Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Khatami's Legacy: Dashed Hopes

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Khatami's Legacy: Dashed Hopes

Article excerpt

Muhammad Khatami's presidency of Iran's Islamic Republic started with a deafening roar and ended in an unceremonious whisper. Chances are that his crisis-ridden eight-year tenure will be more favorably viewed in the future than is now the case with his disillusioned early supporters. While his administration was a mixture of some successes and certain setbacks - like all previous ones - the country that he left to his successor was in many respects freer, more prosperous, and more diplomatically respected that the one he inherited from his predecessor. The principal reason for his under-appreciated legacy may lie in the unbridgeable gap between his constituents' ever-rising expectations and his limited capacity to fulfill them. In other words, what was asked of him by the electorate was far more than the maximum he could possibly deliver, and what he did deliver was far less than the minimum his supporters were eager to receive.

The adage about "coming in with a roar and going out with a whisper" would perhaps find no better example than Muhammad Khatami's presidency in Iran. When this mid-level and little-known Shi'ite cleric was elected Iran's fifth post-revolution President in the spring of 1997, he was greeted as a national hero, and treated like a rock star. A female admirer later portrayed him as "our Napoleon with a book, instead of a sword, in his hand."1 Yet, when he left office on August 4, 2005, no one but a handful of his dwindling supporters shed any tears over his departure. Justified or not, he is now also widely chastised as inadvertently responsible for the recent presidential victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad - an obscurantist and demagogic technocrat who openly aspires to turn the country back to the early days of the 1979 Revolution.

A thorough investigation of Khatami's presidential rise and fall may require several separate analyses. Psycho-historians may focus on his personality as a devout Muslim fascinated with Western democratic ideas; a pacifist teacher advocating patience, moderation, and prudence; and a Utopian dreamer thrown by accident into the vortex of Iran's Byzantine politics. Divinity students and Islamic theocrats may dis sect his novel concept of "Islamic democracy" in relation to both Shi'ite traditional theology as well as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's non-democratic concept of "velayate faqih" (rule by a jurisconsult). Clash-of-cultures theorists may scrutinize the significance and practicality of his proposed "Dialogue among Civilizations," and peaceful co-existence of East and West under different value systems. This article's limited goal is to examine the Khatami Administration's eight-year record regarding its promised tripartite goals of economic prosperity, pursuit of law and order at home, and establishment of amicable relations with the external world.2 A discussion of Khatami's own personal fate and fortune as a leader and a reformer is offered elsewhere.3 Accordingly, the following evaluation of his administration will be divided into three parts: the economy, internal socio-cultural developments, and relations with the outside world.

A LEAP BACKWARD

The unexpected victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Iran's presidential elections of June 2005 mystified the world, and caught Middle East pundits by surprise.4 A virtually unknown revolutionary apparatchik, with a near blank resume as an appointed former governor of a fourth-tier province, and a hand-picked mayor of Tehran by a fundamentalist (Ossulgra) City Council, Ahmadinejad was the least known, least experienced, and least personally and professionally attractive of the seven candidates allowed to run by the Council of Guardians (out of a total of 1,014 aspirants). In all national polls taken shortly before the June election, he came out last. And yet, in the run-off election and final count, he beat Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani - a Khomeini comrade-in-arms, a ten-year speaker of the Majlis, a two-time President of the Republic, the incumbent chairman of the powerful Expediency Council, and an all-out icon and stalwart of the regime. …

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