in the 2000 parliamentary elections -- and probably go on to be elected speaker of the new Parliament, his declared intent. But what made Nouri most dangerous in the eyes of conservatives -- more dangerous even than intellectuals such as Abdul Soroush -- was his rank of hojatolislam, which means "proof of Islam" or "authority on Islam." It's the rank just below an ayatollah. The legitimacy of thinkers, writers and intellectuals could be undermined and their voices silenced by taking away their academic positions and banning their books or newspapers. But the clergy was another thing.

As a famous Persian saying goes, "Only stone can break stone."

So, in a blatant move to get him out of the way, the Special Court for the Clergy charged Nouri with apostasy in late 1999. The Special Court had been established more than a decade after the revolution by the personal edict of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei -- outside of the constitution's judicial system -- in response to growing challenges from the clergy. It quickly became the conservatives' primary weapon against the reform movement.

The case was blatantly vindictive and political. Among the dozens of charges, the forty-four page indictment even cited an article in Khordad that called on the regime to allow people to clap, whistle and cheer at concerts and political rallies -- practices technically banned, though largely ignored, as un-Islamic.

The trial became a sensation that riveted the country -- and the outside world. The New York Times compared its importance in the country's history -- as "a testing ground for irreconcilable views about the future of a society and its beliefs, with huge social, philosophical and political stakes resting on the outcome" -- to the 1927 Scopes trial in the United States or the treason trial of Sir Thomas More during the reign of Henry VIII in England. It probably more closely resembled the Spanish Inquisition.

But the real party on trial was not Nouri. It was the system itself.

"I totally reject the court, its membership and its competence to conduct this trial -- and any verdict you reach will have no legitimacy. What I was thinking as I listened to the indictment being read was, 'This is not a court, this is a self-appointed cabal,' he boldly told the Special Court's judge and a nine-man jury of fellow clerics. "I ask myself, what has happened to us, to our revolution, to our faith, that it has come to this, that one group of clerics can make allegations against another like this?"

The highlights of the lengthy trial were Nouri's lectures and Socratic monologues in response to the charges. Wearing his white turban, dark clerical robes and trademark tinted aviator classes, he stood behind a lectern and calmly skewered the regime.

"You can't enforce the veil with clubs and batons. You cannot claim religion is limited to your own particular understanding of it," he told the judges and Iranians -- in a trial so widely covered that some papers published twice a day. At another point, he warned, "The only way for Iran to survive is through reformation," a pointed message to Iran's conservatives. "Religion should not be an instrument of power."

Short-term, the court prevailed. Nouri was found guilty. He was sentenced to five years in prison. And his newspaper was outlawed. But his parting words to a packed auditorium of students at the Iran University of Science and Technology on the eve of the trial more accurately reflected the state of political play in Iran.

"No one, no matter how powerful, can stop the free flow of ideas," Nouri said. "Islam gives complete freedom for the free flow of ideas, whether others like it or not."

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 twenty-first century.

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 female.

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 clan.

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 clinic.

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 added.

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 couches.

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 easily.

"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 health care.

"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 had control.

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 nowadays."

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.

home | introduction | iran and the axis of evil | inside iran | interviews
producer chat | readings & links | chronology | discussion | video
tapes & transcripts | press reaction | credits | privacy policy

FRONTLINE | wgbh | pbsi

khatami photo copyright © reuters newmedia/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation