Photo by Majds Saidi, Payam-e Emrooz magazine,
Khatami should throw in the towel
By Hamid Zangeneh
March 21, 2001
In the last few weeks we have been bombarded with speculations about
President Khatami's future. Will he or won't he run again? Should he
or shouldn't he? Must he or mustn't he? In my opinion, he would do himself
and the country a great service by not running.
Khatami ran for office with a promise, which at the time was truly appealing
and necessary. He ran on a platform of law and order, and civil society.
He promised individual freedom and liberties and observance of human rights
The appeal and necessity of the platform had something to do with the
political culture of Iran where people were unacquainted with rule of law.
Playing by the rules, on individual as well as on national levels has
been antithetical to Iranian political and popular cultures.
Much of our behavior is still based on the feudal tradition (arbaab
ra'iyati), a tradition where any matter must be finally decided by the
strongman or the chieftain (khan, sheikh, etc.) or whoever else is in charge.
The final arbiters change in name and form -- the packaging -- but the
process does not.
Therefore, the introduction of rule of law into the political vocabulary
and culture by Khatami -- even though it did not bring what people they
had hoped, namely universally-accepted individual freedoms and uniform
application of the law -- will prove to be a significant threshold in
the political history of Iran.
Today, thanks to Khatami, people on all levels of government, at least
to be politically correct, give lip service to "rule of law".
Aside from the serial killings and attacks by thugs on critics, those who
command real power exert their desires and accomplish their goals by using
the legal apparatus such as the Council of Guardian and the judiciary.
They emphasize the observance of rule of law because they have recognized
its usefulness. Since they are in power, it gives them the upper hand.
The emphasis on rule of law is a significant change, even though Iran
has a long way to go to become a country where relations are based on law
The question before us now is: Where do we go from here?
Everyone knows that real power is entrusted by the constitution to the
un-elected Supreme Leader. He is selected by the khobregaan in
the Assembly of Experts. The Supreme Leader appoints members of the Expediency
Council. The armed forces, judiciary, and radio and television are all
under his direct control.
The powerful clerical half of the Council of Guardians that oversees
the legislative process and vets political candidates, is appointed by
the Leader. He is also responsible for foreign affairs. And a great many
commercial organizations, comparable in size with the government itself,
are under the Leader's control.
Meanwhile Parliament can be dismissed if members do not behave according
to the desires of the Supreme Leader. One stark example was when MPs capitulated
to the wishes of the Leader when they shelved a bill aimed at expanding
freedom of press.
Facing an onslaught of criticism, and mindful of the people's wrath,
Khatami accurately declared a few months ago that the constitution does
not provide him the necessary tools to deliver the democracy he had promised.
Yes, this is very true. If for some inexplicable reason one has not
recognized it by now, the Leader has absolute, unmitigated power over everything,
directly or indirectly through other organs under his control. The elected
President and members of Parliament, do not have any power that is not
afforded to them by the Leader and organs under his direct control and
Then what's the point of Khatami running for a second term?
Some believe he is the only one who has credibility with the public.
They argue that Khatami, given his popularity among the masses, could
go to the Leader and demand (more like ask) a higher degree of freedom
as a condition for his candidacy. The Leader, knowing his value to the
regime as a safety valve, would give him more rope -- a longer leash to
This reasoning is fatally flawed. The question for Iranians would be:
What is his value to the regime that encourages them to give Khatami more
freedom? Freedom to do what? If they want Khatami because he could guarantee
the survival of the staus quo, then we need to ask why should people vote
for the guarantor of a system they do not want in its current form?
Khatami could immortalize himself by announcing to the public that
he will not stand for reelection and, more importantly, tell them why --
pure and simple. He needs to allow the people to clearly see the shortcomings
and then the reform movement could carry the flag and lead the process
to its logical conclusion.
Khatami should not postpone democracy another four years.
Hamid Zangeneh is professor economics at Widener University, Chester,
Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of