Iran's hard-line conservatives are smelling victory over the once-popular reform movement led by President Mohammad Khatami.
The Khatami era has been marred by a political civil war - as violent sometimes as it has been full of hope - in which reformers fought for the rule of law, a civil society, and the marriage of democracy and Islam. After a long struggle against hard-line conservatives unwilling to trim their absolute power, former Khatami supporters now declare bitterly: "The battle is over."
Yet, as February parliamentary elections approach, there are signs that conservatives - even as they continue to crush the reform camp - are taking on elements of the reform agenda and showing a new pragmatism.
Some argue that the clash of ideas has resulted in a drawing of Iranian politics toward a new center, as extremists are shunted aside. Despite admitting crucial mistakes and mourning goals unmet, reformers say that their glass is half full, because the reform agenda will inevitably dominate Iran's future, regardless of who wins at the polls.
"Revolution means changing everything, and some thought [reform] was another revolution to replace the current regime," says Taha Hashemi, chief editor of the conservative newspaper Entekhab. "But now reforms have been established in society, and conservatives have no choice but to be compatible with them, or be isolated," says Mr. Hashemi, a black-turbaned cleric. "Most reformers are thinking of their failures, and conservatives also distance themselves from extreme hard-liners. No doubt, this new balance of moderate conservatives and reformers will take the future of Iran in their hands," Hashemi says.
If it materializes, such a realignment could help ease the political tension that has overshadowed Iranian politics for more than half a decade. Reform leaders say that, even if they and Khatami become "victims" of the conservative comeback, reform moves can't be turned back.
"Reforms did not fail, because they have taken root among the people," says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a vice president and close Khatami adviser, in an interview. "I predict that the conservative camp will use reformist slogans in all elections - that is what we are looking for. If they are sincere, this is what we want."
Still, a feeling of disappointment among reformers - and disillusionment with - reformers is palpable.
"The history of the last 1-1/2 years is the fall of Khatami's popularity: People used to adore him, and now you rarely hear a person who will defend him," says Reza Alavi, a former managing editor of the Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review, now in Tehran. "Right now, no one knows what direction to go," he adds. "A collective depression has set in."
Saraj, a young attendant at a Tehran sports complex, voices a common anger among Iran's youthful majority, which pinned its hopes on reform and today sees no result. "It was a mistake to vote for Khatami in 2001. It was a waste," he says. "I won't vote again."
Their sense of betrayal is due to a collapse of high expectations of social change and caps on clerical rule that swept across Iran after Khatami's unprecedented election victory in 1997. He won again on a wave of popular goodwill, with 79 percent of votes cast, in 2001.
But reform efforts have been blocked at every turn by unelected conservative bodies, allied militias, and security services with no allegiance to Khatami, that feared for their own future if they gave up the levers of power.
Some 90 newspapers have been shut down in recent years, several activists have been killed, and scores more arrested and intimidated. Protests - which most recently in June voiced direct criticism of Khatami, as well as Iran's Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei - turned violent, then fell apart.
Khatami reportedly admitted defeat last month, telling students: "If you had pinned your hopes on [the reform movement] and we were defeated ... at least know that we did not lie to the people and we did not betray them."
The Khatami era is a testament to the difficulties of bringing democracy to Iran - an ancient nation that has know nothing but monarchy and absolutist rule for 2,500 years. "When people ask: 'Mr. Khatami, why don't you do anything against your opponents' in a despotic, authoritarian way, it means that [democratic] culture does not yet exist here," says Mr. Abtahi. "In the West, you built this culture over 300 years, and had two world wars."
One problem, Abtahi says, may have been that reformers wanted too much too fast. "If we criticize ourselves, some reformers used a lot of pressure to move very fast" with a speed "that led the conservatives to believe that we wanted to eliminate them."
"Our main enemy now is our disappointment," says Mohammad Reza-Khatami, the president's brother and leader of the main pro-reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, in an interview. "With the passage of time, those against reforms will disappear, because inside they are not dynamic. The movement has infiltrated all our homes, and turned our children into a generation completely different from us. Maybe this is our biggest achievement."
One sign of a surviving impulse for change could be the dismal 12 percent turnout in municipal elections in Tehran last February - a protest vote of apathy, some argue, that could be repeated in the parliament vote. A similar result, especially if conservatives take control of the majlis, could spark a crisis.
"For sure, 12 percent can't legitimately act for 100 percent of the country ... their [parliamentary] decisions would be useless - a scandal!" says editor Hashemi, adding that such a low turnout would force a "referendum on the Islamic Republic."
Some observers say the critical mistake of reformers was the June demonstrations, when unrest sparked by student complaints led to days of violence on Tehran's streets. Disorganized, the demonstrations quickly fizzled.
"They used their last card when they took to the streets. They couldn't do anything, and lost the biggest tool of politics: the bluff," says Amir Mohebian, a conservative commentator with the Resalat newspaper. After that, "we understood they lost all chances."
Still, reform will continue to define Iranian politics, many here say. "The reformers failed, but reforms succeeded, because all of us realize that reforms are necessary," Mr. Mohebian says.
But it is unclear whether hard-liners see the reform movement as a lasting influence, though there are some signs of change. For example, the leading dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri - once the designated successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution - was permitted to teach last month for the first time, after five years under house arrest.
"If people are not satisfied, the establishment is not legitimate," Mr. Montazeri told the Associated Press. "The authorities should increase their tolerance...and allow the new generation to choose its future."
Iranians also note easing enforcement of some social restrictions to allow head-scarves that reveal more hair, the use of cosmetics, and hip-hugging gowns - items on the wish list of Khatami's restless electorate, the majority of them under 25 years of age. Today forbidden alcohol is more available.
"The conservatives are getting their act together in a very serious way. They learned from their mistakes, and learned from Khatami that they have to bring down expectations of utopia," says an Iranian analyst who asked not to be named. "It's no secret [alcohol, drugs, and social liberties] are out there. But they know they can't control it. They are looking the other way. This is what people want."
Despite some easing, though, hard-liners are taking no chances. Last week, the leading reformist daily Yas-e No was ordered to shut down for 10 days, for not printing a rebuttal statement from the judiciary prominently on the front page, after it had already run on inside pages.
Alarms are also being raised by the opening of offices in every province by the Guardian Council, the unelected conservative body that vets all political candidates, and has been used in the past to winnow out reformers. Even the interior ministry has declared these offices illegal, siding with critics who say they are tasked with digging dirt on opponents.
"What [hard-liners] say is true: They want reforms," says an Iranian academic who asked not to be named. "That doesn't mean the rule of law or sovereignty of the majlis - the big bosses want a pure Mohammaden society" recalling the early days of Islam in the 7th century. "They want to slowly marginalize all institutions with a quasi-populist root-the majlis and the presidency," the academic says. "They believe in the divine right of [clerical] rule. And they believe in the people, only so long as the people follow the leader."
Despite such prospects, reform leaders say they have made some progress - as well as mistakes that require a rethink. "Instead of using our energy to establish social institutions, we used it in fights," says Reza-Khatami. "Sometimes they were so intense that people believed we wanted power in our hands. People asked: Is reform the path we want to take?"