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Khatami's test

By Vahe Petrossian
24 November 2000
Middle East Economic Digest

Some three-and-a-half years after launching radical political reforms in Iran, the presidency of Mohammad Khatami is in deep trouble. A frustrated population is having to face the possibility of the reformist cleric leaving office prematurely, ceding the initiative to his right-wing opponents.

Vahe Petrossian reports from Tehran on the prospects for domestic reform and the implication for foreign business.

Will he or won't he? That is increasingly the question preoccupying Iranians and foreign diplomats in Tehran six months ahead of a presidential poll that was widely expected to usher in the second term of the Khatami presidency.

The reformist president, who has been in office since mid-1997, has been sending strong signals in recent weeks that he may do the unthinkable and not run for a second term. Following an official declaration of his candidacy in late July, Khatami and his spokesmen have since said he has yet to decide whether to take part in the presidential race scheduled for May 2001.

The prospect of an Islamic republic without Khatami would delight most of the president's conservative and right-wing enemies. It has already alarmed his supporters, who fear losing whatever remains of the political and social gains made since 1997.

There is also concern abroad about the future of Iran's opening to the rest of the world under Khatami - including the low-key "dialogue" he launched with the US in early 1998. Would the president's departure mean a reversal of course?

The Islamic republic is going through one of its most crucial tests since it emerged from the revolution of 1979. It has survived internal and external wars, economic sanctions and other similar challenges; now, it has to show whether it can manage the more difficult task of transforming itself into a politically and socially mature society.

Khatami - who began his presidency more than three years ago amid high expectations of a more open society where political and social freedoms could flourish under the rule of enlightened Islamic law - is said to be deeply frustrated and dispirited. Indeed, sources familiar with what is being discussed in the presidential office say that the president has decided not to run for a second term.

"Khatami has been telling his aides in recent weeks that he feels powerless and thinks he can no longer meet public expectations of reforming the system," says an insider in Tehran. "He says he doesn't want to give his supporters false hope by running for a second term when he knows he can't deliver."

So dejected is Khatami, says the source, that he has even told aides he does not understand why they have not resigned. "I am elected and have a duty to serve out my term, but you don't have these obligations," it is said he told aides.

Khatami apparently received his first big shock in July 1999 in the aftermath of a violent vigilante and police attack on Tehran university student dormitories. Right-wing gangs posing as reformist student supporters of the president staged riots in Tehran to frighten the public and attacked several mosques to panic the clergy. "These people are capable of anything," the president is reported to have said in disgust. *A catastrophe

To pleas that he should not abandon the field to enemies of reform, he is said to have argued that his departure would expose right-wing factions to the realities of popular pressures and might force them to be pragmatic. Reformers say there is no one of Khatami's stature and popularity to take over the leadership of the reform movement, should the president drop out of politics.

"It would be a catastrophe," one supporter says. "There is no way that the coalition that helped bring him to power will allow him to leave."

Indeed, leading Khatami supporters insist that the president will simply not be allowed to drop out of the race. The second Khordad coalition behind the president convinced him to run in 1997 even though he was "blankly refusing to enter into politics" and it will probably do so again, a local analyst says.

Whether he goes through with his threat or allows himself to be talked into a second term, Khatami has had ample reason to lose heart. An intensive campaign of harassment and persecution by right-wing factions in recent months has resulted in the loss of many of the hard-won political gains of the previous three years. The economy is also adrift despite a welcome boost from high oil prices.

The political rot set in in April when, following another electoral setback for the right in majlis elections, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei gave the green light for the conservative-dominated judiciary to carry out the wholesale closure of reformist publications. Starting with a dozen newspapers, various press and clerical courts have so far shut down about 30 publications. Only two or three newspapers identified with the reform movement are still open, but they are so cowed they tend to evade controversy.

Leading reformers, lawyers, clerics and journalists have been jailed or are being tried for treason, collaboration with foreign enemies, and on other implausible charges. Lawyers who distributed a videotaped confession by a former vigilante alleging that senior officials associated with Khamenei had ordered violent attacks against reform targets found themselves in court. The officials concerned were apparently never questioned.

When the reformist-dominated majlis tried to introduce legislation barring police from university campuses and started debating an amendment to restrictive press legislation passed in the last days of the outgoing majlis, Khamenei intervened once again.

In early August, a shocked parliament was effectively forced to halt its debate on the press law. The press closures and the gagging of the majlis seemed to nullify the popular vote for reform in the parliamentary elections of early 2000.

Right-wing gangs continue harassment and intimidation of reformers with apparent impunity. The judiciary and other conservative bodies seem more interested in pursuing the victims of violence than its right-wing perpetrators - as in Khorramabad in late August, when a national student gathering was disrupted. Appeals by students and reformers for Khamenei and others to condemn the violence go unanswered.

Khatami's personal problems extend to his cabinet, most of whose members were inherited from the previous president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. Some ministers, such as the one in charge of education, are deeply conservative. Others, such as those holding economic portfolios, are feuding.

"Khatami spends his time in cabinet defending rather than leading," says an analyst.

