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The Rule of Law and the Politics of Reform — Postscript 2006



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2006. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


            Given a chance to revise an article about current events published more than two years ago (The Rule of Law and the Politics of Reform in Post-Revolutionary Iran*),  it is tempting to rewrite, and perhaps rectify, one’s interpretation. This is resisted here with the rather audacious claim that history has mostly justified the underlying presumptions of that interpretation. Substantiating that claim is the goal of this postscript.

            On December 6, 2004, President Mohammad Khatami came to vindicate himself before a constituency that was once his most ardent supporter: the student body at Tehran University. He sat on the stage behind a small desk, which was half covered with a bouquet of red roses. The Martyr Chamran hall -named after an idealistic Berkeley graduate who lost his life soon after the 1979 Revolution- was not big enough. Khatami anxiously cautioned his security guards not to be rough on the overflow crowd. He then apologized to the students for the inconvenience. Civic gentility, inclusion, and tolerance were the principles which Khatami also demonstrated in his attentive listening to critical comments directed at him that day -many in anger and anguish. “I have never brought action against anyone (who attacked me),” he allowed, in contrast to “some other agencies” of the regime. He singled out the Judiciary. “Efsha kon, efsha kon! (Reveal, reveal!),” shouted the students. They wanted Khatami to lash out against the powerful who stalled their Reform Movement. Pressed, Khatami revealed the following fact which was emblematic of his tenure.

           In 2003, the Guardian Council, having just blocked Khatami’s two boldest initiatives aimed at limiting its role in elections, brazenly disqualified most Reformist candidates for the pending 7th Majlis. Khatami seriously considered using the President’s only remaining prerogative to postpone the elections. The Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamaneh’i, opposed him. They met. They reached a compromise as the Leader accepted Khatami’s specified “conditions” to ensure “fair and free” elections. The elections were then held, but the Guardian Council “reneged on its promise and even ignored the Leader’s directive (nazar).” It did not observe Khatami’s conditions.

            The cheated elections of the Majlis produced an overwhelmingly majority of anti-Reformist deputies. Khatami’s reign was irreparably enfeebled. A year too late, Khatami’s revelation now was his vintage anemic protest.  “Why did you remain silent? Why did you retreat?” the students asked. Khatami responded: “If there was a retreat, … it was before a system I believe in.” “My belief has been in reforms inside the system. I consider the Islamic Republic the great achievement of … our revolution…. I consider it imperative to protect this system.” To Khatami reform was a way of strengthening the regime. His program was to implement the existing Islamic Constitution, not to change it.

            Continuing in his dialogue with the students, Khatami now lashed out against those who had wanted more. “I have a claim against them!” He admonished them for not learning from the experience of the past. Three times since the constitutional revolution, he argued, the progressives had failed because they alienated their potential supporters among “the majority of people who are religious (motedayennin)” by their obsession with “political demands” (Mansoorian, 2004). Khatami was justifying his personal beliefs in his depiction of the practical reality of Iran’s society.

            This was the season of the 9th Presidential election. The Constitution barred Khatami from running for a third term. His valedictory session with the students, planned in part to encourage them to preserve, turned, instead, to a requiem for his principles (Ghouchani, 2004).

            Khatami’s last hurrah was to persuade all the major factions in the Reformist Movement to support his bid to recruit Mir Husayn MooSavi as their candidate for President. Long a favorite of the “left” wing of the Islamic regime, and famously supported by the late Imam Khomeini, Moosavi had distinguished himself as a popular Chief Executive (Prime Minister before that office was merged into the Presidency) during the 1980s war with Iraq. He was clearly the Reformists best hope (Karami, 2004).

