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Comment | Man Friday: Khatami's Vote and the Question of 'Reformism'

by ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI

10 Mar 2012 17:09Comments
13901207200722412_PhotoL.jpg13901207184124162_PhotoL.jpg Has the former president's brand of reformism proved at all effective?

[ comment ] To the surprise of many, even his staunchest supporters, former President Mohammad Khatami voted in the Ninth Majles elections on March 2 -- elections that were neither free nor fair and which were contested almost exclusively by candidates who competed on the basis of effusive expressions of obedience and fidelity to the will of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Despite different electoral lists such as the United Front of Principlists (Jebheh Mottahed-e Osoolgarayan) and the Durable Front of the Islamic Revolution (Jebheh Paaydaari-e Enghelab-e Eslami), which gave the air of party-style competition, many candidates appeared on multiple lists. Ideological clashes and power politics were certainly in the mix, albeit almost entirely severed from the democratic process, which at least in principle ought to bind a representative to the demands and aspirations of his or her constituents. This is the story of factionalism at the expense of genuine pluralism and democratization, a story which has a long precedent in the Islamic Republic's short history. The main difference this time around was that the factional dispute was essentially an intra-conservative or right-wing affair, with longstanding establishment conservatives squaring off against more radical newcomers. All however, expressed their abiding loyalty to the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Guardianship of the Jurisconsult (velayat-e motlaghe-ye faghih).

Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also voted, but his casting of a ballot failed to attract comparable levels of derision. Rafsanjani has always been noted for his deft politicking, pragmatism, and hedging of bets, despite his occasional statement in favor of the "the people," "the protestors," or "the nation" and his role behind the scenes delivering succor to the reformist camp to counterbalance his own rivals. No one expected Rafsanjani to sacrifice himself in the name of "democracy" or "freedom"; in fact, according to virtually all accounts, as president, while he pushed for economic liberalization, he never held political liberalization in high regard. The latter he regarded as essentially epiphenomenal to the former. For these reasons and many others, Rafsanjani has been the target of a host of diatribes from among the more radical reformists; journalist Akbar Ganji is perhaps the most prominent example. Upon casting his vote, Rafsanjani did, however, get a jab in at the ruling cabal, publicly questioning the integrity of the electoral process with his declaration, "God willing, the result of the election will be the same as that desired by the people, and the same vote they cast into the ballot box." Khatami, by contrast, rather than cast his vote in the Tehran district of Jamaran as he always had done, decided to vote in the northern electoral district of Damavand, apparently near his brother's villa, and without expressing any of the ironic wit mustered by his notoriously wily counterpart. He did later on issue a statement that reaffirmed his commitment to reform, a statement which arguably provoked more questions than it answered. In brief, he stated that his vote derived from a desire to "keep the windows to reformism open."

The key reason for surprise at Khatami's vote were his numerous statements that made reformist participation in the Majles elections contingent upon the regime meeting several demands, including the release of political prisoners, the release of Green Movement opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard from house arrest, freedom for the press, and the guarantee of free and fair elections. In December 2011, Khatami was quoted as saying, "When all signs indicate that we must not participate in this election, participation in the election is meaningless." Some have said that his statements pertained strictly to the reformists' presentation of an electoral list, and while that might be the case, such an effort at exculpation seems disingenuous at best. While such a watershed has been declared on numerous occasions, it seems many who consider themselves members or sympathize with the opposition are rapidly and overwhelmingly coming to the conclusion that the Green Movement and Khatami have finally parted ways once and for all.

His vote has been interpreted by principlists and Greens alike as Khatami's effort to differentiate himself from the Green Movement or the "sedition of 1388" as it has come to be referred by the most conservative elements in the ruling establishment and parliament. In a report produced by the Majles in December 2011, Khatami was even accused of being an active member of the "seditionists" and as having attempted to convince foreign powers that Mousavi would be an appropriate candidate to push through structural changes in the Iranian political system. The principlists' reactions to Khatami's vote have been mixed, but it has generally been depicted as the former president's penance for positions he took after the Islamic Republic's tenth presidential contest.

While very few have ever taken seriously the idea of Khatami as an opposition leader capable of fundamentally transforming the Islamic Republic, there is little doubt that the situation has become far more tortuous with the house arrest of Mousavi and Karroubi, two presidential candidates, a former prime minister and speaker of parliament, who were veritable insiders and disciples of the Islamist revolutionary state's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. When a revolutionary-turned-authoritarian regime so brazenly devours its one-time progenitors and their offspring, questions of resistance and reform are complicated exponentially. Insiders have become outsiders, and others have desperately attempted to straddle the middle ground, only to find themselves denounced by both sides for failing to fully commit to either. Over the last three years, families within the political elite have found themselves riven and longstanding friendships and political alliances have been decimated.

