Iran: The Rules of The Game

Now that Mr. Mohammad Khatami is in post for another four years mandate, after an overwhelming victory on his rivals and opponents, his task may be even harder than by the past. However, he has immediately given the tone of the next partition he was going to play when he advised ” patience, moderation, and prudence” to his supporters, and he added: ” Now the honorable Iranian nation , as winner of this context, is determined in its just demands and expects the government and the system to take bigger steps to fulfill them… Freedom of speech, criticism and even protest within the law, is the precondition for quicker victory”. Indubitably, followers as well as enemies would never dismiss these words as “euphoric rubbish” until they see the end of his era. This is not to say he is not serious or does not mean exactly what he promised. On the contrary, he might very well be the man Iran needs right now for many qualities bestowed to him. Yet, he is far from being the only “king” on the iranian chessboard, not just because there are several other leaders, but above all because he is since the departure disabled by the system he is trying to rule or to reform, and the key word is here : the constitution!

An official biography of President Khatami introduces him as a well educated son of a respected cleric – actually an Ayatollah, which is the highest title in the Shi’i religious hierarchy. In a region where the rulers, if they are not kings and princes, come to power either from the barracks – generally without even the certificate of a secondary school-, or from the streets , carried by a populist dusty wave, which once vanished would let them plaguing the country for a quarter of a century, Khatami is certainly more a brilliant leader. He has attended Qom theology school – : a reference for the Shi’ites matched only by the Al Azhar mosque in Cairo which displays the same kind of lectures for the Sunnites- , and he got his B.A in philosophy from Isfahan University, and lately he completed his studies at Teheran University where he attended courses in educational sciences, before returning to Qom for the Ijtihad seminary. This is to make him already a man of an interesting profile for the iranian intelligentsia which was by then struggling against the ruthless power of the Savac- : Mohammad Ridha Shah dreadful police. That’s how he got involved in the political activities against the Shah. That’s how he became a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini and worked closely with his son Ahmed and some other religious leaders. That’s how also he has been appointed twice as Minister of culture, first during the premiership of Mirhossein Mousavi ( 1982), then a second time by President Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989), not to speak of his responsibilities as head of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces and chairman of the War Propaganda Headquarters. Otherwise, the man we are talking about is really an “insider” . He is a pure product of the iranian political- religious establishment. The fact that he is acquainted with three foreign languages – English, German, and Arabic – and that he studied philosophy, while not disadvantaging him, does not make him a liberal in the western acceptance of this term, although he is deemed to be more open- minded than any of his rivals who run for presidency.

This is a man of culture, and an author who has written a number of books and articles in different fields. All right! How can we explain then that during his presidency, writers and journalists and other liberal opponents and intellectuals have been hunted down and arrested and molested and dragged in mud ? What did he do for them? He shed tears! That was great if he was sincere, and would have been greater if he has retired, said his critics. Let’s remind the reader that if some irreducible opponents to the Islamic Republic- such as the National Council of the Iranian Resistance, led by Massaoud Rajawi – consider him responsible for the murder of hundreds of people – among them writers and artists and varied intellectuals-, even before he was elected president, what occurred in his first term might have completely shattered his image as a “democratic” or a ” reformist” ruler. It is known that hard-line judges closed some 40 pro reform newspapers, and jailed prominent allies of the president , and arrested dozens of liberal Islamist dissidents in a pre election crackdown. Yet, as bizarre as that may sound to the Western mind, 21.7 million or 76.9 percent of the total of 28.2 million votes went to this man, and he was neither the single nor the second candidate, since there were nine others running for the post! Indeed, there might have been some fraud, as it has been pointed out by the observers of the dissident NCIR of Mr. Rajawi who even talked of” wide boycott” of the election by the majority of the people. But as there is no evidence, these allegations have not been taken in consideration by foreign observers. How then can we explain the mystery of that victory?

To answer that question we have to put it in its real context and to assume that if Iran is not currently and rapidly changing , then its people is so craving for change that it is ready even to the more incongruous compromises with the political- religious class. Otherwise, if Khatami is not the man by whom the change may happen, at least he is the hope of it. Yet, far from answering the above question, this is perhaps to complicate it , for we admit – if at all – that iranian people haven’t got any choice while making their choice. The paradox cannot be understood if we do not step forward to make another hypothetical statement: thanks to the constitution the game is over even before starting. Otherwise, the voters as well as their candidates are being held within the limits of a system set up to maintaining them as hostages of a single man , who is neither their elect president nor a person subject to their will. This man is the “Imam” or the “Faquih”, the spiritual leader of the Republic whose function much resembles to the great inquisitor in the Christian middle age history. And to make the picture more understandable to the Westerners, some observers summed it up in these simplified terms: the struggle is between reformists and hard-liners, they say, and it happens that the “Faquih”- Ayatollah Ali Khameini – is at the head of the forces opposing resistance to any change. the basis of such statements is the fact that the repression that has undermined the reformist program occurred with the full support of both Ayatollah Khameini and the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. As a matter of fact, they have used a variety of non elected institutions – the judiciary sections of the Revolutionary guards, the state controlled radio and television, and the Guardian Council – to relentlessly block proposals that would facilitate political competition and open discourse. And this is likely what happened really. However our question was not about who did everything to undermine the reforms, but rather about who did nothing to oppose it and is still at the top of the state! That’s the point.

