Originally published on WireTap.
It’s not often that we see the words “America” and “Iran” in the same sentence – at least in a context not relating to friction or war. For the first time in years, however, we have reason to put the names of these two countries in sentences that allude to cooperation and mutual respect. Why? Because former president Mohammad Khatami, the major proponent of reform in Iran, is running for a third term in his country’s elections later this June.
For most Americans, the Iranian political experience has been nothing but a series of failures after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. To say that Americans can learn from Iran therefore seems counterintuitive. However, a closer look at Khatami’s attempts at reform in Iran provides a lesson for all of us in the United States, particularly for the Obama Administration and its supporters.
To start with, the parallels between Khatami and the current U.S. president are rather striking: both men have experience living in foreign countries and mixing with other cultures, are considered progressive reformers within their country’s political spectrum, and entered their first presidential races as the underdog. Defying all expectations, both men won their elections and went on to lead their nations. At the start of Obama’s term, hopes are extremely high, just as they were at the beginning of Khatami’s.
However, it is here that Obama and his supporters must take heed of Khatami’s story.
A gradualist like Obama, Khatami wants to promote progressive change without overthrowing the system his country is founded on. During his earlier terms in office, he advocated democracy, freedom of expression, civil society and the greater inclusion of Iranian citizens in the political decision-making process – but all without overstepping boundaries that he believed would cause a backlash in the conservative circles that controlled most of the country. If he offended too many conservatives on too many issues, he could have easily been removed from power, which would have undermined the whole reform project he had in mind for Iran.
His followers, however, wanted immediate change. What Khatami saw as calculated political moves, much of his supporting base saw as timidity and compromise on the ideals of freedom and reform. After a number of Khatami’s reforms were undermined by conservative hardliners, many of these supporters became disillusioned with him. Because of this, they did not come out to vote in the subsequent elections, allowing a conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to come into power.
What Obama and his supporters must take from this story is that change takes time. Sometimes a leader has to balance between that and stability to ensure that change does take place. Iranians learned this the hard way, and after four years of conservative leadership, they are now struggling to get the very same man they had thrown aside back into the center of power.
Can America learn from Iran instead of repeating its mistake, so that the foundation it is setting for progressive change does not fizzle out within a generation? And, if elected, will Khatami be able to strike a more effective balance between continuity and reform? If the answer is “yes,” both American and Iran can show the world that change, anywhere, is possible.