Iran's Khatami 'Impotent To Effect Change'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Iranians are expected to overwhelmingly re-elect President Mohammad Khatami for a second term Friday, but analysts in Jerusalem said there was little chance the next four years will yield much change.

Khatami, who is described as "moderate" or even "liberal," is expected to trounce the other nine candidates, with some 70 percent of the vote. His biggest rival, "hardliner" Ahmed Tavakoli, is expected to garner only 10 percent.

The government is predicting 80 percent of the more than 42 million Iranian voters around the world will vote. But opposition groups have urged voters to stay away.

The 57-year-old president has vowed to reform the country's oil-dependent economy, create desperately needed jobs for the some 730,000 young people who enter the workforce each year, and not to bow to extremists.

"What I will not do is surrender to violence and extremism in this country," Khatami told reporters a few days before the elections.

But he said that it would be America's responsibility to alter its policies if it wanted to renew relations with Iran, which were cut in the wake of the country's 1979 Islamic revolution.

However, even with a landslide victory, Khatami may not be able to produce substantial changes in Iranian society or in relations with the West and his election could actually be bad for the Middle East, analysts said on Friday.

"It means four more years of struggle between two camps after Khatami admitted that he is impotent [in the face of the extremists]," said Iranian expert Menashe Amir.

Khatami, who swept to power four years ago on a platform of economic and social reforms, has been largely unable to implement any of his plans due to the power wielded over him by the fundamentalist leadership of the country.

Unchallenged authority is concentrated in the hands of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the power to command anything and intervene in every area of life.

His camp runs almost everything in the country including the judiciary, the military, the media and some 80 percent of the economy, and also has the power to veto any law that the parliament might pass.

"The image of being a moderate is just a facade and nothing more," said Amir. The so-called liberals, he added, "can just say nice things for Western ears [but] they have no power."

If Khatami were to openly criticize the fundamentalists, even with the support of the people, or if he wanted to make real changes, his days could be numbered, he said.

Prof. of Iranian Studies at Hebrew University, Amnon Netzer, said that while Khatami may be "liberal" in comparison to Khamenei, the West should not be fooled into thinking that Iran's "so-called liberal opposition camp" was liberal by Western standards.

Both Netzer and Amir pointed to Khatami's first four years as proof that things would not change.

During his first term, many intellectuals supportive of Khatami were murdered, some 40 liberal newspapers were closed, journalists and clergymen were imprisoned and students were beaten and oppressed by the fundamentalist authorities. And Khatami has been powerless to protect them or even ensure that they receive fair trials.

Amir, who left Iran for Israel decades ago, said he scorns reports that the Iranian president will open the country to the West.

"There has not been any change in relations between the U.S. and Iran in four years. There will not be any improvement. The fundamentalist camp in Iran will continue to dictate and to protect its own interests."

Netzer said he regarded those like Khatami are actually more dangerous to Iran and the region than anyone else.

"He radiates hope to some extent [but] it's a false hope because the regime will remain more or less [the same]," he argued.

There had been no dramatic changes in U.S.-Iranian relations during the past four years.

Furthermore, even when Khatami eased on anti-U.S. rhetoric, he remained "violent in his attacks against Israel."

Iran has also continued to supply millions of dollars to Hizballah and other anti-Israel terrorist groups in the Middle East, Netzer added.