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12 Jun 2009 10:50No Comments


The Rise and Fall of Mohammad Khatami

Part 1: Children of the Revolution

[ feature ] At thirty, Ali is too young to remember the 1979 Islamic revolution. Because he was four when the Shah fell, he also misses by a technicality the post-revolutionary baby-boom, a classification that seems to describe him well. The baby boom came about after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran in 1979 and called on the revolutionaries to multiply, to give birth to the future soldiers that would defend the country--and Islam. A quarter of a century later, about 70 percent of the population is under 30 years of age. Urban, educated, and largely Westernized, they would hardly make Khomeini proud.

Ali was born into a very religious Shia family in Tehran. His mother and sisters are chador-clad. His father, a "soft hard-liner," worked for the government. Unlike the Iranians who fled the revolution en masse, Ali's family stayed back and helped build the Islamic Republic. Ali is tall and gaunt. Even in appearance--often in a white t-shirt and jeans--he shatters the Iranian male stereotype I carried for many years: He is neither slick and slathered in cologne, nor does he possess the sallow glow of the clergy-in-waiting type who replaced the disco-decade bourgeoisie.

Ali grew up in a traditional neighborhood, tucked away in the north of the capital. He did well in school and was the first member of his family to attend college. He won a fiercely competitive spot at Tehran University, and pursued training in what is in Iran the most prestigious field: electrical engineering.

He remembers those days at Tehran University, when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was President, as a particularly oppressive time. "It was eerily quiet," Ali says. "People were dissatisfied, but they didn't dare speak out. There were no protests. No dissent was tolerated against the government." The only student upheaval came when Rafsanjani tried to privatize the medical schools, Ali recalls. (Rafsanjani's nickname was kooseh--shark. That distinction was not meant to reflect Rafsanjani's predatory nature, but his lack of facial hair. Like a shark, he had only whiskers.) Luckily for Ali and his generation, there was another revolution on the horizon. Even though it was happening far away, it was powerful enough to put a crack in the Rafsanjani armor.

One almost typical day at the university in 1994, a classmate waved Ali over to a computer screen. He had been sitting there himself intently for a stretch. "I have something to show you," he whispered to Ali, with great conspiratorial excitement.

H-I, the Iranian boy punched into the keyboard.

"Hi," came the answer, somewhere from America.

Ali smiles wryly as he recounts the moment. It was as if his world had just opened up and another universe had come bounding in. Though only a handful of schools in Iran had a computer terminal then, and virtual chats were confined to techies at other universities (browsers were not yet in popular usage), all this would quickly change. Meanwhile, from the inception of this technology in Iran, Ali sat at the foot of its trickling fountain, drinking as if after a long trek through a vast political desert.

Upon earning a bachelor's degree, Ali began his studies anew, this time specializing in information systems. Eager to impart his discoveries, and to put the world at other young Iranian fingertips, he published an article about the Internet and dispersed it among college students. What is the Internet, it was called.

Technology is a sign of great advancement among many Iranians. Aghayeh Mohandes--Mr. Engineer--arguably carries more weight than Aghayeh Doctor. Striving to earn that title has filled the country with many engineers (sadly its brightest engineers are also Iran's greatest export). Iranians are also quite adept at turning disadvantages in their favor. Iran's isolation in the world and lack of copyright protection, for example, encouraged Iranians to rely on themselves. Textbooks were translated and circulated widely. Source codes were cracked. Software was reverse-engineered, duplicated and sold on the cheap. As the Internet culture boomed in the United States, it did not lag far behind in Iran. And it took hold not only in Tehran, but other far flung provinces of the Islamic Republic, even some remote villages. Most importantly, it provided Iran's post-Revolutionary generation a vital link to the outside world.

And with that link came an avalanche of news sources, "a smacking towering wall of information," Ali described in Farsi. Ali began to scale that wall a word at a time, dissecting an interesting article or Web site by the paragraph. He plugged new words and unfamiliar concepts into the search engine, which brought forth more unfamiliar words and more new ideas. And as each new word and idea became the basis on which to launch new searches, layers of the outside world began to peel back.

"Western democracies have had hundreds of years to develop," Ali says. "For us it came in one blow, with the advent of the Internet." Though graduating from the university at a time of crippling unemployment, Ali landed a plum government job. "I think I had a novel approach to job hunting," he says. "I'd say to myself, 'such and such a place looks good, it's a big name.' Then I'd go and plant myself near the building until the president went by. As soon as he did, I'd go up to him and ask for a job."

In this fashion, scoping the employed passersby, on the hunt for a sympathetic feature that may signal a soul who might hear him out, Ali got his first job at an Iranian television station. He also knew when to hold back. In college he needed to work part-time to support himself. The department head of a prestigious section also ran a government office. "I couldn't just go up to him during a conference, so I decided to write him a letter," Ali says. Rather than hand him a letter after a lecture, as a line of other eager students competed for his attention, Ali approached the director's kindly assistant who took a liking to the industrious young man. "She later called me about an opening they had in one of the government ministries," he said.

