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Iran: Analysis From Washington -- Leaders And Change

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 23 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Four years ago today moderate Mohammad Khatami won the Iranian presidency by a landslide vote, a victory that reflected the desire of many Iranians for change and that created expectations that he could and would change that country's direction.

Now, Iran is again preparing for presidential elections, on 8 June, and Khatami is again expected to win easily. But his record during his first term has prompted many both in Iran and elsewhere to ask whether he will be able to implement further reforms or whether as has happened in the past, conservative Muslim leaders will use their positions to block change or at least to water it down.

Despite Khatami's reformist agenda, the Iranian authorities have closed some 40 newspapers and jailed numerous intellectuals over the last two years. The Iranian president's calls for many reforms have made little headway. Moreover, according to the United States and other Western governments, Iran continues to sponsor international terrorist groups.

Part of this pattern reflects the complicated structure of Iranian government in which the president does not have the final say on many issues and in which Islamic leaders can and do intervene to promote their own goals. Part of Khatami's mixed success reflects both contradictions within his own program and his need to make compromises with the conservatives in order to get anything done.

But this pattern in Iran also points to a more general phenomenon around the world. Many people invest enormous hopes in individual political leaders only to discover that those leaders have far less freedom of action than their supporters assume.

Khatami is far from the only leader swept to power by a reformist electorate and then forced to compromise or even retreat in the face of deep-seated cultural and political forces. For all his reformism, Khatami has not been able to break free from the hostility many Iranians and especially the Shia Islamic leadership feel toward the United States. As a result, he has had to tread very cautiously on that issue too.

The Iranian president is far from alone in dealing with a political elite that in large measure consists of people who are holdovers from the earlier regime. In his case, this elite includes many who came to power with the fall of the shah and the rise of Ayatolah Khomeini almost a generation ago. These Islamist revolutionaries have entrenched themselves in a political system of their own design in which reformers face numerous hurtles to achieving their goals.

One Iranian analyst commented to a Western news agency on 21 May that the current campaign reflects this particular arrangement of political forces. "Khatami knows he will win [this election] and [therefore] has no need to advertise." At the same time, the analyst said, "the conservatives know they will lose [and] they see no benefit in advertising a lost cause."

But if the conservatives are convinced that they will lose the popular poll next month, a poll that pro-reform supporters believe will be "an informal referendum" on Khatami's programs, they clearly expect to matter in the future. Not only have they fielded a number of candidates to limit the size of Khatami's margin of victory and thus his claims of a mandate, but they have already signaled that they will use existing structures to slow down any changes later.

Khatami's expected re-election is likely to give him a new boost and allow him to promote his reforms, but the longer it takes him -- and the conservatives he faces plan to delay whenever they can -- the more people in Iran and elsewhere will question both whether he is a true reformer or whether he can ever implement his program.

Such questions too will likely be used against him just as they have been used against other reformers elsewhere. Nonetheless, Khatami's election four years ago and his likely re-election in June appear to change the face of Iran, even if this process is not as quick or easy as either he or his supporters would like.

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