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Iran's Khatami Is Caught in the Middle

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson Washington Pos
November 28, 2000

TEHRAN -- When Mohammad Khatami was elected president 3 1/2 years ago, many Iranians expected that his reform plans would reintegrate this isolated nation into the global economy and bring new freedoms to a young population weary of strict Islamic government. But six months from Iran's next presidential election, Khatami's most important reforms have been strangled by a conservative opposition, the nation's floundering economy is driving thousands of young people to emigrate and many of the president's most ardent supporters have become disenchanted by what they see as weak leadership.

The political mood has become so overcast that on Sunday Khatami--recognizing growing discontent within the reform movement--issued a rare public indictment of his own performance. "After 3 1/2 years as president, I don't have sufficient powers to implement the constitution, which is my biggest responsibility," Khatami told a conference on the constitution here. "In practice, the president is unable to stop the trend of violations or force implementation of the constitution." It was an extraordinarily frank confession by the moderate cleric--as well as an unusually open assault on his conservative opponents.

Khatami's despair has sprung from a devastating year: wholesale shutdowns of reform newspapers; jailings and trials of reformist intellectuals, economists, writers and students; and veto after veto of reform legislation passed by the parliament. As a result of these setbacks--and of his silence as they took place--Khatami has now come under pressure from the left and right at the same time, with radicals in the student movement and parliament demanding faster, more far-reaching reforms, and ultra-conservative religious leaders remaining deeply entrenched against liberalization.

Attempting simultaneously to battle conservative foes and rein in reformist malcontents has left Khatami discouraged, according to associates, even after his followers' strong victory in legislative elections in May. After announcing in July that he would seek reelection for a second term next May, he told the Associated Press at an Islamic nations' summit in Qatar two weeks ago that he is reconsidering that decision.

"The image is that this reform has no engine," said Fariborz Raisdana, a reformist economist now on trial, with 16 others, in Tehran's conservative-controlled courts for participation in a pro-reform conference in Berlin last April. "The car was being pushed by hand and now those people are in jail or in court. We want a new engine."

Fueling impatience is the country's youth--the vote considered most critical to Khatami's May 1997 victory. Slightly more than half the country's 68 million inhabitants are under 20 years old, too young to have experienced the revolutionary and Islamic fervor that seized Iran after the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

While the revolution left Iran with one of its best-educated generations, it failed to create an economy that could give them jobs. Now, with access to satellite television and the Internet more readily available, this educated, underemployed generation has become increasingly frustrated that the opportunities of globalization are passing them by because of sanctions that have kept them isolated from most of the world.

"Khatami was elected because the country was like a time bomb, ready to explode," said Meysam, a 21-year-old agriculture student who asked that only his first name be used. "People voted for him because they expected more freedom. He delivers speeches for freedom and peace, but we don't think he's done anything. This time many university students are not going to participate in elections at all."

"We expected political development would happen faster," admitted reformist legislator Alireza Nouri, 36. "Unfortunately, we've had to reduce speed, and even, sometimes, it has stopped."

Even so, Khatami's supporters credit the president with improving the country's image abroad and with fostering an atmosphere that has begun to loosen some of the Islamic government's stringent internal controls over society.

"The important thing Khatami brought for the nation was that, after the elections, people realized they had rights," said Benymin Parvan, a 26-year-old law student at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University.

Khatami has been thwarted mainly by ultra-conservative clerical forces opposed to his moderate vision of political and social reform within the Islamic state. They are able to block his reforms through the unusual dual form of government that has controlled Iran for the past two decades.

Under this system, Khatami, as president, is the elected head of the executive branch, with its ministries and departments. But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the supreme religious leader, appointed for life by a board of clerics and invested with control over the Revolutionary Guards, the regular military, the security services and the judiciary.

The religious side of government has emerged as the more powerful, with conservative religious forces using their control of the judiciary and security services and an appointed upper house of parliament, the Guardian Council, to defeat reform proposals of the president and the elected house of legislators, called the Majlis. As a result, when Khatami and reformist lawmakers opened the door to a freer press, and reformist-oriented newspapers and magazines began to flourish, the courts, the Guardian Council and, ultimately, the supreme leader moved to shut them down and jail some of the most controversial writers and editors.

When the parliament recently passed laws raising the minimum age at which girls may marry from 9 to 14, and giving women the same access to government scholarships for studies abroad as men, the Guardian Council vetoed the legislation. The council, an appointed group of six clerics and six lawyers that reviews laws to determine if they conform to Islamic codes, is dominated by conservatives and has been stridently anti-reform.

Associates of Khatami say concern over violent backlashes from reformist and conservative camps has prompted the president to moderate his public stands, despite attacks first from hard-line conservatives and now from hard-line reformers.

Khatami "is genuinely wary of the reform movement's impatience and zeal," Iran Focus, a political newsletter published by the private Tehran-based firm Atieh Bahar Consulting, said in its November edition. It added that the president wants the reform movement "to be more in tune with political realities, instead of getting carried away with its own wish list."

Since Khatami's election, the political landscape in Iran has emerged as increasingly diffuse, with radical and moderate factions battling for control on both sides of the ideological divide, according to many analysts and activists in Iran. "There's good and evil in both camps," said Baquer Namazi, who runs an umbrella agency for nongovernmental organizations in Iran. "The radicals on both sides want to move to violence."

At the same time, moderates on each side are willing to compromise to bring about change acceptable to both factions, with many moderate conservatives supporting Khatami's formula for change. Khatami said in his Sunday speech that he had not attacked his conservative opponents more harshly because he supports "the preservation of calm in society and prevention of tension."

There is no obvious reform candidate to replace Khatami if he decides not to run, analysts said. And, expecting Khatami to run and win--even if by a smaller margin than in his first election--conservatives have no candidate who they believe would beat him.

"The mood of the people created Khatami," said Namazi. "It was not Khatami who created this mood. Maybe other people will emerge out of this, more aggressive than Khatami."


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