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Khatami calls on Reformists to step back from political demands

Are Iranian Reformists conceding ground to hardline Principalists in the run-up to the 2013 presidential election? On 12 August 2012, Journalists’ Day in the Islamic Republic, a group of journalists met with ex-president Mohammad Khatami to discuss some of the most pressing issues of the day. The discussion focused on two main themes, namely the policies of the ruling hardline Principalists and broader social, political, and economic issues faced by journalists and society.

The journalists first raised some of their collective issues with Khatami, namely the lack of freedom in Iranian society and the fact that journalists pay a heavy price in Iran on a day-to-day basis for carrying out their professional duties and suffer from arrest and imprisonment. They also talked about various threats against the country, including the cloud of war hanging over Iran because of its controversial nuclear program and the disastrous domestic economic situation.

Khatami sympathized with the journalists, saying that it was a shame that some in the Islamic Republic’s senior leadership denied the existence of political prisoners in the country. He said that the process through which many journalists have been arrested, tried, and imprisoned is unconstitutional. Khatami also asserted that regime pressure was not only being applied against journalists, but also professors, students, artists, and publishers who also had difficulties practicing their professions.

Khatami said that in order to address these issues, the regime’s cultural, judicial, and security officials should be guided by a recent speech given by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the speech given to students on Monday, 6 August 2012, Khamenei stated that students should be able speak freely without fear of reprimand. Khatami maintained that the supreme leader’s words could be interpreted to allow greater freedom of speech in the public sphere in Iran.

The ex-president then turned to the major issues of the day, especially Iran’s economic woes. Highlighting his own administration’s relatively better economic track-record, Khatami said problems like inflation are not something regime officials can deny by simply saying they don’t exist; rather these were issues that people can see in their daily lives.

It is at this point that Khatami made some surprising comments. Declaring that Reformists only sought to help improve things in Iran, Khatami said his criticisms were not meant to make Iran’s problems appear bigger than they were. He seemed to be taking a conciliatory stance toward hardliners and indicated that Reformists would back-off from some of their larger demands:

“If it is necessary we must step back from some our demands and consider priorities in such a way as to help solve the people’s problems and foreign threats and improve management of society. The government must use the valuable capital [referring to the Reformist faction] which is going to waste, and anyway the parties must give greater latitude.”

Editor’s note: As we approach the 2013 Iranian presidential election, the strategy of the various factions and the field of potential candidates is becoming clearer and may help us better understand possible outcomes. The Reformist faction, moderates who were in power in the executive and legislature between 1997-2005, were sidelined after the 2009 Iranian presidential election because of their support for the Green Movement which took to the streets to protest allegations of electoral fraud. Many prominent Reformist leaders have been imprisoned or fled abroad.

Under the leadership of ex-president Khatami, his brother Mohammad-Reza Khatami, and ex-interior minister Abdollah Nouri, the Reformists have made a comeback and appear to be positioning themselves to participation in the 2013 election. Given the regime’s apparent sensitivity to the Green Movement however, the Reformists have been trying to distance themselves from the movement and some of its more radical demands for reform. Now it seems like they are trying to bridge the gap with hardliners even further by saying that they will “step back” from some of their key policy platforms.

As we’ve highlighted in the past, hardliners have not responded very positively to the Reformist overtures. Perhaps moving further toward hardliners may give the Reformists a seat at the table in the 2013 election. However, even if they are allowed to run a candidate, there is no reason to believe that a Reformists president will be allowed to take office if he wins given the climate prevailing in Iran. Moreover, in taking a conciliatory approach toward hardliners the Reformists risk further alienating their base (who took to the ballot box and streets in their their millions to support them in 2009) even further. It is at this point difficult to discern who they hope to attract by peddling a watered-down version of their already moderate policies which achieved limited results when they were actually in power.