TEHRAN, Iran — Following Nelson Mandela's death, a large number of Iranians expressed their sadness by posting condolences on social media, and Iranian officials from various political affiliations either expressed condolences or visited the South African Embassy in Tehran to pay their respects. It was also announced that Iran would name a street after Mandela. However, despite appearances, the Iranian people and officials were sharply divided over what Mandela represented and how he related to Iran’s divided political landscape.
Nothing symbolized this divide more so than that despite expressing his desire to travel to South Africa to attend Mandela’s ceremony and represent Iran, former President Mohammad Khatami appears to have failed to have his travel ban lifted for this event, a political decision that many Iranians on social media who are hoping to have better relations with the world called a “missed opportunity.”
After the Kayhan newspaper had deemed President Hassan Rouhani’s attendance at the funeral “a trap” that could lead to a possible handshake with US President Barack Obama, Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad Shariatmadari, was sent instead. Shariatmadari traveled to South Africa to offer Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's and the president's message of condolence but was not at the official ceremony where Obama and other world leaders spoke.
Mandela was no stranger to Iran. He was the first president of South Africa to visit Iran after the fall of apartheid. The first time he visited Iran was during Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency. He received an honorary doctorate from the Law School of Tehran University, one of the most important law departments in Iran. He visited again under Khatami’s presidency. In 1994, he was publicly praised by conservative politician and speaker of parliament Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, who called him the leader of South Africa’s “revolution and resistance movement,” and emphasized that “the hostile relations between Iran and South Africa caused by the apartheid” had come to an end.
On both visits, Mandela met Khamenei. The visits between Mandela and Iran’s supreme leader led to rumors and confusion however, revealing how eager some Iranians were to appropriate Mandela and align him with their own personal causes. Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, the chief of the supreme leader’s office, asserted that during both meetings, Mandela called Khamenei “my leader.” When asked by an Iranian newspaper if this was true, the head of Mandela’s office said that such language was common in South African when showing respect to someone. President Khatami also had said that Mandela had called him “my president,” but added that Mandela referred to other presidents with the same term.
Mandela also held a special place among young activists seeking a more peaceful path to address Iran’s problems in the region and among one another.
“Mandela was one of the very few political figures whose name was mentioned in our high school textbooks. This is why all Iranian students know him and are familiar with the hardships he endured,” said Monireh, a law student who has, like many others, replaced her profile picture with an image of Mandela on her Facebook page. “Mandela believed we should forgive our enemies instead of seeking revenge. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we loved him. If you look at the Green Movement, and read Mousavi’s statements, we can see that he, too, was always against violence,” she said of Mir Hussein Mousavi, the 2009 presidential candidate who has been under arrest for contesting the elections.
Mousavi, a former prime minister during the 1980s, a particularly tumultuous, violent and dark era in Iranian history, emerged in 2009 promising a more liberal and tolerant path than the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When he and Mehdi Karroubi accused hard-liners of stealing the elections, they encouraged civil disobedience and protests on a scale not seen in Iran since the 1979 revolution. One of the most remarkable events during the 2009 Green Movement protests was the so-called “silent” protest, in which tens of thousands of Iranians marched silently to protest election results, a chilling event hitherto unseen in Iran that re-affirmed the Green Movement’s commitment to non-violence and civil disobedience in the face of a violent and broad crackdown.
A reformist activist who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the 2009 protests brought a new appreciation for Mandela’s legacy among many activists. “Mousavi, Karroubi and [Zahra] Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife, are under house arrest. This is why people are honoring the memory of Mandela because he reminds them of these figures.” He added that the late Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri also belonged to this group. Montazeri, a Shia Grand Marja who also lived under house arrest for many years because of his criticism toward the government, later became known as “the father” of the Green Movement.
Despite the contrasting images of Mandela, it seems the hard-liners still have final say.
In an interview with Iranian Students’ News Agency, Khatami said, “I was saddened by the news of Mandela’s death and … I would like to attend his funeral.” When asked if he still faces any restrictions on leaving the country, he answered: “God willing, by now, this problem is solved.”
Hamid Rasaee, a hard-line MP, in an interview with Fars News Agency, said: “Mr. Khatami, because of his role in the 2009 sedition, cannot represent the Islamic Republic of Iran and he cannot really attend the funeral as an anti-imperialist figure, either. In fact, Mr. Khatami of today has no connection to a figure like Nelson Mandela. Mandela was an anti-American figure and today Mr. Khatami is on the same page with the Americans.” Those involved or who supported the 2009 protests were accused of being led by American or Israeli powers.
Nine political activists with close ties to the reformist faction also wrote a letter to Hassan Rouhani asking him to send Khatami as the representative of Iran to Mandela’s funeral.
Khatami’s non-attendance at the funeral suggests that the travel ban is still in place. A political analyst who had hoped Rouhani would send Khatami to Mandela’s funeral to show the world the significance of Iran’s Reform movement, told Al-Monitor, “I think [Rouhani] couldn’t send Khatami and this shows that he wants to be cautious when dealing with the radicals and that he does not want to enter into a direct conflict with them.”
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, 2013 Reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref, Khatami and Hassan Khomeini were among some of the many Iranian political figures to visit the South Africa Embassy in Tehran to pay their respects. Famous opposition figures such as lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and filmmaker Jafar Panahi also visited the embassy.
Despite the pictures of various political figures at the South African Embassy that were shared widely on social media, there definitely was a sad feeling as a result of a missed opportunity among some. “When we were young, we had two role models. One was Mandela and the other was Castro. We matured and came to hate the second one but continued to love Mandela,” said a former activist, who, before the 1979 revolution, like many other revolutionary students, had leftist tendencies. He called it “shameful” that Iran did not take advantage of this moment.
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