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Mohammad Khatami and His Critics

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

19 Jul 2011 15:13Comments
EtemadMelli870725fn4.jpgIf the criticism is sincere, what exactly is the alternative?

[ opinion ] The ever-deepening rift between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the expanding confrontation between their respective camps, which has recently preoccupied most Iran analysts, yielded a by-product overlooked by many: the hardliners began to lower the pressure on prominent supporters of the Green Movement a bit. Their reasons for doing so were twofold. First, they hoped that the reformists and supporters of the Green Movement would implicitly or explicitly take Khamenei's side in his contest with Ahmadinejad, due to the deep animosity between the latter and the opposition. Second, they hoped that at least some reformists -- the more moderate and conservative elements -- would distance themselves from the Green Movement and, taking advantage of the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei rift, become active again in the political arena. In the hardliners' analysis, if that happened, a faction of the reformists would thereby split with those who have publicly called for fundamental changes in the Constitution and separate themselves from the Green Movement's leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The hardliners thus began sending unmistakable signals that they would be willing to give such reformists a limited role in the political arena. The intended consequence is that they would have grounds to claim that, despite what has happened in the country ever since the presidential election of June 2009, the Islamic Republic remains a multipolar society, where those holding a diversity of views are permitted to compete for influence.

Others, such as pragmatic conservatives and a faction of relatively moderate clerics, are also interested in having at least some reformists and Greens take part in the elections, and look to former President Mohammad Khatami to lead the way. In particular, the pragmatic conservatives are wary of Ahmadinejad and his supporters on the one hand, and extremist forces within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia on the other.

The supporters of the Green Movement were also monitoring developments. Their initial reaction to the rapidly deepening rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamanei was not, however, what the hardliners had hoped for. Some of the leading reformists declared publicly that they would not align themselves with either side and would continue to pursue their own goals. For example, Dr. Ali Shakouri Rad, a member of the central committee of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF) -- the country's largest reformist group, which has been outlawed by the hardliners, said that the reformists will support neither Ahmadinejad nor the principlists, the name by which the hardliners and conservatives are known in Iran. He also said that if there were going to be a tactical alliance between Ahmadinejad and the opposition, it would be with some elements in the diaspora, not with the reformists in Iran who consider themselves part of the Green Movement.

At the same time, the house arrests of Mousavi, Karroubi, and their wives, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard and Fatemeh Karroubi, have created a leadership vacuum that cannot be filled so easily. Before his arrest, Mousavi was the most radical of the Green Movement's leaders. Though he still professed his commitment to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, he systematically opened up an entirely new chapter in the public discussions about human rights, democracy, rule of law, and what he repeatedly referred to as the betrayed ideals of the 1979 Revolution. Elements of the opposition in the diaspora have harshly criticized him for referring to the "golden era of the Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini]," which has stuck in the minds of those aligned against him. But what he meant -- which is often ignored -- was the promises that Khomeini made to the nation in the fall of 1978 when he was leading the Revolution from his exile in a Parisian suburb. Before his arrest, Karroubi too was equally courageous, although not as systematic as Mousavi.

The house arrests of Mousavi and Karroubi have left Khatami as the only significant leader of the Green Movement who is not in detention. Khatami played a very important role in the movement's creation: He stepped down as a presidential candidate in early 2009 and threw his full support behind Mousavi. The latter had been out of politics for two decades, and the younger generation knew little of him and his tenure as prime minister in the 1980s. When Khatami's angry supporters met with him after his withdrawal, the former president told them, "I am the man of Friday, but Mir Hossein is the man of Saturday," meaning that although he could win on election day (in Iran, all elections are held on Fridays), it is Mousavi who could withstand the pressure from the hardliners on the day after the elections, a statement that has been proven prophetically true. It was Khatami who traveled around Iran, campaigning for Mousavi, turning out huge crowds everywhere that he went. It was he who, in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 election, first spoke of a coup by the hardliners. And it was he who called for a referendum to address the deep crisis the country was in -- and in which it remains.

So it came as a big surprise and even shock to some when Khatami made a statement that was conciliatory toward Khamenei. This May 17, in a meeting with a group of Iran-Iraq War veterans, he said,

If an act of tyranny has been perpetrated -- and it has been -- we should all forgive and look towards the future, and if an act of tyranny has been committed against the regime and the leadership, for the sake of posterity it must [also] be forgiven. The people will also forgive the tyranny that has been visited upon them and upon its children, and we will then all face a better future. We should, of course, all work very hard, collaborate, and prepare the way for a future in which we will create a healthy, safe, and free future in which we will secure people's rights.

