In Iran, don't believe reformist talk

As the Iranian election approaches, hope springs eternal among Westerners that the inevitable reelection of President Mohamad Khatami is a big step along the road to a more pluralistic system.

Mr. Khatami's campaign has thrust issues such as human rights, democracy, and religious tolerance into the public domain. He has assured Iranians that their votes on June 8 will make a difference to fundamental reform within the Islamic system.

But what appears on the surface is far from reality in Iran. Several important facts have been lost among whatever hopes there might be that Khatami will be able to deliver the goods.

Over the past four years, there have been three elections in Iran in which candidates who ran on reform tickets swept to victory: the 1997 poll that brought Khatami to power; the 1999 elections to village, city, and town councils; and the parliamentary elections last year. Yet Iran today is more of a theocracy than it was four years ago.

The conservative clerical establishment has taken over the state by reasserting itself in major institutions, including the judiciary, the press, law enforcement, and the intelligence service. Public opinion plays only a minimal role in the political process. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tended to intervene decisively in politics more than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ever did, and he is now micromanaging state affairs.

As a result, it seems likely that Khatami's second term will have a minimal effect on Iran's long-term direction. The reform movement as we know it reached its limitations a year ago.

So why should Iranian voters turn out? A slowly emerging social movement for change, driven by young Iranians and intellectuals, will continue in the long term. But this gradual process of social transformation will not prompt profound political reform in the near future. At the same time, the debate in small intellectual circles over the need for an Islamic reformation - the search to make Islam more compatible with modernity - may indeed be as dynamic as it has been since 1997. Still, it is uncertain when, if ever, their modernist ideas will take hold in mass society.

In his second term, Khatami will face one institutional obstacle and another of his own making. The restricted powers of the presidency fail to provide Khatami with the authority to change the system without the cooperation of the establishment. At the same time, Khatami has chosen not to take the only other course toward profound reform - using public opinion and public protest to force the conservatives to make concessions.

This makes his second term likely to follow what has become a familiar pattern: The president will continue to advance Iran's foreign policy objectives of improving relations with its Arab neighbors and key Western governments, while the conservatives dominate the domestic agenda. The closure of some 400 Internet cafes in Tehran in recent days is the latest in the ongoing conservative crackdown.

Khatami's numerous detractors within his own movement know that profound reform is at least a quarter of a century away. Mashallah Shamolvaezin, the famed editor of Iran's best reformist newspapers, said as much in public at the very start of the Khatami era. Many see the president as essentially preserving a system of absolute clerical control they believe could be dismantled if given the right push. Others go as far as to say that mainstream conservatives are tacitly supporting Khatami's candidacy because it is an insurance policy for the preservation of the Islamic regime. Indeed, there is much truth to this analysis.

With Khatami's landslide in 1997, it seemed the balance of power that had earlier shifted so completely toward the state clerics was now poised to slide back in favor of the "republicans" - those politicians, whether clerics or laymen, who see a more central role for elected institutions.

But Khatami concluded soon after entering office that his years as an intellectual may have served him well in creating ideas, but as a politician, these ideas would be difficult to implement. As a result, the radical faction of the reform movement abandoned Khatami long ago. Reformers were deeply disappointed when Khatami remained silent as students were beaten in the streets and reform-minded clerics and newspaper editors were jailed.

It is a mark of the deep divisions within the so-called reform movement that two reformers tried to run against Khatami. Mohsen Sazgara, once close to Khatami in the 1990s, as well as reformist city council member Ebrahim Asgharzadeh applied to appear on the presidential ballot. Although the Guardian Council, a body of conservative clerics and jurists who screen candidates, disqualified them, it is worth considering why such "natural" supporters of Khatami now feel impelled to oppose him.

Iran's real reformers, like Mr. Sazgara - those willing to risk their lives for change in the streets and in the press - have given up on Khatami. Should the rest of Iran follow their example?

Geneive Abdo, former Tehran correspondent for The Guardian, is the author of 'No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam' (Oxford University Press, 2000). She was recently named as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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