Shutting down the Tehran Spring

How religious hard-liners sabotaged reforms in Iran and earned the spite of their people.

Published January 11, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

Last spring, hopes were high that Iran's Islamic government would end support for terrorism, make peace with its neighbors and allow greater freedom of thought and economic activity internally. Those hopes have been dashed by a series of heavy-handed moves since the summer. The hard-line mullahs who run this country of 60 million have chosen to ignore overwhelming votes and roll back any moves toward reform.

From the universities to the bazaars to the upscale city neighborhoods to a drought-stricken village south of Tehran, signs of the losing battle for reform are ever present.

In upscale north Tehran last summer, young men and their girlfriends walked along the streets holding hands -- a display of affection that could have cost them a beating and time in jail a few years ago. A very few women dared walk the five yards from their front door to their cars without a headscarf. And while headscarves, or the more conservative head-to-toe black chador, are still required by law outside the home, increasingly women let some of their hair escape, wear colorful scarves and don short manteau coats, allowing their bare feet in dainty slippers to be seen -- often with bright nail polish.

But in the village south of the city, a few local men had just given us assurances that things were fine, when an angry woman interrupted.

"Don't talk to those men," she said. "They will only tell you lies. This place is full of drugs. Everyone is using drugs or selling them to our children. Come with me and I'll tell you what is really going on." Up a small hill, in a neat alley off the main road, she exploded with passion. "I am not afraid. You must know what this government has done to us." The Afghan refugees brought in hash and opium some years back and started selling it to children as young as 9 and 10, she said. The town police won't arrest the drug pushers. There's no work so everyone takes drugs to pass the time.

Reform-minded president Mohammad Khatami "is not given a chance to change things," she said. "Iranians are afraid to have riots against the mullahs. They are cruel and will kill anyone."

A few neighbors stopped by and listened. Sheepishly, they endorsed her complaints. "It's all true," said a young man. "Children of 12 and 10 are using opium. It's cheaper than candy, cheaper than food."

Over a bowl of cold grapes fetched from her home, the woman unraveled a story of neglect, corruption, religious power, government indifference and drug addiction. "We hate those mullahs," she said.

Aside from political controls, the ruling mullahs have overwhelming control over Iran's economy through about 100 religious foundations called bunyads, some of them centuries old, which were allowed to seize the factories and institutions of the Shah's supporters in the revolution of 1979. "Ninety percent of the most modern industries are controlled by the bunyads -- televisions, electronics, refrigerators," said economics professor Ali Rashid, a former vice president of the Central Bank of Iran.

The bunyads pay no tax. They control commodity sales, distribution, competition, transport, imports, exports, financing and labor issues. The Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini appoints the heads of the bunyads and some of their children are married to children of the important mullahs. One of the major bunyads, the Foundation for the Disabled and Oppressed, is worth an estimated $10 billion. Another, the Imam Reza bunyad, controls vast areas of farmland, a Coca-Cola plant, two universities and has been importing materials that could be used to make an atom bomb.

Operating without any external audits, the bunyads provide both a source of funds to the clerics to pay off the basiji, or religious vigilantes, and the means to control the economy and reward the regime's allies, especially merchants.

Throughout Iran, ordinary people who meet an American begin with an effusive welcome and then shift quickly into angry condemnations of the theocracy running their country. They make a circle around their heads with one finger, miming the turbans of the mullahs who rule as an unaccountable nomenklatura. One mullah told me that he removes his turban and robe in order to get a taxi to stop for him, so great is the hostility he feels among the population.

This seething anger has led to demands in the past three years for reforms, demands which were taken up by academics, liberal clerics, politicians and writers who launched newspapers and ran for the Majlis, or parliament, last February. Reformists swept to power in the elections for the Majlis, giving hopes that the long, green winter of the Islamists was giving way to a sort of Tehran Spring. It was a huge surprise to the Islamic Revolution hard-liners.

Reformist cleric Khatami, elected president in 1997 by a large majority over his hard-line opponent, told the American people in a CNN interview in 1998 that he favored a new relationship based on mutual respect for each other's civilization. He was ambiguous, however, when asked to apologize for the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Islamic revolutionary militants, and the 51 American diplomats they held hostage until Jan. 20, 1981.

