Number Two Hundred Fifty-One

Analysis of Near East policy from the scholars and associatesof THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE


By David Menashri

Iran¢s recent presidential elections constitute an impressive personalvictory for Hojjat ol-Islam Seyed Mohammed Khatami and a significant endorsementof greater pragmatism inside Iran. They also signal considerable populardiscontent with the Islamic regime. They indicate a desire for change inpolicy, within the framework of the Islamic system. The fact that the electionswere held on schedule and that only candidates loyal to the revolutionwere allowed to compete attests to the degree to which clerics have consolidatedtheir rule. However, the results show that they have so far proven lesseffective in implementing Islam as a way to resolve the day-to-day problemsfaced by Iran¢s people.

Mixed Results for Iranian Democracy: The vitality of the Iranian politicalprocess, the lively campaign, and the unexpected results attracted worldwideattention. By regional standards, the open criticism of regime policiesduring the campaign was astonishing, as was the regime¢s adherenceto the constitution. After the election, Iranians pulled posters of thelosing conservative standard bearer, Hojjat ol-Islam ¡Ali Akbar NateqNuri, signaling that the candidate of the regime had been defeated, butby the verdict of the people, not by coup d¢etat¯a refreshingchange in this region.

Since Iran's constitutional revolution early this century, freedom hasbeen an important goal of Iranians. They may not have fully achieved ityet, but Iranians have again shown their interest and involvement in politics.As they have on several other occasions this century¯e.g., the constitutionalrevolution, the Mosaddeq movement, and Khomeini¢s revolution¯theymade their preferences loud and clear, and the system responded. As a result,for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, the candidatesupported by the conservative establishment was defeated. The depth ofpopular disaffection was made clear by popular participation in the election,topping 90 percent. But the elections were far from being genuinely free,nor does daily life in Iran attest to much freedom; signs of openness shouldnot be confused with true liberalism. Only those considered loyal to theregime were allowed to compete in the election. Although 238 people declaredthemselves candidates, only four (and none of the nine women) were allowedto run by the regime¢s Council of Guardians, which screens all potentialcandidates for their Islamic credentials. The role of the Council thuslimited freedom of choice and constrained the possibilities for change.

A Real Choice: Although all four candidates followed *the Imam¢sline,* there were considerable differences among them, and especially betweenthe two main contenders. By Iranian standards, Khatami is a *liberal.*In contrast to Nateq Nuri¢s dogmatic devotion to the extreme positionsof the Islamic regime, Khatami¢s campaign statements signaled policiesof relative openness and tolerance, and a focus on social welfare and economicrehabilitation¯all of which would implicitly entail a less confrontationalposture toward the outside world. Whereas Nateq Nuri rejected outside culturalinfluence as part of a Western *cultural onslaught,* Khatami reasoned thatoutside influences could actually strengthen Iran, provided the countrypreserves its unique identity and independence.

Thus, Khatami rode into office on a wave of popular support for a morepragmatic approach to Iran¢s many problems. The key to his victorywas the vote of the *resentful*¯mainly the mostaz`afin (dispossessed),the young, women and the educated classes¯whose expectations remainlargely unfulfilled. Although Khatami has been out of office since 1992,he has gained a reputation for supporting openness. Of even greater importance,Nateq Nuri became the clear, if not quite open, choice of Supreme LeaderAli Khamene¢i and the conservative clerics. To the extent that theelections were a referendum, Nateq Nuri¢s dramatic defeat was a clearsetback for Khamene¢i. The result was a mandate for change, albeitwithin the framework of the Islamic system.

Constraints on Presidential Power: Despite his victory, significantlimitations inside the religio-political structure of the Islamic regimemay curtail any plans Khatami may have to change Iranian policy on keyissues. The president is not the preeminent authority in Iran, that distinctionbelonging to Khamene¢i. Khamene¢i has grown more assertive inarticulating policy and exercising political prerogatives in recent yearsand once his former rival Rafsanjani is out of the presidency, Khamene¢iis expected to strengthen his power further. He has promised to cooperatewith Khatami, but if Khatami tries to lead Iran in new directions he couldwell find himself stymied.

