Khatami's swan song
He ignored the beckoning of Fortuna and chose the path
of safety, mediocrity and appeasement
August 3, 2003
It is not the first time that the Iranian philosopher
and reformer Abdolkarim Soroush takes President Khatami to task
in an open letter (Persian
text). The ornate, rhyming prose of
Soroush's scathing epistle is awash in tropes, poems and pathos.
bearing Khatami's name has appeared. It is unlikely that
President Khatami wrote this letter but it can be viewed as a trenchant
defense of Khatami's record against Soroush's critique.
The letter rightly emphasizes that at the time of his first election
Khatami ran on more than empty words. He was well respected for
resigning his post in the Cabinet of the former President Ali Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani over his defense of artistic freedom.
subsequently ran as underdog against a generic right wing candidate
he ran on his record, but also talked a good game about the rule
of law, reforms, constitutional liberties and democracy.
the same after he was elected, and now as his second term approaches
a disappointing end he is still talking a good game. Iranians
consider him (according to public opinion polls) a decent man
what he says.
Their problem is that all he does is talk.
The 69 percent of the eligible voters who elected Khatami to
his first term knew the flawed constitution of the Islamic Republic
had stacked the deck against him. Everyone also knew that in confronting
what the letter calls "the gargantuan shadow government" Khatami
was in the unenviable position of having to be truly outstanding.
Khatami was anything but outstanding at the end of his first term.
He had failed to counter the conservatives' assaults on the
reform and reformers. The letter written on behalf of Khatami
rhetorically asks Soroush: "What would you have done in my
a confrontation serve the long term interests of the reform movement
or those of the authoritarian establishment?
Fearing chaos and
Khatami had watched as the right wing's legal and extra-legal
apparatus picked off his close associates, student activists,
journalists and parliamentarians one by one. Nobody expected him
to call his
constituencies to the streets. But based on his popular mandate
he could have engaged in symbolic action.
When his right-wing
rivals shut down the reformist press and brutalized the protesting
could he have not gone on a political fast? When the hanging
judges of the right wing judiciary imprisoned his lieutenants
reformists on trumped up charges, could he have not gone to
visit those prisoners of conscience? Was there no alternative to
passivity or enticement violence?
And yet, as long as Khatami's sins remained those of omission,
Iranians gave him the benefit of the doubt. His inaction was generously
construed as wanting to pick his fights. He had shown courage in
confronting the state-sponsored serial murderers of dissidents.
Khatami was elected by landslide to a second term but without
making a single campaign promise. Given his weak performance a
democratic system would not have allowed this.
But the right
wing Council of Guardians which vets candidates for all elections,
or otherwise eliminated Khatami's reformist challengers and
handed him the reformist mantle on a silver platter. Thus Khatami
was able to play the reluctant candidate and still win the
highest elected office of the land.
In the wake of his easy victory Khatami made real sins commission.
After his second election Khatami simply could not ask any of his
detractors: "What you would have done in my place?"
dismissed the plight of the unjustly imprisoned journalists asking: "How
do we know they have not violated the law?" He chose a more
right wing Cabinet than he had in his first term, despite the fact
that he had a sympathetic Parliament on his side and was no longer
beholden to right-wing power brokers such as Rafsanjani.
At the apogee of his power Khatami lost his nerve. He ignored
the beckoning of Fortuna and chose the path of safety, mediocrity
appeasement. He abandoned his historical mission (not as president
but as the leader of the political reform movement) to legitimately
transform Iran's decrepit political system. Instead, he let
the clock run, hoping for a draw.
The letter that has been written
in Khatami's defense points out to his opening up the political
space in Iran. Of course, Khatami must be given credit where
he has succeeded. But he hasn't yet realized the opportunity
cost of doing so little.
Khatami pretends not to know that his
pedantically legalistic view of his responsibilities and his
lack of political imagination led to his squandering Iran's foremost
opportunity to peacefully break free from religious tyranny.
should Khatami do now? The twin reform bills he introduced to the
Parliament are trapped in Iran's Byzantine legislative
process and will be still born if they ever emerge into public
In his two remaining years in power Khatami must campaign
for ending the Council of Guardians' vetting powers. He ought
to call for a referendum on this issue and publicly announce
that he would resign if the right wing's fetters are not removed
from the electoral process.
If he wins this battle the coming
will be free from interference. This will open the door to
the next generation of reformers whose discontent is crystallized
in Soroush's letter. If Khatami fails, his resignation will
underline the fundamental unfairness of Iran's election process,
which is virtually rigged by the Council of Guardians.
Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology
at Lake Forest
College, IL, USA. See
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