While pointing out to the 1979 post revolutionary constitution (amended in 1989) which gives both reformists and hard-liners enough ammunition to advance their own versions of how the Islamic Republic should be run, some observers locate the tensions not only between people of different options, but also between democratic and undemocratic elements in the iranian constitution , or to put it plainly, between popular and Divine sovereignties. Thus, since the constitution contains a number of clauses running implicitly or explicitly counter to the principles of popular sovereignty, no matter what any reformist president, any democratic parliament, would do, there would be always important forces able to counter them in all legitimacy. Ultimately, the “Faquih” can even depose the president of the Republic even if had been elected by 100,100 % of the voters. Such a system – we must acknowledge it – has no equal! This is to make of Khatami at the one hand, a responsible as a key player, and on the other hand, he would always find an excuse for not fulfilling his promises. And much more important in respect of the foreign policy which involves regional and international issues, the rules of the game are almost the same.

A 1998, May 14 Congressional statement about Iran under Khatami (:Weapons of Mass Destruction, Terrorism, and the Arab Israeli conflict) concluded that if it is ” now possible to discern a new vocabulary ( emphasizing: détente, stability, and the dialogue of civilizations), while the new government has launched a diplomatic charm offensive to mend fences with its Arab Gulf neighbors most notably manifested by its recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia”, however other aspects of Iran’s foreign and defense policy ” show more continuity than change”. The american statement alleged that “Tehran could probably acquire a nuclear capability within a few years ” if it were to obtain fissile material and help from abroad; but ” without such help, it could take Iran 5 or 10 years”. Now, if this estimation is valuable, two questions rise to the mind: 1- Where is Iran nuclear capability right now? And 2- Why in the light of this data the USA are just closing their eyes about Iran – deemed not only to be in possession of nuclear capability but also of chemical and biological weapons – , and opening them widely on a barren Iraq unable even to give food to its people? Moreover, in the light of what happened since 1998, it is almost amazing to notice that after four years, the Congressional statement we quoted is still valuable. In fact, if we remove the year 1998 and put 2001 instead, nobody would notice anything!

Some people however may not agree on this point. For them Iran has considerably changed . Admittedly, it has , what then did not change? For if we try to make two lists, one for the things that changed and the second for the others that remained as they were before Khatami, are we sure that the first list would be longer ? The fact is that Khatami in his first term had either to put up with the political configuration or merely to go away. He made the first choice which led him to sacrifice some of his allies in order to get a second term. That was a pure political act, even advised by Machiavelli in his famous Prince. Nevertheless, nobody here is dupe as to the other party’s strategy. We know for example that the second front – which sustained the reelection of Khatami- is composed of no less than 18 organizations with disparate interests and ideological orientations. Among them, we find The Association of Combatant Clerics, of which the President is a member; the Islamic Revolution Mojahedeen Organization ; the Islamic Iran Solidarity Party ; the Servants of Construction ; the Freedom Movement of Iran (founded by former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan)…etc. Among these people, there are factions that while criticizing the impotency of the President, preferred to follow him in hope that something would happen in his second term.

Needless to say that the hard-liners identified as ” the followers of the Imam” are no less ordered. Their coalition is composed of 16 organizations, and the link between them – excluding the Imam or the Faquih- is the mere belief that the concept of democracy is a Western import that has nothing to do with Islam. Here are gathered the ingredients of any eventual civil conflict : on the one hand, the reformists and the democrats struggling for a popular sovereignty, and on the other hand the “followers of the Imam”. So far, the system is working and some are even satisfied with it. But this is not going without repression, violence, injustice, and misery. The system even allows to a Minister in the Cabinet of the President to run against him! Thus, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani and Vice President Mostafa Hashemi-Taba were candidates against their own boss: Khatami ! Of course, this is to rise a delicate question not only about their loyalty, but most of all about the meaning of the reforms to them. For if they think that Khatami is unable to carry out his program, just what were they doing in HIS Cabinet? And if they think that he is a good president, so why run against him? Some observers suggest that this was a strategy monitored by the hard-liners who would have eventually supported any candidate – including reformists- to divert votes from Khatami. If this is to reveal accurate, it is even much more dangerous to the reformist camp that would be weakened by such dividing manipulations.

Here appears the necessity – maybe even the urgency – of a step that Khatami, although empowered by his recent plebiscite, seems- so far- unable to accomplish, to the despair of his supporters: an amendment of the Constitution in order to give the President the legal tools to make the real changes the country needs. Something like the act of Charles De Gaulle in 1958 when he resorted to the referendum and asked the French: would you like to change the constitution, yes or no ? And the French said: Yes. And that was the birth of the fifth Republic.

Now, is Khatami willing to move forward? And where to? That’s the question!

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.

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