Khatami will also have to reckon with Rafsanjani, recently named toadvise an enlarged *Council for Ascertaining the Interests of the State*charged with mediating between the supreme leader and the government. Thisposition could give Rafsanjani considerable power to approve or rejectmajor policy decisions, in addition to his undiminished personal influenceand prestige. A key unanswered question will therefore be whether Rafsanjanialigns himself with Khatami, or tries to establish himself as a balancingpower among other institutions. Likewise, Khatami¢s rival Nateq Nuri,re-elected uncontested yesterday as Majlis speaker (with 211 of 243 vote,the rest abstentions), almost certainly will fight to maintain the powerof the conservative parliament and possibly thwart change. Nevertheless,Khatami¢s electoral mandate may discourage the popularly-elected Majlisto oppose minor policy alterations. The already strong nucleus of supportersfor Khatami¢s line in the Majlis may also help him against Nateq Nuriand his conservative allies. Finally, Khatami does not appear to have anindependent power base beyond the government to help him fend off the challengesfrom these other Iranian political powers. Although in Iran, as elsewhere,nothing succeeds like success and his resounding victory will doubtlessattract new followers, Khatami¢s freedom of action may ultimatelydepend on his ability influence key governmental agencies and constituencies,such as the bazaari merchants, the clergy, the revolutionary guard, andother Iranian power centers.

Khatami's Challenge: Rafsanjani assumed the presidency in 1989 witha similar mandate, stronger power base, equal prestige and even more favorablepolitical and economic conditions. But he failed to use this opportunityto produce a significant policy change. Today, Khatami has a more formidabletask, not least because there is growing popular disillusionment with theregime. In addition, Khatami was supported by a wide variety of groups,with very different agendas and political aims. Like Khomeini in his struggleagainst the Shah, Khatami became a symbol, standing for whatever the regimewas not¯a trait that varied from group to group and person to person.But now he must govern (or at least assert his role in governance) andin so doing must either chart a course among the differing aims of hissupporters, or else find some way to reconcile often competing goals. Thoughhe won¢t formally assume the presidency until August, Khatami doesnot have time to acclimate to office. Rafsanjani¢s failures make thelesson for Khatami clear: he must move forward quickly and authoritatively,and demonstrate leadership even before he enters office. So far, his statements(including about America, Israel, the peace process) are not significantlydifferent from the pragmatists¢ past declarations (except with regardto culture). In any case, what counts is actual policy, not statementsof intention.

To preserve domestic stability, the regime must address a myriad ofproblems, and soon. However, real change that could lead to a real improvementin the domestic situation cannot be achieved by slogans and promises, andmay require very significant deviation from the standing credo of the Islamicregime. The revolution has already deviated considerably from its foundingideology, yet this has clearly proven inadequate to solve Iran¢s social,economic, and political problems. What is needed now is tantamount to confessingthat the slogans of the revolution were impractical and misguided¯aherculean labor for any regime, let alone one so zealous as the Islamicrepublic. Indeed, long before the elections, Khatami expressed the fearthat the realities in revolutionary Iran could extend far from its bordersto discourage Islamists elsewhere, and thus *endanger Islam. * He is nowcalled on to prevent such a threat. In doing so, he may need to returnto more traditional interpretations of Islam, quite distinct from Khomeini¢sradical interpretations.

Eighteen years after the Revolution, its ideology is losing its persuasiveness,its politics have failed to remedy Iran¢s malaise, and the numberof disillusioned is growing. Khatami¢s victory has served the revolutionwith a severe warning. His election may provide the revolution with itslast chance to prove that its vision encompasses the cure for the country¢sproblems; it is surely a stiff warning that further decline will fuel aneven more serious domestic crisis.


David Menashri is the Parviz and Puran Chair for Modern Iranian Studies,Tel Aviv University and author of Revolution at a Crossroads: Iran¢sDomestic Politics and Regional Ambitions (The Washington Institute 1997).