Muhammad Khatami – past and future of the Reformer

Article published on July 9, 2003
community published
Article published on July 9, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

What was and what could have been the role of Iranian President in the transformation of the regime? Has he missed his chance? What is his ideological background?

Sayyed Mohammad Khatami was for the first time elected President of the Islamic Republic of Iran on May 23, 1997 with more than two-thirds of a popular direct vote. In the second presidential election in June 2001 was Khatami supported by 77 per cent of Iranian voters.

The sole fact of relatively democratic and free elections, with equal voting rights for women, is quite rare in the Middle East. In comparison with US allies in the region (Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) who often speak at large world forums about freedom and democracy, the levels of civil participation in political life in Iran are much higher. In Kuwait – today the most loyal ally of the United States in the Middle East – women do not have the to vote.

Iranian political life is only partially free. The body of democratic institutions on all levels (from local municipalities to parliament) is under the control of religious institutions. The highest council of islamic leaders (ayatollahs) is called "The Council of Guards" and controls the work of freely voted parliament, whose official name – the 'Islamic advisory assembly" (Maglis e-shura e-islami) – says a lot about its real power and importance.

The great rise of Mohammad Khatami´s star was considered a struggle of the Irani people for change. Despite the weakness of the role of the President in Iran, Khatami was the highest elected person in the Iranian political system and the highest representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran abroad.

An Iranian Gorbatchev?

Western politicians and journalists have arrived at the conclusion that Khatami is an "Iranian Gorbatchev" who will be the leader of transformation (a new "perestroika") from theocracy to democracy.

But this comparation is very problematic in two important points. Firstly, Gorbatchev had a function superior than that of his opposition: in the Iranian case it is vice versa. Secondly, in the late 1980s under Gorbatchev's rule the Soviet communist "religion" had lost all credibility as a doctrine and had to be changed first in the process of transformation. Communist ideology had been used instrumentally dependent of political decisions.

Khatami´s position is much more difficult. With the exception of his political position he is a part of an effective theocratic system based on shi´ite Islam – the religion which almost no-one in Iran has the courage to doubt in public.

The world believes that Khatami will be able to reform the Iranian political system. When George W. Bush included Iran in the "axis of evil", the European Union was disquieted and considered this declaration a threatening one for the reform process symbolised by President Khatami. But did this process ever really exist, or it was only the West´s wishful thinking?


Khatami has wide popularity and huge support among Iranian society. But his major 'entry capital' in the struggle for change was his knowledge of Islamic theology, jurisprudence and philosophy (which he studied in Quom, Isfahan and Teheran) combined with his experience of life in the West (from 1978-1982 he headed the Islamic Institute in Hamburg in Germany).

Mohammad Khatami promised "aggiornamento" to Iran: higher standard of respect of human rights; more freedom for independent press and universities. The world has watched his struggle with sympathy and fear. During his first presidency Khatami was not so intensive in his politics as had been expected. Western politicians and journalists excused him in the idealistic faith that he must be careful in order to be re-elected. The world has waited for his second (and according to the Constitution his last) presidential mandate.

This expectation is also shared by the majority of Iranian voters, who re-elected Khatami in June 2001. After this election Iranians and the world are still waiting for radical reforms.

Islamic Civil Society

If we want to know how far Mohammad Khatami could go in his reform of the Iranian political system, we must look at how he decribes his vision of good society.

President Khatami published in 2000 the book "Islam, Dialogue and Civil Society" (The Australian National University, Camberra). It is a collection of Khatami´s articles and speeches from all over the world. In the book Khatami uses the western philosophical concept of civil society and transposes it into Islamic society.

In the European tradition the theory of civil society has always been connected to an independent space of non-State and non-governmental organisations and peoples' voluntary activities. Khatami´s concept of civil society is "fundamentally different from the 'civil society' that is rooted in Greek philosophical thinking and …has acquired its peculiar orientation and identity in the modern world".

What Khatami means when he uses the term "civil society" is some archetype form of early Islamic society: "The civil society we have in mind has its origin, from a historical and theoretical point of view, in Madinat an-Nabi. Changing Yathreb to Madinat an-nabi [Medina – the city of the Prophet Muhammad and the first city of Islam] was not only a change of name." Medina is, according to Khatami, an example of a city based on Islamic values whose government (Muhammad) represents the will of all people, but "is centred around the axis of Islamic thinking and culture…The government in such a society is the servant of the people and not their master".

Civil society or civil war

Khatami has not the courage to take any great steps along the path of practical and political reform of society.

He has constructed beautiful visions which could be interpreted as revolution, but also as evolution of today´s system. The Iranian religious institutions are too strong for Khatami´s power and he hasn´t a strong enough will to enter into any radical conflict for his ideas with the religious leaders.

Iran is waiting for a revolutionary who will gain the confidence of people, who will have the real vision of the close future of Iranian society, and who will be ready to fight against the omnipotent religious institutions. Other scenarios could lead to the utter disillusion of the Iranian people and consequently the confirmation the religious regime; or maybe to a US military intervention in case of Iranian civil war.