I have always liked and respected Khatami. I disagree with many of his views, but there is no question in my mind that he is a good, uncorrupted, cultured man and a true patriot who has utterly good intentions for his homeland. In my view, among all the leaders in Iran's modern history, only Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, Mehdi Bazargan, Mousavi, and Khatami never used their power to benefit themselves or members of their families. No one has ever accused any of the four as corrupt or ravenous for power. So it was a shock to me when Khatami made that statement. As a friend of over three decades -- a reformist who worked in the administrations of Mousavi, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Khatami -- told me in an email shortly afterward, "It was the wrong thing to say."

Khatami's statement began a storm of accusations and counteraccusations. Practically all the important reformists and Islamic leftists supported him. They included such figures as the Islamic leftist intellectual Alireza Alavi Tabar, Abbas Abdi -- who, during Khatami's second term, urged the president and his fellow reformists to leave the power hierarchy -- and Rajabali Mazrouei, member of the IIPF and spokesman for the Organization of Islamic Revolution Mojahedin, another leading reformist group banned by the hardliners. In turn, many well-known figures in exile harshly criticized Khatami, accusing him of betraying the people with the goal of rejoining the power structure -- an accusation in which I personally do not believe, even though, again, I too was shocked by his statement. Professor Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University went so far as to call him "spineless" and "accommodating to power."

Khatami himself quickly recognized the blunder. He retracted his words and corrected -- more precisely, clarified -- what he had said. In a speech on June 11, he said, "Making peace does not mean to disregard demands. How could one sell short people's rights?" As the reformist friend told me in his email, "Khatami has corrected his mistake."

The elections for the Ninth Majles will be held next March 2. There is considerable behind-the-scene maneuvering among the conservatives and hardliners for the elections. They suspect that Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff and close confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei -- leader of what the hardliners call the "perverted group" -- may try to pack the next parliament with their supporters, which will allow them to pursue their agenda without risking the president's impeachment.

But what is the Green Movement to do? Once again, Khatami took the lead role and gave a speech making clear his view that people should not participate in the Majles vote, unless several conditions are fulfilled: the release of all the political prisoners, a free press, freedom for all the political groups to operate and advocate their views, and elections that are truly free and fair.

Once again, Khatami was supported by almost all the reformists and Green Movement supporters inside Iran, but was attacked from abroad. The hardliners too attacked him for having the "audacity" to set conditions. The Revolutionary Guards' top commander, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said in an interview that Khatami must repent and condemn the Green Movement if he wants to have a role in the next electoral campaign. Khatami's younger brother, Dr. Mohammad Reza Khatami, delivered a scathing reply to Jafari, to which the hardliners responded with an avalanche of attacks. Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, the head of the Guards' political directorate, accused Khatami of wanting to overthrow the regime, while Brigadier General Masoud Jazaeri, deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, accused Khatami of befriending the "Zionists" because he shook the hand of Moshe Katsov, Israel's former president.

Khatami's leading critic outside Iran has been Mojtaba Vahedi, former editor of the newspaper Aftab-e Yazd, who resigned over a year ago, and just a month later arrived in Washington with the help of a Washington-based Iran analyst whom I do not wish to name at this point. Vahedi accused Khatami of betraying the cause of democracy in Iran and declared, "I am proud that I am no longer a reformist." Vahedi's criticism of Khatami angered many of his supporters, to the point that he was even threatened. Such threats are totally uncalled for, undemocratic, and counterproductive. They must, of course, be condemned. Vahedi is entitled to his opinion, whatever it may be.

Vahedi's proclamation is interesting. But before commenting on it, I should point out that so long as Vahedi was the editor of Aftab-e Yazd, he never uttered any strong criticism of what was going on in Iran. His newspaper, a low-circulation daily, was considered too conservative and ineffectual to be considered seriously. Even I, who reads all the significant newspapers and websites in Iran, stopped reading it years ago. Vahedi's now seemingly radical position thus represents a transformation -- a transformation whose impetus is, for now, obscure.

When asked about his major shift, Vahedi rejected the notion, claiming that even while in Iran he was critical of the political system, but had to consider its constraints. That does not really explain much, because at the same time that he was the editor of Aftab-e Yazd and "was considering the constraints of the system," courageous journalists, from Akbar Ganji, Emad Baghi, Isa Saharkhiz, and Dr. Ahmad Zeidabadi to Abbas Abdi, Dr. Latif Safari, Masoud Behnoud, Dr. Mohsen Kadivar, and others, expressed their views with utter clarity and paid for it by going to jail. In fact, even as Iran has become a hell for journalists, Iranians can be proud of their nation's long and distinguished history of outspoken journalists who did not sacrifice honesty and writing about the truth for the sake of comfort.

