Mandate for Reform in Iran
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GWEN IFILL: Twenty-two years after Islamic militants took over Iran and imposed theocratic rule, the people have re-elected a reformist president. Mohammad Khatami’s victory was no surprise, but the margin was. The moderate cleric won 77 percent of the vote on Friday, surpassing the 70 percent total he captured four years ago. Turnout was 67 percent, down from 90 percent in 1997. And there were still separate lines for men and women voters.
But the Khatami presidency has brought much change for women, easing rules on dress, makeup and appearing in public with men. Young people have also rallied for Khatami. 15-year-olds can vote, and two-thirds of the country’s citizens are under 25. These voters have no memory of 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution that displaced the U.S.-supported Shah, and the year militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. Washington severed ties with Iran after that, and imposed economic sanctions, most of which remain today.
The revolution also consolidated power in the hands of unelected Muslim clerics, led today by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His title is Supreme Leader and he’s considered God’s representative on earth. Khamenei and the clerics, who make up the Council of Guardians, control the police and the military. They can overrule both the president and the parliament and have jailed prominent activists and shut down 40 newspapers.
Nevertheless, President Khatami ran on his reform agenda in this year’s campaign, a campaign limited by law to 20 days. Khatami envisioned what he called a religious democracy, where Islam and individual rights can coexist. He also called for Iranians to have greater rights to criticize leaders, for judges to be more accountable to the people and for more foreign investment. Khatami’s ideas enjoy sufficient support among the masses, that his nine challengers, all conservatives, also agreed on the need for some of those reforms. At a final campaign rally, nearly a thousand actors and artists showed up in support of Khatami.
WOMAN: I want to vote for him.
REPORTER: Why do you like him?
WOMAN: For his thinking, for he is doing for my society. Freedom.
GWEN IFILL: But Khatami’s Iran faces obstacles abroad. The State Department still considers Iran an active state sponsor of terrorism, largely because of its support of the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. And U.S. officials have said Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. President Khatami will form a new government in about two months.
GWEN IFILL: For more on the elections we hear from three Iran watchers: Shaul Bakhash was a journalist in Iran and is now a history professor at George Mason University. Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis. He is currently a senior research scholar at Columbia University. And Geneive Abdo was a reporter for The Guardian newspaper of London, living in Iran from 1998 until February of this year.
Professor Bakhash, what did this election tell us about democracy in Iran.
SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, it certainly tells us that there is still considerable support and desire for reform and for an opening up of the political process. Even though fewer people participated in this election than in 1997, the degree of participation is still high by international and regional standards. And it also tells us that the president remains popular despite a degree of disappointment in his inability to prevent the crackdown that has taken place over the last, say, 14, 15 months on the press and on other political activists.
GWEN IFILL: Gary Sick, do you see the same change?
GARY SICK: Well, I think you really have to ask seriously why a country, which has been quite disappointed in the way Khatami’s presidency has worked in the sense of his people being thrown in jail, the press being closed down, lots of defeats along the way to the point where Khatami himself really was reluctant to run again — you have to ask why would the people of Iran bother to go to the polls in such large numbers — he won more votes this time around for his second term than he did in the first one with a higher percentage of votes.
I think the answer really goes to the sort of history of Iranian popular support for democratic reforms. People forget that this goes back to the constitutional revolution of 1906. It goes through the [Mosadec] period and it goes through the Iranian revolution. There is a history of opposition and at this point I think the opposition is taking the position of voting rather than taking to the barricades. And I think that probably is very healthy. The question is will they, how long will they be patient with this approach?
GWEN IFILL: Geneive Abdo, how successful, what kind of president was Khatami these last four years, was what he promised to be?
GENEIVE ABDO: He was very surprised himself by the lack of power that he had within the presidency. When he was first elected, many people assumed that reform would come to Iran within the four years of his first term — reform in a Western sense meaning profound reform, institutional reform within the system — but Khatami himself was very surprised at his lack of power. For this reason I think that this election should be looked at in its total perspective, which is that it is a small element in the whole political process in Iran.
In the West we tend to view elections as landmarks and as great turning points in a country’s contemporary history. But in Iran, in fact, the electoral process is only a very small component in the actual policy making that goes on there, because of course the president’s powers are very few compared to these of the supreme leader, who as you mentioned in your report, can even veto legislation passed by parliament.
GWEN IFILL: If the president’s powers, Shaul Bakhash, are so limited and if he, in fact, didn’t do all the things that were promised in these last four years, why such a dig turnout, why such enthusiasm?
SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, first of all the president wasn’t powerless in the first three years of his presidency. And there was a remarkable expansion of press freedom, the revival of political activity; the freeing up of social controls on women and the young. I think the president had a very good three years and one should not forget that. And perhaps it’s partly the memory of that that brought people to the polls again. In addition, I think the vote and the presence at the polls was a no to the conservatives. So one of the reasons people went to the polls is to show their discontent with both the repression and the activities of the conservative faction.
