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Khatami's swan song
He ignored the beckoning of Fortuna and chose the path of safety, mediocrity and appeasement

August 3, 2003
The Iranian

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. A response 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.

When Khatami 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.

He did 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 who means 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 place?" Would a confrontation serve the long term interests of the reform movement or those of the authoritarian establishment?

Fearing chaos and violence 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 students could he have not gone on a political fast? When the hanging judges of the right wing judiciary imprisoned his lieutenants and other reformists on trumped up charges, could he have not gone to visit those prisoners of conscience? Was there no alternative to supine 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 genuinely democratic system would not have allowed this.

But the right wing Council of Guardians which vets candidates for all elections, wittingly 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?"

He 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 and 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.

What 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 life.

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 election 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 Features . See Homepage

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By Ahmad Sadri



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