The 1997 Presidential Elections
While the reform movement’s fortunes have risen and fallen over the past two decades, the May 1997 presidential election was a major show of strength and a wake-up call to the conservative hardliners that their rigidity and repression were deeply unpopular. In September 1996, one of Rafsanjani’s deputy presidents proposed that the constitution be amended to allow him to run for a third consecutive term. Khamenei was loath to continue sharing power with Rafsanjani and vetoed the idea before it could be put to a vote. Rafsanjani did not want to lose all his influence, so he used his presidency's powers to prevent Khamenei from completely rigging the election. Under pressure from clerics on the Assembly of Experts, who sought to avoid a complete rupture between the Supreme Leader and the president, which would weaken the system of collective clerical rule, Khamenei agreed to grant Rafsanjani a soft landing by appointing him as head of the Expediency Council, a body tasked with resolving disputes between the Guardian Council and legislature.
Still, Khamenei used the powers of his office to heavily place his thumb on the scales to ensure a victory for his preferred candidate. The conservative-dominated Guardian Council banned all but four of 230 applicants for the presidential election, with hardline majles speaker and Khamenei loyalist Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri easily the most prominent candidate permitted to stand for election. Former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who, despite calling for greater democracy and political and social reforms, was a disciple of Khomeini committed to the Islamic Revolution, was one of the other candidates allowed to run. After his compelled resignation from Rafsanjani’s cabinet, Khatami was moved to the obscure post of director of Iran’s National Library. With his low public profile, Khamenei and the Guardian Council assumed Khatami posed no threat to Nateq Nuri’s inevitable victory.
Nuri had Khamenei’s implicit backing, although not his outright endorsement. In a speech several weeks before the election, Khamenei implored the electorate, “In issues such as the presidential election, trust the clergy more than anyone else.” Because the clergy was overwhelmingly behind Nuri, Khamenei’s implication was clear, but he did not want to explicitly endorse a candidate so he could give the appearance of neutrality. Additionally, if a candidate with his endorsement did lose, it would deal a blow to the aura of authority he sought to project.
Nuri also received backing from senior judges, armed vigilante groups such as ansar-e Hezbollah, and numerous other influential organizations and individuals. IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei went so far as to issue written orders for the IRGC rank-and-file to vote for Nateq Nuri. Khamenei only allowed 12 days of electoral campaigning, hamstringing the ability of any other candidates to gain traction. During the campaign, Nuri received the lion’s share of TV and radio time and coverage. Polling then showed that Iranians strongly expected Nateq Nuri to coast to victory. According to Rafsanjani’s diaries, Khatami nearly dropped out of the race multiple times over his frustrations with the interventions and clear favoritisms of the Supreme Leader, intelligence services, basij, vigilante groups, Friday prayer leaders, and state media. However, Rafsanjani encouraged him to remain in the race and personally interceded with Khamenei to assure Khatami of his neutrality and a more level playing field. Ultimately, Khamenei reasoned that the appearance of a competitive election would serve the Islamic Republic more than a rigged contest in which the main opposition refused to participate.
Rafsanjani and his pragmatist constituency feared the principlists sweeping to absolute power, so they coalesced behind Khatami’s moderate reformist candidacy. The other two candidates fell by the wayside quickly, and a two-man race developed, with Khatami still seen as a long-shot candidate. Rafsanjani’s political arm, the Executives of Construction, loaned its organizational powers to propping up Khatami’s campaign. Khatami was able to assemble a coalition of strange bedfellows consisting of the former radicals and leftists who had rebranded as reformists committed to political and social liberalization, business leaders and other pragmatists in favor of economic liberalization, and women, young voters, the new middle class, ethnic and religious minorities, and intellectuals. While the leftists and neoliberal pragmatists had strong differences on the economy, these fissures were smoothed over in favor of the overarching goal of blocking the principlists.
Khatami campaigned tirelessly, evincing a populist touch and personal charm that endeared him to much of the electorate. In the campaign’s only televised debate, Khatami intellectually outclassed Nuri. The Iranian electorate, frustrated with years of repression and privation since the revolution, was hungry for change and rallied behind Khatami’s candidacy en masse. Khatami’s popular support was not just a protest against the failures of the hardline conservatives but also was borne of a positive belief that Khatami, who spoke of restoring the rule of law, increased respect for democracy and human rights and a more permissive social environment, could materially improve their lives and deliver a freer society. In his stump speeches and appearances, Khatami emphasized that as president, he would seek to foster the development of an Iranian civil society, ensuring that Iran’s Islamic government would be committed to republicanism and the inclusion of all citizens in political decision-making. Political elites in the U.S. and Europe were intrigued by Khatami’s candidacy and hopeful that a victory would portend Iran moving in a more open, conciliatory direction.
Khatami’s message resonated strongly within Iran, and in a shocking rebuke to Khamenei and his conservative backers, Khatami won a landslide victory with 69 percent of the vote on May 23, 1997. Turnout in the election was the highest ever, nearly 80 percent, showing the electorate’s enthusiasm for Khatami’s reformist agenda. Nearly 70 percent of the Iranian population was under 25 in 1997, and this cohort’s overwhelming support for Khatami indicated that the rising generation lacked emotional and ideological affinities to the Islamic Revolution and its Khomeinist ethos. Overall, Khatami’s election had seemingly ushered in a sea change, and Iranians were optimistic that reforms and greater liberties were on the horizon.
Khamenei and his conservative backers had other plans but had to move cautiously due to Khatami’s clear popular mandate. Ahead of his August 1997 inauguration, Khatami’s associates reported to Rafsanjani that, based on their meetings with Khamenei, they feared the Supreme Leader would do anything to impede Khatami from enacting reforms. Khamenei and his clerical backers fretted behind the scenes that the electorate had challenged his religious and political authority by supporting Khatami, potentially undermining the institution of the Supreme Leadership.
Khatami’s landslide victory triggered soul-searching among Khamenei and the hardline principlists. The election showed that reformism appealed heavily to the Iranian population. Even the IRGC rank-and-file, which had been a reliably conservative constituency and had been ordered by their commander to support Nuri, reportedly voted in unexpectedly large numbers for Khatami. While chastened by the electorate’s rejection of his hardline worldview, Khamenei and his supporters did not conclude that they should support reforming the system to win back the population's affection. Instead, they concluded that they had failed to crack down on the spread of “liberalism” hard enough and needed to redouble their commitment to the principles of the Islamic Revolution to ensure their victory in the intensifying ideological contest for the country’s soul.
One of Khamenei’s first moves after Khatami’s election was to sack the IRGC’s commander, Mohsen Rezaei, who he decided had been too cautious in combating the scourge of liberalism at home and spreading the Islamic Revolution abroad. Khamenei replaced Rezaei with his more hardline deputy, Yahya Rahim Safavi, and elevated a new cadre of similarly ideologically inclined staff commanders throughout the IRGC, girding for the organization to take on a role of confrontation with the elected government of Mohammad Khatami.
While putting the preparations in place to undermine Khatami’s reformist agenda, at the outset, Khamenei gave the new president leeway to introduce various new freedoms and chip away at the regime’s red lines. Khatami recognized that Khamenei had more power as Supreme Leader, and that hardliners still controlled the country's most important levers of power: the IRGC, clergy, judiciary, majles, and intelligence and security services. Still, he had a trump card, the backing of the population. A push and pull dynamic soon emerged, whereby every effort by Khatami to establish greater freedoms would trigger reactionary reprisals.