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Abtahi, Mohamed Ali (1958–) - PERSONAL HISTORY, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE, LEGACY

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Mohamed Ali Abtahi is a ranking cleric, politician, and former vice president in the administration of Iranian president MOHAMMAD KHATAMI . Abtahi’s government career includes high positions with the Office of the President, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and the national broadcasting services. He is well-known for running a personal weblog while he was a member of the Office of the President.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Abtahi was born on 28 January 1960 in Mashhad, Iran to a religious and clerical family. His father, ranking cleric Ayatollah Seyyed Hasan Abtahi, is a controversial author of several books whose work and activities have several times resulted in his being arrested and sent into internal exile. After completing his secondary education, Abtahi followed his family’s clerical traditions and continued his studies at seminary, beginning in 1977. He now carries the title Hojatoleslam as a result. In 1980, he married Fahime Mousavi-Nejhad, with whom he eventually had three daughters. Before the 1979 revolution, the young Abtahi was active in anti-regime activities. In addition to his enthusiastic participation in oppositional rallies and events as a speaker and leaflet distributor, Abtahi applied his interest in photography and cinematography to documenting the revolutionary demonstrations in Mashhad.

An avid supporter of the new form of government established after the overthrow of the monarchy, Abtahi’s career has almost entirely consisted of a number of government positions. He spent more than a decade working with various branches of the Iranian national broadcasting services starting in 1979, when he served for two years as the program director of Mashhad Broadcasting. In 1981, he spent a year as the director for Bushehr and Shiraz Broadcasting before he was transferred to Tehran to work as the director of Radio Iran. His tenure there coincided with almost the entire duration of the Iran-Iraq war.

In 1987, Khatami, who was then the head of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, appointed Abtahi to the position of vice minister of international relations. In that capacity, Abtahi traveled to a number of countries with the goal of introducing and promoting Iranian culture. When Khatami resigned the ministry in 1991, Abtahi followed suit.

He returned to National Broadcasting without holding an official position for a number of years before its director at that time, ALI ARDASHIR LARIJANI , agreed to have Abtahi work as its representative in Lebanon. He left his post in Lebanon on hearing that Khatami would be running for the presidency and joined his presidential campaign in Iran. After Khatami’s surprising and sweeping victory in 1997, Khatami appointed Abtahi as his chief of staff. Khatami’s first term in office was eventful and challenging. Khatami and his reformist supporters in the press and Majles (parliament) were assailed by attacks from hardline elements of the government. With the judiciary and security forces under their control, Khatami’s conservative opponents went after the blossoming reformist press. Hardliners also targeted the Majles and attempted to thwart any attempts at passing reform legislation. As a high-ranking member of Khatami’s cabinet, Abtahi was in the eye of the storm and the subject of much criticism and attacks by hardliners and their allies.

During Khatami’s second term in office, Abtahi was appointed as vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs. After the Majles elections of 2004, when the conservative-controlled Council of Guardians refused to approve the candidacy of thousands of reformists running for office, Abtahi resigned his post in protest. Khatami, his close friend and ally, was very reluctant to accept his resignation and assigned him an honorary position of advisor after Abtahi left his post.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

While Abtahi’s father, Ayatollah Seyyed Hasan Abtahi, has a following that includes Abtahi’s younger brother, Sayyed Mohammad Taghi Abtahi, Mohamed Abtahi’s own views are quite different than his father’s. In fact, Abtahi has himself remarked that his father disapproves of his ideology and political analysis. Rather than drawing inspiration from his father’s teachings, Abtahi’s early intellectual development was more influenced by the works of Iranian thinker Ali Shariati and his maternal uncle, Abdolkareem Hasheminejad. The figure most influential in shaping his thinking and politics during the post-revolution period, however, was Khatami.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Mohamed Ali Abtahi

Birth: 1958, Mashhad, Iran

Family: Wife, Fahime Mousavi-Nejhad; three daughters, Fatemeh, Faezeh, and Farideh

Nationality: Iranian

Education: Seminary, 1977

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1980: Becomes director of programming of Mashhad Broadcasting Services
  • 1981: Becomes director of Boushehr and Shiraz Broadcasting Services
  • 1983–1987: Director of Radio Iran; Establishes Radio Qur’an, Radio Jebhe, Radio Darba
  • 1988–1991: Vice minister, international relations, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance
  • 1994–1997: Represents Iranian National Broadcasting, Lebanon
  • 1997–2001: Chief of staff for President Mohammad Khatami
  • 2001–2004: Vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs
  • 2004: Resigns as vice president; Appointed consultant to president; Member of central council of Majma’e Rowhaniyoon-e Mobarez (Militant Clerics Society)

Abtahi himself, along with other leading figures in the reformist movement such as Abdullah Nuri, Ata’ollah Mohajerani, Saeed Hajarian, and Mohamed Reza Khatami, went on to become a central figure popular with the younger population, which had voted for and placed much hope in the reformers. During the most intense periods of the power struggle between the conservatives and reformists, Abtahi was center stage in working for the latter’s efforts toward changing the system from within.

Before working with Khatami at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and later in the Office of the President, Abtahi made important contributions during his tenure as director of Radio Iran. As part of the war effort, Abtahi had an active role in the establishment of several new radio stations such as Radio Qur’an, Radio Jebhe, and Radio Darba. While Khatami’s chief of staff, Abtahi also took the unusual and unique step of starting his own personal weblog, a site which he has maintained since. It includes his analyses of political and social issues, personal musings, as well as a section containing pictures he has taken of himself and other notable figures in Iranian politics. Most of the blog’s content is in Persian, but he occasionally writes in English.

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

International commentators on Abtahi have often focused on his enthusiasm for blogging both during and after his service with the administrations of Khatami. His website has served as a direct line of communication between him and both Iranians and non-Iranians who are curious about the inner workings of Iran’s government and society. Abtahi’s openness on his blog and his good-natured commitment to the exchange of ideas have garnered him respect as a politician committed to democratic reforms.

LEGACY

Despite the disappointments and failures of the reformists during their time in office between 1997 and 2004, Abtahi’s legacy, similar to that of the president he served under, may lie in the fact that he expanded the space for interaction between the people and government officials. Presenting himself as an approachable and accountable figure in his blog and his public appearances, Abtahi provided an example of how the relationship between the Iranian people and officials might be reconfigured.

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