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In Tehran at the end of September Mohammad Khatami rose to his feet to address some ten thousand students on the occasion of the one hundredth birthday of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979. Mr. Khatami captured Iran’s presidency two and a half years ago with promises to extract democratic freedoms from the hardline clerical establishment that has dominated Iranian politics for the past two decades, and to improve ties with the West. The students who came to listen to him, drawn from Tehran’s half-dozen universities, wanted to express their support for these goals, but in his speech Mr. Khatami often seemed to be reading from a different script altogether. His attack on the “spineless imitators of the West” and his call for piety, for example, would not have been out of place in a tirade by one of Iran’s hard-liners. Why, then, when the President had finished and sat cross-legged among the other dignitaries, was he loudly cheered, with female students holding up his photograph, their male counterparts bellowing his name?
There are two main reasons for this apparent anomaly, and both shed light on the President’s reform movement. The first is the need felt by Mr. Khatami to play down the potential that he has to change Iran dramatically. His stated goals of democratic accountability and the rule of law in a civil society may seem bland. In Iran, however, they are a direct challenge to the politically powerful clerics who have shaped the Islamic Republic since its inception. Mr. Khatami has to contend with a suspicious parliament, a doctrinaire judiciary, and with Ali Khamenei, a conservative Supreme Leader drawn from the ranks of the senior clergy who has been given powers unthinkable in a Western-style democracy. As a medium-ranking cleric and former minister, Mr. Khatami comes from the very establishment that he challenges, but he risks political oblivion if his position strays too far from that of his opponents.* Such caution colored the response of Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, Mr. Khatami’s longtime adviser, when I asked him about the absence of policy statements in the President’s speech: “The less he says, the better.”
A second characteristic of Mr. Khatami’s movement is the political acumen of its supporters. Along with most other young Iranians, a great many of Iran’s one-million-odd students helped to vote him into power until 2001. They are eager for political reform. They, too, appreciate the influence exerted by Mr. Khatami’s opponents, and the need for prudence. Their activism is more considered than was that of their parents’ generation, whose violent opposition to the Shah hastened his downfall in 1979. In July, Mr. Khatami disappointed his more impatient supporters when he condemned the violent protests of reformist students at Tehran University against the clerical establishment. Nevertheless, the event which had provoked these protests, the death of a young man during an attack on reformist students by militant Islamists supported by the police, was more significant, since it illustrated the frustration…
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