Ahmad Hojatzadeh, a 28 year-old engineer, was an enthusiastic supporter of Mohammad Khatami in Iran's presidential elections nearly four years ago. Like millions of Iranians, Hojatzadeh was captivated by the moderate cleric who spoke of democracy and freedom and challenged the conservative status quo. For the first time in his life, Hojatzadeh got involved in politics: He distributed pamphlets, attended pro-Khatami rallies, pasted posters on walls, and even drove several handicapped citizens to the voting booth.
"It was a very hopeful moment. I truly believed that the power of the people was going to change Iran for the better. I believed that Khatami was like a savior," he said.
Hojatzadeh was not alone. In an overwhelming election victory, President Khatami captured 70 percent of the vote, sending a stinging message to Iran's clerical conservatives, who controlled Iran's political establishment.
Today, nearly four years after that heady election victory, Khatami and his small cadre of reformists are on the defensive, reeling from a series of setbacks, dealt by their conservative foes. And Hojatzadeh, like many Iranians, is running out of patience with the man he hailed earlier as a savior.
"If Khatami runs again, I might not even bother to vote this time," he said, "Even if Khatami wins again, the conservatives always have the last word. He is not willing to confront them the way he should. I am not optimistic about our future."
Despite substantial efforts at political and social liberalization since taking office, President Khatami has found his efforts rebuffed by powerful conservatives, who have successfully manipulated key levers of bureaucratic power. The once liberalized press has been muffled; reformist journalists and clerics are in jail; pro-democracy student protesters are regularly attacked; and the reformist-dominated Parliament has been weakened.
The bureaucratic defeats have hurt Khatami, analysts in Iran say, because he has not shown a willingness to put up a strong fight. While other reformists gain in popularity through their defiance that lands them in jail cells, Khatami's tactics of mild persuasion seem to be gaining him more critics than admirers.
Khatami aides say that it is unreasonable to expect a sitting President to show the same kind of defiance displayed by journalists and activists. But they acknowledge that the population's patience is wearing thin.
Jafar Farshad, a 21 year-old student, echoes general youth sentiment when he says: "Maybe Khatami was good for his time. He advocated many important ideas, like civil society and freedom of the press. But he is not strong enough to ensure his principles. We need a stronger figure to step forward now. We need someone with Akbar Ganji's strength."
The student was referring to the jailed journalist who frontally assaulted Iran's conservative establishment by exposing a ring of senior clerics and conservative figures who were allegedly involved in the assassination of dissidents and writers. Ganji is currently in jail, and has emerged as Iran's most popular reformist figure. In a recent public trial, he was daringly unapologetic, slamming his conservative accusers.
While Khatami supporters are showing signs of impatience, the President has yet to announce whether he will stand for re-election. In a speech last month, he admitted that he is powerless to fully implement his reformist plans, and blamed Iran's conservative faction for monopolizing Iranian politics. A recent cabinet reshuffle by Khatami indicates that he may be paving the way for re-election, but he has yet to confirm his candidacy.
Iran's reform movement is divided on whether Khatami should stand for re-election. Some reformists say he should resign in protest; others say he should stay the course; a few voices are calling for reformist challengers to Khatami. Amid the current round of finger-pointing and frustration in Iran, many are asking "what went wrong?" An answer may be found in Iran's unique political system, which operates in two distinct, competing political spaces: democratic and authoritarian. Part of Khatami's troubles lie in the fact that he operates in the weaker realm of Iranian politics: the democratic space.
For each democratic institution in Iran, there are competing authoritarian institutions:
Iranians can freely vote for their President and Parliament; however, a conservative election supervisory board vets all candidates before the elections. The elected President can appoint a culture minister who grants newspaper licenses freely; however, the unelected and largely unaccountable conservative judiciary closes down those newspapers and jails journalists. The elected Parliament can write liberalizing laws; however, an unelected conservative Parliamentary supervisory body - the Guardian Council -- can veto any of those laws. The President can craft foreign policy; however, the Supreme Leader (who is selected by a group of conservative clerics) can veto any Presidential initiative. The Parliament and President can craft economic policy; however, unaccountable state-run foundations and the office of the Supreme Leader control nearly half of the nation's GDP. When Iranians voted overwhelmingly for Khatami, they gave him a broad mandate to implement his plans. However, powerful figures working in Iran's authoritarian spaces managed, ultimately, to thwart many reforms. In Iran, authoritarian space has proven more powerful in the short-term than democratic space.
In such an environment, there is a ceiling that cannot be broached without the consent of conservative leaders. President Khatami's flaw, many observers in Iran feel, is that he did not bang hard and loud enough against that ceiling.
As one Tehran taxi driver put it: "We all know that Khatami was restricted by the conservatives. We just would have liked to see him say a few harsh words and throw a few punches as he lost his battles."
Afshin Molavi is a journalist based in Tehran, Iran. His work has appeared in the Washington Post.