The United States is increasing its pressure on Iran at a time when the country’s Reform movement appears to be on its deathbed. Increasingly, the Reformist camp’s attempts to help overcome the national crises related to the failing economy and external pressure are deemed meaningless by many Iranians who have been responding to such efforts with anger and scorn.
Two days before President Donald Trump's Aug. 7 declaration that “biting sanctions” have been reimposed on the Iranian economy, a website believed to be affiliated with Mohammad Khatami published the text of a speech the Reformist ex-president (1997-2005) made during a meeting with veteran lawmakers.
While almost 13 years have passed since Khatami handed power to conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), the Reformist leader expressed remorse before the Iranian people, whose trust in the establishment, according to him, has dropped to a new low. He said, “As a citizen who loves Iran and Islam, I extend my sincere apologies for flaws and shortcomings. We could have served Iran and the Iranians better.” In this vein, Khatami also called on the establishment to make way for reform, saying, “While defending the Islamic Republic, we strongly believe the establishment must be open to reform. It cannot insist on [maintaining a system of governance with] problems in its structure, policies and performance and not give in to reform.”
As such, he urged “national unity” by opening a path to dialogue and creating an open, safe political atmosphere; ending excesses and radicalism; and removing state control over elections in which candidates not favored by conservative elites have been barred from running.
Khatami also demanded the release of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest since 2011 in the wake of the unrest after the disputed 2009 presidential elections. Accordingly, Khatami called on the establishment to release “all prisoners” detained for their political orientation or ideological beliefs, and urged the issuing of a general amnesty for Iranian dual nationals who may be targeted by the security services — with the exception of ex-pats who have been proven to be “cooperating with the aggressor enemies to publicly advocate overthrow of the Iranian regime.”
Just a few years ago, these remarks would have likely been broadly hailed and seen as a courageous disapproval of the hard-line ruling establishment. But now, at a time when a currency crash alongside increasing corruption and opportunism inside the government is bringing angry protesters to the streets, many Iranians have stopped seeing use in Khatami’s stances. This sentiment is prevalent even though the former president in his speech called for the people’s “justified protests” to be heard, while also urging the administration of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani to be held accountable and become more responsive.
“Khatami has changed his role from public defender to good cop,” said Afra, who did not want his last name to be published. Afra used to be a supporter of “true reform,” but is now one of many Iranians who have taken to social media to criticize Khatami after his speech.
He told Al-Monitor, “His new measures are too general and half-baked, as if he wants to have said something so that people willing to vote in the next elections will remember that he exists. What he says is derived from his delusions and the little knowledge he has of developments in Iran. It might as well come from his denial [of reality], if not an intention to simply lie to the people."
Observers say emerging Reformist figures, many of whom have been involved in corrupt political dealings both in parliament and executive bodies, are to blame for the vanishing public trust in the camp. Meanwhile, the ongoing economic crisis, fueled by the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has turned many voters against Rouhani. Of note, the president would have had a hard time securing a second term in last year’s elections without the strong support of Khatami and his supporters.
“Today, Rouhani has the lowest level of approval in the history of the Islamic Republic. This situation has had serious effect on the number of Reformist supporters,” Hassan Asadi Zeydabadi, a Reformist activist, told Al-Monitor. “In such an atmosphere it is unsurprising that Khatami’s statement is not received well and is censured. Khatami’s [decision to] keep a distance from Rouhani by criticizing him has come with a delay,” he said.
Reactions to Khatami’s remarks have been varied among prominent Reformist figures, activists and journalists. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former official who served under Khatami, on Aug. 5 called for “unanimous, straightforward” support for the Reformist leader’s stances. Others, like Ahmad Zeydabadi, a journalist close to the Reformist camp, have expressed a more coolheaded view.
“Although adopting a clear stance is inherently a positive move for political figures — and Mr. Khatami in particular — it will not significantly help them overcome the crisis related to their diminishing number of supporters, or to help create fresh motivation in their camp for that matter,” he wrote on his channel on the popular smartphone app Telegram on Aug. 7.
Zeydabadi argues that the Reform movement is caught in paradoxical rhetoric. Reformists, he writes, have long highlighted the "violence" and "ignorance" emanating from the rival conservative camp, which has maintained its grip on power in the past decades. He points out that the current Reformist insistence on engaging with these same conservatives thus in effect turns the pro-Reform camp into an accomplice of the very “gorilla” it has created in the eyes of at least some of its supporters.
Activist Assadi Zeydabadi told Al-Monitor that it remains to be seen how the Reformist rhetoric will be shaped in the future. “The audience of this speech is not the people, but the leadership. Khatami says, 'I ask the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] to take these measures.' It is unclear what solution he will have in the future if these requests are not accepted,” he said.
Indeed, the prospect of Reformist calls for last-minute change being ignored not just by ordinary Iranians but also the upper echelons of power is very real — if not the most likely scenario. Part of the reason for this may be that the deep-rooted issues in the country continue to be seen as serious challenges by almost every observer, except among those in the inner circles of Iran’s political elite.
In this vein, Assadi Zeydabadi ominously warned, “Because the establishment has not comprehended the depth of the crisis it is facing, it still welcomes the demolition of the Reformists.” He added, “It still prioritizes factional over national interests.”
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