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Khatami's Sharp-Sighted Strategy

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

11 Jan 2011 20:30Comments

Who is the real target of his conditions for Reformist involvement in the next elections?

A0367821.jpg[ analysis ] On December 29, 2010, former President Mohammad Khatami met with the Reformist deputies of the Eighth Majles (parliament). Led by Khatami's nephew Mohammad Reza Tabesh, a deputy from Ardestan, they form a minority group of about 55 deputies. Another 35 legislators are independent. Out of a total of 290 Majles deputies, there are thus about 90 who are not associated with the conservative/hardline camp. The elections -- or, as it appears, the show of elections -- for the Ninth Majles will be held in early 2012, about a year from now.

Speaking to the Reformist deputies, Khatami said,

Our demands in the past as well as the present are clear, and have been emphasized even in the aftermath of the recent [2009 presidential] election. [Favorable] conditions for broad participation of people [in the elections] and guaranteeing their rights must be provided. In addition, the elections must be held in such a way that there will be minimum hindrance of free voting by the people and maximum conditions for materializing their demands and ideals.

He declared,

The minimum conditions for the Reformists' participation in the elections are the release of all the political prisoners, freedom for all political parties and groups and removal of all limitations [on their activity], commitment of all, particularly the officials, to the Constitution and the execution of all of its articles, especially its true spirit [meaning those articles that respect the rights of the people], and holding free and fair elections.

Concerning the fact that most of the Reformist candidates for the Eighth Majles were barred from running by the Guardian Council, he proposed a question to the regime:

If the qualifications of all of our 290 candidates had been approved, would the Reformist group not be in the majority? If they do not have any base of support amongst people, why do you prevent them from being tested by people's vote?

Almost all of the best-known Reformist candidates, some of whom had served in the government for 25 years, were barred by the council. Out of the 290, only 105 mostly lesser-known known candidates were allowed to run. The election of 55 nonetheless represented a success rate of better than 52 percent.

Khatami remained realistic in his speech to the Reformist deputies. With regard to participation in the next elections, he said,

If such conditions are in place, then we can decide what course of action should be taken. But, given the present circumstances, it appears that the conditions will be worse in the future and the restrictions even tighter.

The meeting and Khatami's speech provoked a storm of heated debate, both within Iran and among the diaspora. Kayhan, the mouthpiece of the security forces, fired the first shots when it called the Reformist deputies "criminals" and "treacherous," and demanded that the Guardian Council preemptively disqualify them from running for the Ninth Majles.

Ahmad Jannati, the Guardian Council's ultra-reactionary secretary-general, said, "Today some are trying to set conditions to return to the political scene. But, who is going to accept their conditions? Who is going to vote for them, anyway?" Without referring to Khatami by name, Jannati added, "Those who go to the U.S. and are greeted with a red carpet, but at the same time [that same country] does not grant visa to our scientists, do not have any standing among our people."

Gholam-Hossein Elham, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hardline adviser for legal affairs, said that, "In next year's elections for the Majles we will have new seditions. The tools that were used for putting down last year's sedition should not be set aside. There are those that seek the revival of the seditionists, but because their methods in the past have been ineffective, they will use new methods and new faces." The hardliners refer to the Green Movement as sedition, and while Elham did not specify them, the "tools" of which he spoke were violence, thousands of arrests, torture in jail, murder of at least 110 people, show trials, and long jail sentences.

Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, in less than a year since being appointed to his post, has demonstrated that he is just as bad as, if not worse than, his notorious predecessor, Saeed Mortazavi. Dolatabadi recently declared, "We see that some of the leaders of the sedition set conditions for the Islamic Republic. They cannot pretend that they have been asleep [since last year] and set conditions for us. We set the conditions, and the first condition is putting them on trial. They had better prepare themselves for their trial and answering to the questions about their crimes. The charges against them are far broader than they think."

In an interview with Fars, the news agency that is linked with the security forces, ultra-hardliner Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' political directorate, said, "Khatami's move is the new step in the plan for 'soft war.'" The so-called soft war is how the hardliners conceptualize a subterranean conflict guided by foreign powers, of which the Green democratic struggle is framed as an element. Javani continued, "Instead of setting conditions, Khatami must respond to the serious charges about what he and other leaders of sedition have done. They have inflicted irreversible damages to the credibility of the Islamic system."

