The Threat to Reform
An interview with Mohammed Ali Abtahi, chief of staff to
Iranian President Mohammed Khatami
March 20, 2000
TIME's Tehran correspondent Azadeh Moaveni met with Mohammed Ali
Abtahi, chief of staff to Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, just three
days after the assassination attempt on leading reformist Saeed Hajjarian.
Abtahi discussed the implications of the attack for the President and his
reform movement. Excerpts:
How did the President find out about the assassination attempt on his
close friend and advisor?
Abtahi: I received the call at home, and phoned [the President]
myself while he was in Yazd and told him. It would have been a bad sign,
signaling some national instability, if he had returned to Tehran that
same night. But he went straight to the hospital from the airport when
he returned. I go see Hajjarian every day at the hospital, not because
it's my responsibility, but because he is my friend.
There are many interpretations of the motive for the attack. How do
you read it, and how will you respond?
Abtahi: This is an effort to divert Iran from its path to democratization,
but there is no other way forward. There are opponents who know no language
besides violence. And we must answer this at the ballot boxes, not with
Do you worry that impatient young people, who want faster and more comprehensive
reform, will cease to support the President?
Abtahi: This is a worry and a possibility. Young sentiment may
not exactly accept the President's course. But the realities we're up against
must be dealt with. That democracy has been institutionalized [thus far]
is the result of moving cautiously. It is more important to reach our
destination than hurry up and only go half way. We neither want a civil
war nor a dissolving of the reform movement. I'm more worried about the
reform project than the vote-gathering of Khatami ... Would it be better
if we were loved but unable to legislate? Are expectations of the President
Abtahi: There may be some expectations that just aren't compatible
with a Muslim society and our own culture. And we shouldn't raise [these
expectations] any higher. But we look around us in the region at our neighbors,
places where women cannot vote, drive or travel alone. Iran has no such
difficulties. But some may want more than this. If the President's hands
are tied, why does he not stay true to his own pledge of transparency and
simply admit it? Nothing is hidden from the Iranian people. The President's
rhetoric never deviates from his platform. He would prefer to remain silent
than to [deviate from his platform].
How will you deal with this dangerous phenomenon of "theorizing
Abtahi: We have already stripped violence of its value in our
society and in public thinking. The public finds the theorization of violence
unacceptable, and we have already opposed this sort of rhetoric. It has
very negative repercussions, and its first victim is civil society. As
long as it remains a matter of opinion, we will debate it. But if it has
practical manifestations, then the law must stand in its way.