Ahmadinejad vs. Khatami

By Abbas Djavadi – With former President Mohammad Khatami running for presidency on June 12, Iranians will have the choice between him and the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Do we really need to argue why Ahmadinejad’s reelection would be a continuing catastrophe for both Iran and the world? During his four-year term, he has aggressively led Iran in a course of confrontation and isolation, both domestically and internationally. And he has mismanaged the Iranian economy to an extent that unemployment, inflation, and poverty are the top concerns of the people in this oil-rich country.

And Khatami? Now that he has announced his decision to run, almost all reports are boringly repeating the fact that he failed to deliver on most of his promises of reform during his two terms of presidency 1997-2005 — to the disappointment of many of his initial supporters. It’s all true. Khatami himself said at the end of his second term that his «hands were tied.» In most crucial issues he wanted to make a difference, he was torpedoed or simply ignored by conservative forces in unelected bodies like the judiciary, or directly by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran’s political system is such that the ultimate authority lies not with the elected president but with the unelected Supreme Leader. He is the one who can filter any candidate in any election, and has the final say on defense, justice, media, foreign policy, and anything else he decides to interfere with. And the man with all this unlimited power is not elected by the people but selected by a Guardian Council, a group of clerics and lawyers appointed by the Supreme Leader himself.

Not much, then, one would argue, a president could do and no real difference whether Ahmadinejad is elected this time or Khatami. Well, not really.

Khatami’s tenure was a period of relative economic recovery in Iran. He opened the doors to dialogue and tolerance both to the Iranian populace and the West. And, on the nuclear issue, the uranium enrichment was halted for two years.

What most of Iranians remember from those days is that the political pressure on media, women, and intellectuals considerably decreased. Unlike the Ahmadinejad government, his predecessor Khatami did not stand on the way of people voicing their concerns and asking for changes. On the contrary. Government officials encouraged the people to express themselves to find solutions within the framework of the Islamic Republic’s laws. What prevented most of the important changes was not the unwillingness of the government but the rejection of higher instances: courts, the Guardian Council, or simply unofficial but freely acting «pressure groups» — all listening to what the Supreme Leader says and ignoring the president.

In the last two or so years of the Khatami presidency, conservatives (and reportedly Khamenei himself) were increasingly alarmed that Khatami’s opening of the society was getting out of control and that it would, if not stopped, create instability and threaten the whole political system of the Islamic Republic as witnessed with Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union of the late 1980s. Some argue that Ahmadinejad’s election was exactly intended to put the gene of social awakening and international moderation back in the box.

Let’s remember: from among the candidates, the one Khamenei would ultimately choose will be elected. That Khatami has decided to run indicates that he has first double-checked with the Supreme Leader and received a green light to run. This doesn’t mean yet that Khatami is already the Supreme Leader’s choice. It is unclear (and will probably remain so until the last day) whom the Supreme Leader will endorse in the decisive moment: his absolutely loyal protégé Ahmadinejad who created an atmosphere of radical confrontation and isolation but acted as an air-bag protecting the Supreme Leader from the pressure of social openness or Khatami who would again seek to open the society and choose a policy of dialogue and cooperation with the West.

Why should the Supreme Leader take a chance now with Khatami? There are many reasons why he would not. Ahmadinejad has suppressed all political discontent, even from moderate pro-establishment forces, kept the society as closed and — in short term — invulnerable as possible, and faced a threatening and confrontational Bush policy with the same tone of sable-rattling. President Bush’s Iran policy was cleverly used as a justification for pressure inside and isolation outside. A resumption of social opening under a President Khatami wood revive the old risks for the Islamic Republic, especially with an Bema administration in Washington that has raised expectations for dialogue and peaceful resolution of Iran’s problems with the West — something that might accelerate the opening process of the society and stronger demands for changes in foreign policy. And things might again get out of control.

And there are many reasons why the Supreme Leader may decide to choose Khatami. A continuing political and social pressure a la Ahmadinejad in a time of dialogue and peaceful resolution in international affairs might provoke exactly what is feared: an uncontrollable social unrest. With the Bush administration gone and an Obama administration ready to talk, there is less ground — domestically and internationally — for Ahmadinejad to justify his policies of confrontation and isolation.

We will wait to see who emerges as Iran’s next president. It is better for Iran and the world if Ahmadinejad is not the winner. For the West and especially the US, it is not about supporting either candidate, since the one who has the final say is not the president but the Supreme Leader. Whoever wins the presidential election, the key issue for the Iranian establishment — conservatives as well as reformers and pragmatists — is to see that there is a real change between Bush’s and Obama’s Iran policies. A real change will start to occur once Tehran is convinced that Washington is not after a regime change in Iran and that it is willing to treat Iran as it treats India or Russia.

The Obama administration has not formulated its Iran policy yet — or, if it has, the details are not yet in the public domain and we don’t know to what extent it differs from the Bush administration’s policies.

(Radio Farda’s Mehrdad Mirdamadi contributed to this analysis. Published also on RFE/RL’s website)