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Opinion | Khatami's Vote Yields Deep Anger, Multiple Explanations

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

06 Mar 2012 00:33Comments
13901207184125693_PhotoL.jpg Was there a threat to incarcerate all the remaining reformists?

[ opinion ] The Majles elections of March 2 generated one huge shock. The shock was not that the government claimed that 64.4 percent of the eligible voters, including 52 percent in Tehran, had voted. Such statistics were to be expected, because for several weeks government officials, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had "predicted" that the turnout would be "more than 60 percent." Their vast exaggeration may have been revealed accidentally by Seyyed Sowlat Mortazavi, head of the Interior Ministry's elections headquarters, when he stated in a television interview that the turnout had been "34 and a few tenths of a percent." (He immediately "corrected" himself.) See here for an analysis of the contradictions in the Interior Ministry's turnout statistics, here for a look at the claim that 100 percent of the people in one town voted, and here for an examination of the incredible turnout in the western city of Ilam, where the government said that 373,000 people were eligible to vote, and then reported that 380,000 people went to the polls, a turnout rate close to 102 percent.

No, the huge shock, which continues to reverberate both inside and outside Iran, was that former President Mohammad Khatami voted. (Among those who were shocked was this author, long both an admirer and critic of Khatami's.) Nine months ago, he set several conditions for the government in order for the reformists allied with him to participate in the elections, including the immediate release of all political prisoners, a free press, freedom for political groups and parties, and credible guarantees that the elections would be free and fair, which was interpreted to mean ones in which candidates were not vetted by the Guardian Council and without any of the vote rigging as took place in the presidential election of June 2009.

Not only did the government refuse to take even minor steps in those directions, the hardliners attacked Khatami savagely for "having the audacity of setting conditions for the political system," as the hardline newspaper Kayhan put it. Since then, Khatami said on many occasions that "participating in these elections is meaningless." Given the fact that the reformists and the Green Movement were almost completely united and refused to field any credible candidates, no one expected that Khatami would vote. When he left Tehran just two days before the elections, his departure was widely interpreted as evidence of his determination not to vote. The news that he did cast a ballot -- even though it has been reported that he did not actually vote for any candidates -- stunned the Iranian opposition, while the Saturday issue of Kayhan was jubilant.

While Khatami's office issued a statement that he would soon explain his vote to the nation, the reaction was swift and, with few exceptions, universally negative. On the webpage where Kaleme, the website close to Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, posted the statement, comment after comment savaged Khatami. Kaleme has announced that all the comments will be made available to Khatami. Many young people accused him of committing treason against the democratic movement and the people, particularly the political prisoners -- some of their statements were reported by Tehran Bureau in its election-day live blog. And the condemnation was hardly limited to the young. Even some of Khatami's most loyal friends and lieutenants were in shock.

Khatami's sister-in-law, Zahra Eshraghi, who is married to the former president's younger brother, Dr. Reza Khatami, said, "It was a severe blow, but we will wait." Offering her Facebook page as a venue for the former president to explain his actions, she declared, "This page is ready for Mr. Khatami."

Dr. Ali Shakouri Rad, a prominent member of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF) -- the largest reformist group, which was outlawed after the 2009 election -- wrote a piece titled "Once Again, Khatami," in which he said, "The presence of Khatami in a polling station and his vote were totally unexpected to most of the reformists and supporters of the Green Movement, particularly to people like me who had asked him at least twice, the last time two weeks ago, whether he would vote and he had responded that he would not under any condition.... Khatami did not want or could not be a hero this time. We have experienced this many times before. He said that he would not run for a second term [in 2001], but did. He said that if his proposed legislation for increasing the power of the president [in 2003] was rejected by the Guardian Council, he would resign, but did not. He said that he would not allow the Council to reject the reformists en masse for the Seventh Majles elections [in 2004], but he did.... Right before the elections, Khatami was a hero. Under his guidance, the reformists had become united, whereas the principlists under the leadership of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani had fragmented into thirteen groups.... I do not have any information as to why Khatami voted, but I am certain that it was due to fear, fear that his not voting would shut the door on reforms forever. May be it is necessary to wait a few months to understand the reason for Khatami's unexpected vote."

Blogger Taha Parsa, who was at first skeptical that Khatami had actually voted, wrote that "Khatami is Khatami, the man for all Fridays." This was a reference to what Khatami said in March 2009 when he withdrew from the presidential campaign after Mousavi announced his intention to run. Khatami told his disappointed supporters, "I am the man of Fridays, but Mir Hossein is the man of Saturdays" -- the day after the elections, when one must resist the hardliners. Parsa continued, "My only concern is that Khatami may have miscalculated.... We should not turn our backs to him for such a strange act."

Hailing what is widely believed to be the elections' low turnout, Dr. Ardeshir Amir Arjomand, senior adviser to Mousavi, said, "The path of the Green Movement and its demands is clear. Mr. Khatami himself must respond [as to why he voted] and people will judge."

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Mohammad Nourizad, a supporter of the Green Movement, told Deutsche Welle concerning Khatami, "If he voted as an individual, it is a personal matter. But he would no longer be the old Khatami. He separated his path from the movement and went his own way. Thus, he will no longer be able to speak about 'us' or say 'the people' or 'a group of critics and protestors.'"

Journalist Rajabali Mazrooei, a senior member of the IIPF and spokesman for another leading outlawed reformist group, the Organization of Islamic Revolution Mojahedin, linked Khatami's decision to vote to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's decision to do the same. Mazrooei said, "Both Rafsanjani and Khatami are former presidents and have their own considerations. They both are a window for negotiations [with the ruling group], which we must not close."