Yes, Khatami was never willing or endowed with the necessary political acumen to reform the Islamic Republic in a meaningful way, let alone oversee the transition to a fully fledged democratic system. This was, after all, a candidate who explicitly sought and obtained Khamenei's permission to run in the presidential race before announcing his candidacy. But more importantly, the Islamic Republic itself is in a state of flux and has moved from a charismatic revolutionary regime comprising various factions overseen by the watchful eye of a revolutionary patriarch, to a militarized, clientelist regime that relies on a marriage of convenience between the office of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. While the Islamic Republic has clearly changed over the years, it does not seem Khatami has reevaluated his political approach in keeping with changing circumstances. Given his latest statement-cum-explanation for his vote, it is not at all clear whether he is willing or ready to recognize that the status quo is very different from that of 1997 when he was first catapulted into office. His vote, while undoubtedly exacted under great pressure, and his public statement, issued with the aim of responding to his supporters' dismay and sense of betrayal, bespeak someone who has failed to come to terms with the new and unfolding circumstances determining the modus operandi of the Iranian state, someone who has failed to seriously think about what "reform," specifically "reform within the bounds of the law" and "reform from within," means under such circumstances.

Khatami's record demonstrates a political figure fully reconciled to compromise, or rather buckling, as a "political tactic" to push forward the reform agenda. The problem is that when the goal posts continue to move further and further outward, without anything approximating a quid pro quo, the wisdom of such a strategy has to be questioned and perhaps cast aside for good. Most reformist politicians, at least thus far, have proven reluctant critics, asking for clarification, but uncritical of Khatami's decision in terms of its strategic efficacy for the furtherance of democracy in Iran.

First, many Iranians have legitimately posed the ethical question, Is it appropriate to vote in an election in the full knowledge that it is neither free nor fair, and thereby give consent and legitimacy to a system that has systematically disregarded the rule of law and Universal Declaration of Human Rights by arresting, jailing, torturing, raping, and shooting protestors in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election? The problem is only compounded when one considers that many opposition supporters have lost their lives in the name of a political cause on behalf of which Khatami has claimed to speak, and many others, including close political allies, members of the reformist elite, journalists, human rights activists, artists, and lawyers are confined in distressingly inhumane conditions in Evin Prison and elsewhere.

Leaving that all aside, the key question for the political strategist working in the name of democratic change is whether Khatami-style reform has yielded tangible dividends. Have his powers of discernment proven effective in the name of the long-term project of political reform inside Iran? We can address this through four more specific questions:

(1) Has the reformist agenda been advanced by Khatami's abandonment of the student protests of July 1999, known to Iranians as 18 Tir? Today, the universities are under tighter control than ever. The quotas for regime loyalists and the Basij paramilitary forces in state universities has increased, and the private Azad University, one of the world's largest universities, with an estimated 1.4 million students, is firmly in the hands of the principlist camp after school president and long-time Rafsanjani ally Abdollah Jassbi was forced out from the position he had held for more than 20 years.

(2) Has the reformist agenda been advanced by Khatami's failure to push through, or at the very least go down with, the famed Twin Bills, which would have reformed election laws and more clearly defined the president's authority? Specifically, what of his failure to take on the "approbatory supervision" (nezarat-e estesvabi) of the Guardian Council -- its ability to vet candidates for the Majles, presidency, and Assembly of Experts? Today, there is not a single high-profile reformist in the Majles or any position of influence in any of the other branches of government. Meanwhile, even mild conservatives such as Rafsanjani and the principlist parliamentarian Ali Motahari have found themselves struggling for political survival. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose presidential "victory" the Supreme Leader had staked his political credibility on back in June 2009, may have found himself reduced to a lame-duck after his protracted sulk over the Supreme Leader's reinstatement of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi last spring. In a similar vein, Ahmadinejad's in-law and closest and most trusted ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has been incessantly vilified and dubbed the head of a so-called "deviant current" set on ousting the ruling clergy in the name of an "Iranian school" (maktab-e Irani).

