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1999 In Review: Iran's Conservatives, Reformists Battle

  • Charles Recknagel

The past year in Iran saw moderates and conservatives battle over the future direction of the Islamic Republic in the media, in the courts, and even in the streets. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the battles and their significance as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in February.

Prague, 9 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- If one event can mark a year, 1999 will be remembered in Iran for the week of unrest which shook the country in July.

The unrest, which swept every major city, marked the first time the long-simmering confrontation between Iran's hardliners and liberals moved into the streets. The scale and violence of the unrest was astonishing.

The conflict began with what has been a common occurrence in Iran for years: an attack by hardline vigilantes on a rally by liberal students. When the club-wielding attackers, abetted by police, beat at least one student to death, the students' resentment boiled over.

Tens of thousands took to the streets, demanding the dismissal of police officials and calling on moderate President Mohammad Khatami to speed up reforms toward a more open society.

The street unrest was the largest since the founding of the Islamic Republic 20 years ago and it quickly took an ugly turn. Mobs pillaged stores and Khatami joined the most hardline elements of the regime in calling for a crackdown. The police, again aided by hardline vigilantes, quelled the unrest by arresting some 1,500 people, some of whom have since been given death sentences.

Kenneth Katzmann, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C., says the events shocked both conservative and reformist leaders by showing how quickly their conflict can spin out of control. As a result both sides have sought to avoid any new street confrontations while redoubling efforts to win parliamentary elections in February.

"What I think people are watching internally is the run-up to the February Majlis [parliament] election. The unrest in July made those elections even more crucial. I think the way the unrest was put down by the conservatives, and the government, really hardened the reformist camp into dedicating themselves to making sure that they win the majority of seats in that election next year."

Katzmann says the conservatives regard the July events as proof they can beat any challenge in the streets but also as a clear sign they have lost the support of a portion of the population. As a result, they will use their dominance of a candidate-screening body, the Guardian Council, to try to tightly control who will run in the polls. At the same time, they are strengthening their hold on the essential organs of power.

"What they are trying to do is take the conflict behind the scenes and work on screening out very much pro-Khatami candidates, keeping control of security forces, allowing Khatami to take the lead on certain things that they don't consider crucial to their agenda, meanwhile setting clear limits on certain initiatives."

The Islamic Republic has increasingly in recent months permitted the formation of political parties. But the liberal and conservative camps still largely wage their pre-election campaigns through the media and in high-profile press trials.

As reformist papers repeatedly voiced the liberals' platform of greater personal and political freedoms and greater rule of law, hardliners used their dominance of special courts for the press and clergy to try to shut down the most outspoken papers and jail their editors and publishers. The liberals responded by opening up new papers as quickly as old ones were closed.

A dramatic pre-election drama came last month as a special court for the clergy tried Abdollah Nouri, a leading reformist cleric and the publisher of the influential daily Khordad. The court tried Nouri on a whole range of conservative complaints about liberals: from insulting the country's religious leadership to promoting the restoration of ties with the United States. But before he was sentenced to jail for five years, Nouri used the open forum of his trial to defend the liberals' agenda as both loyal to the 1979 revolution and as a necessary evolution of it to accommodate decades of changes in Iran and the world.

It is too early to predict how parliamentary elections will go. But one sign may have come in the results of city and town council elections held early this year. The polls gave Iranians the first chance since the Islamic Revolution to take municipal authority out of the hands of officials appointed by the clerical establishment. The moderates scored a big victory in the elections but because local councils enjoy little power the gains brought no immediate changes.

In foreign policy, the year saw a milestone trip by Khatami to Italy in March as the first Iranian head of state to visit Europe since the Islamic Revolution. The trip, which marked the ever-increasing tempo of high-level contacts between Tehran and EU states, was followed up by a visit by Khatami to France in October.

Tehran wants foreign investment and the Europeans are eager to gain a foothold in Iran's oil and gas fields. This year saw yet another major oil contract go to European energy companies despite Washington's continuing threat to put sanctions on firms which invest heavily in Iran and Libya's energy sectors. That threat was waived last year for a $2 billion deal by a French-Russian-Malaysian partnership and analysts say many European governments now regard Washington's sanctions policy as an anachronism they can safely ignore.

U.S.-Iranian relations showed no signs of change over the year. Last year's moves toward dialogue -- with ground-breaking calls by both sides for greater cultural exchanges and a U.S. call to work on a roadmap for discussing problems -- were not followed by any new initiatives in 1999.

Katzmann says that the freeze is largely due to the determination of Iran's conservatives, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to block any further initiatives. The analyst says he expects further movement from the Iranian side only if moderates win the upcoming legislative elections.

"If Khatami allies are able to gain a majority in the Majlis, we could see some forward progress resuming because then Foreign Minister [Kamal] Kharrazi would be relatively immune from impeachment if he decides to take some risks and move forward.... There could be some minor steps that could lead to bigger things.... The key point is that Khatami will then have a cabinet which cannot then simply be removed by his opponents."

One factor which could complicate Iran's relations with the West in coming months is this year's arrest of 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel. The vague charges have been strongly criticized by Western governments and human rights groups which fear the Jews are being singled out for persecution.

No trial date has yet been set and it remains unclear how Iran will proceed. In one sign it may accommodate Western concerns to defuse the issue, the head of Tehran's Revolutionary Court recently said Iran has every right to consider its international interests when weighing the case.

Regionally, Iran this year reached out further to Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf emirates with high-level visits in both directions. Iran floated the idea of a regional defense pact which analysts say has almost no hope of ever being realized but was another indication of warming ties which Khatami has made a hallmark of his presidency. But progress has yet to be made on the thorny regional dispute over three Gulf islands controlled by Iran and claimed by the United Arab Emirates.

On the economic front, 1999 brought Iran good news as it and the other OPEC members succeeded in raising low oil prices through a cutback in production. Oil prices have almost doubled from $12 a barrel this time last year to around $23.

Tehran, which estimated it lost as much as 40 percent of its foreign currency earnings with the previously low oil prices, needs the price recovery to help fight double-digit inflation and high unemployment.