TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's embattled President Mohammad Khatami (search) conceded Monday he had failed to implement his democratic reform program, claiming he had bowed to the will of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search) and his hard-line allies to avoid riots and preserve the ruling Islamic establishment.
"If I retreated, I retreated against the system I believed in," said Khatami to Tehran University students — some openly angry with the man they once saw as the best hope for democracy in Iran. "I considered it necessary to save the ruling establishment."
Some students chanted: "Khatami, Khatami shame on you!" Others yelled out: "Incompetent Khatami, may our vote not bless you!"
The reception was a stark change for the intellectual once so deeply admired among Iran's big population of young people. Many once carried his photograph in their purses or wallets.
Iran's Guardian Council (search), the conservative oversight body of Muslim clerics that can overrule parliament, banned many of Khatami's pro-reform legislators and candidates from a February election.
Khatami has since been seen by many as an ineffective, lame-duck leader — but he said he chose not to boycott the elections to avoid violence.
"Either we had to hold the elections or face riots," Khatami said in the first of several farewell speeches. "I didn't consider it in the country's interests that riots erupt."
Khatami has complained repeatedly that he was powerless to stop hard-liners who blocked reform legislation, detained pro-reform activists and shut down more than 100 liberal publications.
Khatami, whose term ends in June 2005, even said he looking forward to the end of his presidency.
"Fortunately, my tenure is coming to an end," said Khatami. But the soft-spoken president did not refrain from blaming hard-liners and some of his allies for undermining his proposals.
"I have claims against some reformers who ... limited all demands of the people to certain political demands, provoking rigid hard-liners," said Khatami. "(I) have claims against rigid evil thinkers who failed to see people's demands for reform and instead of respecting (the) people's vote (they) began resisting them."
Khatami insisted that democracy in Iran would only come about if it was combined with an Islamic republic.
"The only way to save the country is to establish democracy," said Khatami. "The way toward democracy is through and within the Islamic Republic."
Khatami the optimist said he saw a relative victory in the heckling by the students.
"In Third World countries, powerful institutions stand against the people," said Khatami. "That the government is not seen as an arrogant body is enough of reforms."
Khatami said Iran's image has improved in the world after his 1997 election but anti-democracy measures by hard-liners disappointed the nation and helped prompt President Bush to include Iran in his "axis of evil" along with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea.
Khatami was voted into office by landslide majority in 1997 and again in 2001.
The Iranian parliament approved two of his reform bills seeking to check the power of hard-liners, but the Guardian Council rejected both.