In Iran, 'Reform' is in the Eye of the Beholder

There is a persistent theme played out by some liberals who think the Iranian regime is not as bad as we make it out to be that the mullahs are capable of reforming on their own.

This view was especially prevelant during the Presidency of Mohammad Khatami who served from 1997-2003.

Khatami was the "experimental" president for the ruling mullahs. A genuine reformer, he sought to increase freedom of the press and assembly as well as rid the country of some of the more draconian cultural strictures relating to dress and women's rights.

Khamatimi was wildly popular with younger Iranians as well as intellectuals and more democratically minded technocrats. But he was not very popular with those who counted; the ultra conservative members of the Guardian Council and other religious authorities who saw his reforms as a threat to their hold on power.

It must be recalled the context with which Khatami came to power. The nation had just endured 8 years of the corrupt, self aggrandizing presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a man listed on the Forbes 100 as one of the richest men in the world. He literally stole the nation blind, dabbling in most foreign contracts that crossed his desk as well as collecting tribute from those who wished favors. Faith in the government was at an all time low so the mullahs felt they had little choice but to engineer the election of a "reformer" who would restore that faith.

But Khatami's fate could have been predicted if one looked at similar efforts at "reform" in eastern European countries during the years those nations were under the yoke of Soviet domination. Autocrats talk a good reform game, but when push comes to shove, they resist. So it was with Khatami. Almost every reform measure he managed to get through the Iranian Majlis (or parliament) was shot down by the Guardian Council, the powerful arbiters of whether a law passes muster constitutionally. With most members appointed by the Supreme Leader, they quickly doused any hope for real reform in Iran. By the end of Khatami's presidency, most of his supporters had become disillusioned with him.

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, Camilea Entekhabifard, a reform minded journalist, bemoaned the loss of temporary freedoms enjoyed under Khatami and points out how the Iranian regime keeps people in line:

I now wonder if all the opportunities we had seen for reform were really illusions created to trick us. Did the Iranian government encourage a fleeting era of reform in order to identify its opponents so as to come after them? Was President Khatami’s election the thunderstorm that ultimately allowed the government to hunt us down?

This storm drowned not only us but also those expatriate Iranian intellectuals and scholars who had begun to visit Iran again after President Khatami traveled abroad with his famous message of “Iran for all Iranians.” Many academics started to travel back and forth to Iran after this historic announcement. But recently some of them have been arrested too.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, who is an Iranian-Canadian scholar, spent four months in an Iranian prison last year. He “confessed” on Iran’s national public media that at conferences outside Iran he “got acquainted with” many Americans and Israelis, some of whom were “intelligence figures.” Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photographer, died under interrogation while in detention in Tehran. And, of course, Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American academic who directs the Middle East program at the Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, spent more than 100 days in Evin Prison before being released on bail on Tuesday. She, too, made a statement on television, which Iranian officials cast as an admission that she was associated with a “velvet revolution” against the regime in Tehran.
In addition to Esfandiari, there are three other Iranian-Americans being held by the authorities on trumped up charges. They are:

  • Parnaz Azima, a journalist for radio Farda, the Farsi-language component of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty;
  • Ali Shakeri, a founding board member at the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding;
  • Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant working for George Soros’ Open Society Institute.
  • Robert A. Levinson, a former FBI officer reportedly investigating tobacco smuggling on behalf of a private client. He disappeared after he flew to Iran’s Kish Island in March.
Their fate is up in the air at the moment. But one thing is for sure. Any "reforms" they may have been working for are unalterably opposed by the ruling clique of holy men who currently run Iran. Chances of that changing anytime in the near future are next to zero.

Hat Tip: Ed Lasky