Javani's deputy, Mahmoud Moallemi, who heads the analysis department in the Guard political directorate, also commented indirectly on the meeting between Khatami and the Reformist faction of the Majles. In a speech in Isfahan, he expressed the Guards' general dissatisfaction with the legislature: "Of all the [290] Majles deputies, the track record of only 30 to 40 is satisfactory." This is the same parliament recently dubbed by its speaker, Ali Larijani, as the "Khamenei Majles."

Brigadier General Ali Mohammad Naeini -- deputy to Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the Basij commander for cultural and social affairs -- accused Khatami of treason, beyond that supposedly committed by the other Green leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi: "In the great sedition of 1388 [2009], Khatami, Mousavi, and Karroubi were together. Khatami's role was in fact more important than that of the other leaders of sedition. The defeated general of 'soft overthrow' should wait for what the nezaam [political system] will decide. I do not know how they want to return [to the political scene] and set conditions [for their return]."

Sayyed Ahmad Alam-olhoda, Mashhad's Friday Prayer leader, said, "Those who are active in the sedition movement must know that they face charges by the people. They want to be among the same people who they oppressed, whose holy beliefs they insulted, and whose votes they declared fraudulent. These are not problems that one can easily set aside. Khatami must first understand whether people accept him, and then set conditions."

Hamid Reza Taraghi, a member of the central committee of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, declared, "The meeting between the minority of the Majles and the leaders of sedition is an action against national security."

Many Majles deputies allied with the hardliners also rejected Khatami's conditions, accusing him of being part of the "sedition" and aiding its other leaders.

The reaction to what Khatami said among the opposition outside Iran has been mixed. The London-based Iran analyst Dr. Hossein Bagher-Zadeh wrote, "Khatami did not specify the criteria by which the actual implementation of his three conditions can be tested. The three conditions are so vague that the regime (any faction or group that has been in power) has always claimed that the conditions have actually been materialized. Moreover, it is not clear in response to the invitation of which official Khatami has set these conditions for the participation of himself and his supporters in the elections, and whom he has asked to guarantee that the conditions are met. Has Khatami not understood that the regime's message is that there is no place for 'reforms' in the Islamic Republic of Khamenei?" Bagher-Zadeh concluded that those who believe in the possibility of reform in the Islamic Republic suffer from a "sick and naive optimism."

Dr. Esmail Nouri-Ala declared that what Khatami said signals the beginning of the end for religious Reformists in Iran, because the conditions that he has set will not be met and the Reformists will therefore be forced to join those who are calling on the people to boycott the next elections. Nouri-Ala seemingly considers himself the flag bearer of the so-called secular Greens and the "new secularism" or "neo-secularism. I must confess that the only difference between his new secularism and what I understand as the "old" or "traditional" secularism is that he indulges in criticism of all the Islamic groups and important figures that are part of the Green democratic struggle. In Nouri-Ala's opinion, there is increasingly no difference between the Reformists' consideration of "not participating in the elections" and the secular Green call for an outright boycott.

Another blogger asked Mousavi to separate his path from Khatami's. He said that Khatami is insisting on his old ways, which can no longer be justified.

Others supported Khatami. For example, well-known journalist Masoud Behnoud called Khatami the "good voice of moderation." He said that Khatami's real goal was to map out a route for the hardliners to redeem themselves for their past actions and regain the respect of the people.

Another well-known journalist, Babak Dad, wrote in his blog,

It took us less than a week to understand that this time Khatami has hit the right target, which is why the officials are angered. It has lifted new curtains on the fears of the rulers. Although by setting three conditions for the elections, Khatami made himself a target of criticisms of the protestors and the opposition, I believe he was pursuing higher goals and achieved them. The goals were achieved by the naked confession of Ahmad Jannati, secretary-general of the Guardian Council, which are that the Islamic Republic can no longer hide the fact that it is an unelected system with a single party, and all its pretense to elections is only a discredited show.... With deep and precise knowledge of the regime, Khatami set three impossible conditions, because he knew that after the regime's response to his conditions, its discredited nature will be revealed even more. By attacking Khatami, the leaders of the Islamic Republic have in fact confessed several important facts.

