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Wait another six months
Giving Khatami and reformists more time

August 24, 3003
The Iranian

There have been debates surrounding Khatami's resignation. Although, the pick of the debate and the hype associated with the calls for his resignation are behind us, I would, still, like to revisit the issue in order to add another reason to the argument that he should not resign now.

I would further like to indicate that, in light of new developments, it may not be fair to those who argued for his resignation. At the time, the level of frustration with the failure of the student demonstrations, Khatami's relaxed handling of its aftermath, and various domestic pressures, were all reasons to make emotional calls for his immediate resignation.

Admittedly, I found the pro-resignation arguments strong and convincing. However, in the final analysis, I side with those who see his presence as an opportunity to formally object to, and even effectively neutralize, some of the hardliners' suppressive policies. I will also argue that notable economic improvements should be allowed to continue if certain progress is made on the political front.

With regard to the legislative venues for struggle, made possible by the fact that reformists are in power, one can point out to the government's reaction to the rejection of three major parliamentary bills by the Council of Guardians. Two of them required Iran to adopt UN conventions on eliminating torture and discrimination against women. The third bill was aimed at eliminating the council's power to bar candidates from running for office.

Khatami has expressed his dismay and frustration with those who have inhibited his reform programs and apologized to the people for not having been able to deliver his promises. But, he has not sufficed with apologies. His Minister of Interior immediately announced that the provincial governors should not cooperate with "illegal" election supervisory committees that have been organized by the Council of Guardians in various cities. He has also forbidden provincial governors from participatinng in any committee meetings.

Any employee of the Ministry of Interior who did not implement these instructions, he stressed, would be subject to disciplinary action by the ministry. The illegality of such centers, he argued, is due to the fact that their activities were not approved by the Majlis. The government, he said, was determined to prevent any violation of the law regardless of the source.

What possible consequence could result from such an action by the Interior Ministry? It is clear that the reformists have decided to stand behind their demands for the approval of the twin bills. If they actually stick to their guns until the new Majlis elections, one could envision opening up of the Majlis to new and more radical candidates, or a final clash between the reformists and the conservatives.

I would further like to point out the significance of Khatami administration's economic reforms that have started to make an impact. Among such policies were the unification of the exchange rate, creation of an oil reserve fund, replacement of quantitative restrictions with tariffs, revitalization of the Tehran Stock Exchange, imposing a tax on the Bonyads, privatization of public enterprises, introduction of a limited number of private banks, enhanced transparency and enforcement of accounting regulations, improved reporting and bookkeeping practices of public companies, and the passage of the new foreign investment laws.

As a result, and on the back of stable oil revenues, the Iranian economy registered a 7.5 percent real rate of growth last year, excluding the oil sector which would have brought it down to 6.5 percent, government tax revenues grew by 24 percent during the last fiscal year, and for the first time since the post-revolutionary period, the unemployment rate declined. According to the latest IMF report, the Iranian economy was the strongest economy in the Middle East.

It is now generally accepted that Khatami's ability to implement political and economic reforms was potentially limited from the beginning. This was not only due to his malleable personality but also the strength of the conservatives over the security apparatus of the regime. In spite of such limited capabilities, credit should be given to Khatami for being able to gradually undermine the source of legitimacy of the hardline establishment on the existing legal grounds and for elevating the level of tolerable political debate under the Islamic Republic.

At the same time, it is also evident that the democratic movement should now look beyond Khatami and the reformists. All secular forces and individuals who supported Khatami from the beginning knew that the reformists were, and continue to be, confined to the limits imposed by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, in particular the theocratic principle of Velayat-e Faghih. However, this does not mean that tactical support for Khatami in achieving the ultimate goal of establishing a secular democracy should end at this important time.

Proponents of resignation should stretch the limit of their patience for another six months, and wait for the outcome of the current struggle over the conduct of Majlis elections. Obviously, if reformists are ignored, they should collectively resign. Indeed, since little time is left to the end of both Majlis and Khatami's terms, collective resignation would be the only way to get their due credit in achieving success in areas of public administration and economic reform. Otherwise, history will write them down as complete losers.

In the case of mass resignation, popular uprising coupled with division within the armed forces may ensue. This is unfortunately based on a realistic assumption that the hardliners would continue to object to proposed referendums on issues such as the role of the Council of Guardians, the scope of presidential power, revision of the Constitution, and normalization of relations with the US.

Two lessens of experience were learned in the course of Khatami's presidency. One that there are hardcore supporters of the status quo whose economic and political interests do not allow a peaceful transformation through political and economic reforms. Second, as long as the security apparatus and the military remain under conservative control, a complete overhaul of the system will not be possible. These lessons may play well into the hands of those who are eager to destabilize the regime by limited and surgical strikes.

There has not yet been a scientific poll conducted in Iran to estimate the number of Iranians who would welcome limited external help to get ride of the hardliners. If one speculates that Khomeini's own grandson is currently in favor of this strategy, the collective resignation of reformists may significantly increase the number of people in favor.

Author

Mehrdad Valibeigi is a professorial lecturer of economics at the American University in Washington, DC.

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