Moreover, Khatami's failures resulted in voter apathy, resentment, and disillusionment with the project of "reformism," which contributed to the disappointing campaign of the 2005 reformist presidential candidate, Mostafa Moin, who never became a serious contender. Khatami's failure to groom a viable successor also paved the way for the populist appeal of Ahmadinejad, which came to be fully exploited by Khamenei in his efforts to once and for all neutralize Rafsanjani, his friend and rival of 50 years.

It should also be noted that Khatami did not resign or put the bills to a referendum as he had threatened to if they were shot down by the Guardian Council. Incidentally, this was a strategy often employed in the 1950s by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which proved effective at crucial moments, allowing him to push through legislation that faced stiff resistance. It worked because the Majles deputies and the people knew that Mosaddegh would follow through on his threat. (And in the constitution of his era, there wasn't even a provision for calling a national referendum.) Not only did Khatami fail to make good on his threat, but perhaps even worse, he apparently never seriously considered staking his authority on the issue by drawing on Article 59 of the Constitution, which provided the legal means for holding a referendum on major political, economic, social, or cultural issues with two-thirds approval by the Majles.

Khatami instructed his Interior Ministry to organize the Seventh Majles elections and himself cast a vote after the mass disqualification of reformist candidates by the Guardian Council, including 80 incumbent parliamentarians. Once again, he did this while many of his fellow reformists advocated boycotting the elections and pleaded with him to stop the Interior Ministry from playing a role in organizing them.

(3) Has the reformist agenda been advanced by Khatami's failure to insist on the full exercise of his executive powers in accordance with Article 113 of the Constitution, the other component of the Twin Bills? Today we face the prospect of the office of president disappearing altogether, to be replaced by a prime minister, selected by parliamentarians. Such an eventuality would whittle down the "democratic mandate" the president currently enjoys to virtually nil, especially given the absence of a genuine party system in Iran, where shifting alliances and monikers denote groups that rise to the surface one day, often only to disappear the next. Interestingly, on Thursday, it was announced that Ahmadinejad has appointed a watchdog group to oversee the Constitution's implementation despite opposition from the Guardian Council. That the bête noire of the reformists has taken a step his reformist predecessor never followed through on is quite the irony.

(4) Has the reformist agenda been advanced by Khatami's failure to launch a strong defense against the slew of press closures undertaken by the judiciary during his time in office? Or his failure to stand up for the Press Law when the Majles debated it in August 2000? Today, the press is reduced to a mere shadow of its former self. The days of newspapers such as Sobh-e Emrouz, Khordad, and Salam seem like a distant memory. After the 2009 election, Iran had more journalists in jail per capita than any other country in the world.

This is not to deny that Khatami had a hard time of it, or that his government "survived on average one national crisis every nine days," as he once put it. Nor is it to deny that while he was president the lives of many Iranians, who had been suffocating under the weight of an authoritarian-ideological regime and whose lives had been ravaged by an eight-year war with neighboring Iraq, were in certain respects palpably improved. But even if one tries, as many Iran analysts have, to frame Khatami's project as an exclusively "civic" one, it is not at all clear how the conditions under which civil society can flourish, the rights of citizens are respected, and the rule of law is enforced are dissociable from political considerations. There has long been a need to go beyond mere rhetorical flourishes and encomiums to the virtues of the political thought of Locke, Montesquieu, or Tocqueville, and come to the realization that the "civic" and the "political" can never be fully disentangled, one broached while avoiding the other. Khatami never established a political party that could serve the role of opposition, even loyal opposition, party to propel reform forward and thus save the system, which he clearly cherishes. His relationship with the Islamic Iran Participation Front, cofounded by his younger brother, Dr. Mohammad Reza Khatami, was never straightforward and often fraught. President Khatami never formally declared himself a member of the organization and at times openly disavowed what he deemed its "radical" slant. Then as now, he has always harbored the fear that the opposition movement if left unchecked would radicalize beyond his control. But as a result, he may well have sacrificed much of his credibility as far as the grassroots opposition is concerned.

