Former president Mohammad Khatami has called for “national reconciliation” as Iran continues to face threats from the United States and attacks on Iranian “dignity.”

Speaking ahead of the 38th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution on February 7, Khatami called for Iranians to come together, saying threats from US President Donald Trump made it the “most opportune time” for building a stronger, more unified environment.

“Perhaps there are some people who do not view the revolution or the system favorably but…when the country and national interests and Iran’s dignity is in danger, everybody should join together and stand up to those who want to attack Iran.”

During his speech, Khatami also sent a clear message to Ayatollah Khamenei without explicitly naming him. “The Leadership plays a very important role in building this unity,” he said.

Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist politician who has been in prison since 2009, praised Khatami’s plan the next day, and said that creating an atmosphere of reconciliation would help “save Iran.”

Khatami invited Iranians to participate in February 10 rallies to mark the anniversary of the revolution — even if they were disgruntled with how the country had developed since then.

Ayatollah Khamenei also encouraged people to attend marches, as he does each year. Speaking on February 8, he told Iranians that marking the revolution was the best way of confronting Trump’s threats.

But the Iranian public are used to these kinds of statements from Khamenei. Comments from Khatami are less commonly heard, given that the media are banned from publishing photographs of the former president. In fact, it’s quite possible he would have been prohibited from participating in the rallies himself. According to Agence France-Presse, Khatami was not present at one of the main rallies in Tehran, which President Hassan Rouhani attended.

 

Letter of Apology?

Prior to Khatami’s public call for urgent reconciliation, the website Jahan News — owned by conservative politician Alireza Zakani —   reported that Khatami and other reformists were planning to write to Ayatollah Khamenei to apologize for their actions in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election. The report said the group planned to tell Khamenei that “the situation in the country and the world is such that we all must join hands and cooperate.”

The website also reported that some reformist figures, including Mostafa Tajzadeh, were against such a letter. In his interview with the Iranian Labour News Agency, Tajzadeh said: “Young reformists are worried that a national reconciliation might mean they have to abandon their reformist identity,” though he made no specific mention of a letter. He also denied rumors claiming that Khatami and other reformists planned to apologize. “If we were like that,” he said, “then during all these years that we have been in prison, we could have resorted to such means to save ourselves and grab a part of the government for ourselves.”

But the idea of the nation coming together in tense political times is of course nothing new. In the winter of 2009, Ali Motahari, a conservative member of the parliament but a frequent thorn in the side of hardliners, offered the parliament a seven-point plan for national reconciliation. A year later religious scholar and philosophy professor Abdolkarim Soroush wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei, asking him to tolerate criticism so that the groundwork for more national unity could be laid.

And, even more recently, on January 14, 2017, 43 political prisoners wrote an open letter calling for national reconciliation too. But the fact that Khatami has spoken out at this time is significant, given his huge stature in Iranian political life.

 

Compensating For the Death of Rafsanjani

But reformists have also been trying to open direct communication channels with the supreme leader. Following the death of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, his brother Mohammad Hashemi said reformists have highlighted the importance of renewed and closer contact with Khamenei. “This request has been submitted to him by various groups,” said Mohammad Reza Tabesh, a reformist parliamentarian. “God willing, this request will be granted and its mechanism should be decided by he himself.” Hossein Marashi, spokesman for the reformist Executives of Construction Party also said, “We are waiting to hear the views of the supreme leader in this matter.”

With the approaching presidential election and elections for city councils across Iran later this year, reformists are trying to compensate for the death of Hashemi Rafsanjani, and this appeal to the supreme leader is part of this. Many of them believe that Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a former speaker of the parliament, is the best man to lead their reconciliation efforts. They hope he will succeed Hashemi Rafsanjani as the president of the influential Expediency Council.

“Say you Lied!”

But amid the calls for national unity, hardliners have been consistent in their views. An article published in hardliner newspaper Kayhan on February 8 said that if reformists wanted to return to the political arena, they would have to apologize for their claims that the 2009 election was fraudulent. “Apologizing and repenting before the people, and expressing remorse for their shameful and ugly actions…especially for lying, is the only way people will accept them back.”

And Khatami will be under more pressure than most to make these apologies. Politician Mohammad Reza Bahonar said Khatami should “clarify his position toward the 2009 Sedition” — Iranian conservatives' term for the unrest that followed the election that year. “Then he can return to political arena.” Hardliners have taken their cue from Khamenei. “In private meetings they say that there was no fraud [in the 2009 election],” said the supreme leader on July 28, 2013. “Then why did they do so much damage to the country and push it to the brink? We have asked this question repeatedly, not in public but in a way that deserves an answer. Why don’t they answer? Why don’t they apologize?”

But although Iran’s conservative politicians and media might have a different way of expressing it, the demand for unity is the same. Reformists and conservatives can see the need for reconciliation in the current climate. And it’s probably a belief that is echoed among the Iranian public at large.

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