A swing towards progressive thinking and reform of the Islamic Republic began on 23 May 1997 – the day Mohammad Khatami was elected president of Iran. Despite being granted less television airtime than his conservative opponent, he won in a landslide, with 70 percent of the vote on an 80 percent turnout. The election result was hailed as proof of a widespread desire for change among Iranians.
Immediately, Khatami promised reforms at home and a “dialogue among civilizations,” meaning, improved relations with the West. To signal the friendly attitude of his government, he agreed to an unprecedented interview on CNN with British-Iranian journalist Christiane Amanpour. With a warm smile, he said that he respected the “great American nation.”
Khatami also said that he believed in religious freedom. “Life,” he announced, “should hinge on three pillars: “religiosity, liberty and justice,” and these were the “aspirations of the Islamic Revolution.” However, the new president stayed silent about the rights of the Baha’is in Iran.
Still, many reform-minded Iranians, including the Baha’is, dared to cultivate new hopes for the future.
Taste of Change
From the start, President Khatami – nicknamed “Ayatollah Gorbachev” for his reformist ideas – declared that the rule of law and a strong civil society were key to his vision for Iran. He removed restrictions on the press, and dozens of reformist newspapers began to appear and drew millions of readers. He called on all Iranians to join him by criticizing the performance of senior officials and demanding that they be accountable to the people. Khatami also declared that city councils would be elected for the first time in order to expand democratic participation to all levels of Iranian society.
Iran’s relations with several Western countries had been strained for years – by the 1979–1981 American hostage crisis, by the 1989 fatwa calling for the death of the British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, and by the 1992 murder of four Iranian Kurds in Berlin. These and other issues had caused political rifts, but now Khatami began to restore diplomatic ties and reopen embassies around the world. Several Western missions also returned to Tehran.
Khatami and his policies proved popular at the polls. He was elected to his second term as president in 2001, and in the 2004 parliamentary election his reformist allies received the majority of votes.
Even the Baha’i community was affected by Khatami’s reforms: the section of university application forms asking for religious affiliation was deleted, allowing a number of Baha’i youth to be accepted to state universities for the first time in many years. But the taste of change soon turned sour.
In Iran, the office of president is not as powerful as the title suggests. Khatami was not in a position to reform Iran to his liking. To make matters worse, he faced critics on all sides. Radicals dismissed him as a regime insider and argued that the religious establishment would never allow meaningful change. Conservatives accused him of undermining the Islamic Republic.
Time and again, Khatami’s agenda was frustrated by elites in the clergy and intelligence services. He was hit by a series of crises. His allies were impeached, imprisoned, and beaten; political dissidents were murdered by shadowy agents; attempts to increase his powers, which were passed by the parliament, were overturned by the mullahs; and the judiciary found excuses to close the reformist newspapers. Thousands of university students – who he had long relied on for support – protested his repeated failure to push back against the conservative elements in the government.
The Baha’is soon discovered that Khatami’s promises were empty, not by design but by default. In September 1998, more than 500 homes that had served as classrooms for the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education were raided. Authorities confiscated teaching materials and arrested 36 faculty members. Khatami had not ordered the raid, but he had no way of stopping it.