By Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.

Minaret of Freedom Institute


On his European tour last week, President George W. Bush continued his ritual of giving people pet names by greeting England’s recently re-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair with the appellation “Landslide.”  Were it not for the fact that he has no plans to meet with Iran’s newly re-elected president, Bush would have done better to reserve that name for Mohammad Khatami.  Khatami garnered 76% of the vote, a feat neither Lyndon Johnson in 1964 nor Richard Nixon in 1972 could even come close to. 


In those respective American elections, both Johnson and Nixon claimed a “mandate.”  That is, they professed that notwithstanding America’s system of checks and balances, the overwhelming victory each obtained in the face of starkly delineated differences on major issues meant that their election was no happenstance, but a demand by the people that their agendas be enacted.  Johnson had positioned himself as opposing Barry Goldwater’s hawkish position the conduct of the war in Vietnam and Nixon had positioned himself as favoring some unspecified “secret plan” to resolve the war in opposition to George McGovern’s dovish views. 


The Iranian system has an even more complex system of checks and balances that the American system.  Instead of only three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), the Iranians must reckon with the President, the Parliament, the Guardian Council, the Council of Experts, and the Supreme Leader.  For what, precisely, hat is the mandate that President Khatami has that others must respect?  Certainly for “democratic reform,” but even the many conservatives are now using that slogan.  Can he make more specific claims as to what his supporters are expecting from him?  After all, Lyndon Johnson’s supporters did not expect his mandate for a pacific foreign policy to mean an interminable no-win/no withdrawal policy in Southeast Asia and Nixon’s supporters surely could not have anticipated that “peace for honor” would mean a futile expansion of hostilities into Cambodia followed by a hasty withdrawal from the entire theatre.  Similarly we may fairly ask what does “democratic reform” mean to Khatami. 


Although Khatami has been criticized for being vague, the fact is that he (no less than the Ayatollah Khomeini in his pre-revolutionary writings) has made some suggestive statements in his published works as to the nature of his vision for the Iranian Islamic Republic.  The first thing that is clear is that those who expect that Khatami believes he has a mandate for a more pro-Western (namely, American-aligned and soft-on-Israel) Iran are flat wrong.  His view is unmistakable: "As long as the policymakers of the United States are under the influence of certain lobbies and continue to overlook the interests of their own nation and companies and economy, it is very clear that they have to change policies" (Khatami quoted by Moore 2001a)


Further, while Khatami is in favor of a vibrant civil society and with a more broadly educated and critical intellectual class, he does not see these things as secular but as profoundly Islamic.  He has characterized those “Islamic intellectuals” who have sought to divide the world secular and religious spheres as neither Islamic nor intellectual.  He has called for Islamic intellectuals to be well versed in what Westerners call the secular sciences: the physical, biological and social sciences, etc.  (He is not the first to do this; Ibn Rushd was not just a judge but also a scholar of medicine and astronomy among other things.)  But the openness of the Muslim mind means that it should attain a leadership position, not become the lackey of any imperial power, and certainly not a turn silent in the face of injustice.


Some will object that this is a general vision.  What are the political requirements of such a vision?  Khatami has given some suggestive statements here, too.  In a state media speech upon his election he said, “Now the honorable Iranian nation, as winner of this contest, is determined in its just demands and expects the government and the system to take bigger steps to fulfill them….  Freedom of speech, criticism and even protest within the law … is the precondition for quicker victory.” Moore (2001b)


The real question is whether the other manifold branches of the Iranian government will allow Khatami to fulfill his mandate.  The most powerful element, influencing many of the others, is, of course, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Immediately after the election, Khamenei signaled his desire to see an end to the fractiousness that marked Khatami’s first term.  Seemingly recognizing some kind of mandate, Khamenei told television reporters, “Forget about the terms winner and loser. You should join hands and support the president and help the government to solve the problems of the country.” 


Regardless of such calls for cooperation, one can expect many in the conservative camp to maintain a hard line.  Whether they succeed in stymieing the reform efforts will largely depend on how true Khatami and the reformers are to the public understanding of the mandate.  Lyndon Johnson won by a landslide in 1964, but when his policies were not seen as perceivably different from what was feared from Goldwater public opinion turned against him and he didn’t even dare run in 1968.  As for Richard Nixon, he didn’t even finish his second term. 


If Khatami has correctly read the Iranian public opinion, and I think he has, he must, like Ronald Reagan “stay the course.”  (Like Khatami, Reagan did even better in his run for re-lection than in his intial election.)  If he then fails the public shall know the reason.  To those who object that Iranian democracy is not vital enough or flexible enough to respond to the public will, I remind them that it lack of democracy under the shah didn’t stop the Iranian public from doing whatever was required to bring about change.  Nor is it an objection to say that the change they wrought was not what they expected.  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  In Islam we call that patient perseverance (sabr).  When appropriate, we also call it jihad. 





Moore, Molly 2001a.  “Iranian President Vows New Push for Democracy
Before Vote: Khatami Admits His Failures.”  The Washington Post (June 6) A1.


Moore, Molly 2001b.  “Iranian President’s Demanding Agenda: After Decisive Win, Khatami Faces High Expectations for Democratic Reforms.”  The Washington Post (June 10) A18.