(L-R) President Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Source: Wikipedia Commons
In the early going, Khatami had a string of successes that indicated Iran was moving toward becoming a more open society. His culture and interior ministers issued licenses that allowed for the flourishing of a freer press. Dozens of new magazines and newspapers affiliated with the reformist movement opened that pushed the boundaries of acceptable discourse, publishing exposes of corruption among political and IRGC elites and offering biting satire that skewered numerous sacred cows. According to Nikki Keddie, the reformist press “became the center for extensive debates about civil society, tolerance, the rule of law, the position of women, and possible different interpretations of, or approaches to velayat-e faqih. Without political parties, the press became the center of political debate.” Additionally, professional and civic associations proliferated, and Khatami enacted a promise to hold elections for local councils, which were guaranteed by the constitution but had never before taken place. This helped diffuse power and give the populace a say in their municipal governance, a move resented by the majles, which sought to retain centralized power.
These developments frustrated Khamenei and the hardliners, who waited for any opportunity to go on the counteroffensive. In November 1997, one such opportunity emerged when Ayatollah Montazeri, the former heir apparent to the Supreme Leadership, issued the most scathing public rebuke of Khamenei’s leadership. In his address, Montazeri advocated for the Islamic Republic to emphasize its republicanism and for Khatami to be assertive in implementing his agenda. He said, “velayat-e faqih is in our constitution but this does not mean that the faqih is the absolute ruler, because then the republic becomes meaningless. … If I were you (Khatami) I would go to the Leader and tell him ‘your station is safe and people have respect for you, but 22 million voted for me and, when they were voting, these 22 million knew that the Leader of the country supported someone else.’” He criticized the flimsy basis for Khamenei’s elevation to the rank of the ayatollah and called into question his religious authority, preying upon Khamenei’s deepest insecurities.
Montazeri’s insubordination led to Khamenei’s vigilante backers destroying his congregational prayer hall and leading days of protests and marches against him. He was subsequently placed under house arrest and stripped of his title of ayatollah in the state-run media, becoming a cause celebre among reformists who still revered him. Khamenei approved his freedom five years later only when Montazeri’s health deteriorated, seeking to preempt unrest if Montazeri died under state custody. The incident underscored Khamenei’s vulnerability regarding his religious legitimacy and hair-trigger willingness to resort to repression when challenged.
Despite the crackdown against Montazeri, a general sense of optimism reigned due to the freer press atmosphere and Khatami’s successful efforts to decrease instances of the morality police harassing citizens deemed violating Iran’s Islamic mores. In addition to the more relaxed social environment, Iranians were buoyed by Khatami’s efforts in the foreign policy realm to resume Rafsanjani’s thwarted mission of openness and rapprochement with the West. Iran’s status as a pariah state due to its domestic human rights abuses, aggression during the Iran-Iraq War, and support for international terrorism had harmed the country’s economic prospects and left it isolated. The increasingly young and urban population hungered for upward mobility and the normalization of Iran’s status among the international community.
Although he was subordinate to Supreme Leader Khamenei, in the eyes of the international press and political elites, Khatami was the most prominent figure in the country, and if he could be empowered, his reformist agenda could take root. Iran could become a responsible actor on the world stage. In 1998, Khatami introduced his seminal initiative, the “Dialogue among Civilizations and Cultures.” Framed as an antidote to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which posited that ideological and cultural fault lines between civilizations, especially between the Muslim world and the West, would be the major source of the ongoing conflict in the post-Soviet unipolar era, Khatami theorized that if the West operated from a basis of mutual respect rather than domination, a peaceful and stable multipolar order could emerge. According to Khatami, dialogue and cultural exchanges could foster understanding and respect between civilizations with different cultures and traditions. The absence of such dialogue, he argued, was what led to mistrust, enmity, and denigration of the other.
World leaders feted Khatami, and the United Nations General Assembly even passed a resolution in November 1998 declaring 2001 the U.N. Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. Still, Khatami had a domestic audience of one he needed to appease – Supreme Leader Khamenei – who remained as resistant as ever to greater openness and hostile to Western cultural infiltration. In prominent media appearances, including a 1998 CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, Khatami sought to appease Khamenei by clarifying that he opposed full, warm relations with the U.S., which would lead Iran toward dependence on the U.S. His program only went so far as calling for cultural exchanges and dialogue with American intellectuals, athletes, and other thought leaders to reduce tensions between the two countries. Despite his reformist bona fides, Khatami echoed more hardline Iranian leaders when he spoke with Amanpour and in his 1998 address to the U.N. General Assembly, blaming the U.S. for the enmity with Iran due to the perpetuation of its “Cold War mentality,” which led it to seek to dominate the Islamic world in pursuit of global, unipolar hegemony. While the substance of Khatami’s ideology was similar to the hardliners, he spoke in flowery prose. He refrained from firebrand rhetoric and denunciations of the “Great Satan,” prompting the international media to praise his moderation.
