Middle East

Iran: The Long Wait for Change

Iranian girl protests the detention of Iranian journalists in Iraq
A girl demonstrates outside the British Embassy in Tehran to protest the detention of two Iranian journalists in southern Iraq, Aug. 18, 2003 (Photo: Henghameh Fahimi/AFP-Getty Images).

It’s not easy getting people to talk about Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi outside the dusty brick walls of Tehran’s Evin prison. This is where she was arrested on June 23 before being beaten to death during interrogation. Passers-by in this northern suburb in the foothills of Iran’s Elborz Mountains are few, and most walk past without breaking step. Only one, a middle-aged man, stops long enough to say he hopes the authorities “find and punish the murderers.”

They are not the only ones keeping their heads down. Of five prominent reform-minded members of parliament repeatedly called on their mobile phones, not one replied. “No coincidence,” quips the youthful political editor for the reformist daily Etemad, Rouzbeh Mirebrahimi. “They’ve had them turned off all week.”

His willingness to give his name is in itself remarkable. After nationwide demonstrations early in June, hard-liners in the judiciary and executive have cracked down severely on dissent, jailing several prominent journalists and detaining thousands for their part in protests. “In the current climate, talking about the Kazemi affair is highly dangerous, particularly for reformist journalists,” explains one editor who insisted on remaining anonymous. But Mirebrahimi’s defiance is not just youthful bravado. “Ms. Kazemi’s death could just be the miracle we’ve been waiting for,” he says. “It has opened the world’s eyes to what we are facing, and it’s a warning to reformists to stick together.”

If there is one thing decidedly lacking among pro-reform supporters of President Mohammad Khatami, two years after his second crushing electoral victory, it is solidarity. Dismayed by unelected hard-liners’ continual vetoing of liberalizing laws, the reformist majority in Parliament appears increasingly split between mainly clerical moderates willing to continue working within the system and others who, at least privately, want out. With rumors rife that a small group of radical MPs may be preparing to resign, analysts question Khatami’s ability to hold his group together until elections next year. “Khatami’s insistence on change through consensus has reached the end of its usefulness,” says one reformist MP. “The time has come for confrontation.”

One of Iran’s best-organized protest groups, the student-led Office to Foster Unity, is similarly pugnacious. In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan early in July, it announced it was withdrawing its support for Khatami’s reformers, who it sees as too timid to bring democracy and human rights to Iran. It accused the hard-liners, meanwhile, of creating a system of “political apartheid.”

“The only difference between Khatami and his opponents is that he smiles more,” says Azita, an engineering student at the University of Tehran. “We need more than smiles.” The editor of the conservative daily newspaper Resalat, Amir Mohebbian, mocks reformist arguments that Iran’s leaders ignore the demands of the people. “Reformists are like a surfer who has missed his wave,” he says. “They overestimate their own support and underestimate support for the status quo.”

The scathing criticisms ordinary Tehranis direct against their leaders, reformist or otherwise, suggest he is wrong. But it is debatable how far they are willing to—or can—push for quicker change. “The situation is deadlocked,” says political scientist Davoud Hermidas Bavand. “Iranians voted for Khatami because they wanted reform, not particular reformists. For all his good intentions, though, he has proved too willing to compromise, and too inexperienced to capitalize on his support.”

A pro-Khatami businessman, Saeed Laylaz, is less willing to blame the government. If there is paralysis, he argues, it is because hard-liners have been just flexible enough to appease most of their critics. “Their willingness to loosen puritanical laws on dress and public behavior have created the illusion of freedom,” he says. He also warns against the assumption that grumbles in Tehran are shared throughout Iran. “The shah made that mistake, and he died in exile,” he points out. “Rural Iranians are demanding bread, not reforms.”

He may be right. But a more convincing explanation for Iranian apathy was given by Mohsen, a student at the University of Tehran. “Look where our last one-night revolution got us,” he says. “How can we be sure the next one won’t be worse.” Without a credible alternative to President Khatami, analysts say, Iranian reform faces a bleak future.

Optimists like Rouzbeh Mirebrahimi are convinced the international outcry over Kazemi’s death can be used to squeeze concessions from the hard-liners. He points to a concerted press campaign calling for the resignation of Saeed Mortazavi, the Tehran prosecutor originally appointed to lead the inquiry into Kazemi’s death despite rumors he had participated in her interrogation. “The man is a psychopath, a hanging judge, detested even by the conservatives,” comments British-based Iran expert Ali Ansari. “He’s been the main instigator of newspaper closures over the past four years. Now it’s pay-back time.”

Others feel the reformists’ only hope lies in finding support among those who, until now, have tacitly supported the regime. While the vast majority of Iranian clerics have always considered the country’s theocratic system to be blasphemous, they say, recent months have seen growing numbers converting silent hostility into open criticism. Bavand doesn’t hold out much hope for either.

“Whatever happens,” he says, “we’re in for a long wait.”