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On Tuesday, Iran celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. In this year of celebrations galore – from the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall to the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution – why not also dream of a year zero?
It’s September 2009. Barack Obama is the United States president. Mohammad “dialogue of civilizations” Khatami is the Iranian president. Khatami flies to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. He bumps into Obama in the corridors of the UN. With fists unclenched, they exchange pleasantries – and retire to a room for some real “face-to-face.” The 30-year – some would say 56-year – wall of mistrust between the US and Iran finally comes tumbling down.
If current Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad remains a mirror image of the departed George W Bush, Khatami could not be a more fitting mirror image of Obama. Within the complex parameters of the Iranian system, he is a reformist able to reach out to conservatives and wildly popular among women, the young and progressives of all stripes. He’s running for president in the June elections – and he’s got what it takes to give Ahmadinejad a run for his rials.
Khatami is fluent in German and an avid reader of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and the Frankfurt School of critical theory masters (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer). He is a former minister of culture (1989-1992) and was elected president in 1997 with a landslide 70% of the vote, with women and young people overwhelmingly behind him, and re-elected in 2001.
He was also the man who called for a “dialogue of civilizations.” The Bush administration snubbed him – as it was entangled in the failed, Huntingtonian thesis of the “clash of civilizations.”
Years later, one day before the 5th anniversary of September 11, 2001, Khatami delivered a landmark speech at Harvard – the temple where Samuel Huntington was a professor. Khatami preferred to fight missiles with words. He presented his concept to an array of global forums, including the UN, which even declared 2001 – of all years – the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.
US corporate media did not even bother to debate what Khatami had to say to Harvard.
Fight the power
This correspondent traveled widely across Iran during the reformist Khatami years, in the late 1990s, and then when Iran was already included in the “axis of evil” by Bush, along with Iraq and North Korea. In Khatami’s Iran, the flow towards more personal liberties and less repression of mores was glaring, but as glaring as the moves by the “system” – embodied by the mullahcracy and the judiciary – to resolutely thwart it.
Years later, Ahmadinejad’s definitely non-reformist economic policies proved themselves to be an absolute disaster. Official inflation stands at 24% – and rising. Ahmadinejad, who spends a lot of time in countryside tours, may have done some good to the rural masses by investing part of Iran’s oil revenues on infrastructure – building better roads and better schools. But the large Iranian urban middle class is hurting – from students and working professionals to those who depend on a meager state pension, not to mention farmers in the countryside itself.
Much worse is the discontent in the bazaar – Iran is still basically a bazaar economy – and that means an organized net of import-export bazaaris, shopkeepers, moneylenders and captains of industry traditionally very close to the clerical establishment.
So economic recklessness is not a privilege of mullahs – it also affects former, non-clerical Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, or Pasdaran, like self-described “street cleaner of the people” Ahmadinejad.
Social justice, wealth redistribution and caring for the downtrodden – to the horror of US Republicans – remain central tenets of the Islamic Revolution. Thus Khatami has found his opening: he argues that Ahmadinejad’s economic incompetence undermines the every essence of the Islamic Revolution – as defined by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself. Quite a few conservatives – although not the hardliners – subscribe to this view.
On top of it, Ahmadinejad is an apocalyptical Mahdist – believing from the bottom of his heart in the imminent arrival of the Mahdi, the “occult” Twelfth Imam. Most Iranian Shi’ites are not Mahdist.
The US-imposed sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program also bite. Because of them, Royal Dutch Shell and France’s Total dropped out from developing stretches of the huge South Pars gas fields – and so far they have not been replaced by (inferior) Chinese or Russian know-how.
Khatami for his part remains very popular in Iran. His views are eminently moderate. He blasted Ahmadinejad for his childish Holocaust denial. He favors a normal relationship with Washington. He favors a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
He offered the ultimate diplomatic olive branch to Washington in early 2003 via the Swiss ambassador in Tehran – under the general umbrella of finally defeating Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Even recognizing Israel was on the table. As University of Michigan professor Juan Cole indelibly put it, “[Former US vice president Dick] Cheney is said to have shot down that initiative quicker than he could shoot a friend in the face.” Khatami even agreed – in 2004 – for Iran to temporarily suspend its uranium-enrichment program.