            On October 12, 2004, Khatami and two old allies from his group of senior progressive clergy (Mehdi Karoubi and Musavi Khoeiniha) went to meet their mutual elementary school friend, Moosavi, in Tehran’s Saadabad Palace. That Palace from which the Pahlavi Shahs once ruled with authority was this day the stage for the pitiful fate of Khatami’s Reform Movement. Musavi rejected the offer to run because it was obvious to all observers that, even if he could win the Presidency, he would have no chance of success against the organized and mobilized Conservatives who now controlled the Majlis as well (Zibakalaam, 2004; Karami, 2004; Namazi, 2004).

            Moosavi probably could not win, had he run.  Neither could the Conservatives’ preferred candidate for President -not to mention any of the three candidates that the splintered Reformists eventually entered. Instead, the 2005 Iranian Presidential election proved that the decisive votes of the discontent, which had catapulted Khatami to Presidency in 1997, would this time side with the candidate who promised leveling the economic and social wall that separated them from the privileged (Sigarchi, 2005; Esfandiari, 2005; Hedayati, 2005; Sharibani, 2005).

            The new President, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, has been stressing values which have a provenance different from both the Reformists and the Conservatives. He finds them in the ethos of the Basijis, the paramilitary storm troops of the regime: resentful demand for social justice (zolm-setizi and edalat), wounded and prideful nationalism, defiant self-sacrifice (eesar), and romantic spirituality (manaviat))(Ahmadinezhad, 2005a; 2005b; 2005c).  Although Ahmadinezhad calls these the true message of Khomeini’s revolution, his rise may yet bring about profound changes in the hierocracy that Khomeini bequeathed.

            The Reformists’ once vibrant debate (gofteman) about the rule of law, and “political development,” has now been reduced to tiresome analysis of their electoral failures (Modarresi, 2005).  What passes for Constitutional politics in Iran at the time of this writing is scholastic arguments about whether Khomeini really meant his Islamic government to be subject to popular will (Ansari, 2006). The new phase of this old debate began with the followers of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi (Tavassoli, 2006). His renewed prominence is due to the fact that Mesbah is President Ahmadinezhad’s marja’ taqlid (the religious source of emulation). The timing of the debate is important because the elections of the members of the Assembly of Experts -which is empowered to dismiss and appoint the Leader- are scheduled to take place soon.  In those elections, Mesbah is expected to be a key player (Razavi, 2006).

            Mesbah’s position is that the faqih (Leader) does not have to heed the people’s view. He may at times choose to defer to the public as an expedient, to facilitate their cooperation. Mesbah says that Khomeini also used the promise to establish a Republic in that expedient way, in the special circumstances prevailing just after the Revolution. The Reformists disagree vehemently and maintain that Khomeini really believed in listening to the people: he wanted both Republic and Islam.  The supporters of Khamaneh’i have taken a similar position (Shargh Online, 2006). Neither, however, denies the right of the Leader, “in special cases,” to overrule the people (Shargh, 2006).

            Several years ago, this subject was more thoroughly reviewed in a scholarly manner by Mohsen Kadivar. Kadivar is a progressive Reformist, but his conclusions about Khomeini’s views are essentially the same as Mesbah’s: Khomeini’s vision of an Islamic regime is incompatible with popular sovereignty (Razavi, 2006). The key conflict is in the concept of velayat-e faqih. For Khomeini the “real legitimacy,” is that of the “religious velayat (deputyship);” he employed “legal legitimacy (vote of the public)” only to “pacify the public and international opinion.” Kadivar argued that Khomeini could maintain that he did not lie or deceive; it was the adoring and trusting public’s fault if they did not notice Khomeini’s delicate distinction (Kadivar, 2002).

            Khomeini probably did not need the concept of velayat-e faqih to rule supreme himself; he was extraordinarily popular. His successors, however, are not so lucky. They are left with the contradiction inherent in the duality of his Islamic Republic. Sovereignty is not divisible and could not be shared. The contrary arguments of those who believe in the present Islamic Republic remain unconvincing.