The rest of the world responded with optimism. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered a tenuous hand of friendship to reformists in the spring by dropping U.S. trade bans on Persian carpets, pistachio nuts and caviar.

But despite Khatami's apparent good intentions, it was never clear whether he had the power to thaw U.S.-Iranian ties. Control over the army, Revolutionary Guards, judiciary, intelligence services, economy and other power centers remained with Ayatollah Khameini, who resisted reforms that might dilute the power of the clerics to rule Iran.

Each time Khatami made positive comments aimed at defusing Iran's international image as a pariah state that sponsored terrorism abroad, the hard-liners would send a contrary message through their own channels. For example, they sent officials abroad to voice support and supply weapons and cash to the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas -- both on the U.S. State Department terrorism list. Indeed, Iran's hard-liners' gloating over Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon in May helped persuade Yasser Arafat to refuse any negotiated settlement at Camp David and instead take the path of violence that followed. When Khatami went to Italy, Germany and France to reopen trade and diplomatic links, the hard-liners who control the Iranian television and radio broadcast service ignored the welcome he received and the oil and gas exploration contracts he signed. Instead, it reported that he had attended a reception where wine was served, which is forbidden under the Islamic Revolution.

By spring, Iran's movements toward reform had been neutralized, and by late summer the government went into backlash, with Khatami left essentially powerless.

At the heart of the hard-line refusal to abide by the election results is the belief in velayat-e-faqih or rule by the jurisprudent. This is akin to the divine right once granted to medieval European kings prior to the enlightenment. It justifies any action taken by the supreme religious leader. They have essentially drawn a line in the sand saying to the majority of Iran who voted for reformists that real power will remain with the clerics.

In early August a daring gathering of over 1,000 men and women at Beheshti University in North Tehran offered up a thunderous accolade to two heroes of the reform movement: Hojatollah Mohsen Kadivar, a liberal cleric just released from 18 months in prison for having questioned absolute religious rule; and philosopher Abdolkarim Sorush, who has endured beatings by hard-line zealots.

Perhaps reflecting the terror instilled in many who have faced the jails of the ayatollahs, said to be as horrible as those of the Shah, Kadivar was cautious in his criticism of the government. He even admitted he was awed at the outspoken remarks of other speakers, who called openly for "the institution of religion to become separated from the institution of government." A few months later, as the regime tightened its controls over reformists, both Sorush and Kadivar would be blocked from a reformist conference by a mob of religious vigilantes.

Meanwhile the major battle was taking place in the media. With domestic radio and television broadcasts controlled by the regime, people have turned to Farsi language programs from the Voice of America, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Iran, the BBC and Israel Radio. Many homes in the east also bring in Turkish satellite television shows, mainly soap operas banned on Iran government stations. But in this highly literate country, the struggle for reforms has been largely fought in the print media.

Dozens of new reformist newspapers opened up in the last year, only to be closed down by the hard-line-controlled judiciary. Many then reopened under new licenses and bearing different names, until they too were shut down. The reform papers sold well while they lasted, leaving the pro-government Resalat and Kayan unsold in tall piles at newsstands.

"Our society is like a cage," said a vendor at a Tehran newsstand. "Suddenly truth was poured out and people wanted to find out about the truth that was published in that cage."

The last pro-reform major paper, Behar, which means spring, was closed in August -- an action that brought the momentum for change up against a firm, immovable wall.

The moment of truth took place Aug. 6 in Tehran at the convening of the Majlis, dominated by newly elected reformists. A handful of Iranian reporters and myself waited in the press gallery for discussion to begin on a bill that would stop the closing of reform newspapers and magazines. The closures had been going on since April, when the outgoing Majlis amended the press law to allow the judiciary to close newspapers at will.

Suddenly a reformist legislator took up his microphone to ask: "Why is the press law not on the printed agenda?"

Parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi said in response: "I thought you knew. I thought we had a deal. We have a letter from the supreme leader. We cannot discuss the press law."

Although the reformists appeared nervous at the mention of supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, a few demanded that the letter be read aloud. Some asked how it was possible for the supreme leader to change their agenda, which they said was protected by law. They carefully phrased their objections so as not to directly challenge the absolute power of the clergy, even as it was apparent that they wanted to do so.

