Right v right
Feb 22nd 2001
WHATEVER their differences, President Muhammad Khatami and Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, are both dedicated to protecting the
Islamic republic. If Iran's leaders ignore the people's demands, said the
president this month, "no military, legal or security force will be
able to save the country." The supreme leader, it seems, may agree.
At any rate, he is now endeavouring to rein back the most radical of his
This would be a change. Ever since the reformists won a handsome majority
in last spring's parliamentary election, Mr Khamenei has allowed a free
hand to the conservative judges who throw Mr Khatami's people into prison,
and to the veto-wielding Council of Guardians which blocks reformist legislation.
But Iranians are showing signs of being fed up with clerics who are not
allowing the system to be reformed, even by so conciliatory an insider
as the president. Mr Khamenei, who is a statesman as well as a traditionalist,
may have concluded that there was a danger of clerical contempt for the
people being paid back in kind.
This could explain his decision to cut down to size the most openly
contemptuous of these clerics, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi. From
the Haqani seminary which he runs in Qom, Mr Yazdi argues that religious
government does not need popular support to achieve legitimacy. This is
an impolite riposte to the "Islamic democracy" which Mr Khamenei
claims to support. Mr Khamenei disapproves of Mr Yazdi's intemperate language
towards Islamic "modernisers", and resents his influence over
radicals in the judiciary, many of whom are Haqani alumni.
People discerned Mr Khamenei's hand behind a blistering interview this
month by Muhammad Mehdi Faqihi, the editor of Entekhab, a newspaper friendly
to the supreme leader. Mr Faqihi attacked the proponents of "petrified
thinking" in Islam- and a former colleague confirmed that he was referring
to Mr Yazdi. Taha Hashemi, Entekhab's owner and an ally of the supreme
leader's, was more explicit. Mr Khamenei, he said, is unhappy with the
excesses of some judges. He went on to say that observing the will of the
people is vital "for the survival of the revolution". He himself,
he promised, would vote for Mr Khatami in June's election.
If, that is, the president decides to seek re-election. Complaining
that he has been prevented from doing his job in his first term, Mr Khatami
has been showing reluctance to take on a second. This has rattled the supreme
leader. Despite Mr Khatami's hesitant approach to reforms, he remains by
far the country's most popular politician. A sulky withdrawal from office
would provoke not only disappointment among his supporters, but their anger
So, having spent the past four years trying to box in the president,
Mr Khamenei is now citing the national interest to persuade him to stand
for re-election, while calling on his own hardliners to tone down their
onslaught. The patriotic Mr Khatami may be susceptible to this argument,
but the hardliners are not. Having got their teeth into Mr Khatami, they
will not let go without a fight.
In the past two weeks, judges have arrested or summoned to court well
over a dozen reform-minded journalists, civil servants and politicians,
among them one of Mr Khatami's senior officials. The Council of Guardians
has vetoed as "un-Islamic" a budget freeze proposed for the aggressively
conservative state-owned broadcasting system. On February 15th, for the
first time in several years, three miscreants were given a public whipping
in a square in central Tehran. A senior judge, a Haqani alumnus, claims
to have discovered a plot between reformists and a dissident ayatollah
to defame a conservative former president. On February 14th, 1,000 of Mr
Yazdi's supporters met in Qom to demand Entekhab's closure.
Can Mr Khamenei quell the diehards? If the supreme leader ever needed
the inspirational authority of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
it is surely now.