PARIS 10th DEC. (IPS)
Special to the IPS
Three years ago when the Islamic Conference met in Casablanca and chose Teheran as its next meeting place, there were little enthusiasm and much reluctance among the members. Tehran has spent more than 100 million US Dollars for preparation but the conference has fallen short of its expectations. Though only a few prominent heads of states have met the final roll call, the event is considered significant enough to get CNN live coverage for its opening session.
Although most international attention will be devoted to the apparent failure of the US containment policy and contrasting the Doha fiasco with Tehran’s quasi-success, it is possible that a vital side-show dealing with domestic Iranian politics may prove to become a more lasting significance.
During the opening ceremonies there were two major speeches delivered by the Iranian hosts. That of the "Spiritual Leader", the ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i, was more or less a repetition of the old and worn out anti-western and anti-American rhetoric of the past eytheen years. The only new element in that speech was the relatively less vehement tone when referring to the US, perhaps as a gesture to some of his pro-American guests, which contrasted with his other recent and older speech.
On the other, that of the new Iranian president, the ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, while moderate and conciliatory in tone, combined a restatement of his political manifesto dealing with the virtues of the "civil society ruled by laws" with an indirect appeal for help to the outside world.
After paying positive tribute to western civilisation, democracy and human rights and finding them compatible with true Islamic values, he went on to say that the Muslim world need to better understand and learn from western experiences. He advised Iraq to respect the United Nations and its decisions and asked for international co-operation in Afghanistan. He had no harsh comments for the US and its allies.
All of this might sound like not much more than common platitudes heard at similar international meetings if one is not familiar with the difficult situation in which Mr Khatami has been placed since his lopsided victory in the last summer’s Iranian Presidential elections.
While his startling victory over his establishment opponent, supported by the Leader astonished everyone and delighted his supporters, in particular the women and the youth who made up the foundation of his 70 per cent plurality, this exuberance was proven to be somewhat premature. Soon after the election a careful reading of the present constitution of the Islamic Republic was approved by a "revolutionary" rather than democratic process during the heat of the 1979 tumultuous and violent uprising, everyone realised that the presidential office is void of any real power.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic was written for the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiny who at the time ruled supreme. All or almost all executive, judicial, military and economic powers were directly or indirectly vested in the Leader. Mr Khatami, who himself had to be "examined" and pronounced "qualified" to run for the presidency by a small screening committee, controlled by the Leader, has been given an unprecedented mandate by the people, but no real legal authority by constitution, to exercise that mandate.
It is in the light of this particularity of domestic Iranian politics that his address to the meeting and his attempt to gain international recognition and support should be considered. Khatami’s hope to use this conference and similar international forums to gain recognition and stature is further hampered by his predecessor, the ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had to step aside because of constitutional limitations at the end of his second four-year term, but refuse to leave the stage.
Mr Rafsanjani, a very astute and occasionally sly politician, is trying to position himself between the Leader and the president as a power broker. Mr Khatami’s list of problems, in addition to his constitutional powerlessness, includes, but is not limited to economic pressures resulting from his recently submitted austerity budget, the declining oil revenues, a very large and lethargic state bureaucracy, the US economic sanctions in addition to the vengeful persecution of his supporters during the presidential race, such as the popular Mayor of Tehran, by the judiciary chief, an appointee of the Leader.
For the next three years Iran will theoretically preside over the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a very loose and disparate organisation which has given very little sign of life expect meeting every three years since its inception in 1969. It is obvious that Khatami is desperately trying to use this meeting and other international opportunities as leverage to stabilise his position and gain sufficient power to fulfil at least some of his electoral promises for bringing about change in Iran. Here again his chances of success do not seem very propitious.
* PROFESSOR FATEMI IS AN ECONOMIST TEACHING AT THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF PARIS