In my opinion, while still in Iran, Vahedi was what my late father used to call afiyat talab, meaning someone who is interested only in comfort and will do nothing to threaten it. I do not wish to speculate on the cause of Vahedi's transformation, but recent history and the track records of those political activists who have arrived in Washington and turned into radicals is a good starting point for those who want to dig further. I have previously written about this phenomenon. There is a tendency among such figures to try to say what the opposition in the diaspora likes to hear, whether or not what is said is well thought out or well advised. Some are also grateful to their host for giving them the opportunity to live in the United States and feel compelled to take positions that they believe is to their host's liking.

There is another aspect of Vahedi's criticism that must be looked at more closely, regardless of whether the criticism has any merit. The only reason that Vahedi has been taken seriously is that he was, or still is, an adviser to Karroubi. Otherwise, he has no track record of distinguished political activity before his arrival in Washington. In fact, aside from people who have followed Iran's developments closely for years, few people had even heard of Vahedi. In my opinion, he cannot declare himself a spokesman for Karroubi and espouse positions that no one heard Karroubi proclaim before he was put under house arrest. If what Vahedi says are Karroubi's new positions, then he must explain how they were conveyed to him, given the ultra-tight security and limits on Karroubi's activities and even visits with his family. According to various reports from Tehran, when the members of Mousavi's and Karroubi's families visit them, they are strictly prohibited from talking about politics. Every word is closely monitored by the security agents who are present throughout each visit.

Vahedi thus cannot be a spokesman for Karroubi, but declare that he is not a reformist and espouse positions that cannot be credibly attributed to Karroubi so long as he is under house arrest. Vahedi is, of course, entitled to his opinion and should express it in anyway he deems fit, and in fact, he has. But given the context in which he claims to speak for Karroubi, saying at given points that "this is my personal view" is both confusing and untenable. In my opinion, Vahedi would be well-advised to consider the episode with P. J. Crowley, former State Department spokesman. Crowley was forced to resign on March 13, just three days after he publicly criticized the detention conditions of Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private accused of leaking reams of classified information to WikiLeaks. Crowley had called the treatment of Manning, whom military jailers forced to sleep naked, "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." Regardless of whether Crowley was right in his criticism -- in my opinion, he was -- he could not espouse an opinion that was not the public position of his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Vahedi also did not explain what he is, if not a reformist -- or, more precisely, a believer in evolutionary change. Under the current conditions in Iran, the system can change either through evolution, or revolution and regime change. While we can debate whether evolution and reforms can be implemented, given the nature of the current regime and the global political environment, there is no argument about the mechanism for regime change: it can be achieved only through foreign intervention, hence necessitating war and destruction.

One can talk about a third way -- democratic uprising -- but, unless one spells out how such an uprising could be organized and initiated in Iran, what its perils and advantages would be, and how the people taking part in the uprising could address the surely violent reaction of the hardliners and their supporters who are armed to the teeth and control all the national resources, it will remain deep in the realm of the theoretical. If Vahedi has another plan in mind, then he should spell it out. Otherwise, after his declaration about not being a reformist, he will be merely one more person in the long line of people in the diaspora who have advocated all sorts of wishful, useless thinking.

Another solution that two figures in the "rejectionist front" (one of whom was an ardent supporter of George W. Bush and his Middle East policy) have suggested is a so-called "civil siege" of the regime. But after all the smoke and mirrors are removed from their proposal, it is nothing but what Mousavi suggested a long time ago: forming social networks, informing and educating people, and creating an environment in which the regime finds itself in an impossible situation and has to address people's aspirations.

In short, criticizing and rejecting an idea or solution is easy. Indeed, it is exceedingly easy to sit in Washington and issue "fatwas" through YouTube and other mass media, but not so in Iran with its well-known facts on the ground. The opposition has tried issuing "fatwas" from the United States for 30 years, and they have resulted in no fruit whatsoever.

Vahedi has said that even if Khatami's conditions for participating in the parliamentary campaign are fully satisfied, he still believes that those opposed to the regime should neither run in the elections nor vote. Here we face another problem: If the conditions are fully and certifiably satisfied, and yet we decide not to participate in the elections, then what should the Green Movement do? What is the solution that Vahedi and critics like him suggest? Holding truly free elections and respecting peoples' votes -- which necessarily imply the existence of a truly free press, complete freedom for the political groups, and the release of the political prisoners -- has always been a major goal of the Green Movement. Are we to abandon this goal? Vahedi says that he is opposed because Khamenei is an all-powerful figure. He does have a point about Khamenei's current power but, on the other hand, if elections are held under the conditions that Khatami has spelled out, Khamenei will no longer be all powerful. He will either have to accept the reality, or resort to his usual form, in which case no one, not even the most accommodating, will ever speak of elections again so long as he remains at the helm.

