A political storm is brewing in Iran surrounding two Iranian presidents: Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, a Reformist politician who was president for two terms from 1997 to 2005 and Hassan Rouhani, the current Reformist president of Iran.
The issue at hand is based a dubious media ban on publishing Khatami’s image or name instated earlier this year by the regime at the request of 10 hardliner MP’s last year which has been enforced even if its legality has been contested by Reformists including Rouhani himself. But the ramifications of the ban are much larger than the ban itself in view of the looming elections to the Iranian parliament and to the Assembly of Experts in 2015. If Rouhani and his fellow Reformists manage to muster enough electoral power in both bodies, Rouhani’s promises for sweeping social changes in Iran have a chance at being fulfilled: A Reformist majority in parliament will allow Rouhani to initiate new laws that will promote more personal freedoms and a Reformist majority in the Assembly of Experts will affect the identity of the next Supreme Leader after Khamenei.
Khatami is not only a role model for Rouhani but his media ban is quickly becoming a rallying call by Rouhani for popular support by his electorate in the upcoming elections. It is Khatami’s role in the future, as Rouhani’s symbol for change, and not his past presidency that has made Khatami dangerous for Iran’s current hardline regime.
Khatami – his presidency and his downfall
Khatami was elected in a 70% landslide on a ticket of reform and liberalization, advocating freedom of expression, tolerance, a free market and what he called a diplomatic “Dialogue of Civilizations” with other nations, including Western countries.
He thought about running for president once again in the ill-fated 2009 elections which led to accusations of fraudulence when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won, but withdrew before the elections in order to support his friend and fellow reformer, Mir-Hossein Mousavi who was subsequently placed under house arrest. His open criticism of the regime for veering away from “freedom, independence and progress” towards “mental habits of prejudice” and of Ahmadinejad during the election resulted in his being ostracized by the regime.
In 2013, he considered running once again for president but withdrew once more in order to support fellow Reformist, Hassan Rouhani, who went on to win the election under a ticket for change which reflected Khatami’s presidency: constructive engagement with the West, signing a nuclear deal and relief of sanctions, promotion of basic human rights and freedoms etc…
The questionable media ban on Khatami
- On July 8th 2014, in a move meant to hurt Rouhani, ten hardliner MP’s petitioned the minister of justice for a ban on publishing Khatami’s image or his name by the media – the ban was officially instated on February 16th 2015 and within 10 days two news websites, Jamaan and Bahar News, were blocked for ignoring the ban.
- On June 13th 2015, Rouhani denied that such a ban even existed (“it’s a complete lie“) and questioned the legality of such a ban, stating that the creators of such a ban were “breaking the law and should be punished”.
- On June 14th, a judiciary spokesman restated that, not only was the ban in existence by order of the Tehran prosecutor, but that any violation of the ban would “be dealt with”.
- On June 15th 2015, Reformist Iranian MP Ali Motahari wrote a letter to the Tehran prosecutor questioning the legality of such a ban and requesting the prosecutor to explain which article of law was the basis for such a ban – the regime chose not to answer Motahari’s letter and once again, the issue of the ban was suppressed.
- On December 6th 2015, Ettela’at, a reputable Iranian newspaper, ran an article based on an interview by Khatami to a Lebanese newspaper together with Khatami’s picture and its editor, Mahmoud Doaei was quickly summoned to the Special Clerical Court (twice) in what seems to be another violation of Iran’s laws since such cases should be brought to a court of justice and not the Special Clerical Court which is accountable to Supreme Leader Khamenei alone.
- On December 14th 2015, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance which is responsible for monitoring the media in Iran stated that no such ban even existed and then once again, the story was buried.
So, who’s afraid of Khatami?
Khatami is not only a rallying call for Reformers but for hardliners as well who fear a surge in the power of Reformists in the upcoming elections. Following the signing of the JCPoA which signaled the return of Iran from its isolation and the opening of Iran’s economy and state to foreign investment and influence, or “Western infiltration”, as the hardliners call it, the hardliners understand that if the Reformist strengthen their position in parliament and the Assembly of Experts, more change is bound to come.
Subsequently, both elections have taken on a magnified importance but the election of the Assembly of Experts is seen as crucial by Reformists and hardliners as one: the purpose of the Assembly of Experts is to “elect, remove and supervise” the Supreme Leader of Iran. Rouhani himself, as well as fellow Reformist and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have signed up for these elections and Rafsanjani insinuated that the Assembly of Experts did not have to wait for Khamenei to die in order to choose another Supreme Leader – his suggestion was deemed “anti-regime” and “unconstitutional” by hardliners.
So, who’s afraid of Khatami? Every hardliner all the way up to Khamenei himself. Khatami not only represents, in their minds, a presidency in the past which tried to erode their Revolutionary hardline ideals but also the potential of Rouhani to complete what Khatami began in the future.