Distinguished journalist Zhila Bani Yaghoub, who has been barred from her profession for 30 years and whose husband, journalist Bahman Ahmadi Amouei is in prison, said on Friday, "Today, we were supposed to echo our protests.... If he voted, I will never forgive him."

Journalist Masih Alinejad wrote,"What happened to Rafsanjani's and Khatami's conditions [for the elections]? Their participation in the elections made their own conditions questionable." She called Rafsanjani's vote "shameful."

Urging patience, nationalist-religious journalist Morteza Kazamian, who now resides in Paris, wrote, "In any case Khatami, who is now under attack, is the same figure whom, last September, 143 intellectuals and political figures wrote to describing the absence of the necessary conditions for free and fair elections without fraud, a letter that Mohsen Mirdamadai [imprisoned secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation Front], Ebrahim Yazdi [leader of the Liberation Movement of Iran], Habibollah Peyman [leader of the Movement of Militant Muslims, part of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition], and many others signed. More importantly, 39 political prisoners declared [two months ago] that any sort of participation in the election would bolster dictatorship, and emphasized the minimum conditions that Khatami had set for free and fair elections."

Hamid Reza Moghaddamfar, deputy Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief for cultural affairs said, "Khatami and all those who were advocating the boycott of the elections realized, after many polls were published, that people would vote in very large numbers. Therefore, in order not to lose credibility and make a bad name for themselves and [to make sure] that the main message of the people's votes not be that they hate them, they decided to issue a statement a few days before the elections to announce that they would take part." It is not clear to what he was referring, as there was no such statement. Moghaddamfar continued, "They could not reach a consensus, and therefore Khatami decided to vote," adding, "I believe the true reason for Khatami's vote was to free himself from the sedition" -- the hardliners' epithet for the Green Movement.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Chairman of the Majles National Security and Foreign Policy Commission opined, "A prime motivation for Khatami voting was to exonerate himself from the accusation that he supports the enemies of the political system."

The conservative website Mahdoodeh asserted, "In the view of many observers, an important reason that led Khatami to vote and seemingly question his comrades [for boycotting the election] is his pragmatism. After receiving many reports that indicated that people's participation would be high, he decided to make a wise political gesture, because he realizes that the results of these elections represent another step in the elimination of the reformists. He sent a message to the system that he has been under pressure by the seditionists...and he is a victim of the seditionists."

Asr-e Iran, a moderate-conservative website, analyzed Khatami's decision and concluded that he voted so that it will remain possible for him to influence the country in the future and possibly try to open up the political environment.

Khatami's former aide Mohammad Ali Abtahi defended Khatami's vote by distinguishing the reform movement from the Green Movement, and added, "It is not a new discovery that Khatami does not stand against the political system, but wants to reform it."

Moderate Tehran newspaper Mardom Salari called Khatami's vote "a courageous act" and "exceptional."

The Fars News Agency, which is owned by a Revolutionary Guard foundation and which has attacked and lied about Khatami for years, seemingly expressed regret about the criticisms to which he had been subjected for voting. Jahan News, the website published by the hardline Majles deputy Ali Reza Zakani, a former Guard commander, tried to spread rumors about what Khatami told his comrades after going to the polls. So did Raja News, another hardline website.

One of the first explanations for Khatami's vote from an informed source was provided by Hossein Nooraninejad, head of the IIPF's information office, who was jailed for over a year after the 2009 election. He wrote on his Facebook page that Khatami told him that it was very difficult to make the decision to vote. According to Nooraninejad, Khatami continued, "But I had received some very worrying information over the last two days...about the extremists' plans for the aftermath of the elections that necessitated an unexpected move to neutralize their plans." He did not explain what information he had received. When told that his honor and prestige had been damaged, Khatami reportedly responded, "I am not concerned about it. I am worried about our imprisoned comrades, those under house arrest [Mousavi, his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi], the reforms, and the inauspicious plans of the extremists."

Reports from Tehran indicate that in a meeting with journalists on Sunday, Khatami said that he had been informed that if he did not vote, all the remaining top reformists would be imprisoned, and that he himself would be put under house arrest. Therefore, "to prevent the catastrophe" of all the leading reformists being in jail -- where most already are -- he felt compelled to vote.

In a subsequent letter to the nation that was posted on Kaleme, Khatami provided a brief explanation of his decision. Acknowledged that his vote had angered many, he wrote, "Given the difficulties and complexities of this problem, I do not expect that my explanation will satisfy everyone, particularly because the restrictions on informing the public has created an environment in which there are expectations from all sides that are beyond the possibilities and expediency [of the country], making it very difficult to discuss it."

Khatami explained that although "active participation in the elections and supporting candidates entail the right environment," whose absence led to his strategy for the reformists not to run in the elections as a group, it did not imply not voting. He continued,

What I did has its roots in my political views, what I believe in, and my loyalty to them. I voted from the view of the reforms, in order to keep open the possibility for reformism, which I consider the most important and the only way for the advancement of the country and the way to achieve the ideals of the Revolution and guarantee the people's right and the [true] expediency of the nation, as well as to eliminate the dangers and threats, both from within the country and beyond. The achievable and desirable goal is to return the country to a situation in which the [true] expediency of the country and the fundamental and historical demands and aspirations of the people will be the most important issue.

Eighty percent of Kaleme commenters on Khatami's letter said that they were not satisfied by his explanation.

One thing that Iran's democratic movement must not ignore is that the low turnout of the people and the opposition's united front against participation in the Majles elections must not be eclipsed by Khatami's vote, whatever his reason for what he did. The movement for democracy and the rule of law is much larger and more important than any one political figure.

The views expressed are the author's own. Photos: The IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency prominently featured Khatami several times in a photo essay shortly before the March 2 Majles elections.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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