Khatami's conditions for the Green Movement to participate in the elections are almost the same as those that Mousavi suggested several times before he was put under house arrest. But Khatami is subject to criticism concerning one principle that Mousavi emphasized, but he either ignored or forgot. Mousavi always underscored that the first condition for any possible reconciliation between the hardliners and the Green Movement was for the ruling elite to accept their responsibility for putting the nation on its current course. This is, of course, contrary to Khatami's "kiss and forgive" approach. It was the ruling elite that ignored the desire of the people for peaceful change in 2009. It was the ruling elite that used violence, extralegal arrests, torture, show trials, and long jail sentences, coupled with baseless accusations, to crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators, and it is the ruling elite that continues to pretend that the Green Movement is somehow a creation of foreign powers. What was the people's "sin," other than voting for their candidates? Without an acknowledgment by the ruling elite, followed by concrete actions to address the tyranny done to the people, it is difficult to envisage a true reconciliation between a large majority of Iranian citizens and the hardliners.

Khatami also has a history of making excellent suggestions, but then backtracking under pressure. For example, it was his administration that supervised the elections for the Seventh Majles in 2004. The Guardian Council had rejected 600 of the best-known reformist candidates, including practically all those who held seats in the Sixth Majles, and Khatami declared repeatedly that the elections could not be held under such conditions. But they were held and resulted in exactly what the reformists had predicted, namely, that 190 seats -- out of a total of 290 -- were decided even before people cast their votes. It was also the Khatami administration that supervised the 2005 presidential election. It is widely believed that the hardliners used fraud to put Ahmadinejad ahead of Karroubi in the first round, hence sending him to the runoff against Rafsanjani, which he eventually won. It was also Khatami who encouraged the reformists to run in the elections for the Eighth Majles in 2008, even though the Guardian Council once again disqualified many of their best-known compatriots. So there was reason to be concerned about Khatami's loyalty to his own conditions.

Fortunately, Khatami appears to have understood the gravity of the situation and people's concerns about his commitment. A week ago, he was reported as having said,

We should not have participated in any elections since [the presidential election of] 2005. Unfortunately, this was our mistake. If this time the conditions are not right, we will definitely not participate. This is my own personal view, and we should make a collective decision after consultation.

How can we ignore the people's rights? Even if the families of all those who have been killed in these events [since the 2009 presidential election] come forward and say that they forgive those who spilled the blood of their children, how can we ignore the legitimate rights of the people? The security environment must be lifted. The elections must be free. Did we not agree with Mousavi and Karroubi to have the [aforementioned] conditions and look toward the future? At the same time, what I am saying may be interpreted as an ultimatum. Although it does not seem that the ruling group is paying attention, some day history will judge.

[Free] elections are our right. If we do not participate in the elections, it will not be us who should respond [to the nation], but those who do not allow us to participate. For us to participate in the elections, the conditions must be right -- the elimination of the security environment, release of all the political prisoners, and truly free elections. How is it possible to have a security environment, many political prisoners, political parties so restricted, and then claim that we have free elections? The military must not intervene in the elections, and the problem of the [Guardian Council's] vetting power must be addressed, so that all political persuasions can have representatives. It cannot be that whoever they [the hardliners] do not like can be disqualified by labeling him as being against the political system and Velaayat [Khamenei], and then arresting him.

And then, during this past week, Khatami reaffirmed his commitment. Speaking of the upcoming Majles elections in a meeting with a group of academics from Shiraz, he said, "The [political] space must be opened up, the universities and [professional] societies must [be able to] hold discussions...the political parties and groups must be able to freely operate [and] be represented. Respect what the Constitution stipulates. The house arrests and incarcerations must end in order for everybody to participate in the elections."

Khatami has thus sent an unmistakable signal that he will not participate in any electoral campaign, nor will he encourage anyone to do so, unless the conditions that he has set are fulfilled. A source with close links to the hardliners told me that Khamenei has talked to Khatami, encouraging him to call for participation in the upcoming Majles elections, but Khatami has rejected the suggestion, insisting that his conditions must first be fulfilled completely.

In addition, the outspoken reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh, who has been imprisoned since immediately after the 2009 election, in a recent interview said unambiguously that the Green Movement should participate only in truly free elections, in the sense defined by Khatami.

It appears that the hardliners also believe that Khatami will be firm this time and stand by the conditions that he has set. Disappointed, they are once again threatening the Green Movement. Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi said that the "88 fetneh" -- the 2009 Green Movement, which is referred to by the hardliners as the "sedition" -- is "being revived again," and warned against lax monitoring of the movement. Others, such as Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline managing editor of Kayhan, the mouthpiece of a faction of the security and intelligence forces, have been attacking Khatami and his inner circle. When the well-respected cleric Mohammad Ali Sadoughi, Khatami's brother-in-law, recently passed away, Khamenei refused to send a message of condolence to the former president.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Khatami's position, there is little doubt, if any, that his recent pronouncements have led to a healthy debate within the opposition. That will ultimately benefit the people and, hence, Iran.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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