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There's something about Mary
Still not admitting that the U.S. embassy takeover was a mistake

By Babak Yektafar
January 17, 2001
The Iranian

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 of advisors.

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 been credited.

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 him.

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 out.


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.

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