Unreforming - The Resignation of Mohajerani
October 12, 2000
THE saga of Ataollah Mohajerani's resignation reveals quite a lot about
Muhammad Khatami, Iran's president. Eighteen months ago, when Iran's popular
minister of culture and Islamic guidance came close to being impeached
by the religious conservatives then running Iran's parliament, the president
defended him stoutly. Now that parliament is dominated by deputies who
support his reformist message, the president might be expected to back
his ally even more determinedly.
Not so. After nearly two weeks of rumours that Mr Mohajerani had been
forced by conservative pressure to resign, apparently composing a lengthy
and indignant statement in the process, the president remains silent-though
he is said to have asked the minister to tone his statement down.
Why? The answer may lie in Mr Khatami's respect for Iran's supreme leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who deeply disapproves of Mr Mohajerani's policy
of cultural liberalisation. Ever since Mr Khatami was elected in 1997,
Ayatollah Khamenei has chosen a careful path between the president's reformist
inclinations and the conservative views of his own followers. He has made
the minister of culture an exception.
By blessing the judicial closure of the liberal newspapers promoted
by Mr Mohajerani, and by killing a law designed to make it harder to close
such papers, the ayatollah publicly registered his opposition to the minister's
policies. In private, he complains that the culture ministry has done nothing
to promote Islam. On October 3rd he allowed Ayatollah Movahedi Kermani,
his representative in the Revolutionary Guard, to call for the minister
to be sacked.
The fog of calculated ambiguity that hangs over the minister's resignation
also hangs over the president's intentions. In August, Mr Khatami was bounced
by conservatives into declaring his willingness to run for a second term
of office next spring. Now, however, Muhammad-Ali Abtahi, who heads the
president's office, has become non-committal on the subject. "It is
too early to reach a conclusion," he said last week when asked about
Mr Khatami's intentions. "We'll talk about that when the time comes."
This may be tactical. With both the president and his most effective
minister in a sort of political limbo, the conservative opposition is finding
it hard to develop an election strategy, let alone find a credible candidate.
When the fog clears, it seems likely that Mr Mohajerani will be out
of his job and that Mr Khatami will stand for second term. By reducing
conservative pressure on the government, the minister's departure may ease
the president's re-election. But it was the minister of culture, rather
than any other Iranian reformist, who transformed Mr Khatami's elegant
slogans into action.