Today it seems that the reformist movement, on Khatami's reading specifically, has been far more preoccupied with compromise (sazesh), despite massive support and a "quasi-democratic mandate" on the basis of which appreciably more leverage could have been had, if only it had been used more adeptly. To paraphrase Machiavelli's famous line in The Prince, ultimately Khatami failed to act as a beast and had neither the attributes of the lion or the fox, for time and again he demonstrated his inability to either recognize the "traps" set for him or "scare off the wolves." His faith in compromise in the hope of keeping the door open for intra-elite negotiation reached a point where Khatami felt compelled to vote in an election that his own political allies and sympathizers had been barred from competing in -- the two largest reformist groups, Islamic Iran Participation Front (Jebhe-ye Mosharekat-e Iran-e Islami) and Mojahedin Organization of the Islamic Revolution (Sazman-e Mojahedin-e Enghelab-e Islami), have been outlawed altogether -- or decided to boycott, an election that took place while many of his compatriots and supporters are in prison or exile. It seems compromise -- or, perhaps more fittingly, capitulation, -- has only led to the greater curtailment and marginalization of the reformists as a political force, to the point that they effectively have next to no leverage and a diminished capacity to affect regime decisions from either above or below.

Khatami's refusal to make the break, or alternatively his failure to force the hand of the Islamic Republic to choose between conclusively ejecting the reformists from the system or opening it up, has further weakened the opposition's ability to affect change, since while never quite a united front, it has now been decisively shattered in the first election since the presidential contest in which widespread fraud allegedly took place. His vote has left many reformists confused and in limbo about how to respond. By failing to stand shoulder to shoulder with other opposition figures, Iran's internationally renowned ex-president and advocate of the "dialogue of civilizations" has not only failed to underwrite the opposition's sacrifices, but also detracted from his own credibility, given that he flatly betrayed his own repeated statements on the elections.

If the recent report that Mojtaba Khamenei, the Supreme Leader's most politically active son, visited Mousavi to ask him to yield on his demands for democratic reform is accurate, it shows that the door to negotiation is never closed entirely, but in order to negotiate with a hostile party, one needs leverage and something to negotiate with. At this juncture, Khatami is alienated not only from the ruling establishment, but also from the Greens and the opposition at large. It is not clear what, if any, constituency he has left, and whether he could even be seen as a potential broker of a plan for "national unity" in the future, given his readiness, demonstrated time and again, to back down from pressure as soon as it surpasses his comfort zone.

A question that the opposition will no doubt have to think long and hard about is whether Khatami's vote has opened up an irreparable fissure in the goals of the disparate groups that make up the Green-reformist movement. It will also have to dwell upon what is meant by "reform" and whether "reform" in accordance with the Constitution of a regime that has repeatedly proven its wanton disregard for the law does not need to be fundamentally rethought. Not in the name of revolution, but in terms of a more serious campaign of civil disobedience and noncompliance. The interference of external powers in fomenting change has been firmly rebuffed by the Green leaders.

The regime likes to represent itself as the embodiment of the people, but in the final instance, declaims its divine imprimatur without the prospect of appeal. This is why the regime authorities and their ideological cadres emphasize the idea of regime "acceptability" (maghbuliyat) over "legitimacy" (mashruiyat) -- meaning ostensibly that the political regime ought to be acceptable to the people, but does not derive its legitimacy from them, as its legitimacy can be granted only by God. Because divine sanction always trumps republican ideas of popular sovereignty, one wonders how appropriate it is to frame the Green Movement's commendable exaltation of popular sovereignty within the existing constitutional framework of the Islamic Republic. If we take the Green Manifesto (Manshur-e Jonbesh-e Sabz) at its word on the issue of "approbatory supervision," it seems Khatami-style reformism died long ago as a serious option for the leadership of the Green Movement. The prospect of a backslide is however conceivable and the status of the Supreme Jurisconsult has not been stated as clearly as one might like by the Green Movement's political leadership, at least not by either Mousavi or Karroubi. Figures such as the cleric Mohsen Kadivar and the religious intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush are another matter..

The Ruling Jurisconsult's authority is deemed "absolute" (motlaghe) in Article 57 of the Constitution, with all branches of the government falling under his purview. He is also head of the armed and paramilitary forces, which are often used to quell dissent and protest. Because of this and other constitutional provisions, the question comes back once again to the unavoidable need for structural change and clarification regarding the very bases of the regime's legitimacy. Khatami in particular has always been reluctant to voice his reading of the Article 57, unlike other reformists such as the former high-level Intelligence Ministry official and political strategist Said Hajjarian, who was almost assassinated by right-wing vigilantes in March 2000. (There is speculation that the assassination attempt was sanctioned by elements in the Intelligence Ministry as payback for Hajjarian's leak of information concerning the infamous Chain Murders of dissident intellectuals, allegedly orchestrated by Deputy Intelligence Minister Said Emami). A definitive answer is needed from Khatami on whether it is at all serious to propose "reform" in accordance with the law of a system whose leader arrogates to himself an absolute and divinely sanctioned mandate that brooks no criticism and who exercises control over the means of violence to intimidate and silence rivals and even mild critics.

