By Azadeh Moaveni
This Commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 16/02/2011
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.