Facing a stormy unstable and brittle future

While Khatami’s allies try to find a united voice to keep promises the ruling faction hits out


The overwhelming defeat of the ruling faction in the presidential elections last May unexpectedly upset the balance of power. This faction, led by the supreme clerical ruler (velayate faghih) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is now doing everything to direct the stream back into its previous path. A new phase has opened up in the power relations within the governing bloc of the Islamic Republic of Iran which is best described as brittle and unstable. We will briefly touch on events and processes that illustrate this point.

Khamenei’s faction employes two sets of tactics to repair the damage: one designed to wear down Khatami’s support base, and the other to break up the coalition which the election process drew round him.

Wearing down

In order to erode Khatami’s support base there is a concerted effort to dampen all hopes that his administration can effect any reforms. This is combined with a tactic to stoke a climate of fear and repression. A number of levers have come in handy.

The most important was to weaken the constitutional powers of the presidency and the administration. The power structure was refashioned by fashioning parallel institutions. The most substantial of these was the revival of the Assembly for Expediency1 with greatly expanded powers, and placing at its head a man of the stature of ex-president Rafsanjani.

Almost as significant was the move to emasculate the Ministry of Interior by denying that post-holder - Hojjatoleslam Nouri - the command of the internal security forces (Revolutionary Komitees, Police, Gendarmerie). This had been normal practice in every single cabinet since the revolution, and until the recent elections both Ayatolah Khomeini and his replacement Khamenei’ had handed over command over domestic security forces to the Interior Minister. Without such powers the minister is like a knife without a blade.

Moreover, there are rumours that the Information (security) Ministry is to be taken out of the hands of the president and placed directly under the control of Khamenei’. The powers of the “supreme clerical rulership”2 is being redefined and extended. The Majles (parliament) too is being brought in as yet another way to paralyse the administration. Ministers are constantly being questioned. The most important in this line was the savage questioning of the Interior Minister, Nouri, who was accused of giving permission for the Student Supporters of the Imam-line 3 to hold public meetings and demonstrations, to “create disturbances” and conduct “moves against the [Islamic] order”. It should be recalled that the new president had been overwhelmingly voted in on the promise that he would open the political and cultural climate, and install “civil society”.


A wave of repression has been launched from several angles. The dominant faction controls virtually the whole of the state repressive apparatus: the judiciary, the revolutionary courts, the Pasdaran Corps (revolutionary guards), the Komitees,4 other armed forces and security organs, and the secret and security services. They have unleashed a noisy, and well publicised, wave of arrests and allegations.

Prominent among their victims, have been a number of municipal mayors, appointees of Teheran’s mayor Karbaschi, himself a supporter of Khatami. These have been arrested and charged with corruption. Karbaschi himself was called in for interrogation and released on bail. He has been ordered not to leave the country. More recently the head of the Freedom Movement, Dr Ebrahim Yazdi was arrested, and later released, accused of plotting against the security of the country.

Alongside these judicial arrests have been extra-judicial acts. Groups of thugs have been mobilised under the guise of the “hezbollahi people” (who are only doing their duty of religious guidance ) to attack and violently disrupt meetings and gatherings of Khatami’s supporters.

Gangs of thugs attacked the office of the student paper Payam-e Danshju, savagely beat up and hospitalised Tabarzani, one of the leaders of the Office of Unity,5 disrupted the student meeting in Teheran University where Ebrahim Yazdi, Dr Peiman and a number of prominent critiques and opponents of the dominant faction were invited speakers, and smashed up of the house of Ayatollah Montazeri [see article this issue]. This last was so brazen as to provoke the protest of even some in the dominant faction.

All this is happening within a backdrop of an ever increasingly difficult daily life and little hope for an immediate improvement in living standards. In this atmosphere the dominant ultra-conservative faction hopes that the combination of Khatami’s unfulfilled promises, police pressure and judicial insecurity will cause people to lose heart and become passive. The ultimate aim is to erode the president’s ability to manoeuvre on the back of popular support.

Crack the alliance

The second front opened up by the Khamenei’ faction is to split the coalition which gathered round Khatami during the lead up to the election. A key move was to humour Hashemi Rafsanjani (by making him head of the Assembly for Expediency), and some of those around him in an effort to break up the so called “Agents of Construction”  faction. 6

Secondly they used the open criticisms of the supreme religious leadership (velayate faghih), voiced by of Khatami’s allies, to create a rift between the more conservative supporters among Khatami’s circle and those inclined to reform. For example the recent moves by the Student Supporters of the Imam-line, in dialogue with Islamic political currents outside the circle of power (such as the Freedom Movement), 7 or even Ayatollah Montazeri’s criticism of the current interpretations of the system of velayate faghih, and in particular, its embodiment in the person of Ali Khamenei’ was used to create rift among the pro-Khatami alliance.

Khatami’s team: not with one voice

The opposing camp, which gathered round the candidacy of Khatami has reacted to these hostile and obstructive tactics. But these reactions do not add up to a coherent and co-ordinated policy.

The president himself and some in his circle rely on the weapon of “law” and “legality”.  They hope to use this to curb and overcome the gangs of thugs organised by the security organisations. Moreover, they hope to limit the illegal interference by numerous recently concocted institutions. Above all they hope to limit the supreme  clerical ruler to act within his constitutional powers, which, in reality, he has far out stepped.

