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Monthly Archive: December 2004
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December 08, 2004

What did Khatami really say?
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

Three days ago, on what is called the Student's Day, the so-called reformist President Khatami of Iran gave a speech to a group of students. The Student's Day marks the anniversary of a student protest, in 1953, to the visit made to Iran by Nixon, then vice President of the USA, after the CIA-backed coup on the August of the same year that ousted Prime Minister Mossadeq and returned Mohammad Reza Shah back to the throne from his short self-imposed exile. The protest became ugly when three students were shot dead by the police. They have since turned into symbols of the student movement in Iran. Such a violent attack on students was peerless in Iran's history till the more recent one on July 9, 1999.

This piece is a briefing on the speech as well as an attempt at making sense of what Khatami said and didn't say in the context of the power struggle that underlies the ongoing political conflict in Iran.

Khatami's appearance among students was significant in two ways: First, students' support and votes played a vital role in electing Khatami as Iran's reformist President twice in 1997 and 2001. Second, Khatami had not shown up among students, as he had regularly done on the Student's Day since he was first elected, for two years. Many saw this absence as a sign of the inconvenient situation in which he found himself as almost all attempt at reform were frustrated by the hard-liners. Many in the student body in particular and the young in general felt that Khatami had abandoned his election promises, by not taking a tough stance against the hard-line religious conservatives and fundamentalists. The reform movement was practically stalled in its birth by the hard-liners, often in violent fashions by the para-military vigilantes, and by an abusive judiciary system.

So, he was expected to deliver a speech on the experience of the past seven years, and defend his way of handling matters. That he did.

In brief, he defended

  • his motto of reforming the system from within, preserving the "Islamic" as well as the "Republic" basis of the government;

  • his strategy of "tolerance" and "dialogue", which was exemplified in his proud declaration: "I did not sue anyone!";

  • the claim that the reform movement has had real and important achievements, namely in creating a "criticizable" and "responsible" government and in reforming the intelligence system into one that works for the safety of the citizens rather than against it, despite parallel systems in other organisations, mostly under the Supreme Leader's supervision.

He also attacked two groups of people:

  • the hard-liners for missing to hear and resisting the will of people, to whose actions he attributed many problems the society and the government have had, including being called by G. W. Bush as part of the "axis of evil", and

  • the radicals, those in the reform camp and their supporters who "were demanding too much" and "had narrowed down people's demands into a few political ones", which he said had cost the reform movement its vitality and effectiveness.

His speech was dotted by a vocal, slight minority of students who were chanting slogans and rhymes in protest to his performance over seven years of presidency. Because of them the meeting was delayed for several minutes and started only after the moderators managed to show off a majority of interested listeners by requesting that they clap for a couple of times. Not being able to ignore them though, Khatami responded time and again to their slogans, with visible annoyance and dry humour.

What he didn't do, however, was convince his "radical" critics. Khatami's perspective may seem fair if not impartial and balanced, and perhaps sound. It certainly did so to the majority of people in general and students in particular in 1997. But I shall argue that in light of the experience of his two terms in office and the current power structure, Khatami's perspective is hopelessly misled and misleading.

Khatami sure has a very appealing theory: he states, and did so again in his speech, that religion must be updated to match the needs of the time and argues that could only be done if one takes such a view of religion that is compatible with democracy. Interestingly this seems to be a close replica of Shirin Ebadi's argument. On the surface this may sound like a good approach to modernisation in a society like Iran in which religion plays an important role. "Updating religion does not only mean to find out how to say prayers in the North Pole. [...] We cannot treat women's rights in our urban society as they were treated in a tribal society." Such a conclusion is worthy of attention if not applause. However, Khatami (and similarly Ebadi) has shown in practice that he lacks serious intention in implementing his "progressive" ideas while facing severe attacks from the hard-liners. He has virtually no room left by imposing on himself the constraint of preserving a system in which he states he believes, but does not allow him to enforce the will of his electorate by red-flagging every and each attempt at reform as "damaging the system."

And this is exactly where he misses the points raised by his radical critics. Even more seriously he makes a deadly error in judgment in his analysis of the two antagonist forces opposing his reform strategy. The error becomes ever so clear when their share of political power is taken into account. He addressed the hard-liners using some serious terms, but he used even more serious terms when he talked about the radicals: he equalled them with "the enemies of the people" he said he represented. The immediate question that popped into my mind was, "which one between the two has the upper hand?" The answer is shockingly clear: the former -- the ones who would love to put to the severest punishments on those they deem astray from the straight line of God. He left the latter in effect hanging to dry outside, in a time that the hard-line grip on the power is tightening and he himself will be out in a matter of months, most likely handing over to hard-liners the last remaining symbol of the reform movement. From this perspective his proud proclamation that he had not sued anyone took a whole new meaning.

To end this note I shall only relate Khatami's closing comment on the previous parliamentary election, widely seen as rigged. He recalled his strong opposition against holding an election his government saw as unfair and not free. He also narrated the story of his visit to the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, together with the Parliament's spokesman (considered the head of the legislature) and a list of conditions they had handed him before they could hold the elections. The list, he said, was then passed on to the Guardian Council, the legal supervisor and major obstacle to holding free and competitive elections in recent years. The weighty members of the Guardian Council are all appointed directly by the Supreme Leader and thus are considered as applying his will. "But," Khatami said, "the Guardian Council kept neither the Supreme Leader's nor its own word [...] and we were faced with a situation in which we had to choose between holding the election or risking huge unrest [...] and so damaging the system." At this point a slogan was repeatedly chanted by the student protesters: "Jannati* is the nation's enemy." Khatami strangely replied, "If you are the nation, then we are the nation's enemy," and closed his speech.

I think it must be itchingly clear even to Khatami himself from his own version of the story, why so many people among his original closest and strongest supporters are so deeply disappointed with his tactics and by extension his whole strategy.

* Jannati is the chair and spokesman for the Gaurdian Council.