Ten days of raucous student demonstrations across Iran in June prompted fresh predictions of the Iranian regime's imminent demise. But by July, regime hardliners had regained the upper hand by arresting some four thousand people. This summer's back-and-forth is yet another indication that in Iran a highly contentious but gradual process of political change is more likely than revolution. An increasingly complex and often tense relationship between two leading groups pushing for reform - university students, and the reformists who dominate parliament and several ministries- has profound implications for how such change will unfold in the coming year.
Since 1997 student groups with longstanding ties to leftist forces provided critical support to reformists elected to parliament and serving in the ministries of interior and of culture and Islamic guidance, many of whom themselves had leftist affiliations in the past. For example, the Office for Fostering Unity (OFU), a major student organization active on more than 50 campuses across Iran, was one of the most important civil society organizations helping to elect Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997. The alliance was further cemented during the July 1999 student riots, when reformists in government protested against the harsh measures meted out to students.
In the past two years, however, the reformists' inability or unwillingness to confront the hardliners' onslaught against Iranians seeking political change has caused great frustration among many students. The decisive break occurred with the February 2003 local council elections. The OFU withdrew from the main reformist electoral coalition, the Dovom-e Khordad Front, contributing to the reformists' first electoral defeat since 1997. Student disenchantment has increased with the reformists' inability to prevent recurring crackdowns on students. Although recent parliamentary mediations led to the release of some student leaders arrested in the June demonstrations, many in the student movement are no longer confident of the reformists' will to defend their rights. In a July 2003 letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, the OFU for the first time publicly revealed its deep disillusionment with the reformists in government.
The growing separation between these two groups is having several repercussions. It has brought into sharper focus the divergent objectives of some of their members. Most reformers in parliament and the ministries seek to reconcile the democratic and theocratic aspects of Iran's constitution -essentially, to reform the existing Islamic system of governance in a democratic direction. By contrast, some students question whether the two are fundamentally compatible -and would like to steer the Islamic republic toward what in effect would be a secular democracy.
An increasingly independent student movement has become vulnerable to hardliners' charges of links to foreign plots and exiled opposition groups, allegations intended to discredit the movement with the Iranian public. A more isolated student movement could become radicalized, giving hardliners a pretext to launch a massive crackdown. Either a radicalized or an emasculated student movement would deprive the reformist camp of a critical source of support for the February 2004 parliamentary elections.
The students' disenchantment has also led some reformists to acknowledge the need to create a common platform to bring together committed democratic activists from all political persuasions, secular and religious, inside and outside of Iran. Such attention to coalition building is a healthy development, as neither the students nor the reformists in government can change Iran alone. Several recent open letters written by members of parliament, cultural figures, and political activists inside Iran and in exile suggest that a platform is indeed developing with a focus on popular will as the only source of legitimate political authority, equal rights for all citizens, and national reconciliation.
In addition, some reformist politicians feel new pressure to adopt a bolder strategy vis-à-vis the hardliners to show that the reform movement is not dead. In recent months, the parliament passed legislation to stop candidate screening by the Guardian Council, a body appointed by the Supreme Leader that vets candidates for national elections and assesses the constitutionality and religious soundness of all laws, and to enhance the president's power to enforce the constitution. The Guardian Council has summarily rejected these bills. But the parliament continues to pass legislation, investigate misconduct on the part of non-elected institutions, and agitate for the release of arrested students, journalists, and activists.
Officials in reformist-dominated ministries have also shown renewed willingness to confront the directives of non-elected institutions. The interior minister recently ordered provincial governments not to cooperate with local committees established by the Guardian Council to monitor the parliamentary elections.
Time favors reform-minded Iranians. Despite the hardliners' ability to obstruct reformist legislation and repress political activists, they lack the resources and popular mandate to halt the drive toward transparent and accountable government. But establishing an effective coalition of students and reformists in government is essential to substantive change occurring sooner rather than later.
Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and a member of the graduate faculty of political science at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.