There's something about Mary
Still not admitting that the U.S. embassy takeover was a
By Babak Yektafar
January 17, 2001
Mary has spoken, and what she had to say was nothing new, but given
the current political climate of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is damaging
to her ally president Khatami and her nation.
Mary, as she came to be known to the American public over 20 years ago
as the spokeswoman for the Iranian students who occupied the American embassy
in Tehran, is none other than Massoumeh Ebtekar, the country's first female
vice president appointed by Khatami.
Oddly enough only a few weeks ago I was reading about her in Elaine
Sciolino's delightfully observant book Persian
Mirrors. In that book the author confronts Ebtekar, remembering
her more eminent days with the student followers of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Ebtekar still defiantly defended the embassy takeover and the taking
of 52 American hostage. Yet she asked Sciolino not to mention their meeting
and her response in the book. I found her request for anonymity a prudent
appeal, given the beleaguered leadership of President Khatami and her senior
position in his cabinet as the head of Environmental Protection Organization.
But here she was again praised in an editorial in Kayhan International,
the English version of that bastion of hard-line conservatism Kayhan
daily, for her unyielding defense of the American Embassy takeover. In
an interview with BBC Radio, she yet again justified that unlawful act
by citing the unpunished ways by which the United States goes about breaking
international laws any which way possible.
That form of justification, as Ebtekar is fully aware, is one "hanging
chad" of a rationalization. The issue not whether the American government
has been involved in covert and/or illegal activities from Iran to Chile
and throughout the Cold War. It has. But such extracurricular activities
are not exclusive to the United States as the editors of Kayhan
and Ebtekar at their most honest and uninhibited Kodak moment would confess.
At issue is not just the overt breaking of a most sacred international
(diplomatic) law or the imprisoning individuals without due process. The
issue is the utter disregard for the rule of law, which goes very much
against President Khatami's plea for civility and tolerance in an uncivil
and intolerant society as he attempts to deliver an integral campaign promise
of providing an open society for exchange of ideas. (Ebtekar has just co-written
a book about the hostage affair, which I have not yet read: Takeover
in Tehran: The Inside Story of the 1979 U.S. Embassy Capture. I
wonder if she has offered different opinions).
Given the dismal state of the economy, the failure of the free trade
zones, incarceration of liberal journalists and the closure of their publications,
the murder of intellectuals and the snail-paced reaction of the Judiciary,
the ineffectiveness of the Majlis in passing meaningful legislation, and
the recent resignation of the moderate minister of culture, Mr. Khatami
has too much on his plate to endure such dissent from his trusted circle
Last month, speaking in front of a student gathering in Tehran, Khatami
officially admitted what most observers of Iranian politics have known
for some time. In theory, as the strict interpretation of the constitution
may suggest and more importantly in practice, the president of the Islamic
Republic of Iran, the only popularly elected occupant of a high office,
has no power (or very little power at best) to implement his policies of
badly needed reform.
That speech was given by a man who has clearly abdicated all senses
of determination and purpose in his reluctant struggle against an establishment
which he himself is a product of and cannot cut loose from. At heart, President
Khatami seems to be a compassionate and well-meaning individual, but a
pragmatic man he is not. Nor is he as astute a politician as he has occasionally
He did not win the presidency due to his political prowess, but because
he was the first man with a stamp of approval from the authorities who
displayed a glimpse of hope to an oppressed population. The votes cast
for Khatami nearly four years ago were not for him per se. They were an
angry and desperate cry from a population trying to unshackle the chains
of a misguided and narrow-minded establishment.
The documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore of the "Roger and Me"
fame, ran a plant as a candidate in the American presidential election
to make underline the banality of the main choices, Gore and Bush. I submit
that if backed by a promise of open society and freedom of expression,
that plant would have had a much higher chance of winning the Iranian presidency.
It must be said that at least Khatami's tenure highlighted the polarization
of the Iranian political spectrum, bringing forth the heavy hand with which
the forces of the establishment can stop progress and reform dead on its
track and preserve the status quo, leaving a frustrated president who is
becoming increasingly isolated through loss of allies to assassination
attempts, incarceration and political pressure.
In navigating this hard road, Khatami can do without the rhetoric of
Ebtekar and the like-minded who provide ammunition with which conservative
establishments such as Kayhan and Jomhouri Islami can attack
More than 20 years have passed by and among many changes, Ebtekar is
now also a mother. I wonder how she would feel if her children were to
be taken hostage by a band of anarchists in some corner of the world. I
wonder if she would buy the same justification which she still offers to
those affected personally in those 444 days.
The reform movement has a rough road ahead and should Khatami decide
to run for a second term, he would be well advised to think twice about
his message and the choice of allies to get that message across. As Groucho
Marx once said, "I got married by a judge. I should have asked for
a jury." The jury is out yet for Khatami, but time is certainly running
Babak Yektafar produces a national public affairs TV show in the
U.S. He was also the talk show host on Radio Velayat in Fairfax, Virginia
for several years.