Is this contradictory duality in the power structure of the Islamic Republic, which the reformists repeatedly sought to reform in the 1990s, still a viable project in Khatami's eyes? In its stead, is not a clearer agenda needed, freed from the elitism and pretension for which the former president has often been impugned, even by other leading reformists? (See, for example, Hajjarian's interview in Kalbodshekafi-ye Zehniyat-e Eslah-garayan, by Hossein Salimi.) Even maverick principlists such as the intellectual and former parliamentarian Emad Afrough and the aforementioned Ali Motahari have spoken frankly about the need to be able to question and even impeach the Leader if necessary, but no regime insider, reformist or principlist, has openly broached the prospect of subjecting the Leader to direct election or abolishing the office altogether. As noted above, some reformist intellectuals, along with other figures such as Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri -- long been considered a pariah by the regime, though he was once Khomeini's heir-designate -- have made such intimations, but it is not clear to what extent they speak for the political arm of the reformists. Arguably, the implication of the Green Movement's emphasis on popular sovereignty trumping all other sources of authority, alongside unconditioned respect for human rights, could be read as tantamount to a democratic overhaul of the Leader's office.

Perhaps more important is the system's willingness to use violence to quell and rout dissent, a willingness that, in addition to its ideological justification, is motivated by tangible economic interests that would be threatened by a more open society and greater transparency in governance. A serious debate is still to unfold on how a nominally ideologically committed force that also benefits materially from the status quo might be convinced to break with the ruling establishment. The top brass in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have little respect for Khatami and have chastised him on numerous occasions, setting down explicit conditions for his return to the bosom of the nezaam (political system, or regime). It is clear that little is to be gained from casting another vote in favor of a system that the Revolutionary Guards effectively oversee as self-anointed guardians, interfering in the political domain when and as they see fit. In the absence of a mass-mobilized base of support that can swiftly call people into the streets or widespread strikes and civil disobedience, there is no reason for the ruling establishment to give Khatami and his allies any concessions. Perhaps instead of "leaving the door open" to the possibility of negotiation by casting a single ballot, more might have been achieved by once again galvanizing and reenergizing a meandering and lethargic opposition movement, a movement that appears only to have been further divided by Khatami's decision to vote. Yes, this continues a longstanding pattern of behavior on his part, and Iranian democrats are advised to learn from the past to avoid future disappointment and disillusionment.

As many have argued, the "reformist" vs. "revolutionary" binary is a false one, and the case can be made that if the Green Movement's stated aims of installing sovereign decision-making power firmly in the hands of the people came to fruition, it would be tantamount to the soft-toppling of the extant system. This is by no means a short-term goal or aspiration. The nature of the desired end-state poses one important question, to which the Green-reformist elite almost certainly don't have a unified answer. However, another and perhaps more important question for the moment is, What are the chosen means and strategic imperatives for realizing the envisioned end-state and new constitutional order? As long as the opposition remains indecisive and divided on this issue, the chance of impacting Iran's current political trajectory is negligible. If one wing of the reformist elite continues to offer its "consent" to the status quo, whether willfully or not, in the vain hope of extracting concessions, and another wing of the elite emphasizes withdrawing consent and boycotting the system until fair procedures are put in place, this patent lack of strategic coordination can and will be exploited by the ruling establishment to divide and enfeeble the opposition as a whole.

Khatami's vote indicates that the divisions regarding the means of realizing their desired political objectives continue to pose a serious issue for a faltering opposition movement, which has still to definitively make up its mind on whether it is internal or external to the nezaam as it currently stands, rather than relating itself to a mythologized political order predicated on all the Revolution could have been and its professed ideals, which have ceased to have much connection to realities on the ground. Whatever pressure he has been put under, given Khatami's massive sociopolitical capital and his failure to break once and for all with the system in its present guise or stake out his positions clearly for all to assess and judge, he bears a heavy burden of responsibility for the regime's continuing dexterous efforts to manage its legitimacy crisis in the face of "crippling sanctions," the tumult of the currency and gold markets, the irresponsible threats of military adventurism by Israel and the United States, and growing international isolation brought on by questions about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. The Iranian people's cries for freedom and dignity, however, will continue unabated.

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a doctoral candidate in Modern Middle East Studies at Queen's College, University of Oxford.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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