Financial Times, London
May 2, 2000
Mohammad Khatami, Iran's popular and moderate president, is facing his
gravest challenge from conservative hardliners since his election three
years ago. Western governments and investors are understandably worried.
The Middle East needs a stable Iran. Its population of more than 60m,
vast energy reserves, and the power to disrupt or foster the Middle East
peace process cannot be ignored. For the moment, the west's best strategy
is to say and do little to risk upsetting a precarious state of affairs.
Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, who yesterday delayed his imminent
trip to Tehran until July, is no doubt sensitive to that. Conservative
clerics are staging a crackdown in response to a perceived threat to their
political and business interests from the newly elected reformist parliament.
They fear that the Islamic Republic, created in the aftermath of the 1979
revolution when the Shia clergy consolidated its grip, is under threat.
Within the last week, the conservative-controlled judiciary has closed
nearly all the reformist newspapers that had played a role in the defeat
inflicted on the conservatives in parliamentary elections in February.
Three prominent reporters and editors have been jailed in the past month
and the new parliament has been barred from investigating the preserves
of the conservative elite including their business interests, the armed
forces and radio and television stations.
Pessimists fear that worse is to come, perhaps military intervention,
impeachment of the president or an attempt to stop the new parliament from
convening as scheduled in late May. Mr Khatami's advisers are more relaxed.
They believe that conservatives' resistance to reform is an inevitable
but temporary response to a difficult transition.
Mr Khatami's main source of authority is the loyalty he commands among
the people. He could summon millions into the streets. That is a weapon
of last resort which he is unlikely to use. Demonstrations on such a scale
would risk an anarchic response from conservatives and spell the end for
the president's vision of an Iran founded on the rule of law and a harmony
of Islam and democracy.
Instead, Mr Khatami, has acted wisely. His appeals for calm and unity
have been heeded, even by the student movement, a driving force for change
that now feels increasingly frustrated. His position as a mid-ranking cleric
at the same time gives the president credibility with the conservatives.
That is why Mr Khatami is probably the only person who can engineer
a smooth transition. Apart from an extreme minority, Iran's conservatives
realise they cannot resist change. Progress will be bumpy. But Mr Khatami
and his reformists are clever enough to make it happen.