Iran’s reform movement may have taken an eight-count, but it could still win on points. Though student protesters have been driven back onto campus to pursue "legal and democratic" channels to express their grievances, the reform program of President Mohammed Khatami — which the students wholeheartedly, if impatiently, support -- remains the key threat to the power of the mullahs. For political and economic reasons, they can’t afford to completely close down the troublesome reformer.
To be sure, the biggest street demonstrations since the overthrow of the shah in 1979 were a dramatic wake-up call to the conservative clergy who are Iran’s self-appointed supreme rulers, despite parliamentary and presidential elections that allow the population a limited outlet for their own views. The frustrations of a generation raised under the Islamic revolution poured out in unprecedented six days of confrontations with authority, in which students dared challenge the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. But the reformers’ strong suit is not street battles; it’s elections. Next March, Iranians go to the polls to elect the 270 legislators of the Majlis, or parliament. There are no political parties, and candidates deemed disloyal to the revolution can be nixed by a conservative-controlled Council of Guardians, but even with these obstacles, they’ve produced setback after setback for the conservative clergy. Three years ago the conservative core in the Majlis was reduced from 170 to 140, and then two years ago Khatami trounced the conservatives’ candidate for the presidency in a 70 percent landslide. And the conservatives have been bracing for further setbacks next March. And in 2001, Khatami will face the fight of his life when Iran votes for its next president and the conservatives pour all their considerable political resources into reversing their 1997 humiliation.
"There may be serious limitations on Iran’s electoral process, but within those limitations there’s a real struggle for power between groupings committed to dramatically different visions of Iranian society," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "Second to Israel, Iran may still be the liveliest republican democracy in the Middle East." Even though the conservative Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini — who controls the security forces, the broadcast media and the religious bodies that vet laws passed by parliament and candidates running for election — is appointed for life by a closed group of clergy, he still depends to some extent on the illusion of popular consent. "Electoral defeats are deeply troubling to the conservatives," says Dowell. "And as veterans of a revolution that overthrew the autocratic shah, they are well aware of the danger of pushing too far against the will of the people."