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SAIS Review 22.1 (2002) 1-21

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Khatami's First-Term Presidency:
An Outsider's Assessment

Jahangir Amuzegar

The impressive landslide victory of a little-known, left-leaning, intellectual cleric named Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami in the May 1997 presidential election was widely viewed as anhistoric turning point in Iran's post-revolution history. It was characterized as the harbinger of a new era, the last hope for the Islamic regime's consolidation, and even a second revolution. This universal enthusiasm was understandable. In the aftermath of a bloody and destructive revolution, eight years of an exhaustive and fruitless war with Iraq, and nearly a decade of unfulfilled postwar promises, Mr. Khatami's platform on domestic and foreign policy was highly attractive and unmatched by his main conservative rivals.

An objective evaluation of Mr. Khatami's first tenure involves many fascinating and salient issues worthy of investigation by students of modern theocracy, clash-of-cultures theorists, Islamic economists, and presidential historians. An examination of Khatamism itself, as a phenomenon, an institution, a movement, or a trend also presents a unique study. This review's modest goal is to examine the Khatami administration's four-year record against the backdrop of his campaign platform and initial popular expectations.

As a prelude to his declared candidacy for a second term, President Khatami told the Majles (national assembly) in mid-April 2001 that, despite countless early handicaps, his presidency had [End Page 1] been successful in political, socio-cultural, and economic terms. This unprecedented "state of the nation" address was subsequently supported by a 175-page Report of the President to the People, describing his vision for the country and his administration's achievements during a "crisis-ridden" four-year period. The reportattributed these successes to the government's unwavering dedication, clear foresight, due diligence and sound planning. Not unexpectedly, the opposition at home and abroad criticized both the president's message and the administration's report. Claimed accomplishments were dismissed as spins and exaggerations. Obstacles and roadblocks were rejected as excuses and apologies for a failed leadership. Some of the president's early supporters joined the critics, and one such staunch disciple even declared his intention to run against Khatami. 1

In all fairness, the post-election euphoria simply overlooked or ignored the far-reaching implications of the new president's agenda for Iran's closed-circuit theocratic oligarchy. A brief examination of the challenges facing Mr. Khatami at the time highlighted the daunting tasks the new president was likely to encounter in the pursuit of his promised reforms. 2 Two subsequent investigations traced the work in progress ofeach of the president's initial promises. 3 This review is a sequel to those interim appraisals and an attempt to examine Mr. Khatami's four-year record of claimedachievements in the three distinct planks of his campaign platform: to enforce the rule of law and tocreate a viable civil society at home, to improve diplomatic relations with the outside world, and to restructure and revive the "sick" economy.

Law and Order at Home

Mr. Khatami's solemn commitment to the rule oflaw in the virtually anarchic climate of Iran's post-revolution clerical regime represented his most welcome campaign promise. The candidate's pledge was widely expected to include: a strict enforcement of the Constitution (despite all its "ifs" and "buts"); the reform of the antediluvian judiciary; respect for basic civil liberties; and the promotion of legitimate civil institutions. Translating these ideals into achievements meant at a minimum anend to unlawful search and seizure, a relaxation of the harsh Islamic morality code in people's daily life, and greater freedoms for both the press and political parties. [End Page 2]

A good deal of the president's Report to the People is accordingly devoted to the achievements in the domestic socio-political field. Credits are claimed for the following results:

  • The acceptance of "respect for the law" by all power centers;
  • The people's active participation in municipal and parliamentary elections, resulting in the establishment of some 700 municipal and village counsels, and the mushrooming...


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