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1998 In Review: Iran Wrestled With Identity Crisis

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 9 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Political struggles between moderates and conservatives dominated Iran's foreign and domestic politics in 1998 as the country appeared locked in an identity crisis over its future.

The identity crisis was sparked by the overwhelming election of moderate Mohammad Khatami as president in May 1997, an event which deeply shook the country's conservative clerical establishment. Khatami -- himself a cleric deeply committed to Iran's Islamic Revolution -- attracted voters with pledges to ease social restrictions, to strengthen the institutions of civil society, and to tolerate open debate and a diversity of views.

Those pledges set Khatami and his supporters on a collision course with the powers which have ruled Iran as an uncompromising theocracy since its 1979 revolution. The conservatives struck back this year by obstructing the moderates' attempts to slowly open to the United States, by ousting two key Khatami allies and by trying to curb growing press freedom.

In January, Khatami began to thaw icy relations with Washington by expressing regret over the 1979 seizure of U.S. hostages in Tehran. While still rejecting political ties, he invited Americans to begin cultural and educational exchanges.

But those overtures were almost immediately contradicted by Iran's conservative Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the power to overrule any temporal official in Iran. Khamenei reminded Iranians that he still considers Washington, in his words, "the enemy of the Islamic Republic."

When Washington sought in June to extend the thaw beyond cultural exchanges by proposing working with Tehran on a road map leading to normal relations, Tehran's response was unwelcoming. On a visit to the United Nations in September, Khatami said Tehran and Washington remain far apart on key issues. His accompanying foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, said, in his words, there was "no ground for political negotiation."

Ambassador Roscoe Suddarth of the Middle East Institute in Washington says that Khatami's initial opening to the West raised high expectations in Washington for better relations, but that the conservative's apparently successful curbing of the attempt led to disappointment.

"The Khatami phenomenon has raised the consciousness of the political elements in the United States about Iran.... I think people are (now) much more attentive to the Iranian situation, although I think they are disappointed. I think the greatest disappointment was when the State Department turned out its top echelon to hear Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi talk at the Asia Society (in September) and he gave nothing on the bilateral side to develop relations at all ... The United States is ready to go fast or they are ready to go slow with Iran but it is Iran that is the one that has to give some more signals ... than it has heretofore in terms of wanting to do things and, if anything, it seems that the conservatives are more opposed to the United States now than they were even a few months ago."

Khatami's government had more success opening to Europe when it announced in September it had no intention of carrying out the fatwa issued in 1989 by the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeinei, against Salman Rushdie, the British author of "The Satanic Verses."

Tehran's declaration satisfied the European Union, even though Iran's conservatives said the fatwa could not be revoked and a bounty on Rushdie's head remains in place. Britain said it would renew full diplomatic ties with Tehran, and European investment in Iran is now expected to increase.

Inside Iran, 1998 saw a running battle between the conservative and moderate camps which cost Khatami two of his key allies but left the moderates unchastened.

In April, one of the president's close associates, Tehran Mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, was arrested on charges of corruption and misuse of funds. Karbaschi was also charged with placing the considerable resources of the Tehran municipality behind Khatami's presidential campaign.

Many observers saw the attack on Karbaschi as political revenge for Khatami's victory. The conservatives succeeded in sacking the mayor but his trial, broadcast on television and watched by millions, only further divided Iran's moderate and conservative camps.

The conservatives -- who dominate Iran's parliament -- struck again in June by ousting Khatami's interior minister, Abdollah Nuri, in a no-confidence vote. Correspondents said the conservatives objected to Nuri's leniency in granting permits for political gatherings, which they felt threatened public order.

But this time, Khatami personally struck back. He immediately appointed Nuri as deputy president with special responsibility for programs to broaden political and social participation. That sent a clear message to the parliament that his liberalization program would continue.

The political battle between moderates and conservatives reappeared yet again in October amid national elections for the Assembly of Experts -- a body of clerics which appoints, and can dismiss, the Supreme Leader.

A pre-election screening body for candidates excluded most of the moderate clerics from the running, and the conservatives maintained control of the Assembly in a victory assuring that any successor to Khamenei will be drawn from their ranks.

As Iran's political battles raged through the year, a second struggle broke out over freedom of the media.

The conservatives repeatedly attacked the growing number of moderate newspapers which have obtained permits under Khatami's administration. One landmark case concerned the daily Jaame'eh, which publicly reprinted a threat by the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Rahim Safavi, to crack down on liberals.

The conservative-held judiciary shut down Jaame'eh in June on charges of libel, only to see it reappear two days later under a new name, Tous, with permission of Khatami's ministry of culture. The contest only ended when supreme leader Khamenei warned against what he called a "creeping movement" by moderate papers to undermine faith in Islam.

Khamenei's warning cleared the way for permanently shutting down Tous and several other papers. But by year's end, new moderate dailies were already emerging in a sign the battle will only continue.

As Iran's troubled year came to a close, both Iranian and foreign observers found themselves wondering which face -- conservative or moderate -- represents the true Iran. It was the same question they were asking when the year began and they have come no closer to an answer.

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