Others in Khatami’s coalition go further. They see a need for constitutional change which limits the powers and jurisdiction of the supreme clerical rulership (velayate faghih). They have expressed these views in speeches, articles, open debates, demonstrations and resolutions. A demonstration 3,000 Student Followers of the Imam-line outside Teheran University openly demanded a revision of the Constitution. In their view the current system of power, and the absolute power held by Khamenei', wherein he has taken on himself the right to be answerable to no one and no organ yet retains the right to intervene in any situation and have the final say, leaves no room for policies different to the opinions of the dominant faction and of the person of Khamenei'.

There is, however, something new in the air. Despite the savage rebukes these groups have had to face, the actual principle of the velayate faghih and its current embodiment Khamenei’, has become a subject for serious debate. This has not happened since the early days of the Islamic Republic. On this point the ruling faction has been manoeuvred into an uncomfortably diffensive position. The credit for this development must go not just to groups within the ruling bloc, but undoubtedly to the efforts of many tendencies outside the circle of power - people like the philosopher Surush, Ayatollah Montazeri and others.

How to keep the base

There is a third aspect to the policies of the Khatami coalition around which there is no broad agreement. Not only do they disagree as to whether they should be incisive and aggressive or passive and defensive in beating back the ruling faction’s obstructive policies, but they also disagree on how to maintain their links with the millions who voted Khatami into the presidency, or the extent to which people should be involved and informed of current developments.

The president, in practice at least, shows that he favours positive and constructive criticisms, ones not openly critical of the leadership. In his reports to the people he highlights in a positive way his stress on the operation of the law and legality. The same policy is more or less being pursued by the pro-Khatami clerical organisation, the Majma’ Ruhaniun Mobarez. 8

On the other hand, the Mujahedin Enghelabe Eslami, 9 another group in the pro-Khatami alliance, prefers to frankly expose the obstructive tactics of  the organs of power and influence, and indirectly criticise those around the supreme clerical ruler and his apparatus. In a series of articles and leaflets MEE has denounced the intrigues of the opponents of the president and his promised reforms.

In this way some of Khatami’s allies are criticising him indirectly for his caution and excessive flexibility. They remind him that time works against him and he is in danger of losing his present momentum.

Consensus on foreign policy

Yet criticisms for domestic policies aside, there appears to be broad agreement and support for Khatami’s more aggressive foreign policy initiatives. Even those, within his coalition who, one might expect would have problems with overtures to the West and particularly to the USA, have apparently for the time being shelved their overt misgivings.

The president’s clever use of the possibilities presented by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in December in Teheran is noteworthy. The OIC delegates decisively supported Khatami in his two speeches where he expressed his different, and in essence totally opposite, stance to Khamenei’ in public without any concealment or compromises.

He presented an essentially reformist and modern understanding of Islam, as a culture which despite differences with Western culture and modernism, is not in conflict with it. Instead he proposed dialogue and a symbiotic relationship between the two cultures. He thus openly distanced himself from Khamenei’ who, in a speech to the conference, attacked the West and the USA and proposed an Islamic alliance (from its Afghani to Lebanese and Sudanese varieties) to oppose the “West” which he painted as a uniform entity.

Moreover in the same conference, Khatami took the opportunity to frankly expound a large part of his domestic programme: the rule of law, respect for the legitimate rights of people in the framework of law and shari’a, and the acceptance of a civil society and cultural pluralism to a national and international audience. He even had much of it enter the final Conference communiqué. In other words he made foreign policy a weapon to isolate the ruling faction internationally and he used it decisively.


The relationships and clashes among the ruling factions, varied as they are, may lose some of its momentum under the heavy pressure of compromise and wheeling and dealing. Yet any lull, as happened in the run up to the OIC is unlikely to last for long. The contradictions which fuel this crisis are too deep to allow a pause to be a lengthy or stable.

There is  a great deal of evidence that a lull - even if a lull can happen - will be followed by greater and more savage friction. The gap between the “republic” and the “caliphate” 10 is so great that its reconciliation can only be a pipe dream. Some, like Rafsanjani, try to plug the gap by arguing that instead of trying to give greater power to the velayate faghih, it is might be better to substitute the single leader with a leadership council. Even if this were possible, it is probably an antidote too late to save the patient.

January 1998

1 Originally set up by Khomeini to overcome the legislative impasse created by the conflict between the Majles, then dominated by the so-called “left” Imam-line, and the ultra-conservative Council of Guardians. See article Where does the Assembly for Expediency fit? This issue

2 Velayate faghih. See next article for definition of its central role in the power structure of the country

3 The students who spearheaded the occupation of the US embassy. They belong to the so-called left faction of the regime and have a large power base in the universities. In the presidential elections they, and their paper Payam-e Daneshju, supported Khatami.

4 Neighbourhood or work committees in the revolution. Now in charge of neighbourhood security.

5 Daftar Tahkim Vahdat. Another organ linking the clerical circle around the Majma’ Rohaniun Mobarez (see note 8), their paper Salam and the Imam-line students.

6 Kargozaran Sazandegi: a group of technocrat supporters of Rafsanjani.

7 They had called for a leadership elected by the people and answerable to them

8 Majma’ Ruhaniun Mobarez usually translated as Assembly of Militant Clerics. It should be distinguished from the similarly named but ultra-conservative Jame’e Rohaniat  Mobarez (Association of Militant Clergy) which is allied to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. See also note 5

9 A coalition of a number of radical pre-Revolutionary Islamic groups. Not to be confused with the opposition Peoples Mujahedin of Iran.

10 See iran bulletin Spring 1997, and the second Leader this issue

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