Iran is at the crossroads of political reform. In a key election, President Mohammed Khatami is running against nine opponents. He is expected to win on June 8. Yet Khatami's first term has been no piece of cake. He and his supporters have been under repeated attack from hard-line clerics, opposed to his efforts to bring more democracy and the rule of law to Iran. A second win for Khatami will give him a renewed mandate for his reform program, but no one thinks that he will have an easy time of it.
As Iran's Chief of Cabinet of Ministers, Mohammad Ali Abtahi has a unique vantage point. One of the President's close advisers, he is effectively Khatami's chief of staff, running Khatami's schedule and acting as his liaison to the Parliament and to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's office. Iranian analysts say he has played a big role in keeping up Khatami's spirits in what has been a rough first term in office. A jolly, bearded cleric, Abtahi enjoys munching on pistachios.
Recently, he spoke about the upcoming Presidential election and the Khatami team's future plans with BusinessWeek London Bureau Chief Stanley Reed in the President's office, which is in a complex of palaces and gardens sealed off from bustling downtown Tehran. Iranian journalist Haleh Anvari translated. What follows are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q: Assuming President Khatami wins the election, what will be the priorities for a second term?
A: The first priority will be to prove to people that the President is the same Khatami as before. There has been a great effort [from the conservatives] to change President Khatami. The greatest achievement of Mr. Khatami has been that he has not changed in any way. Reform is a long-term path. Mr. Khatami's most important goal is to make sure this path is not blocked.
Q: What will be the specific areas that President Khatami plans to focus on?
A: One will be continuing reform -- the reform of economic organizations and of the bureaucracy. [In addition,] people should feel they are in charge of their own future.
We have not gone through the same stages you have gone through. For example, the establishment of democracy is something you have gone through in the West. We are only just building ours. We had 2,500 years of royal rule. We have experienced a revolution for 20 years. In our revolution, we have a series of problems beginning with our surrounding geography. It is very different from that of other people. We have the Taliban [in Afghanistan], Pakistan, the Arab countries and their royal caliphates, and the states of the former Soviet Union.
Q: What's your prognosis on resuming relations with the U.S.?
A: In the short term, we don't see this on the scene.
Q: President Khatami has had setbacks -- newspapers closed down, supporters in prison. What is his outlook now?
A: He became very disappointed. But he understood realities. If you can understand the realities and take them into account, then definitely, time is on our side, as it has been in the last four years. One reason is the youth of our country. The other thing is that in the past four years, people became familiar with their rights. This is very important. Once people know what their rights are, the road becomes one way [toward reform]. Then there is globalization and the Internet. All this has had a major effect around the world. People don't have any problem getting information. These are the realities that we must accept. Thirty years ago, a government could keep information from the people. Nowadays, borders have gone away.
Q: Would Khatami concentrate on economic reforms in the next four years, as some people are suggesting?
A: No. There will be a lot of time for economic reform in the next four years, as in the last four years. But we feel that this sense that Mr. Khatami is only trying to change economics is because they want people to forget Mr. Khatami's political slogans. In every poll, when they ask people about the situation, their main answers have to do with the economy. But when they are asked, "Who do you plan to vote for?" they say "Khatami". It is through political development that people will find their own potential and freedom. It is enough for people to know that Mr. Khatami is working for their economy and that he isn't in it for personal gain. People understand that Mr. Khatami has no company [affiliations] and no progeny. [A reference to other Iranian political leaders, who are said to use their influence to enrich themselves and their children.]
Q: What do you think Iranian society will look like in a few years?
A: I hope that in a very fundamental way democracy will be established. The personality isn't important -- even Mr. Khatami. The biggest success for us in the last four years is that our opponents now feel a necessity for reform in this country. It is very important that everyone has reached this common opinion. It is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic revolution for such conditions to exist. All of our opponents, even Mr. Fellahian [a former intelligence official] say that reform [is the way ahead for the country]. That is why I say this is a success in itself. The road is one way.
Q: It's strange to an outsider that close supporters of Khatami are in prison.
A: This is a small cost in comparison to what we can achieve. Many children of prisoners are campaigning for Khatami. When Khatami was thinking of not standing for election, the families [helped change his mind]. They said otherwise [the imprisonment of their relatives] would have been for nothing.
Mr. Khatami himself has [paid a heavy price]. Every week, we can compile 100 pages of things written against him and said against him in sermons. We can be happy about this. These are the signs of the beginnings of democracy.
Q: How is Mr. Khatami bearing up?
A: He is personally tired but not despondent.