GWEN IFILL: What about the conservative faction, Gary Sick. There are nine conservatives none of them with great political support. Are they weakened by this? Are they strengthened by this? Does this send a message, that old political term?
GARY SICK: They are weakened by it but they’re not ended by it. I think the one great triumph of Khatami’s first four years is that he has totally transformed the political vocabulary of Iran. Even the conservatives who ran against him adopted the cover of being reformist, of being interested in liberty, of pushing this idea. They couldn’t ignore that, it was so powerful. And that — it seems to me — is in fact the great accomplishment of Khatami’s first term — not that liberty has been established, not that freedom is really there, but that now it is viewed as the object of political developments.
It is viewed as the necessity for even the conservatives who are running to adopt this, and the second great area is one of foreign policy where Khatami came in, most people thought, with a domestic agenda. He has made tremendous inroads into creating a new image for Iran that is absolutely vital to Iran’s interest. And there he has the support of the conservatives. So I think it’s a really mixed bag, and that in fact his accomplishments shouldn’t be overlooked simply because in fact he doesn’t control a lot of the power levers.
GWEN IFILL: Geneive Abdo, one of the things the president seemed to recognize upon reelection is that there is only so much he can do in so much time. He said principles should be coupled with patience, moderation and prudence. Can you imagine what kind of patience you can expect from all the youthful voters who flocked to the polls — is that a problem?
GENEIVE ABDO: It’s an enormous problem. And, in fact, because he has received a mandate for a second time, the expectation among the young people and among young voters is even higher today than it was four years ago. And this to some extent makes the situation far more volatile today than it was before because there are high expectations and there is also now a very active radical faction both within the reform movement itself and on college campuses, and these students have declared publicly that their patience has run out.
And if you analyze some of the quotes given and the comments made by young voters, they said their support for Khatami was conditional. It was conditional on profound change occurring this time and some even went as far as to say if we don’t see any change, we’re going to take action into our own hand and go to the streets.
GWEN IFILL: What about expectations not only within Iran, Shaul Bakhash, but also outside, expectations from the Western world, the rest of the world?
SHAUL BAKHASH: I think there was also expectation abroad once one saw the performance of the reformist movement in the first three years that this process would go on and would achieve some very solid institutional changes as Geneive Abdo just said. Well it hasn’t happened and the right wing crackdown was very, very severe. At the same time as Gary Sick said, there has been some striking improvement in Iran’s relations with the international community — except in Iran-U.S. Relations, which really haven’t gone very far at all.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about that improvement in relations, Gary Sick, how improved are Iran’s relations with the international community and with the United States in particular?
GARY SICK: With the international community pretty much in general Iran’s position has improved greatly — great direct contacts with European countries, restored relations with England, the Far East, pretty much across the board. They’ve become a really major player at the United Nations, which Iran started out ignoring at the beginning of the revolutionary period. With the United States, we have had two huge disappointments and missed opportunities in my view.
The first was in 1993 at the beginning of the Clinton administration when we basically felt that we didn’t need any assistance from Iran in the region. And at a time when Iran was really interested in having a relationship with the United States we rejected it with a policy we called the dual containment policy, which was then backed up later by a whole set of sanctions which remain in place and which are a huge hindrance. Then in 1998 when we began to realize that maybe something was happening in Iran, and we said okay let’s begin to change our policy, and we softened our rhetoric toward Iran.
Just at that point Iran got involved in this repressive crackdown and was so tied up in their own internal affairs that they were in no position to respond. There have been missed opportunity by the United States followed by missed opportunities by Iran. It’s difficult at this point to predict when those two sides might in fact find each other again.
GWEN IFILL: Has this aggressive crackdown that Gary Sick refers to in the last year or so of Khatami’s first term, has that rendered Iran undeserving of new U.S. Relations, of a healing of that breech?
GENEIVE ABDO: Not necessarily because I think that probably what is lost in the U.S.-Iran discussion is a very important fact that the United States probably should not take a position of supporting either the reformers or the conservatives. If you eliminate from the discussion partiality on the United States’ part, then it allows U.S. policy to be formed no matter who is in power. So the conservative crackdown is part of the natural process of development — political development that is happening in Iran.
And if the United States can divorce who is in power from the decision on sanctions, it would probably be more helpful and in fact the conservatives have always supported improved relations with the United States because many of the conservatives can gain economically from the lifting of sanctions. So they’ve always been in favor even though their rhetoric of course indicates the contrary.
GWEN IFILL: So the formula then would be supporting the democracy but not necessarily the democratic leaders or his opposition?
SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, but I think there are some serious obstacles to relations between the two countries. There is the fact that American economic sanctions against Iran — and I think the Iranians have more or less made it a condition that the sanctions be lifted first before they will enter into talks. And sanctions are not going to be lifted; they are going to be renewed.
Secondly, there is the Iranian support for the hard line, anti-peace process element in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and that is a major obstacle. And it’s true I think that at one level the conservatives also want better relations with the U.S., but the leader has again and again said relations with the U.S. are not in Iran’s interest. And I think until he changes his position and posture nothing at all is going to happen.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Guests, thank you all very much.