TEHERAN: There was never any question that Mohammad Khatami would win easily – and win big – in his bid for a second term as Iran’s president. The issue at the heart of Iranian politics today is instead whether he can translate that mandate into bold actions.
The stakes are not just his own political legacy. The fate of Iran’s revolution, the pace of Islamic reform and the direction of the world’s broader Islamist movement will also be shaped by President Khatami’s performance over the next four years. Since President Khatami won almost 80% of the vote in a field of 10 candidates, no one can question what Iranians want. For the fourth time in four years, Iranians have overwhelmingly voted for democratic reforms and reformers – twice for president, once for parliament and once for local city councils.
Yet voters have little to see for their consistency. Indeed, President Khatami’s first term witnessed as many setbacks to reform as successes. The vast majority of newspapers opened since the Khatami government allowed licenses for independent papers have been closed. Dozens of journalists and editors, including the top columnists and investigative reporters, were imprisoned by hardline clerics trying to block the pace of change.
Many of the president’s most loyal lieutenants, including Vice President Abdullah Nouri, Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani and Tehran’s Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, were forced to resign or face charges. Nouri was convicted and imprisoned after the most sensational trial since the clerics toppled the shah. The leading architect of reform, Saeed Hajarian, barely survived the paralyzing injuries of an assassination attack.
Students, the largest voting bloc and most outspoken advocates of change, have been jailed, beaten, silenced or harassed since launching the largest protests since the 1979 revolution. President Khatami admitted his failures as a central part of the 20-day election campaign. “There have been certain weaknesses and shortcomings in the government,” he said at his lone press conference a week before the poll. He described his first term as “a tunnel of crises” and denounced the “cowards” opposing his reforms.
Many of President Khatami’s goals for his second term are the same as four years ago: broader individual and press freedoms, more accountability in the judicial system, and an opening to foreign investment so as to invigorate Iran’s troubled economy – and provide jobs for 700,000 youths who join the labor market every year.
With candor, President Khatami acknowledges that removing the “remnants of dictatorship” will be difficult. But the public’s commitment to open up Iran is “irreversible.” Two factors will work against Khatami when he is inaugurated for his final term, limited by the constitution, later this summer.
The first is Iran’s dual power structure. Every traditional state institution in Iran is mirrored by a second religious institution that usually has the final word. The president is mirrored by the supreme leader, who is deemed infallible, holds ultimate power over all government branches and a lifetime appointment. Parliament is mirrored by the Council of Guardians, a panel of 12 experts on Islam who can reject candidates running for any office and veto laws. Civil and criminal courts are mirrored by religious courts, which are empowered to arrest anyone for “un-Islamic activities” and hold secret trials.
Iran’s bitter power struggle plays out between these two sets of institutions. All of Iran’s religious institutions are dominated by hardliners who believe the emphasis in the Islamic republic should be on Islam. Their goal is to prevent Iran from becoming a republic – and a state in which clerics could be sidelined from power. To block change, their surrogates are willing to use almost any means, including murder. Despite his unquestionable public support, however, President Khatami has only limited means of countering or marginalizing the religious institutions.
The second factor is time. President Khatami favors gradual evolutionary change. “My advice to all Iranians is patience, moderation and tolerance of difficulties in reaching high goals. The only way to achieve our objective is moderation, moderation, moderation,” he said before the polls opened. But four years is a short time and Iran needs big change to address an increasingly dissatisfied public frustrated by everything from restrictions on women’s dress to a lower per capita income than before the revolution. President Khatami concedes that, without reform, Iran could face “an explosion.”
Depending on how much change President Khatami achieves, a third factor could undermine the reform movement at the next presidential election in four years. For no matter what the public prefers, the choice of candidates next time around may not include serious reformers.
President Khatami was a dark horse winner in 1997. Conservatives had wrongly assumed that former speaker of parliament Ali Nateq Nouri would win. In 2005, the powerful Council of Guardians could disqualify reform candidates, as they have done in elections for other offices. Or the judiciary could haul professed reformers before Islamic courts on charges of “un-Islamic activity,” as it did to prevent reformers running for parliament last year.
So President Khatami has not only specific reforms to enact. He also faces the more difficult task of ensuring a viable future for the reform movement. If he fails, President Khatami may only be remembered by history as a transition figure between violent revolutions.
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The Year Ahead 2018
The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.