Mohammad Khatami decided not to run for President at this year’s Iranian election. Rather than a crisis of faith in Iranian politics, it merely demonstrates his unyielding allegiance to the Islamic Republic.
With questions being raised whether Mohammad Khatami was prepared, or even had the stomach, to stand in Iran’s presidential elections on June 14th, a statement in late April confirmed that Khatami had not ruled out his candidacy. However, after weeks of speculation, the Entekhab [Election] website reported that Khatami would not stand in the elections.
There are conflicting views on whether Khatami (president form 1997-2005) would have actually been allowed to run in the elections by the Guardian Council, the powerful vetting body that has to clear candidates to enter the election campaign. Khatami voiced this concern when he was weighing his options in April: ‘The reality is that they will not allow me to enter the political scene’. He added: ‘Assume I run… their [the Guardian Council, the security and intelligence forces] unhappiness and concerns will increase and they will make you pay the cost, and it will be a cost with no results’.
Khatami was apprehensive that his candidacy would trigger further divisions amongst the Islamic Republic establishment – this may be the reason why he decided to step back from the fray. True to his cautious and circumspect character, Khatami made it plain that he would rather not stand in the election than to risk being unceremoniously disqualified by the Guardian Council. Instead, he passed the torch to the savvier, politically-seasoned, wheeling and dealing ex-president, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani – who ended up being barred from standing.
I dismiss the idea that Khatami would have been automatically banned from running because he represents the would-be opposition. It is important to note that while Khatami supported the democratic goals and aspirations of the Green Movement, his methodology differed greatly. Khatami eschewed social disorder or mayhem – which explains his reticence during and after the student dormitory debacle in the 1990s. Khatami was familiar with the constraints and boundaries of social and public protest in the Islamic Republic and always maintained that political change had to come gradually. The defining, and indeed lasting, feature of Khatami’s approach was his reluctance to engage in, or support, any behaviour that would threaten the foundation of the Islamic Republic. Khatami wanted to reform the system in order to save the system and this resonated loudly in his actions both during and after his presidency. His decision not to stand in the elections was no doubt influenced by this guiding principle.
What conclusions can we draw? For one, by contemplating to run in the 2013 presidential elections, Khatami was effectively expressing continued faith in the system. The ex-reformer-president argued that it was his duty to run: ‘If my coming would result in calm to settle in the country and inculcate hopes for the future among the youth, I would not say no to coming’. His faith in the system was made clear a year earlier when he voted in the March 2012 parliamentary elections. This move caused a stir among Green Movement supporters who accused him of committing treason against the democratic movement.
The vote, nonetheless, was symbolic – it was a testament of Khatami’s unyielding allegiance to the Islamic Republic as well as his faith in the pluralistic aspects of the hybrid democratic-theocratic political system. What is patently clear is that Khatami continues to believe in the system despite his disagreement with the election results in June 2009. In fact, in 2012, Khatami released a statement in which he urged reformists to participate in the coming presidential election in June 2013: ‘Participating in the election is a right, and we will make every effort to ensure this right is not taken from anyone’.
Khatami’s would-be candidacy was important, particularly after the contested 2009 elections. It would have guaranteed a high voter turnout, something that would have reinforced the democratic aspects and legitimacy of the regime. The former president continues to enjoy enormous popularity both at home, and abroad, where he left an indelible print in the language and lexicon of international relations. Khatami was the first Iranian/Muslim leader to carry the flag of dialogue and solidarity among nations with his ‘Dialogue among Civilisations’ discourse.
What his candidacy would not have guaranteed is a demonstration/protest-free environment – an environment the all-to-eager West would have certainly capitalised on with its much-touted regime change agenda.
The ‘Khatami experiment’ unleashed a vibrant civic activism that prevailed well beyond the end of the eight-year presidency. However, the budding pluralistic momentum came to a grinding halt. For all intents and purposes, today, Iran is in a state of war and in an emergency situation in which democratic development has been relegated to the margins. To Iran’s credit, no state can seriously contemplate institutional or political reform when it is perpetually under threat.
So while Khatami was a preferred candidate for many, he was not a pragmatic choice given the reality of Iran’s political woes. ■
Ghoncheh Tazmini is an Iranian-born political scientist who has worked with research institutes in Europe and Iran. She holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury and is the author of Khatami’s Iran.