Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 2000, Pages 54, 56
Iran’s Stability Requires Cooperation Between Rivals President Khatami, Supreme Leader Khamenei
By George W. Cave
Iran’s critical parliamentary elections are over, the Majlis has been seated and Mehdi Kahrubi confirmed as speaker. The question is what happens next. Having lost their majority in the Majlis, the hard-liners are confronted with several problems. Attempts by the Shora-ye negaban (Council of Guardians) to nullify the election of as many reformists as possible ended when the Rahbar-i-muazam (Supreme Leader) Ali Khamenei summarily ordered the Council to announce the winners.
The post-election political situation in Tehran is certainly the most volatile since the student riots of July 1999. If there is to be stability, it can only be achieved through cooperation between President Mohammad Khatami and Khamenei. Each has his strengths. Khatami has popular support, but Khamenei controls the security forces.
Neither has ever publicly attacked the other. Khatami cooperated with Khamenei in forcibly putting down last year’s student riots, and publicly condemned the riots on several occasions. For his part, Khamenei has scrupulously avoided direct criticism of the president. When Khatami has made favorable public statements regarding relations with the United States, Khamenei has publicly opposed any opening to the U.S., but has not mentioned Khatami’s name.
During April 14 Friday prayers Khamenei attacked the reformists but, again, did not mention Khatami by name. This was followed two days later by a public statement put out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command (IRGC) in which the IRGC threatened to crush all adherents of the reformist movement.
The hard-liners have done everything possible to make life difficult for President Khatami and his reformist majority in the Majlis. On April 15, the Expediency Council ruled that the Majlis cannot investigate any institution under the command of Supreme Leader Khamenei. The institutions referred to comprise the entire security apparatus and the bonyads (foundations), which control a major portion of the economy. This ruling clearly violates Article 71 of the constitution. Khatami, moreover, has stated that the bonyads must be more transparent and accountable.
The lines already have been drawn on the issue of the press law.
During this critical post-election period, Iran’s hard-liners want to avoid any investigation similar to the one into the murders of liberal intellectuals committed by a special action group within the Ministry of Intelligence. President Khatami went public with information regarding the murders despite the objection of every other member of the National Security Council, who urged him not to publicize the findings of the investigation. This indicates that Khatami is not loath to throw his weight around when he thinks it will do some good.
The conduct of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is interesting. During Friday prayers on April 28 he criticized the reformist movement as being anti-Islamic and accused it of attempting to undermine the revolution. This was an unusually blunt and partisan political statement for a man about whom the phrase mian-i-ro (middle-of-the-road) was coined.
Although rumors were rife in the capital that Rafsanjani had not finished among the top 30 vote-getters in Tehran, the Council of Guardians confirmed his election to the Majlis, stating he ranked 20th among those elected from Tehran. Then, knowing he had no chance of being elected speaker, Rafsanjani chose not to take his seat in the Majlis, choosing instead to remain in his post as chairman of the Expediency Council.
On the surface it would appear the Rafsanjani had decided that the hard-liners will win out in the end. There is another consideration, however. Much of the legislation proposed by the sixth Majlis will be challenged by the Council of Guardians. It will be up to the Expediency Council to resolve these conflicts. Being an astute politician, Rafsanjani will use his power as chairman to try to regain his lost popularity. Khamenei, Rafsanjani’s close friend and political ally, is in no danger of losing his post until the next election of the council of experts, which appoints the supreme leader, some six years hence. A lot can happen in six years, especially in Iranian politics.
The lines already have been drawn on the issue of the draconian press law passed in the waning days of the fifth Majlis. On June 18, the new Majlis passed a motion submitted by 106 members calling for an urgent review of the press law. The motion passed, and the following day 151 members of the Majlis called for an easing of the press law.
As a possible harbinger of things to come, Hadi Khamenei, brother of the supreme leader and a Majlis member, referred to the press law as being too harsh and in need of modification. The watchword for the immediate future could well be “compromise.” How long that will remain the case is anybody’s guess.
The hard-liners, however, cannot allow a willingness to compromise to be interpreted as a lack of will. They are acutely aware that it was just such a lack of will on the part of the shah which contributed to the success of the 1978-79 revolution, and they do not intend to make the same mistake.
The reformists, on the other hand, realize that if the lines of power between the two factions become too precisely drawn, the balance of power will rest with the hard-liners if (a very important if) they choose to use the security forces, which they control, to crack down on the reformists.
Still another development is of some concern to the hard-liners. For the first time since the revolution, clerics who previously disdained political participation have begun to make some noise. Hard-line teachers and students suspended classes in the Qum seminaries April 22 to 24 to protest the Berlin conference. In support of the reformists, another group of clerics published a declaration protesting the suspension of classes. Some two weeks later, on May 12, 200 clerics published a declaration protesting the suspension of reformist newspapers. The declaration also affirmed their support of the Khatami administration’s policies.
There are several issues which will sorely test the cohesion of the Iranian government in the coming months. The modification of the press law is only the first to become public since election of the new Majlis. These crucial issues will force Khatami and Khamenei to agree on a solution. If they cannot, there is the danger of serious internal unrest.
The period between now and next year’s presidential election promises to be very interesting.
George Cave, a retired U.S. government official, was interpreter and political adviser to the Robert McFarlane mission to Tehran in May 1986. Revelation of this mission to trade arms for hostages set off the Iran-Contra scandal that cast a shadow over President Ronald Reagan’s first two years in office.