Optimism was in the air following Muhammad Khatami's surprise 1997 election as president of Iran. Surely the overwhelming public support for reform—reinforced repeatedly in elections since—would over time transform Iran, with the hard-line Islamists forced to retreat. The only issue was how quickly and smoothly the transition would go. This volume, the product of a 1999 conference, offers the definitive statement of that upbeat vision.
Unfortunately for the authors, reality subsequently dealt harsh blows to that vision, with Iran's hard-liners reasserting their control and stripping authority away from elected officials. The contributors' confidence in progress towards a liberal, moderate Iran now appears hopelessly naïve. Recounting the factional disputes in Iranian politics, Mohsen Milani is confident that the reform cause will grow stronger and stronger. Farideh Farhi exults, "for the first time in modern Iranian history, a substantial part of the Iranian population is engaged in a political discussion"—but soon after she wrote, the hard-liners shut the newspapers in which that discussion took place. Bijan Khahehpour maintains that in the economy, pragmatism triumphed over revolutionary fundamentalism, whereas the main trend of the last three years has been increased corruption, which has even spread to the oil industry, slowing the hoped-for foreign investment.
Some essays consist of the usual apologetics and U.S.-bashing. Fred Halliday and Mohiaddin Mesbahi argue in separate essays that Iran's foreign policy is pragmatic and non-ideological, which leaves this reader wondering how they explain Tehran's arming of Palestinian terrorists. Gary Sick argues that the United States and Iran are each self-righteous and ideologically rigid; sure, and U.S. inflexibility lay behind the 1984 initiative to sell Iran arms as a way to cultivate favor. At least R.K. Ramazani, for all his optimism, has the good sense in the final essay to write that only time will tell if the Islamic Republic will become compatible with the modern world.