Ali worked at the ministry part-time. Upon graduation he turned it into a full-time job. His first project was the ministry's library, which had only a small collection of books. His job was to expand it and to computerize their acquisition system. To do that, he needed to plug the ministry into the Information Age.

"For the first time in the history of the ministry, I put them in contact with foreign publishers. I bought a lot of foreign books, as well as domestic ones," he said.

Ali had an email account since 1994, but he became much more internet proficient while bringing the ministry up to date. Chat rooms, which initially

had a lure, were unable to hold his interest for very long.

"Someone would ask me 'Where are you?' I would answer, 'In Iran.' The guy would then ask, 'Where is that?' I would say, 'In the Middle East,' but that didn't seem to give him a point of reference either."

Ali used his time online paging through news sites and researching foreign universities. He wanted, quite literally, to go where his browser went. He had been appointed project manager of an information systems project and had in his new post gained an interest in business management. Business was a widely undeveloped field in Iran and Ali wanted to be equipped with all the most sophisticated tools. So he continued to cast his net further--eventually finding his way to the United States.

He was admitted to a prestigious university, where he earned a degree in management. The more he studied business though, the more he felt himself gravitating toward politics. Upon finishing his degree, he started another degree in politics. But even then, he never confined himself to that program. Any chance he got, he crashed courses in other departments.


Mohammad is thirty-five years old as well. And like Ali, he was born into a religious family. His even played leading roles in the revolution. "My father wasn't as religious as his family," Mohammad says. To separate himself and his family from the more fundamentalist influences that shaped his own life, Mohammad says his father moved his wife, daughter and two sons from a predominantly working class neighborhood in central Tehran, to the north of the city, where Mohammad grew up among more affluent Iranians.

Even so, from the beginning of his education, Mohammad was shipped off to a private religious school, where he got a solid grounding in Shiism. In high school, Mohammad looked up to a science teacher, who also became his adviser. The teacher described his former pupil to me in a phone interview as "free, wild and creative." "He wasn't closed-minded," said the teacher. "He couldn't be put in a mold. He was always looking for new venues."

Upon entering high school, Iranian students must pick a concentration. The brightest students study math to become engineers. Natural science is also very popular because it can lead to a medical career. Students on the verge of failing are relegated to the liberal arts. When Mohammad expressed an interest in studying English, his adviser encouraged him because he knew it would be useful. But, "when he said he wanted to study sociology, I gave him a warning," he said. "It's not like engineering, where you can line your pockets with money and make a comfortable living."

In his senior year, Mohammad quit the religious school and enrolled in a regular public school. The next year, he graduated from high school and placed in the top 1 percent of students taking the liberal arts concours, the national university entrance exam named after its French counterpart. "That standing gave Mohammad his choice of top schools, and an opportunity to receive an education in a prestigious field," his friend Saeed said in a telephone interview from Iran. But Mohammad could not be swayed.

He considered politics, but to major in political science meant studying the subject in a vacuum, Mohammad said. Sociology, on the other hand, was dynamic, a field of study drawing from several disciplines, he said. And why go to a top school to impress anyone? He had other priorities.

"Tehran University is in a dirty and crowded part of the city," he said. "It required a one-hour commute every day. Metros didn't exist [in Tehran] then. I had to take the bus and taxis. I didn't need the hassle." He opted for an Azad, or an "open" admissions university. Like an American community college, the academic requirement for getting in is quite lax. But it's not inexpensive. Mohammad picked a private university because he wanted to operate on his own timetable. And, "It was so pretty there, full of trees," he said. "But the sociology department sucked. The sociology department was so bad I became a little hopeless."

Mohammad was thrown out after six years. Though he had completed two-thirds of his studies, no student may matriculate beyond that time. He had a high A average after his first semester, but his grades had quickly plummeted. "I did really well on the concours because I was motivated. I wanted to prove to everyone that I was smart," he explained. "I was also competing against a lot of lazy students."

Like Ali, and scores of others in his generation, Mohammad found solace in computers and the Internet. After he was expelled from school, he founded a web design firm with a friend. A few years later he got married and moved overseas, "because we could," Mohammad said, "not for political or economic reasons. It was just because it was something new to do."