One, that there are dozens of political prisoners whose offense is participating in the [last] election. This implies that they have effectively accepted that they staged an electoral coup, by changing the votes via the Sepah [Revolutionary Guards] and the Guardian Council, and jailing those who were active in the election campaign...

Second, the Islamic Republic confesses that it is not loyal to the Constitution and does not respect the rights of its citizens. This was Khatami's shrewdest condition...

Third, the Islamic Republic confesses that without fraud, imprisonment, and violence it cannot control the people's vote...

Fourth, the Islamic Republic confesses that, despite its intense propaganda, it is well aware of [the true level of] its social support, and that the protest movement of Iran is not limited to a small group of people, but is rather like a huge flood...

See here for another perceptive analysis of what Khatami said and the reasons for it.

It appears to me that those in the opposition who criticized Khatami did not read his entire speech. As pointed out earlier, he was realistic, saying that he expects the political environment only to deteriorate further and that the Reformists and the rest of the opposition will be put under even greater pressure. It is clear, in short, that he does not expect his conditions to be met.

Those who criticized Khatami also did not consider the reaction of the hardliners and its implications. None of the hardliners said, "The elections are free." None declared, "Political groups and parties are free to form and operate." And none claimed, "The Constitution is being completely implemented." They only attacked Khatami and those with whom he met. Why?

Because not only would none of these hypothetical statements have been true -- even the hardliners know it -- but the regime also recognizes that the Green Movement is popular. The hardliners are aware that the Green Movement has not only not gone away, it has grown in strength. They know only too well that the Green Movement is a fire under a layer of ash that will rise and rage again if it is provided with the slightest opportunity. They are terrified by any prospect, no matter how dim, of the Green Movement shedding its ashen blanket and returning to the streets, even peacefully.

If the regime and hardliners are really sure that the people have rejected the Green Movement and its leaders, would it not be wise for them to actually allow the leaders of the movement to be in contact with people and improve conditions to the extent that they can be persuaded to run in elections -- that is, instituting procedures to guarantee that the elections will be truly free and democratic -- so that people can reject them freely and democratically?

It seems to me that Khatami's speech was not really aimed at the regime and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (After he stepped down from the presidency, Khatami still met with the ayatollah every few weeks until the aftermath of the 2009 election. Khamenei just recently denounced the Green leaders as "sinful" and "rejected by the people.") In my opinion, Khatami's speech was really targeting those honest supporters of the regime who are still under the illusion that this political system has any legitimacy and still believe that elections are held with any true respect for people's votes. As I have previously described, a major goal of the Green Movement must be to attract supporters of the hardliners in the conservative camp to further shrink their social base. The more fissures in the regime and the deeper the rift between its various factions, the better for the Green Movement.

At the same time, is it not true that the conditions set by Khatami are agreed on by virtually the entire opposition, namely, the unconditional release of all political prisoners, freedom for all political groups, and a truly democratic vote? These are part of the same minimum conditions that Mousavi set in his historic Statement 17, which attracted the support of a large majority of the opposition, both within Iran and abroad.

Belying the claims made by critics such as Bagher-Zadeh, it is a straightforward matter to determine whether the conditions that Khatami set have been met. Whether political prisoners have been released and political parties permitted to act freely are facts easily verified. As for the third condition, the necessary criteria for holding truly democratic elections is also unambiguous: the abolition of the Guardian Council's vetting power and the establishment of an independent national commission to supervise the elections.

As Kalemeh, Mousavi's website, said of the regime,

They are afraid of [free] elections. They are right to be terrified by [free] elections and even become scared as soon as they hear the words "[free] elections." The fundamentalists want to have nothing to do with [free] elections. Election campaigns are "soft war" to them.... What the hardliners should be terrified by is neither Khatami, nor the Reformists, nor elections.... What they should be terrified by are informed people..."

These are the people who truly understand the nature of the regime and its hardline supporters.

Archive photo.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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