The Smiling Cleric’s Revolution

Iran's optimistic reformers realize they've hit a dead end.


More than a decade before Iran’s politically disaffected had launched the Green Movement — much less the latest protests that broke out across the country on Feb. 14 and were brutally put down by police — they had the optimistic and incremental reform movement lead by the "smiling cleric" and philosopher Mohammad Khatami. If the latter had worked according to plan, the former never would have been necessary. The reformers had hoped Iran would serve as a model of democratic governance for the rest of the Muslim world. Now they’re taking their inspiration from the peaceful Arab uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Khatami was elected to two terms, beginning in 1997, with overwhelming support from young people and women, and he staked his tenure on the belief that the Islamic Republic could be peacefully transformed from within into a modern democracy. That era in the late 1990s came to be known as the "Tehran spring," an atmosphere of political openness then novel in the region. Civil society grew more confident, an independent press flourished, and reformists seemed ascendant within Iran’s political system. Khatami promised Iranians that the Islamic system could rule more lawfully and that the regime had the ability and the obligation to offer its people greater freedoms.

That was the theory, at least. In practice, incremental reform proved a spectacular failure. When Khatami was in power, his ideas were repeatedly vetoed by conservatives in a government resistant to democracy, before being definitively crushed by the police-state rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s 2009 election as president, the regime imprisoned tens of prominent reformist leaders and humiliated them in televised show trials.

Khatami now finds himself swept up in a revolt that promises an altogether different and more volatile path to change. But where the Green Movement’s other leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have confronted the regime from the outside, explicitly challenging its legitimacy, the former president craftily continues to play the "inside" game. While Mousavi and Karroubi assume the dissident mantle from the seclusion of their house arrest in Tehran — and now face the prospect of a death-penalty trial if hard-line parliamentarians get their way — Khatami plays the part of politician, though one with a fundamentally different goal from what he once had. If his original task was to use the Islamic Republic’s political process to prove the system could work on its own terms, his new agenda is to use it to show that it cannot.

To that end, Khatami is busy working with other strategists in Tehran to lay the groundwork for a fresh challenge to the hard-line grip on power ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. He sparked a political controversyafter announcing at the end of December a list of preconditions for the reformists’ participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The demands amounted to a wish list for the wholesale transformation of the Islamic Republic, and seemed designed to demonstrate precisely the sort of vital changes the system could not tolerate — the release of political prisoners, the proper implementation of the Constitution, and freedom of association for political parties.

Khatami laced his statement with dire warnings about the current state of the Islamic Republic, sounding distinctly pessimistic about his demands being met. "Given the current direction things are going, it seems conditions will only become more difficult, the routes more closed, and restrictions more myriad," he said, according to a report on his personal website.

Within opposition circles, analysts and leaders unanimously read Khatami’s gesture as a feint meant to draw out the system’s authoritarian posture and hostility to even a peaceful reform agenda. "Khatami has been a government insider; he knows full well that no one is going to pay any attention to his demands," said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of parliament now living in the United States.

Although Khatami’s gambit is subversive at heart, its attempt to participate in the system is cautious compared with Mousavi’s and Karroubi’s open challenges to the regime’s legitimacy. Hossein Karroubi, the dissident cleric’s son, made the point forcefully in an email he sent me: "Whoever wants to betray the people and do business with the government is only bound to destroy himself."

But elements of the regime have already fallen victim to Khatami’s ploy. Kayhan, the newspaper associated with Iran’s supreme leader, responded to Khatami’s announcement by denouncing him as a spy and traitor and calling for his execution. Other reports in the hard-line press attacked his tenure in government and mocked his "timid" political persona. Although predictable — hard-liners have been targeting Khatami since he cited fraud as a factor in Ahmadinejad’s reelection immediately after the 2009 vote — the attacks seemed to be precisely what the former president sought to elicit. By refusing to hear the reasonable demands of a former head of government, the regime has discredited itself with the greater public.

"Khatami’s move has broken up the politically stagnant atmosphere and was politically very astute," Ataollah Mohajerani, a former minister of culture and Islamic guidance under Khatami’s government now living in London, told me. "The system immediately attacked him, and now the reformists can say that it will not allow them to participate. That frees them up to take another step."

Khatami’s announcement, pitched more to establishment politicians than the public, did little to inspire the next-generation Iranians out protesting on Monday. But by proving the system could not take even basic steps required for living up to its own democratic principles, Khatami is working to attract a broader base of support for future civil disobedience. Although not all the protesters who have marched under the Green Movement banner share a single vision for Iran’s political future, a consensus has emerged among opposition strategists that popular demonstrations need to be used to pressure the regime.

Mousavi and Karroubi called for Monday’s protest in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, gambling that Iranians would turn out despite months of Green Movement dormancy. But reformists still consider elections the most opportune occasion to remind Iranians that their civil rights are being violated. To that end, they are focusing on leveraging the 2012 parliamentary elections to topple the Islamic Republic.

The difficulty is finding a strategy that avoids both the passivity of a simple boycott and the legitimizing effect of trying to field candidates. "The Islamic Republic expects a boycott. Nothing would make it happier," said Mohammad Tahavori, a prominent Iranian journalist now based in Boston. "The third way is to mount a public campaign demanding people’s right to a free election. This challenges people’s criticism into a specific demand, one that grabs the public’s attention and focuses on government accountability."

"People can be mobilized to show up at polling stations holding placards that say, ‘We won’t participate because our votes aren’t counted,’" Mohajerani said. That’s among the tactics reform leaders are discussing in their bid to transform the parliamentary vote into a platform for open dissent.

Iran’s once-vibrant civil society will neither turn its back on politics and retreat entirely into the private sphere, nor respond to the government’s violence in kind — but it also won’t extend its hand to the regime any longer. "A leader like Khatami may still believe that reform of the system is still possible in theory, were the government to properly abide by the Constitution," said Haghighatjoo. "But in practice, Khatami is aware that the system has led to a dead end."

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