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Islamic Republic, Recent Developments

President Rafsanjani, Rafsanjani, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami, Satanic Verses

Since the end of hostilities with Iraq, the government of Iran has focused on reconstruction. It implemented two five-year plans (1989-1994 and 1995-2000), both designed to rebuild the war-devastated regions in the west and to develop major infrastructure projects such as dams, electric power plants, hospitals, highways, port facilities, railroads, and schools. Since 1989 there has been intense political controversy over the government's role in economic development. In general, politicians who favor a strong government role in national economic planning have controlled the executive branch. The Majlis often has opposed such government policies, either out of a conviction that the plans ignored the lower classes or out of a desire to promote the interests of private business.

The death of Khomeini in 1989 may have contributed to the competition among the political elite. During the initial ten years of the Islamic republic, Khomeini did not involve himself in routine governmental affairs but rather served as an arbiter who suggested compromises when the executive and legislative branches could not agree. Because of his charisma and authority as leader of the revolution, politicians always deferred to his suggestions. In the absence of a political figure of comparable stature, political debates became more protracted, and compromises were more difficult to achieve.

The Assembly of Experts chose Khamenei, who would complete his second term as president that year, to succeed Khomeini as faqih. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had been speaker of the Majlis from 1980 to 1989, won the 1989 presidential election and was reelected in 1993. As president, Rafsanjani supported the "alternative thought" movement, which advocated official tolerance of more diverse cultural and political views, especially in the press. Mohammed Khatami, who served as minister of Islamic guidance and culture under both Khamenei and Rafsanjani beginning in 1982, crafted this policy. In 1992, after a more conservative Majlis was elected, Khatami resigned, but he continued to serve as cultural advisor to President Rafsanjani. Khatami's opposition to censorship and arbitrary government had wide popular appeal that helped him win almost 70 percent of the vote in the 1997 presidential election. As president, Khatami continued to advocate political reform and freedom of the press as essential for the creation of a civil society. Khatami’s liberal policies have met with opposition from conservatives who distrust popular government. The intense political competition between liberals and conservatives has been reflected in the press and in street demonstrations. In 1998 two liberal politicians and three liberal writers were killed in separate incidents that the Khatami government blamed on conservatives in the Ministry of Information.

In February 2000 Iranian voters favored proreform candidates in elections to the Majlis. The elections appeared to provide a popular mandate for Khatami’s reform efforts, although sweeping changes were not expected.

In the 1990s Iran also sought to improve its foreign relations. The protracted hostage crisis with the United States had brought international disfavor upon the Islamic republic. As a result, it had received little international support when Iraq invaded in 1980 or during the long years of war. Furthermore, in 1989 Khomeini issued a fatwa that absolved of sin anyone who killed British novelist Salman Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses (1988) many Muslims considered offensive to Islam. The fatwa, which Rafsanjani said could not be revoked, strained relations with Britain and other Western nations. Nevertheless, Iran achieved normal relations with most countries under Rafsanjani and Khatami, although there were intermittent periods of political tension with European countries such as Britain, France, and Germany. In 1998 Iran’s foreign minister signed an agreement promising that the Iranian government would not implement the fatwa. This prompted Britain to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran. However, many conservative Iranian politicians insisted the fatwa was still valid, and many organizations within Iran continued to offer large bounties on Rushdie’s life.

Throughout the 1990s Iran's leaders continued to distrust the United States, which they perceived as hostile to their revolution. Likewise, the United States remained deeply suspicious of Iran's regional intentions, believing that Iran was developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting international terrorism. The two countries had unofficial contacts in the early 1990s but failed to resolve their differences. In 1993 the United States, viewing Iran as a threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, adopted a policy to prevent Iran from gaining too much regional power. In 1995 the United States banned all U.S. trade with and investment in Iran, and in 1996 it drafted a law placing sanctions on non-U.S. companies that invest in Iran. The 1996 legislation became a source of friction between the United States and its own allies. Iran exploited the discord to expand its economic ties with Canada, European Union countries, and Japan.

Following Khatami’s election as president in 1997, the United States began reassessing its policy toward Iran. In 1998 the United States began to encourage non-official cultural exchange programs with Iran and cooperation with the Islamic Republic on international issues of mutual interest, such as finding peaceful compromises for the civil war in Afghanistan. Khatami was reelected president in 2001.

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