Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Dec 10, 2008
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 Khatami).

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.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Iran: A case for legal evolution
(Dec 5,'08)

Economic noose tightens around Iran
(Nov 20,'08)

Iran also ripe for change (Nov 6,'08)



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110