To be taken by surprise by events in Iran has become almostroutine. The election victory of Mohammed Khatemi in May 1997 came asa surprise. Now, with the student demonstrations during the pastweek, Iran has once again surprised us with perhaps the biggestchallenge to the Islamic regime in the past 15 years.
The easiest way for us to explain the unexpected turn of eventswould be to repeat the fashionable mantra that this is anotherinstance of the clash between the hard-liners and reformist PresidentKhatemi.
A more apt description is that the events of the past few daysreflect the paradoxes and contradictions in Khatemi himself. He is onthe one hand part of the ruling elite and believes in the basictenets of the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, he is genuinelycommitted to certain changes and reforms.
But it seems impossible in the case of Iran to have "virtualtheocracy." To the vast majority of Iranian citizens, "reform" meanssomething different from what it means to Iran's rulers. This isclearly understood by the hard-liners, who justifiably see truereform as their own doom and the end for all practical purposes ofthe Islamic Republic. The hard-liners have been harassing, arresting,torturing and murdering for the past two years not just to opposeKhatemi. They have committed these crimes mainly because they fearthe growing forces within Iranian civil society. The women,progressive clerics, journalists and youths at the forefront of thestruggles have demands that are not identical with Khatemi's ideas ofreform.
The past two years have witnessed an amazing flourishing of civilsociety, an unprecedented critique of reactionary laws and the ruleof the supreme leader. At the same time, there have been continuedhuman rights violations, murders of secular and nationalist figures,persecution of minorities, torture and detention of prominent clericsand stonings and executions of ordinary citizens as well asactivists.
No, it would be too simplistic to conclude that the hard-linershave pursued these policies just to oppose the president. The maintarget of the hard-liners has been the forces within Iran's growingcivil society, forces that now act in the name of democracy ratherthan that of Islam. These forces oppose reactionary laws againstwomen and religious minorities, and reject the idea of a Western"cultural invasion." When the protesting students chanted "Long liveliberty, death to despotism" and "Liberty or death," they were usingthe voices and slogans that ushered in the 1906 IranianConstitutional Revolution.
The students' slogans for liberty and justice were not justgeneral terms. The students have given these words specific meaningthrough their particular demands. The protests resounded against themain organs of the Islamic regime: the supreme religious leader, thejudiciary, the security forces, the revolutionary guards and theparliament. The students have demanded freedom for politicalprisoners and freedom of the press. They have evoked as their heroesand ideals not just Khatemi but also nationalist leaders Daryush andParvaneh Forouhar, murdered in 1998, and former prime ministerMohammed Mossadegh, overthrown in 1953. These nationalists are noheroes of the Islamic Republic; the Ayatollah Khomeini so hatedMossadegh that he refused to tolerate having a street named after theprime minister following the Islamic Revolution.
Everyone from the leader to the president has condemned the actsof violence against the students and has promised justice andpunishment for the perpetrators of violence. But these pleas andpromises have been made before, in the aftermath of the murders ofnationalist leaders, the numerous cases of harassment of ordinarycitizens at the hands of vigilantes and, recently, the arrest of Jewsas spies.
The unkept promises of the past are coming back to haunt Khatemi.The students, disappointed that Khatemi has not been more active,chanted, "Khatemi, Khatemi, where are you?" Surprisingly, it wasKhatemi who condemned the protesters' leaders as "attacking thefoundations of the regime and of wanting to foment tensions anddisorders." He warned that "deviations will be repressed with forceand determination."
President Khatemi is not a cause but rather a symptom of change.He represents the paradox of both belonging and remaining faithful tothe regime, and at the same time presenting an agenda that shakes itsvery foundations. He is caught between two forces.
The standard by which we judge Khatemi, or any force in Iran,should be the Iranian people's demands and aspirations, asarticulated by representatives of the growing civil society.Democratic forces around the world cannot afford to be cynical abouttheir own values: They should support those values when they arebeing reasserted and fought for in countries like Iran. When and ifKhatemi encourages those values through deeds as well as words, heshould be wholeheartedly supported. And when he attempts to blockthem or throw doubts upon them, he should be criticized accordingly.
The writer is a visiting senior fellow at the WashingtonInstitute for Near East Policy.
© Copyright 1999 The WashingtonPost Company