Hopes pinned on Iran's 'chocolate' man
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - As the Muslim world prepared to celebrate the Eid holiday, which
started on December 8, Iranian students clashed with security officials at
Tehran University in the heart of the Iranian capital.
Busy with coverage of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the world's media
almost failed to report on the clashes - which spoke volumes about the
accumulating tension within Iran, as the country prepares to march into the
final six months of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's first term in office.
Ahmadinejad is expected to seek another term, and this has made reformers in
Iran - particularly young people - visibly angry. The official IRNA news agency
described the demonstrators as an
“illegal splinter group” that was “savage” and carried "insulting slogans",
while Reuters said they were "carrying pro-democracy banners".
Tehran University - the oldest and largest in Iran, also housing the country's
largest library - is nicknamed "The Mother University" by Iranians. The venue
for the latest clashes between students and security is symbolic. Tehran
University - officially inaugurated as a liberal and progressive institute of
higher education in 1934 - was the first university in Iran to admit women, in
1937. It was the same university where riots first broke out against the shah
in 1979, and security forces opened fire at students.
Twenty years later, similar disturbances took place, this time against the
Islamic Republic, in July 1999. Trying to control the university has always
been a high priority on the state's agenda, leading to the November 2005
appointment of Ayatollah Abbasali Amid Zanjani, who has close ties to Grand
Ayatollah Ali Khameni, as university chancellor. He was replaced nine months
ago by Farhad Rahbar, a former vice president with close ties to Ahmadinejad.
Why now and why Tehran University? The date of the violence is historic, given
it was during this time of year when students demonstrated against the shah, a
date that has become known as "Students' Day". Days before the clashes took
place, reformers held their annual congress in Tehran, putting the final
touches on their election strategy for next year's presidential elections.
Hosting the event was the Islamic Iran Participation Front and its president,
Mohsen Mirdamadi, who harshly criticized Ahmadinejad's foreign and economic
policies, saying, "Repairing the damage [caused by the current president] would
indeed be a difficult task."
The man everybody is watching - former president Mohammad Khatami - has kept
people wondering whether he will run against Ahmadinejad. He has to date not
announced his nomination. "He has not yet decided," said his brother, Mohammad
Reza Khatami. If he fails to run, reformers are pinning their hopes on former
prime minister Mir-Hossein Moussavi - who also remains "undecided".
Khatami was expected to speak to students at Tehran University on Sunday, but
the riots and arrests prevented him from doing so. He was also scheduled to
speak at Alm-o Sanat University, Ahmadinejad's alma mata, but canceled, for
similar reasons. Former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi - another reformer
who is running for office - called on Khatami to decide by December 10 if he
wanted to run for office or not. If he does, Karroubi hinted, then he would
step down in favor of the ex-president.
Other reformer candidates are also expected to back out if Khatami joins the
race, so that votes will not be divided within the reformer camp and lead to
the re-election of Ahmadinejad. That is what happened in 2005, when voter
turnout was 60%. Former deputy minister Tajzadeh believes that if even 10% of
those who did not vote four years ago cast ballots this time, it would prevent
the re-election of Ahmadinejad.
Speaking shortly before the arrests, Khatami said, "Everyone feels that our
country is in need of reform. Preparing plans and making arrangements for
change is not a difficult task. But the current atmosphere is not ripe to
implement such plans." Realistically and prophetically, Khatami added to his
preemptive argument, "People should remember that whoever takes office will not
be able to perform overnight reforms."
These are the words of a changed man - not the same Mohammad Khatami that
Iranians knew in the 1997-2005 period. This is a man made wiser by experience -
and setbacks. Khatami remembers only too well the nightmare he faced trying to
push through his reforms during his years in power. That has made him more
realistic, and more reluctant to nominate himself for yet another round as
president - afraid of yet another term of failure.
Even before, when he served as minister of culture and national guidance in
1992, Khatami was drowned by conservatives and forced to resign when he tried
to relax the state's control over film, art, music and literature. He was voted
into presidential office twice, in 1997 and 2001, with more than 20 million
votes each time, mainly by young people who saw hope in his promises of reform.
Elaine Sciolino, author of Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran,
described Khatami's campaigning: "He was a populist candidate, would get on a
bus and kiss babies and shake hands. And he had such an extraordinary
personality and such charm. It sounds sort of trite or superficial, but he's as
charming as [former US president] Bill Clinton. And that goes a long way. He
charmed the people of Iran. He charmed them with his personality, with his good
looks, and with his promises."
Reality was different once he made it to the Presidential Palace. In 2001, 60
parliamentarians from Khatami's reformist group were brought to court for their
views, and the president was unable to defend them. In 2002, another 17 were
also brought to court for liberalism; one was sentenced to 40 lashes, one was
arrested, and another was fired. This ruined Khatami's credibility inside Iran,
and many accused him of having deceived the people. Voter turnout in 1997, for
example, was 80%. By 2001, it had dropped to 66.6%.
Today's Iran is held at the throat by inflation, rising unemployment and
disappointment in Ahmadinejad, who came to power in 2005, promising to share
oil wealth with the people and make life easier for everybody. That has not
happened, to say the least, and Iran continues to face the threat of a war with
the US, due to its nuclear program.
Tahmasb Mazaheri, the governor of the Central Bank of Iran, was dismissed by
the president for calling for the liberalization of bank rates and more control
on loans to reduce inflation, which reached 30% (it had been 10% under
Forty percent of those who are going to vote in June 2009 are young people,
below the age of 30. The need for change is no longer a luxury, as far as
grassroots Iranians are concerned. Unemployment stands at over 16%, while
female unemployment stands at a high 22%. Another 31% of young men and women,
aged 15-29, are unemployed. Within this range, 34% are in the 15-19 age group
and 16% are 25-29. Currently, 800,000 Iranian youth enter the job market every
year. If elected to office, Khatami would be required to provide huge
investment - which will not come so long as the country is at dagger's end with
the US - and with a growth rate of more than 6% a year.
Khatami's reluctance to run for office, his no-show at Tehran University, his
silence on the arrests, and the mild words he delivered on the difficulty of
reform, are all testimony that perhaps the man is becoming too old to lead a
reform campaign at the age of 65.
He is simply disenchanted and fears that if he is elected president - and fails
to deliver - he will be remembered for what he failed to achieve, not for what
he dreamt of making in Iran. In December 2005, to celebrate the former
president who had just left office, an event was hosted in Tehran honoring
Khatami, who was described as "the man with the chocolate robe" (in reference
to the color of his cloak).
One of the presenters and organizers of the fashionable ceremony was Pegah
Ahangarani, a popular 20-year-old Iranian actress. Khatami was treated like a
pop star among the youth and teenagers attending the ceremony. So much has
changed among Iranian youth since then, and within Khatami himself. Noteworthy
is that we don't see Khatami in the trendy "chocolate robe" anymore. He now
wears a dull gray cloak - perhaps reflecting his mood and personality. Clothes,
after all, speak volumes on how a person feels.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst and editor-in-chief of
Forward Magazine in Damascus.