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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 114-128

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Is Iran Democratizing?

Reform at an Impasse

Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand

In parliamentary elections on 18 February 2000, Iranians cast their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of candidates who supported the reforms advocated by President Mohammad Khatami. Named after the day of Khatami's 1997 election to the presidency, the Second of Khordad coalition, which brings together 18 reformist groups, captured 189 seats in the 290-member Majlis. Heading the list of winners with 60 seats was one of the coalition's principal members, the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), founded in 1999 and led by the president's brother, Mohammed Reza Khatami. The IIPF and most of the 17 other groups in the coalition belong to the left wing of the political and religious establishment that has ruled Iran for the past 20 years. The coalition also contains some "centrist" factions, notably the Executives of Construction, a grouping of technocrats close to former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97).

Divided over the nature and extent of the reforms, the groups composing the reformist coalition failed to agree on a single list of parliamentary candidates; they formed five different ones. Regardless of their differences, however, all the coalition members concur in supporting the freedom of the press and the protection of people's rights strictly within the constitutional framework of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Reforming the press law, amending the electoral law, and adopting [End Page 114] legislation that clearly defines a political offense form the basis of their political program. The reformists are also committed to modifying the country's administrative and economic structures and easing the senseless constraints on people's everyday lives. The reformist coalition has a relatively more modern conception of both Islamic precepts and the state than its conservative rivals, who do not draw a clear dividing line between the public and private spheres.

In winning the 2000 legislative elections, the reformists consolidated their success in the 1999 municipal elections. The international media generally described the 2000 elections as free and democratic. One might thus assume that, with the reformists' takeover of the executive, legislative, and municipal branches of government, Iran is in the process of inventing a new form of Islamic democracy.

A close look at Iranian politics, however, reveals a more complex story. The electoral victories of Khatami's supporters do not seem to have facilitated the implementation of his program of restoring people's rights. In June 1998, nine months after coming to office and at the height of his popularity, Khatami suffered a political setback when his Interior Minister, Abdullah Nuri, who had begun to implement his policy of reform, was impeached. President Khatami called for a more active public role for women, but Mohsen Saïd Zadeh, a theologian and promoter of women's rights, was arrested and tried for his liberal interpretation of Koranic precepts; Saïd Zadeh was convicted, defrocked, and silenced for five years. About a year after Khatami's election, his policy of tolerance toward secular activists was challenged by the serial killing of five dissidents, Parvaneh and Dariush Forouhar, Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, Mohammad Mokhtari, and Pirouz Davani. Following the success of the reformists in the February 1999 municipal elections, Mohsen Kadivar, a cleric who called for the reform of the political and judicial systems, was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of subversion.

More than two months later, the newspaper Salam revealed ties between the killers of the dissidents and high-ranking officials. These revelations resulted in the newspaper's immediate closure, which, in turn, prompted peaceful student protests. Backed by the security forces, the regime's thugs retaliated with a ferocious attack on student dormitories. The ensuing street demonstrations led to a massive wave of arrests among students and leading dissidents, many of whom were not involved in the demonstrations. Trials were held behind close doors. Special "revolutionary" courts issued death sentences and extensive prison terms for several students and secular activists. In November 1999, Abdullah Nuri, who had led the reformist...