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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 another bullet.

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 too high?

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 violence?"

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.


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