Khatami and the whole country are also paying the price for the failure so far to form genuine political parties. The absence of party machinery has prevented political energies from being channelled and allowed too much reliance on individuals.

Reformers are trying desperately to convince Khatami to carry on despite setbacks. The majlis is seen by some as an important element in this effort.

Having recovered some of its composure since August, the majlis is said to be working overtime to "show to Khatami that there is hope". Parliament has taken the initiative on a number of economic issues - though the initiative may backfire in the long term because deputies are not economic experts and are bound to make mistakes, says an analyst.

*Majlis into the vacuum

In a reprise of journalists' role as political leaders in the first three years of the Khatami administration, the majlis now seems to be stepping into the vacuum. Instead of reacting to policy initiatives from the executive, the legislature has been initiating policy both on economic and political issues. It has become interventionist even on social issues - such as trying to raise the marriage age for girls.

Khatami himself has for the past year tried both to reduce the expectations of his supporters, and to encourage them to become more involved in politics. He has repeatedly talked about the importance of not looking at him or any one person as a "hero" who can single-handedly bring about change. Only by participating in the process can people ensure successful reforms, he stresses.

In the event, thinking conservatives, probably including Khamenei himself, are thought not to want to lose Khatami. They appear to want Khatami to continue but only as a crippled president who would help to keep the lid on widespread public frustration and dissatisfaction, leaving the right wing to carry on with its profitable business and political pursuits, critics say.

The right wing is probably more interested in the establishment created over the past two decades maintaining control than in ideology per se. Of particular concern to it is the threat posed by greater transparency and a free press to those who have vested interests. Institutionalised corruption and privilege, rather than concern over Islamic ideological purity, are at the heart of opposition to reform.

If the right wing were to somehow take official charge of the executive, there is little doubt among local analysts that it would carry out limited but faster reforms in certain areas.

Any regression would mainly be limited to the political arena where controls on public debate and on the press would be increased. In order to maintain this political control, the right would make sacrifices on most other fronts. Even social restrictions on what women wear in public and other issues could be relaxed. During the recent months of conservative crackdowns, Tehran cinema houses are showing unusually socially risque films, including stories of young people suffering unjustly under oppressive religious guardians.

Despite their apparent obsession with the evils of the West, particularly of the US, conservative factions have endorsed Khatami's international opening and would probably undertake new initiatives. A key recipient of right-wing affection would be the US, whose friendship would be useful in scoring points with the younger generation in Tehran and could help ease economic difficulties. Indeed, foreign investors could find a right-wing administration more amenable to their interests.

In the economic sector, doors to privatisation efforts and Western investment would be likely to be opened wider. Foreign investors would be encouraged as part of efforts to prevent economic dissatisfaction from threatening political controls. However, privatisation and other such economic reforms would likely amount to little more than window dressing - with privatisation further entrenching the crony capitalism created over the past decade. China is the model for right-wing politicians such as Rafsanjani who talk about the need for reform and change.

Khatami's determination to drop out may be his greatest asset - forcing Khamenei and others to look at the unpleasant alternatives. There are certainly no credible alternatives on the right. Approaches have been made to former prime minister Hossain Moussavi, but he has ruled himself out.

Former foreign affairs minister Ali Akbar Velayati is being promoted as a possible candidate, but he could not bring any credibility to campaign or office. Some even talk about Rafsanjani returning for another bid, but his humiliation at the parliamentary polls in early 2000 will no doubt have taught him a lesson.

The best right-wing candidate would be unlikely to garner even one-fifth of the popular vote. The elimination of any credible reformist candidates would also keep turnout to a politically damaging low level of perhaps one-quarter of the electorate.

The reformists' alternatives to Khatami are also limited. Islamic Guidance & Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani has told friends he will run if Khatami steps down. However, despite his popularity with the public, he is mistrusted by leading reformers, who think of him as a demagogue and question his commitment to reform.

Mohajerani had threatened in the autumn to resign, submitting a 50-page letter to Khatami which the latter described as immoderate. Critics allege Mohajerani was mainly interested in positioning himself for 2001. In the event, right-wing plans to disqualify him with a threatened jail term for political offences have resulted in Mohajerani deciding to remain under the protection of his ministerial portfolio.

Other names mentioned as possible presidential candidates are those of the president's brother and deputy majlis speaker, Mohammad Reza Khatami; presidential adviser Saeed Hajjarian, who was crippled in an assassination attempt in early 2000; former heavy industries minister and now deputy majlis speaker Behzad Nabbavi; and Moussavi Khoeiniha, the one-time leader of the militant students who took over the US embassy building in November 1979.

The options open to the reformists may be more credible than those for the right. But there is no doubting that Khatami is an exceptional individual who would be impossible to replace. "His main problem is that as a politician he is not a street fighter," says an ally.

If he does drop out, his country will face a turbulent few years before the reform movement regains its momentum.

If Khatami's allies are successful in persuading him not to abandon the fight, the fate of the reform movement he has led will depend on the clarity of his message to the electorate and the turnout on polling day.

The best that right-wing strategists can hope for is a subdued Khatami receiving a qualified electoral mandate in 2001. Both sides face crucial decisions in the coming months.


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