At this point the hard-line mullahs in the Majlis (not all mullahs are hard-liners) stood up and began shouting. "You must obey the supreme leader," shouted one bearded and robed cleric with the bearing of an Old Testament prophet. Another, short and fat in a tan robe and white turban, was wrestled from the chamber by his allies to keep him from attacking the reformers. Finally, with the entire nation listening to the radio broadcast of the pandemonium in the Majlis, Karrubi read aloud the letter from Ayatollah Khameini.

"If the enemies of Islam and the Islamic system take control of the press or infiltrate it, a big danger will threaten the security and faith of the people," his letter said.

The current law "has been somewhat able to prevent this great plague, and changing it ... is not legitimate to the interest of the establishment and the country."

A few further squawks from the reformists, a few further putdowns from the hard-liners, and the press freedom law was history. And so was the fantasy that reformists could effect changes in Iran's democratic system.

The next day, Ayatollah Khameini unleashed a frightening display of raw, brutal power on the streets.

Thousands of angry young basiji assembled in front of the Majlis with loudspeakers and banners, some of them wearing white robes indicating readiness to die in defense of the Islamic revolution.

"We see the hidden hand of America and we don't forget our most important enemy is America," said an intense young man in front of the Majlis as dozens of his equally hostile colleagues circled around. "Our most important slogan is 'Down with America.' Why do you Americans want us to exercise your democracy? Why not let us have our own Islamic democracy?"

The basiji, bused in for the demonstration, said that America was behind the reformist Iranian newspapers.

"Death to America. Death to Israel," came the shouts from thousands of basiji. They thrust their fists in the air and called for the blood of the legislators who they thought had insulted Ali Khameini by questioning his right to delete the press law from the agenda of the Majlis. "We will fight anyone who fights with our leader," read one slogan. "The students are awake and hate the enemies," read another.

Inside the parliament building, the reformists tried to move ahead with their agenda, despite the ominous show of power outside. They passed a bill raising the marriage age of girls from 9 to 13. But even that small effort was simply quashed a few weeks later by the Guardian Council, which ruled that it conflicted with Islamic law.

Two days after the press debate was silenced, officials closed the newspaper Behar for quoting a legislator as saying he would reintroduce the press bill. The Tehran Spring was officially over.

The wave of counter-reforms that followed took such a heavy toll on the reformists that by November, even President Khatami was forced to admit defeat. He told students that he was powerless to stop constitutional violations committed mainly by the hard-line judiciary which had interrogated, arrested and imprisoned many of his reformist allies.

"The president should be able to stop constitutional violations," he said, while students chanted, "Political prisoners should be released." His popularity remains high and he will likely win reelection in the spring if he runs. But the real decisions on Iran's future do not lie with him or with the majority who still favor reform. They lie in the hands of perhaps 20 percent of the country who are with the mullahs.

Recent events have seen the fallout continue. On Dec. 14, a key Khatami ally, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance 'Ata' ollah Mohajerani, resigned. He had been responsible for allowing reform newspapers to open, for inviting foreign reporters to visit Iran, for encouraging moderate filmmakers and intellectuals and for seeking improved ties with the United States.

"The conditions and requirements that have taken shape in the realms of art, culture and the intellect have made it impossible for me to continue my duties," he was quoted as saying. "We have not achieved any success worthy of our nation, artists and writers."

The same hard-liners who were handed a surprise defeat by the 30 million voters in February's elections have expressed certainty that they still represent the nation's will. Hassan Ghafoorifard, vice president of Iran under former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, blamed the defeat on economic and social problems the regime has been unable to solve. "Those who voted in the election did not vote for us. But that does not mean they are for Western culture. I believe they still believe in the Islamic Revolution," he said.

He summed up the views of his peers: "Religion is everything for us -- the relationship between our body and soul, our body and God, the people and the country. Everything has to be taken from Islam."

In the village south of Tehran, which is best left unnamed, the woman and her neighbors complained bitterly that Rafsanjani and his mullah allies were making fortunes while the ordinary people were without help in the drought and lacked jobs or help in fighting the drug epidemic. In fact, if the anger of the lady in the village is any indication, Iran is heading for another explosion rather than an evolution.

By Ben Barber

Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book, "Groundtruth: The Third World at Work at Play and at War," is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

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Iran Islam Middle East Religion