Hossein, a young newspaper vendor, is a revolutionary. I recently fell victim to his revolutionary subterfuge at his newsstand near Teheran’s Revolution Square, a choked and crowded downtown district where massive images of the late Ayatollah Khomeini mingle with billboards promoting the American film The Usual Suspects.
Hossein, you see, was distressed at my choice of newspaper: the hardline daily Resalat, which opposes Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s social and political reforms. So he struck, with great stealth, inserting the wildly popular pro-Khatami newspaper Neshat between the pages of my conservative daily.
As I walked away from the newsstand, the smuggled copy of Neshat, which promotes greater social and political freedom, fell to the ground–evidence of Hossein’s sabotage. Immediately, I sensed foul play and confronted him. He came clean. “You are a journalist,” he shrugged. “You write for foreign newspapers. You must not read that conservative garbage.” Smiling, his bright black eyes twinkling with pride, he added, “You should read Neshat. This is what the Iranian people are reading.”
The episode was vintage Khatami-era Iran. Iranians from all walks of life have pinned their future hopes on Khatami, a cleric with a sincere belief in freedom of expression and the rule of law, a philosophical affinity with John Stuart Mill and a taste for surfing the Net. Since his election just over two years ago, many Iranians agree that social and political freedoms have measurably improved and that the political discourse of the nation–with talk of civil society and freedom of expression–has radically changed. To be sure, Khatami faces formidable opposition from Iran’s conservatives, who still control the main levers of power, including the armed forces, internal security, the judiciary, the Parliament and, most important, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all matters. The Supreme Leader, whose office is a vestige of Iran’s 1979 Constitution, is chosen by the country’s top clerics and has veto power over all government actions, although he exercises it with caution.
In this battle for power, Iran’s conservatives have displayed rigid resistance to reform. Since Khatami’s election, they have impeached one of his ministers and threatened another, jailed a popular pro-Khatami mayor, closed down several moderate newspapers and blocked numerous reform proposals from the office of the president. As a result, Khatami–despite being president–is often seen by the people as a political outsider. Each time the conservative forces challenge him publicly, his already massive support grows.
Two decades after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution thundered onto the world stage, promising so much to so many, Iranians are wondering aloud what went wrong. Those heady days of revolution, when a brave coalition of secular and religious groups, led by Ayatollah Khomeini–the obstinate imam with the audacity to challenge the all-powerful Shah–inspired Iranians to dream of an equitable, free society, soon gave way to a more sobering reality: violent power struggles, the deadly 1980-88 war with Iraq, economic mismanagement and decline, continued social and political repression, international isolation.