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Four more years?
Raised expectations have turned into deep frustrations

By Mehdi Ardalan
October 11, 2000
The Iranian

As Mohammad Khatami approaches the end of his first term as president, his supporters are reflecting critically on the achievements of his administration. Khatami himself has showed signs of unease when he got his top adviser, Mohammad Abtahi, to convey the "President's concern about the difficulties facing the realization of his promised plans and objectives."

It isn't clear whether Khatami will succeed in enticing the public's sympathy for his predicaments. Many believe his steady retreat in the face of conservative pressure became complete with the resignation of his pro-reform Culture Minister, Ataollah Mohajerani.

The once-flourishing press freedoms, administered by Mohajerani, were the most visible manifestations of Khatami's promise of reform, earning Mohajerani the label "the president's left arm", the right arm having been the impeached Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri, now serving a five-year jail sentence for criticizing the excesses of the Islamic Republic.

Iran's state of press freedoms may now be attuned with the country's political realities. But raised expectations in the first year of Khatami's presidency have turned into deep frustrations with his current cautious pragmatism. Skeptics believe Khatami will face the same fate as former President Rafsanjani.

That may be unlikely, given Khatami's continued popularity among reformers and the general public. Privately, however, Khatami loyalists express concern that widespread disillusionment may translate into a low voter turn out in the presidential elections next spring.

Reformers justify the slow pace of political change by insisting on "active pacifism". Westerners tend to believe that this strategy is inspired by a spirit of turn-the-cheek pacifism. But in Iran it is seen differently. Some reformers are inclined toward pacifisim because of their sense of devotion to a state that they see as essentially legitimate if allowed to function as intended. But for most reformists, pacifism is a virtue made from necessity.

Conservatives opposed to political reform say active pacifism is a guise for reformers to sow seeds of unrest. However, this is not why critics are expressing serious misgivings about this strategy. They say active pacifism has not deterred entrenched opponents in the conservative establishment to at least slow down their crackdown against leading proponents of the reform movement.

"Beyond Khatami" is a newly articulated slogan emerging from the evolving vocabulary of those reformers who seek fresh leaders. Mohajerani is keeping his lips sealed at least until he leaves his post at the Ministry of Culture, but he seems to be a favorite with some disappointed partners in the pro-reform coalition, especially the centrist Executives of Construction Party (ECP).

With the highest-circulation newspaper, Hamshahri, at its relative disposal, the ECP can create headaches for Khatami loyalists in the Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP), which has the highest number of seats in parliament. To the IIPP, Mohajerani is after all an "ECP man".

Of course, a Khatami Vs. Mohajerani scenario may not surface at all if the conservative-dominated judiciary puts Mohajerani on trial and condemns him to serving prison along side several prominent journalists who got there by exercising the freedoms afforded by his Ministry of Culture.

Conservatives can gain confidence by a low turn out in the May 2001 presidential elections. They could argue that misleading actions by supporters of the president have turned the people away. For now, everyone is hiding their cards, including Khatami who has yet to officially announce his intention to run for another term.

How will all this jockeying for power affect the voting public? The coming months will be crucial. Khatami still has an opportunity to retain the trust of his constituents especially during the course of events in which Mohajerani's fate will be unraveled.

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