In recent years, the reform minded elements within Iranian politics, led by President Mohammed Khatami, have repeatedly clashed with more conservative interests. This gives hope for improvements within the Iranian social system and better foreign relations for Iran. However, the effects on Iranian-Western relations of the recent anti-Iranian rhetoric, such as the tag "axis of evil," have yet to be seen.
While certain elements within Iranian politics may benefit from and support poor Iran-US relations, the growing reform movement has attempted to move toward normalizing ties. Conservative elements have been criticized for trying to undermine diplomatic relations and block the actions of the reformist majority. This struggle has characterized Iranian politics, both domestic and international, and has led to a number of conflicts between liberal and conservative forces.
The leader of the liberal movement, Khatami, a previously unknown member of the Iranian clergy, was elected president in a landslide victory on May 23, 1997, receiving 69 percent of the vote in an election with 88 percent voter turnout. Promoting reformist ideals, Khatami's election indicated the changing mindset of the Iranian people and a willingness to modernize, The next four years saw increasing public debate on contemporary issues, which had been stifled by the preceding government. Khatami's mandate was reaffirmed in the 2000 parliamentary election and again in the 2001 presidential election, in which he received 77 percent of the vote. However, the road to reform has not been smooth, and many of Khatami's efforts have been slowed down by conservative dissent.
Reformers have attempted to promote democracy, the rule of law, and the relaxation of social restrictions. For instance, reformist newspapers continually urge greater tolerance and promotion of the people's interests. However, the late 1990s were marked by the suppression of such newspapers, incarceration of supporters of reform, and frequent clashes between prominent Iranians.
In August 2001, a controversy arose between Khatami and Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of the judiciary, concerning the use of public flogging as punishment in the judicial system. This conflict was settled by transferring authority to the police, reducing public punishment, and giving moderates a victory in the reform of the judicial system.
In one recent struggle, a jailed reformist member of Parliament, Hossein Loghmanian, was pardoned by the Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in January 2002. He had been held for insulting the judiciary, one of the government branches most often criticized. The final link in this chain of events was a walkout by over 200 members of Parliament after the reformist speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, refused to preside over the body until Loghmanian was released.
Another of Khatami's goals is improving foreign relations, as evidenced by his call for a "dialogue of civilizations." With the notable exceptions of Israel and the United States, Iran has trade and communications relations with a large number of states, particularly those in Europe and Asia. …