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
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
"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
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
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."