Khatami takes a final bow

Posted in Iran | 10-Dec-04 | Author: Safa Haeri| Source: Asia Times

PARIS - On December 6, outgoing Iranian President Mohammad Khatami went to Tehran's main university on the occasion of Students National Day - named after three engineering students killed in demonstrations during president Richard Nixon's visit to Tehran decades ago - and for the first time in three years he faced thousands of angry, frustrated students chanting "Daaneshjoo bidaar ast, az Khatami bizaar ast" (Students are alert and loathe Khatami).

It seems the failed reformist's era has come to an end, as the event was the "the most difficult" Khatami had faced since his election as president eight years ago, thanks mostly to students and youngsters of both sexes, who make up more than 70% of Iran's population of over 70 million.

"Bridges have been broken between us
and him since several years ago, but
also we knew that he could not give satisfactory answers to the students,"
said Abdollah Mo'meni, a leader of the Daftar Tahkim Vahdat (Office for Consolidating Unity), the largest and most popular Iranian student organization.

"It was good that they [pro-conservative and basiji - volunteer - students] organized the meeting, for if it had been the independent and dissident students, the outcome would have been more disastrous," he added, referring to the stormy and at times violent atmosphere of the encounter. Angry students from the ranks of those who had supported Khatami over the years, and paid a heavy price, shouted slogans, sometimes insulting, against him, such as "Khatami traitor, Khatami, shame, shame."

Khatami's speech, which lasted for more than an hour and was repeatedly interrupted by warm applause from students affiliated to the unelected organs of the establishment controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the one side, and vehement protests from pro-democracy elements on the other, contained nothing new except the fact that, for the first time, the embattled president also denounced some of the reformists for his demise.

In elections this year, the reformists were routed, with conservatives taking the majority of seats in the majlis (parliament). With his second term due to end next June, Khatami, who was elected on a wave of hope that he could introduce reforms, has failed to deliver.

"The obscurantists who insist that democracy is against Islam and also those of the reformists who have repeated past mistakes by politicizing everything both contributed to the failure of the reforms," Khatami told the students.

Nevertheless, most Iranian political analysts, even those who have cut ranks with him, agree that the meeting has no precedent in any country of the region, except Israel, and this in itself is a major and important achievement of Khatami's years of power.

"What happened at Tehran University on December 6, 2004, could well be the last service that Mohammad Khatami renders to this nation and its people," said Mas'oud Behnoud, a pro-reform journalist who escaped Iran for London two years ago after serving a three-month jail term.

"The picture of the president who stares directly at angry students and hears their shouts, including the harshest and most humiliating ones, has no precedent in the political life of Iran nor any other country of the region, most of them strangers to the idea of democracy," he pointed out.

When asked by a female student why he had systematically bowed to the demands of the conservatives who opposed his reforms, Khatami observed calmly that he had not retreated "even one centimeter" from his ideals, but bowed to the system of the Islamic Republic, saying "my aim had never been to change the system".

This point is central to understanding the fall of Khatami from a zenith of popularity to an abyss of unpopularity, for while he was banking on the possibility of uniting Islam and democracy, or fire and water, the 20 million to 27 million who voted for him in the 1997 and 2001 presidential elections were expecting, if not a change in the regime, certainly bold reforms in a system where all the powers are concentrated in the hands of one man who, as the representative of God on Earth, sits above everything, including the laws of the constitution, and therefore cannot be held responsible for human considerations.

"The long queue of those who in the past eight years have been sacrificed in the battle between the reformists and the conservatives for power, were assassinated, disabled, imprisoned or went into exile, is the best reason explaining the exceptional unpopularity of Mr Khatami," said Behnoud.

The last time Khatami visited the university was in 2001, when the hopes for reform were still alive. Now the dreams have evaporated as Khatami has continued along the path of bowing and retreating, all the while the hardliners have tightened their grip and are now bound to take control of the presidency, the last bastion still held by the reformists.

Newspapers in Tehran described the "sad event" of the university speech as the last meeting of the "architect of reforms with his supporters", but did not lament the fate of the man who, willingly or not, opened a new, somehow happy page in the grim history of the Islamic Republic and briefly gave Iranians their lost pride.

"While Iranians used to enjoy respect and prestige among both Muslims and the international community worldwide, they are now treated as an evil country due to the fanatic religious fundamentalists who will not let reforms be implemented," Khatami lamented.

Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which overnight turned the republic from a pro-West nation considered Washington's "gendarme" in the strategic region of the Persian Gulf into the staunchest anti-West, anti-American and anti-Israeli government in the world, Iranians, mostly the 3 million to 4 million who fled the newly established mollarchy, began to identify themselves as "Persian" rather than "Iranian" in order not to be identified with the Islamic Republic and its revolutionary and Islamic excesses.

However, it took the same people a few months into Khatami's first term of presidency to recover their "Iranianity", feeling almost proud of their smiling, polite, mild-mannered intellectual president, described by an admiring Western press as "moderate", while inside the country a spring wind of tolerance was blowing, giving birth to tens of independent newspapers, pushing women's headscarves back a little, inviting young boys and girls to walk hand-in-hand and allowing families to watch foreign television programs on their little screens at home. In short, a golden moment arrived for many Iranians.

Whatever the reasons behind Khatami's dramatic failure, whether weakness of character, shyness, unfitness for such a battleground, that he was too fragile facing dangerous animals, or more simply because the clerical establishment dominated by hardliners was not ready for such changes, the programmed death of the reforms and the so-called "official reformists" led to the escalation of demands from reforming the system into a change of the regime, and a sustained call for referendums as a new form for that end.

When students chanted "referendum", Khatami responded, "This is the first time in the recent history of this nation that you stand opposite a government representative and shout what you wish. If this government has not had any other success, this one alone is a huge accomplishment."

Jamshid Barzegar, a political analyst for the BBC's Persian service, commented, "The history of Iran will remember Mohammad Khatami as someone who received the warmest, almost unprecedented welcome, and was sent away in the coldest possible way."

Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.

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