His enemies, though, are very powerful – the ultra hardcore extreme right which controls the exclusive 12-member Council of Guardians, and many of the 86-member Council of Experts. For most of these clerics, anti-Americanism in itself is a religion, and the “Great Satan,” even incarnated in Obama’s skin, remains very much alive (and deceptive).
What the players want
The key questions from now on are who Khatami will be running against – and how not to split the reformist vote.
Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator – later effectively ousted by an Ahmadinejad ploy – and currently speaker of the Majlis (parliament), might run against Ahmadinejad. Whatever he decides, Khatami will certainly attract some or even all of his votes.
Mohammad Qalibaf, another conservative and a former governor of Tehran, may also run. In this case he will split the Ahmadinejad vote. And Mehdi Karrubi, a relative liberal, may not run, and that would also reinforce Khatami’s position.
What will Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei do? Khatami’s father was close to Khamenei. The Supreme Leader has been paying lip service to Ahmadinejad’s accomplishments. But it’s all very inscrutable in the top echelons. As much as the system deployed all its might in 2005 to elect Ahmadinejad – betting on a pious Khomeinist former Pasdaran instead of a cleric – it may consider it is not time for yet another reformist push.
Khatami after all will have to face a similar situation to Obama’s – he will have to face down his hardline Khomeinist foes as much as Obama must face down Washington’s special interests and the entrenched power elite.
And what does Obama really want? Taking the president at face value, what he just said at his first White House prime-time news conference is that “we can start sitting across the table, face-to-face.”
Obama stressed the “mutual respect” between Iran and the US, so “openings” will lead to negotiations. But it all comes with preconditions attached – such as still defining Iran as a supporter of terrorist organizations (this was a thing of the 1980s) and the unshakeable – and unproven – belief that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon.
Literally a few hours after Obama’s press conference in Washington, Ahmadinejad delivered his response – at the pregnant-with-meaning monster rally in Tehran celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. Sounding very Khatamist, he said the world was “entering an era of dialogue” and negotiations. He mirrored Obama’s words: “The Iranian nation is ready for talks but in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect.”
Ahmadinejad even laid out an agenda for talks: terrorism; the elimination of nuclear weapons; restructuring the UN Security Council; and fighting drug trafficking. The US State Department must be working after hours decoding the full extent of this offer.
Ahmadinejad also said that changes “have to be fundamental and not tactical. It is clear that the Iranian nation welcomes true changes.” Are Obama’s changes “fundamental” or just “tactical”? The US president has said “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Well, the fist in Tehran definitely seems to be unclenched.
What is certain is that the Pentagon, the Israel lobby in Washington and whoever wins the Israel elections, even Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, belong to the clenched fist bunch. They are already vociferously pointing out the successful launch last week of an Iranian satellite – Omid (Hope, in Farsi) – hammering home that the same rocket technology can also deliver warheads.
And most importantly; what does the Supreme Leader think of all this? He is, after all, the ultimate decider in Iran. First of all, national pride is of the essence. In a meeting this past weekend with Iranian air force commanders, Khamenei said, “This revolution has transformed the nation of Iran into a nation of willpower, strength and dignity, a nation capable of influencing other societies.”
His – or the system’s priorities – could not have been made more clear: “In the past 30 years, world powers have tried everything to hinder Iran’s progress, but despite the many years of sanctions imposed on our nation, we have made achievements, such as the Omid satellite, and we have acquired the technology to enrich uranium, a technology only a few countries possess.”
And as for the Khomeinist credo of an exportable revolutionary idea, it seems to remain more alive than ever: “The popularity of the message of the revolution can be clearly witnessed in what happened in Gaza and before that in the 33-day war in Lebanon. The well-equipped Israeli army backed by the US was incapable of defeating a handful of besieged youth [Hamas and Hezbollah] and who had nothing but their faith in God.”
Fasten your seat belts; it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
NEXT: Will Obama say ‘we’re sorry’?