Phase 3: President Rafsanjani 1989 - 1997

Reconstruction & Repression

In 1989 The IRI had lost its charismatic inspiration and leader, lost the goodwill of the US and most other nations, not quite lost a war, but was suffering as much hardship as if it had - and had not solved the three-way power struggle within the ruling party. This, however, was the decade of the pragmatist: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Constitutional change

Rafsanjani (pragmatist) formed an alliance with Khamenei (conservative) to outmanoeuvre Montazeri (leftish, loyal to the original revolutionary ideas). Simple but effective (at first) was abolition of the post of Prime Minister - de-layering which removed the left's potential power-base. The post of supreme leader was changed to allow someone other than a Grand Ayatollah to hold it. - as, allegedly, there was no one senior enough among the clerics. Power was now shared between the President (soon to be Rafsanjani) and the ever more powerful Supreme Leader (Khamenei, who was not even an ayatollah, yet). Montazeri - once the designated heir, had been sacked by Khomeini. He was allowed to return to religious life at Qom with the position of Grand Ayatollah: as his religious authority grew, he emerged as a powerful critic and leader of opposition to the Rafsanjani regime. His influence was boosted by occasional attacks on him and periodic arrests.

Economic recovery

The war had devastated Iran's economy - billions of dollars damage to infrastructure, an oil industry in ruins, a booming post-war birthrate, and no hope of reparations (although Iraq was eventually named as the aggressor) or international aid. So with mainly local resources, Rafsanjani rebuilt the oil industry, which could then be used to pay for further reconstruction - renewing the cities, building dams and factories, encouraging agricultural and industrial recovery. Foreign experts were imported, although wealthy expatriate Iranians still stayed away. Investment from overseas was deterred by Iranian hostility to Israel, by support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and support for Palestine. Even assistance to the US-led coalition in the Gulf War (1991) did not win any thaw in external relations. The state-sponsored assassination in Europe of various enemies of the revolution didn't help either, nor the repercussions of the "Rushdie affair". However the afterglow produced by survival against the odds (a kind of "blitz spirit") and the satisfaction from self-sufficiency during the post-war recovery began to inspire a feeling of national pride and self-confidence.

US embassy, Tehran 1989

A mural on the wall of the US embassy in Tehran, 1989

Political repressiveness and cultural liberalisation

The last election to the Majlis (parliament) under Khomeini in 1988 had allowed a significant number of "leftists" to get elected. Never again. From 1992 onwards, the Guardians' council was more thorough: no left-wing candidates were approved to stand for election. During Rafsanjani's second term, he was much constrained by conservative influences. For example:

During his first term, the minister for Islamic guidance, Mohammad Khatami, was a liberal. Under his guidance, the press, film-makers, artists and writers were permitted a degree of cultural freedom: this provided an outlet for otherwise disfranchised opponents of the regime. Women were allowed more freedom too - which they used not for pointlessly challenging Islamic dress-codes, but to make gains in employment, education and legal rights. Not that they didn't also exploit the fashion possibilities of the veil. Watch an entertaining video!

Art students in Shiraz 2009

Art students in Shiraz. AMW

But this ended in 1992. Khatami was sacked, and the the inchoate relaxation of cultural repression came to an abrupt end. But the opposition, though silenced and outgunned, took the opportunity to rethink the revolution and regroup. By 1997 they were ready to challenge Rafsanjani in the presidential election. The obvious candidate to replace him was - Mohammad Khatami.