x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Ten years later, Iran's protesters now have a leader

Correspondent's notebook Mohammed Khatami missed the opportunity to transform himself from a popular politician into a protest leader.

Over dinner at his snug Tehran apartment in the spring of 1999, Mohsen gestured excitedly at a small picture of his hero, given pride of place above his television. It was Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president swept to power two years earlier in an unexpected electoral landslide. "We have a leader who smiles!" enthused Mohsen, a post-graduate student whose love of western pop music was matched by his devotion to classical Persian poetry.

While huge, stern-faced murals of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, father of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cover many office blocks, Mr Khatami refused to have his portrait on public buildings. But his face beamed from pictures in countless homes. Here was a charismatic president committed to establishing an Islamic democracy, a philosopher-politician and cleric that Iranians could feel proud of on the world stage.

Mohsen's exuberance was typical of millions of young Iranians before their hopes were dealt a crippling blow just months later by the violent suppression of a student uprising. That event was a pivotal moment in Iran's post-revolutionary history. Committed to the Islamic system and fearing wider bloodshed, Mr Khatami missed the opportunity to transform himself from a popular politician into a protest leader. He urged the students to return to their campuses. "One of the most intellectually scintillating democracy movements" in the history of the Middle East "died that terrible summer", wrote the author and Iran expert Ray Takeyh.

Mr Khatami's successors, dramatically rejuvenated by last month's election that they insist was won by Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, are determined not to repeat his mistake. Yesterday, thousands of demonstrators marked the 10th anniversary of the student protests, defying government warnings that any fresh attempt to rally would be "smashed". It was the first significant protest for nearly two weeks since the regime brutally crushed mass pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted after the June 12 election. Given the regime's dire threats, it was understandably small in comparison to last month's rallies. Yet it was highly symbolic, a virile demonstration of the opposition's determination not to be cowed. There were chants of "Death to the Dictator!" as crowds approached Tehran University where they were dispersed by police tear gas and shots fired in the air.

The unrest a decade ago began at a dormitory there when hardline Islamic vigilantes, armed with bricks, chains and batons, shattered a small and peaceful student protest against the banning of a popular, pro-Khatami newspaper. One student was killed and dozens injured. The 1999 protests began peacefully but escalated into violent street clashes that, until last month's demonstrations, had been the biggest since the early days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Within six days they were over. Tens of thousands of triumphant hardliners then took to the streets in an orchestrated show of muscular support for the regime.

Then, as now, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attempted unconvincingly to blame foreign "enemies" for the crisis. At the height of the unrest, students plaintively appealed to the president for support, chanting: "Khatami, where are you?" His answer disappointed many. He praised most students for showing restraint but condemned the disorder, arguing that it was harming his reform programme. Committed to the Islamic system, he wanted evolutionary change, not another revolution.

Throughout his eight years in office, Mr Khatami was fearful of mobilising the huge people power at his disposal. His reticence was exploited by his ruthless opponents: the student unrest convinced the regime it had to block Mr Khatami at every turn, fearing he was an Iranian Gorbachev who would bring about the collapse of a system he was trying to reform. His supporters went on to win parliamentary elections the following year but the unelected and more powerful Guardian Council vetted all legislation that attempted to liberalise the system. The regime also used its control of the judiciary to close newspapers and jail several of Mr Khatami's leading allies. His main campaign strategist, Sa'id Hajjarian, was meanwhile shot in the head by right-wing vigilantes, narrowly escaping death.

Today Mr Hajjarian is behind bars, rounded up recently like many of Mr Khatami's former aides because of their support this time for Mr Mousavi, who is also unwilling to mobilise people power on the streets where it can be crushed. But, unlike Mr Khatami, Mr Mousavi has assumed the perilous mantle of a protest leader. He has defied Iran's ultimate authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by branding Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election "illegitimate" and is devising peaceful ways of challenging the regime.

The anger today, of course, is much deeper than a decade ago: then it was ignited by press curbs: now it is fuelled by the wholesale disenfranchisement of the people by a "stolen" election. Mohsen believed in 1999 that the old guard would be so shaken by the student unrest that it would yield to some of the reformists' demands. His optimism was understandable. There was a feeling that the regime would have buckled to a demographic imperative: most Iranians had been born after the revolution and were chafing against its restrictions.

Mr Khatami's 1997 election victory ushered in a "Tehran spring" that was palpable on the streets. Iran also began opening to the world. In December 1997 Tehran hosted the annual summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which was attended by all 55 members. Arab Gulf states that had supported Saddam Hussein's eight-year war against what he termed "Persian cockroaches", showed up, among them Saudi Arabia's then crown prince, now king, Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud, signalling a new chapter in improved relations between the Shia and Sunni powerhouses of the Gulf region.

The following month Mr Khatami called for a dialogue with the "great American people" that would break down the "bulky wall of mistrust" between their two countries. Mohsen and millions of young Iranians like him were confident that at home and abroad Iran's sullen hardliners, who had an iron grip on most levers of power, would be unable reverse the thrust of history. "They can't shove the genie back into the bottle," he asserted cheerfully. Yet they did. At least until last month's momentous elections and their febrile aftermath stirred the dormant genie that is now swelling with defiant energy to break free.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae