Iran’s election: hold your applause

Michael Petrou on the cautious optimism that greeted the country’s election results — cautious being the key word



Iranian student Ahmad Batebi was arrested in 1999, two years into the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, for the crime of displaying the blood-splattered t-shirt of a fellow protester shot during demonstrations against the closing of a reformist newspaper.

A photograph of Batebi brandishing the t-shirt ran on the front page of the Economist magazine.

During his closed Revolutionary Court hearing months later, a judge showed him the photograph. It was the first time Batebi had seen it.

“With this picture, you have signed your death sentence,” the judge said.

“You have defaced the face of the Islamic Republic that is a representative of God on earth. You have defaced it around the world. And therefore you must be sentenced to death.”

While imprisoned, Batebi says he was tortured — beaten and forcibly dunked into a drain full of excrement until he inhaled its contents.

Following international protest, Batebi’s death sentence was reduced to 15 and then ten years. I met him secretly in Tehran in 2004 while he was on a day pass from prison, and I could not reveal the meeting then for fears of what might happen to him and perhaps his loved ones if I did. Four years later, while he was temporarily released from prison to get medical treatment, Batebi escaped Iran with the help of a Kurdish opposition group. He now lives in America.

Batebi’s story is not unique. Hundreds of protesting students were arrested in the summer of 1999, and often brutally abused. At least three died. The fates of others are unknown.

This is relevant because liberals inside and outside Iran greeted Mohammad Khatami’s 1997 election with great enthusiasm. He was expected to usher in a new period of moderation and openness in Iran. He was a reformer who called for a “dialogue among civilizations,” between Islamic and Judeo-Christian societies.

But innocent protesters were murdered on his watch, and Ahmad Batebi was sentenced to death for showing the world his comrade’s blood.

Khatami does not deserve total blame. The Iranian president is not the most powerful man in the country. That title belongs to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And there are other pillars that make up Iran’s power structure, notably the ever more influential Revolutionary Guards.

But now a new reformer, Hassan Rohani, has unexpectedly and overwhelmingly won Iran’s 2013 election, and the response to his win is similar to that which followed Khatami’s victory 16 years ago. Many young Iranians are joyful. Western leaders are cautiously optimistic.

Caution is justified. It would be solely based on a sober analysis of human rights under Iran’s last reformist president. But Rohani was also personally involved in the 1999 crackdown. As the Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari recalls, Rohani was president of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council at the time, and he was quite enthusiastic about bashing in the heads of uppity students.

“At dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunist elements wherever it may occur,” he told a pro-regime rally in July.

“From today our people shall witness how in the arena our law enforcement force … shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces.”

It says much about the sad state of Iranian politics that Rohani was probably the best candidate on offer — after the unelected gatekeepers on Iran’s Guardian Council had narrowed the list of potential candidates to a handful of men they could live with.

Things could be worse. But unless Rohani, at the age of 64, demonstrates he has radically changed, that’s about the most that can be said about Iran’s election results.


Iran’s election: hold your applause

  1. I am torn about this article. You are correct… Iran is still a backward looking, theocratic, dictatorship. No question about it. Anyone who thinks that after this election Iran will be as open as Canada and US (or even say Turkey) is delusional. However, the good news is that, they are now going in the right direction. You should give him an iota of a chance at least.

    The situation after Khatami is actually a great example. Iranians were clearly not free during his tenure. However, during his time, Iranians became a lot more free. The generation that grew up under his presidency got a chance to see what’s happening in the west, and how powerful freedom can be. The students of that period were the ones that scared the regime to death four years ago. And if Rowhani’s tenure allows the country to move in the correct direction again, if it allows that education to continue, we can be hopeful that the regime will be forced to change its behaviour eventually.

  2. “Meet the new boss same as the old boss,” phenomenon.

  3. Well, if the author had done a little research and not used the hearsays about Rouhani, would not call him a Reformer. or Reformer within the Iranian context.
    He comes from a Security and Intelligence Background. He was a religious pious student, studied in UK, then under the name of Manouchehr Faridoun , but then changed his name to Hassan Rouhani and turned a clergy. He spoke to the Zealot Hezbollah gatherings in the days followed the uprising that overthrow the despotic monarch. He was the one who coined the word Imam for Ayatollah Khomeini, a title till then only used for the 12 Followers of Prophet Mohammad in Twelver Shiaism .

    When during Ayatollah Khomeini;s reign there was a rift within the Shia Clerical establishment. There was a vertical split, a group that followed “Imam Khomein’s line” and later all of them joined the ranks of “Reformists”. Khatami, himself belonged to this group. The Hard-core group known as Jāme’e-ye Rowhāniyyat-e Mobārez” – Combatant Clergy Association- comprises of Ayatollahs like Janeti, Mohhmad Yezdi, Mahdavi Kani,- the head of Assembly of Experts, are among the stalwarts. Rafsanjani- whom his candidacy ironically was rejected belongs to this group. Hassan Rouhani – the president- elect- belongs to this group.

    The group known as Majma’-e Rowhāniyūn-e Mobārez, also translated as the Assembly of Combatant Clerics, and Combatant Clerics League, , splinted from the above mentioned “Association” in 1982, with the implicit support of late Ayatollah Khomeini, is headed by Mousavi Khoeiniha- who was considered the mentor behind the students who took over the US Embassy in 1979 and also its noted members were Khatami, Karoubi, who contested the 2009 elections and since then is under house arrest.

    Majme Rowhaniyun e Mobarez did not endorsed Hassan Rouhani, exactly due to factional differences. Khatami who is the de facto coordinator of reformist clergies while endorsing Hassan Rouhani, just 4 days before the election, qualified his statement by saying that: ” Mr. Rouhaniis not a reformist, he is moderate.

    Granted the Iranian context, a reformist and a moderate and even a conservative would not make much difference. When half of the population namely women do not matter in the election matrix whatsoever, speaking of the reformist-conservative divide seems an extravaganza. but lets call a spade just a spade.

    I think if the author had done a little more research, would have done himself and the Maclean’s Magazine and its reader a favour and avoided this confusion.