Ahmadinezhad, M. (2005a) ‘Mosahebeh televizioni, 22 November 2005 [Press Conference, 19 September 2005], available at:

Ahmadinezhad, M. (2005b) ‘Mosahebeh televizioni, 22 November 2005 [Press Conference, 22 November 2005], available at:

Ahmadinezhad, M. (2005c) ‘Address to the Basijis Meeting’ Ekhabre riasat-e jomhouri the electronic archives of news about Iran’s President, 26 November; available at: /ahmadinejad/cronicnews/1384

Ansari, H. (2006) ‘Aray-e khod ra beh emam khomeini nesbat nadahid [Don’t Attribute Your Views to Imam Khomeini]’, Rooznameh Shargh, 10 January; available at:

 Esfandiari, M.S. (2005) ‘Dar entezar-e oposicion-e monji [Waiting for the Savior Opposition]’, Rooznameh Shargh, 6 July; available at:

 Hedayati, Y. (2005) ‘Baz khoni-e entekhabat-e nohom ba alefbay-e matn-e shariati [Reading the 9th Election in the Text of Sharia’ti’s Alphabet]’, Rooznameh Shargh, 7 July; available at:

 Ghouchani, M. (2004) ‘Doshanbeh rooz-e khasteh konandeheh’i bood[Monday was a Tiring Day],’ Rooznameh Shargh, 7 December; available at: 

Kadivar, M. (2002) ‘Risheh yabi hokoomat-e entesabi dar jomhoury-e eslami [In Search of the Roots of Appointed Government in Islamic Republic]’, Mahaneh Aftab 14: 54-61; available

Karami, M. (2004) ‘Chera moosavi niamad? [Why Moosavi Did Not Come?],’ Rooznameh Shargh, 13 October; available at:

Mansoorian, N. (2004) ‘Goftogoy-e enteghadi-e daneshjooyan fa rais-e jomhour [Critical Dialogue of Students and the President],’ Rooznameh Shargh, 7 December; available at:

Modarresi, F. (2005) ‘Begoo magoohay-e pas az entekhabat [Arguments After the Election]’, Rooznameh Shargh, 11 July; available at:

Namazi, A.M. (2004) ‘Moroori bar entekhabat-e riasat-e jomhouri [Review of the Presidential Election],’ Rooznameh Shargh, 19 October; available at:

Razavi, H. (2006) ‘Eslahtalaban: emam jomhourikhah bood [Reformists: Imam was a Republican]’, Rooznameh Shargh, 3 January; available at:

Shargh (2006) ‘Emam sadeghaneh beh ray-e mardom eteghad dasht [Imam Sincerely Believed in People’s Vote],’ Rooznameh Shargh, 6 January; available at:

Shargh Online (2006) ‘Defa’-e  hosain-e shari’atmadari az jomhouriyat-e nezam va mesbah-e yazdi [Shari’atmadari’s Defending the System’s Republicanism and Mebah Yazdi]’, 6 January; available at:

Sharibani, M. (2005) ‘Hezb-e karoubi va sonnatgara’i-e chap [Karoubi’s Party and the Left’s Traditionalism]’, Rooznameh Shargh, 7 July; available at:

Sigarchi, A. (2005) ‘Rahbordi keh dar pey-e entekhabat-e nohom pish-e roy-e eslah talaban ast [The Solution Facing Reformists Following the 9th Election],’ Rooznameh Shargh, 6 July; available at:

Tavassoli, M.R. (2006) ‘Dolat sazi-e emam khomeini va tahrif-e motehajereen [Imam Khomeini’s Government Building and Falsification by the Dogmatics]’, Rooznameh Shargh, 10 January; available at:

Zibakalaam, S. (2004) ‘Agar moosavi miamad [If Moosavi Had Come],’ Rooznameh Shargh, 12 October; available at:


The article entitled The Rule of Law and the Politics of Reform in Post-Revolutionary Iran was first published in the March 2003 issue of International Sociology. In 2007 it was re-published with this additional Postscript in a book by Said Amir Arjomand (ed.) Constitutionalism and Political Reconstruction. The article’s abstract is electronically available at the website below: