May 16, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 55

Reformists Versus Conservatives in Iran

May 16, 2001
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 55

On the eve of the coming eighth presidential election in Iran the tension between Conservatives and Reformists is increasing.The incumbent President, Sayyed Muhammad Khatami, who announced his candidacy last week, is expected to win for the second term.

The Reformists in Iran have gained vast popular support since Khatami won the presidential election of May 1997. Last February they won yet another massive victory with the elections to the Iranian Parliament, the Majles. Nevertheless, Conservative political figures are still in control of most of the key positions in the country's political system, such as the position of 'The Supreme Leader' of Iran that is held by Ayatollah Khamenei.[1]

During the last year, Conservative elements tried to restrain the Reformists by closing forty Reformist dailies and periodicals, arresting journalists and editors and charging them with offending Islam and the Regime. In addition, several Reformists figures who dared to criticize the Regime and its leaders - disappeared. Harsh steps were taken against close supporters of President Khatami: the former Minister of Interior, Abdallah Nouri, was forced to leave his office and was charged with criticism of the Regime; Tehran's Mayor, Golam-Hossein Karbaschi, was tried and jailed and the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani, was also forced to leave office.

The Qatari TV channel, Al-Jazeera, conducted two interviews [2] on the eve of Parliamentary elections. One interview was with a leading Conservative leader and close political ally of Ayatollah Khamenei, Head of the Iranian Television and Radio Supervising Committee, Dr. Tah Hashemi. Another interview was conducted with Dr. Muhammad Reza Khatami, a prominent Reformist, who is the brother of President Khatami and his political advisor. Reza Khatami came first in the Parliamentary elections of the Tehran district [but gave up the position of speaker of the Parliament to avoid public criticism that two brothers cannot hold the two highest positions in Iran, and accepted the position of Vice-Chairman].

Both Hashemi and Khatami refrain from harsh criticism of their political adversaries while minimizing the ideological differences between them. Following are excerpts from the interviews dealing with the main political issues at stake:

The Source of the Regime's Legitimacy Vs. Democracy

In order to gain legitimacy for their ideas the Reformists link them to Imam Khomeini's teachings. Thus, states Dr. Khatami, the movement he represents is, in fact, "the continuation to the path of the 'Islamic Revolution' ". The main differences between Reformists and Conservatives according to Dr. Khatami, relate to the regime's source of legitimacy. There is no contradiction, he claims, between the Islamic nature of the regime and the principles of democracy: "We believe that although the roots of the Islamic Republic of Iran are found in the Islamic religion, its legitimacy derives from relying on the opinions of the people... Islam instructs that people should choose the regime most suitable to solve their problems... Human experience shows that the best regime is the one that is based on the peoples' opinions... There are many different views regarding Islam in Iran as well, and this is the source of the main difference between Reformists and Conservatives."

The Conservative Dr. Hashemi, on the other hand, explained that the fundamental difference between Conservatives and Reformists in Iran relates to the relationship between state and religion: "Among Reformists, there are some who believe in the separation of religion and state... once they come to power they will act upon this conviction... The Islamic Revolution is deeply rooted in the hearts of the people. It sought to revive religion and believed that religion should guide society... Those Reformists who believe in the separation of religion from political life will not succeed in the near future."

The Status of the Constitution in Iran[3]

"[True], the constitution states that the rule is Allah's", explained the Reformist, Dr. Khatami, "but it also states that this Divine rule is based on people's opinions. Man is Allah's representative on earth and the right to rule does not refer to any specific person. Rather, it refers to all those who participate in elections and set the government's agenda". "The fact that the majority of Iranian citizens are Muslims", he added, "guarantees that they will not opt for a path that deviates from Islamic principles."

The Conservative Dr. Hashemi did not object to these statements: "[Indeed] we go back to peoples opinions on every single issue and the ideology of the [Islamic] regime is based on people's opinions."However, Hashemi stressed, "there are disagreements between people on how to rule... President Khatami was successful with his slogans, [but] we cannot apply other countries' models to our country..."

The Principle of "The Clerics' Rule" [Vilayat-I Faqih]

Dr. Khatami tried to downgrade the main principle of the Islamic Revolution, namely, that all state affairs should be determined by a cleric who is qualified to make religious rulings. He related to this principle as just one of many principles in the constitution. He claimed that democracy does not necessarily contradict "The clerics' rule": "We base ourselves on the constitution which includes the principle of "The clerics' rule"... we are committed to all the principles of the constitution including, amongst them, "The clerics' rule..."

Dr. Khatami avoided giving any clear answer to the question whether the Reformists plan indeed to amend the constitution, and stressed only the need to legislate new laws that will guarantee freedom of the press, radio, TV, and communications in general.

The Conservative Dr. Hashemi was asked whether clerics should play a role in political life or should they leave it to the politicians. "A cleric heads the regime (i.e., Khamenei), another one is the President of the Republic and the majority of the populations is educated by clerics", he answered. Nevertheless, he admitted that, "Clerics, too, differ amongst themselves about the role of clerics in political life, as much as other intellectuals differ on that subject... Differences of opinion are natural, the Islamic Republic is threatened by those Reformists who believe in separating religion from society like in Europe where the regime is based on secular principles..."

Liberalism and Pluralism

The Reformist Dr. Khatami had to cope with the accusations that the liberalism of the Reformists "serves the enemies of Islam": "What happens today in Iran", he claims, "Is not the opening of the doors to the enemies of Islam. Rather, the opening of the doors to different opinions and ideas which is a natural thing and one of the principles of Imam [Khomeini]... We do not claim that what we say is 100% compatible with the Imam's ideas, but we believe that everybody should think freely and express his opinions freely... our path guarantees it...In the decade since Imam [Khomeini] died new problems emerged to which we have to find solutions based on our own understanding..."

The Conservative Dr. Hashemi, on the other hand, views liberalism as a negative phenomenon. Dr. Hashemi was one of those who demanded the resignation of the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohajerani, accusing him of allowing "dancing and movies". "The majority of the people, he claimed, "believes in religion and tradition and cannot stand this". Still, Dr. Hashemi was careful enough to refrain from sweeping accusations of all Reformists, blaming only "a minority" amongst them.

The Attitude Towards the United States

When asked about relations with foreign countries in general and the United States in particular, Dr. Khatami claimed that one should rely on the Islamic tradition and the Prophet's conduct. "In the time of the Prophet", he said, "the Islamic State had relations with many non-Islamic countries." Moreover, "In our time, Islamic States have relations with most countries in the world. We cannot isolate Islamic states from other states. Islam does not forbid this type of relationship..."

Dr. Khatami denied that the Reformists have secret ties with the American Administration and stated that "the ties between us and the Americans are open and [are conducted] within an official diplomatic framework. It is common knowledge that the Iranian people have many ties to the American people: many Iranian immigrants reside in the United States, and there are cultural, financial and recreational ties with the U.S. However, diplomatic contacts take place through official channels only, through the 'Iranian Interests Bureau' in the U.S. and so does the United States. The most important thing we ought to do [in the field of foreign affairs] is to reduce the tension... There is animosity between us and the United States, one cannot easily wipe away the past... We should not limit the ties between the two countries to the economic field...But only after we reduce the animosity and tension that exists, will we be able to consider official diplomatic relations..."

On the other hand, Dr. Hashemi's stand regarding relations with the United States is far more negative. According to him, "Some of the Reformists may have expressed readiness to unconditional relations with the United States. But most political trends in Iran, as well as the whole Iranian people... do not believe in establishing relations with the U.S. because of the suffering of the Iranian people at the hands of the United States for the last five decades..."

[1] In fact, only upon his nomination to be the Spiritual Leader of Iran, Khamenei was promoted to the high rank of Ayatollah despite the fact that his achievements in the field of religious law ranked him only in the minor position of Hujjat Al-Islam.

[2] Al-Jezzera, December 7, 2000.

[3] The constitution of Iran was enacted in 1906 following a popular revolt that was called "The Constitutional Revolution".Since then the constitutional idea, that originated in the West, acquired an unshakable status in the Iranian society to the degree that even the heads of the Islamic Revolution endorsed the constitution while trying to adapt it to their principles. A Council of Supervisors was established by the Islamic Revolution and was charged with the duty of checking the extent of which the Iranian Parliament Legislation [ that is based on the constitution ] complies with the Islamic religious law [the Shari'a] and the council may even cancel laws which it deems contradictory to the constitution.

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