Poster Wars

Mohammad first read about Mohammad Khatami when he was the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. While there, Khatami had drawn the ire of Islamists by championing Iran's new filmmakers then coming into prominence. Two former architect students were behind Iran's new cinema wave, Mohammad explains as we sit to tea one evening. The pair enjoyed a close relationship with Mir Hossein Mousavi, prime minister of Iran during the 1980's, and a close confidante to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khatami was one of Moosavi's ministers. Through Khatami's support, these two filmmakers were given some space to develop Iranian cinema in their own vision, said Mohammad. This appalled the conservatives. "The Hezbollahis didn't like the bleak, abstract outlook of these art films," Mohammad said. And at one point he read that Khatami had quit his post.

Mohammad never heard of Khatami again until his name was floated as a presidential candidate in the Iranian presidential elections of 1997.


Much of life in Iran takes place behind closed doors and locked gates. Walls wind through much of the capital and the provinces, guarding the rhythms of private life, cloaking rose gardens and the many things that may be labeled a deviance by the Islamic Republic. In the months leading to the 1997 presidential election, Mohammad recalls walking out of the family compound to a blitz of posters of frontrunner Ali Akbar Nategh-Noori, speaker of the Majlis, which were plastered outside all the walls.

"There's no door-to-door canvassing like there is here," Mohammad said. "There's no TV advertising either. The only similarity is the scale of advertising--in terms of billboards and posters. The main drive is word of mouth, information passed on in taxi cabs, mosques, at work, homes, universities."

Using his power base as speaker of the Parliament, Nateq-Noori was campaigning on promises to improve the economy, and to "keep away the United States and enforce stricter Islamic law," the New York Times reported. Khatami "the leading underdog," it said, was pledging "more personal freedoms, more jobs and no more male supremacy."

"On television, they constantly broadcast pictures of Nategh-Noori going here and there, taking part in ceremonies," Mohammad said. "It was basically screaming from every door and wall that we should vote for Nategh-Noori. And it got to a point where Ayatollah Khamanei came on TV and said everyone knows who the maslah--the better one--is. Everyone understood that to mean we were supposed to vote for Nategh-Noori."

But to Iran's suppressed youth, teeming with testosterone, armed with satellite TV and the internet, there was no competition between the two cand

idates. To Iran's persecuted second-class citizens--women--the tremendous support of the conservatives for Nateq-Noori was the strongest reason to vote for any other candidate.

Though Nateq-Noori posters outnumbered Khatami's by a ratio of 10 to 1, Mohammad said Khatami's posters were superior. "Khatami had glasses on, the other one didn't," Mohammad said. "Khatami's glasses were key. Later in the campaign, [Noori] also adopted glasses--fake prescription glasses--to appear attractive to women and students."

Mohammad laughs.

Khatami, "he had a poster like this," Mohammad said, posing with his chin resting on his hands. "Khatami had great photographers. His posters had a black background. He always had a smile, a big smile that showed off his teeth. Mullahs don't show their teeth when they smile. At most, they manage something like this," he said clasping his lips together and faintly turning curving the corners. "Nategh-Noori's photos were boring--just like photos of the shahs."


Ali's recollections of the 1997 presidential campaign are very similar.

"Two months before Khatami was elected, everyone thought Nateq-Noori was going to win, everyone from the BBC and the national press on down," Ali said. "Noori went to many different cities and towns. He was so well known and so famous that Khatami was just viewed as this mohreh"--a dispensable piece in a chess game.

Campaigning didn't mean anything until then, not in a Western sense. There was no base that could hire 5,000 people and mobilize them. Any gathering was khod-joosh--simultaneous in a sense, Ali explained. People would seek out pictures of Khatami on their own and spread them around. "It was all very primitive," he said. "You didn't know where to go and get these posters. We had no idea where the headquarters were. All of a sudden a friend would show up from somewhere with a stack of Khatami posters."

One day a stack of these posters found their way to Ali and his friends. They took them back to their neighborhood. "Everyday I would hang a poster of Khatami on our front gate. The next morning it would have a tear in it. I'd put up a new poster, and I'd find it torn again the next day," he said.

Well aware that word of mouth was the ultimately engine that drove the campaign, Ali set out to do a lot of talking. "I didn't bother with urban dwellers and university students," he said. "We were already like-minded. I worked the peripheries, the 'quiet places' where many had perhaps not have heard much about Khatami."

Any relative he could engage in a conversation, he engaged in a debate about the presidential election. "'Who are you voting for? Why aren't you voting?' I would ask."

Before Khomeini came to power in 1979, rumors spread that electricity and public transportation would be provided for free to the poor. "During the Khatami campaign the rumor was that if he wins, meat"--chunks of meat in thick Persian stew is an indication of a household's wealth--"would become cheaper," Ali said. "It's ridiculous. But when I was sitting there listening to this, I thought, 'No, I don't think so,' but I didn't say anything. When you're campaigning, you don't say, 'No, no, no, this isn't so.' But now I think you should spell these things out for people: If the administration changes, meat is not going to be half price. It may be more expensive."