Khatami’s “Dialogue Among Civilizations” initiative bore some early fruit. Iran and the U.S. arranged a series of wrestling matches, first in Tehran and then in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to break the ice. Khatami’s foreign minister inaugurated warmer ties with Saudi Arabia, and Khatami publicly distanced Iran from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1998 with Khamenei’s acquiescence, paving the way for the restoration of diplomatic ties with the U.K. and furthering Iran’s détente with the rest of Europe. Khatami even became the first post-revolutionary Iranian president to visit European capitals, embarking on trips to Rome, the Vatican, and Paris in 1999.
Ultimately, Khatami would pay the price for his efforts to soften Iran’s image abroad. The hardliners’ resentments grew over what they saw as Khatami’s violations of Iran’s revolutionary principles and their waning popularity. Khamenei led the charge, as he was unwilling to cede control over Iran’s policy agenda to a president who was overstepping the bounds of his position. Khamenei viewed the embrace of Khatami by Iran’s enemies in the U.S., Israel, and Europe with suspicion, seeing a plot to exploit Iran’s internal factional divisions to create a situation of “dual sovereignty,” wherein Iran’s elected government would become an independent power center unto itself. Khamenei believed Iran’s enemies wanted to marginalize the velayat-e faqih position within Iran, turning it into a figurehead role akin to the British monarchy and neutering the Islamic Revolution. One of Iran’s chief reformist strategists, who served as an advisor to Khatami, had spoken publicly about Khatami’s landslide election as empowering the elected government and, by extension, the Iranian people, invoking the notion of dual sovereignty as an analytical framework. In March 2000, loyalist Khamenei vigilantes attempted to assassinate this strategist, rendering him paralyzed.
This attack was emblematic of a broader campaign by hardliners to frustrate Khatami’s reformist agenda. The IRGC, basij, vigilante groups, and the intelligence and security services utilized repression and intimidation against reformists in the political, cultural, and academic spheres, while hardliners in the majles, judiciary, and Guardian Council abused their governmental powers to hamstring progress and went after Khatami’s allies. Supreme Leader Khamenei and his clerical loyalists lent their critical backing to the campaign, ensuring the hardline camp’s eventual victory. For his part, Khatami proved too weak a leader to challenge Khamenei forcefully despite having the backing of most of the population. At his core, Khatami believed in Iran’s revolutionary system and sought to improve it to ensure its longevity rather than opposing it outright. This fact and intimidation from the IRGC ultimately ensured Khatami’s continued deference to Khamenei.
The hardliners’ counteroffensive against Khatami’s reformation project began in earnest a year into Khatami’s presidency. The existential nature of the fight led to many in the conservative wing becoming ever more doctrinaire, pugilistic, and willing to act outside the law to retain power. This new breed of conservatives branded themselves “fundamentalists” and referred to interchangeably as neoconservatives. The first major salvo in their war, aside from the house arrest of Ayatollah Montazeri, came in April 1998 when the judiciary convicted Tehran’s popular reformist mayor, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, on trumped-up, politicized charges of corruption and abuse of power. The police and vigilante gangs subsequently attacked student-led demonstrations against Karbaschi’s imprisonment.
The conservatives soon realized that the growing independent media represented a threat, as it gave the reformists powerful mouthpieces to promote their agenda and expose the corruption and brutality of the hardliners. In April 1998, the IRGC commander told a gathering of his men in Qom that the permissive press environment was endangering national security, warning, “I am after uprooting anti-revolutionaries everywhere. We must behead some and cut out the tongues of others.” Several months later, in July 1998, the hardline Khamenei loyalist head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, declared that the flourishing reformist media was abusing freedom of the press, a sentiment endorsed by Khamenei. Khamenei gave a series of speeches during this period in which he stressed that the Islamic Revolution allowed for freedom of expression and the press but cautioned against any journalism which would cause Iranians to lose faith in Islam or the revolution. The judiciary began a wave of newspaper closures, and the majles passed a law allowing journalists who criticized Islamic or revolutionary principles to be charged with threatening national security. Many editors and journalists were arrested and tried in special courts set up for press cases. The IRGC, basij, and vigilante gangs frequently raided the offices of reformist newspapers with impunity.
Despite the hardline campaign to rein in the reformist media, reformists persisted, reopening newspapers under different names after closures. In this period of journalists pushing the boundaries of press freedom, dogged investigative reporting by journalists Akbar Ganji and Emad Baghi uncovered a massive scandal tying former President Rafsanjani and senior officials in Iran’s intelligence services to a string of murders of writers, intellectuals, and dissidents critical of the velayat-e faqih regime or calling for ethnic separatism during the preceding decade. More than 80 dissident figures died under suspicious circumstances between 1988 and 1998. However, their deaths were spread out under various circumstances, obscuring the fact that they were linked.