Still, "there was something significant about those debates," he recalls, and "when you went to the parks, there were beautiful girls passing flowers and [pro-Khatami] flyers to passing motorists. These were all significant events. They marked publicly the emergence of a new force, a shift in society."

Separately, Mohammad adds, "It was a lot like the Howard Dean campaign--anti-establishment, grass-roots, and with no real party backing. It was the hip thing to support Khatami and that's why a lot of people got involved in politics. Lots of young people had posters of Khatami on their car windows and drove around picking up girls.


According to Mohammad, the government conducts polls in secret, and based on those predictors during the 1997 campaign, the conservative camp sensed doom.

"There were a few polls out toward the end of the campaign--we didn't know it then, we found out later--that showed Nategh-Noori losing. There are polls in Iran, but they're confidential. Sometimes certain newspapers with close government sources will reveal something. But polls are generally taken in secret.

Mohammad continues, "Voting was a few days after Ashoora"--a solemn religious holiday where Shiites commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein. "So the right-wing, the Hezbollahis, gathered a bunch of soo-sool boys"--metrosexual types--"supplied them with posters of Khatami to wave, then had them go out to play music and make a lot of noise on Ashoora. They had the girls with them act immodestly. It was supposed to turn off a lot of the religious types that were leaning toward Khatami.

"They filmed a lot of the things [this group] did and broadcast it on the news. I remember seeing it. When they wanted to give a roundup of the Khatami campaign, they showed those scenes. They kept showing a girl leaning out a window. The girls, wearing thick makeup, and in short manteaux, had kerchiefs running down their heads, and were yelling, Khatami! They wanted to say, 'Look at the [corrupt] types supporting Khatami.' They wanted Khatami himself to come out and tell these people to stop, therefore turning off the young people. Many people thought this was all genuine. Later we found out it was staged by the right-wing. The reformers, the Khatami people, later exposed them."

The reformist newspaper Salaam had come out the day before the election and announced a Khatami win, Mohammad remembers. "It's not a paper I read then, but it came out and said Khatami was winning. I didn't believe it."

Ali was just as incredulous.

"Up to two weeks before the elections, I sometimes thought it was going to be a farce like the previous elections," Ali said. "But all of a sudden the students started holding discussions, engaging with the public."

During this time, newspaper kiosks pulsed with new life. Ali went to the newsstands every afternoon and picked papers like wildflowers from a field. He piled a stack of them into his arms and hurried home to bask in every line.

"One week before the election, there was a certain energy in the city," he said. "At moments it felt like this may really happen. Even so, until the last moment it wasn't 100 percent that Khatami would win. Nobody believed it.

"Two days before the election, Resalat newspaper carried on its front page a political forecast that the conservatives would win in every town and city--except Yazd, which is Khatami's hometown.

"Everyone was sure Noori was going to win. Even on the day I went to vote, my friend and I could only dream of a Khatami win. As we were walking to the polls, we entertained fantasies of Nateq-Noori failing to get the votes to sweep the election and we would have to move to a second phase. Though we were among the optimistic, a Khatami win was still an unattainable dream to us."

"Those who were conducting polls knew Khatami would be elected. Salaam newspaper, which supported Khatami, published a big photograph of Khatami the day before the election with a banner headline that read Salaam bar Khatami"--Hello, or Peace be upon Khatami.

On the morning of the election, Mohammad and a

friend went to the polls near his house. "There were a lot of religious people there, a lot of young people, of course, and surprisingly a lot of chic women, too. All had turned out to vote for Khatami--all of them. This was such a great opportunity to say, 'Mr. Khamanei, we desperately need a change.' The vote was a message to Khamanei more than anything else.

That morning, Ali had an information systems exam. "At 8 in the morning, I still had no news," he said. "At 10 a.m., when I left class, the radio announced that in the votes counted so far 6 million were in favor of Khatami, 2 million in favor of Nateq-Noori. It was obvious Khatami was going to win then. It was quite sweet."

At 9 p.m., when Khatami was officially announced the winner, Mohammad and his friend got in the car and headed jubilantly toward the center of Tehran. "People appeared to be more or less excited," he said. "Some honked their car horns."

"Around Taghteh Tavoos,"--a major thoroughfare--"we stopped. We saw a Japanese reporter interviewing someone. I got out of the car to tell this [reporter] how excited we were. We had just won! It was as if we had won a soccer match. All of a sudden though, a Hezbollahi van pulled up and a group of these mean-looking types got out. They were headed for the Japanese guy. We fled. I don't know what became of that poor guy."

Mohammad pauses for a moment.

When at the end of the campaign the mille-fueille of posters came down, they were in themselves as thick as a wall, he says, demonstrating the width of the paper wall with a stretch of his thumb and forefinger.

To be continued.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

*The names in this article have been changed.

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