Mohammad Reza Khatami, the brother of former president Mohammad Khatami and a prominent reformist figure, has been sentenced to two years in prison for claiming that the 2009 presidential election, officially won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was rigged. He was sentenced on charges of "spreading lies" and "disturbing public opinion." The ruling was issued by a lower court and Khatami is entitled to appeal the decision.
The case has attracted massive public attention in Iran, particularly after Khamati published the full content of his defense in response to the charges against him — in direct contradiction to orders issued by the judge overseeing the case. The full defense has also been published online.
So who is Mohammad Reza Khatami, also known as Reza Khatami?
From Occupying the US Embassy to London
Reza Khatami is one of the seven children of Ruhollah Khatami, the former Friday Imam and representative for Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, in the provincial capital of Yazd.
Immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Mohammad Reza Khatami studied medicine and, at the same time, joined Jihad of Construction, which started out as a volunteer movement to help with the 1979 harvest but later extended its activities to building roads, providing piped water, and electrification of rural areas, clinics, schools, and irrigation canals.
But he was also an ally of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, which occupied the US embassy on November 4, 1979 in what became known as the Iran Hostage Crisis. He then joined the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance — before his brother was appointed as minister of culture in September 1982 — and for a few months he was an advisor to then-minister of culture Abbas Duzduzani. He joined the Revolutionary Guards and, in 1982, during the Iran-Iraq war, he was wounded in the operation that led to the liberation of Khorramshahr from occupying Iraqi forces.
After the war, he went to London to continue his medical education and returned to Iran with a degree in nephrology.
From Deputy Minister to Protester
After returning to Iran, Reza Khatami practiced medicine for a few years. When his brother was elected as president in 1997 he was appointed deputy to health minister Mohammad Farhadi but resigned after disagreements with the minister. After that he avoided jobs in the executive branch, unlike his brother Ali, who served as President Khatami’s chief of staff during his second term.
Instead, he focused his activities on party politics and was the secretary-general of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front for eight years after it was founded in 1998. In 2000, he was elected by a considerable margin to be Tehran’s representative to the parliament, and in 2001 he was voted in as the First Deputy Speaker of the parliament. During this time he was also the head of the parliament’s Research Center, although it was reported that “he was rarely present at the offices of the Research Center — once a week at most.” [Persian link].
During his time in the parliament, several of Reza Khatami's remarks attracted controversy. For instance, on July 9, 2000, when the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei talked about “true reformism,” implicitly criticizing President Khatami’s attempts at reform, Reza Khatami responded by saying, “religious leaders have no right to speak for the people” and added: “reform does not belong to the government and members of the government cannot define what it is. People are clearly saying this by supporting the programs of [President] Khatami.”
Eventually, he rubbed so many powerful people in the regime the wrong way that the Guardian Council disqualified him from running for reelection in 2004. He joined members of the Islamic Iran Participation Front in a protest sit-in. “The most important achievement of the sit-in was to teach the law breakers that they would most definitely pay a heavy price for trampling the law,” he said.
“We must be able to criticize Ayatollah Khomeini”
But disqualification did not stop Reza Khatami from making controversial statements. One of his most controversial comments appeared in an interview published in the monthly Rouyesh, in which he affirmed that it was necessary that people were able to criticize the views of Ayatollah Khomeini. “When we review Imam’s writings and statements, we find things that are in our interest but also things that harm our interests,” he said. “Unfortunately we have turned Imam into an untouchable person whose ideas and beliefs we are not allowed to discuss even today. And, a few years from now, it might be too late to discuss them.”
One interesting twist is that Reza Khatami is married to Zahra Eshraghi, a granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, who has been a source of controversy in her own right. For example, in an interview with the New York Times in 2003, she sharply criticized mandatory hijab. Iran’s policy of making the hijab mandatory for women.
“I’m sorry to say that the chador was forced on women,'' she said. “People have lost their respect for it. I only wear it because of my family status.”
She has also expressed opposition to patriarchy. “As a woman, if I want to get a passport to leave the country, have surgery, even to breathe almost, I must have permission from my husband," she told the British newspaper the Telegraph. She also criticized her grandfather, saying “the constitution my grandfather approved says that only a man can be president. We would like to change the wording from 'man' to 'anyone.’”
In 2010, a year after the disputed 2009 presidential election, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was visiting Lebanon, Reza Khatami once again made the news. In a letter to Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of the Lebanese Hezbollah, he acknowledged their long acquaintance, but said that he could not claim to be fighting Israel when hundreds of “Iranian fighters for freedom” were prisoners of injustice.
The “Unhealthy” Election
But what got Reza Khatami into real trouble — and led to his recent trial — was an interview he gave in October 2018, when he publicly called the results of the 2009 presidential election a fraud. He described the 2009 vote as “unhealthy,” while suggesting that eight million fraudulent votes had been added to the ballot boxes at the Interior Ministry’s election headquarters to seal the victory of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For this reason, the trial against Khatami has been nicknamed the “8-million fraud” case.
Following the interview, the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit filed a complaint against Khatami, and in December 2018 he was indicted. Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi said on December 18 that Reza Khatami had not provided any proof to back up his claim of ballot-stuffing by the Ministry of Interior.
Khatami was tried in spring 2019 in three sessions, and on July 6 the lower court sentenced him to two years in prison on charges including "spreading lies” and "disturbing public opinion.” Even though the trial was public, the judge did not allow Khatami to publish the text of his defense, but he ignored these instructions and three days ago he published it, attaching the text to letters to the heads of the executive, judiciary and legislative branches. The text of his defense and the attachments amount to 324 pages.
According to Reza Khatami, in the 2009 election, at least 3.35 million printed ballots were not sent to polling stations. “The question is: what happened to these 3.35 million ballots that were to be sent to the provinces?” he said. “Where did they go? Which candidate’s name was written on them? According to official statements by provincial officials, these ballots were not given to provincial and city governments and what remains [unused] in the vaults of Bank Melli totals 100,000. Then who has the rest? Note that this number relates to only 11 provinces. If we project this to the whole country, then we arrive at a number close to nine million ballots, the fate of which is unknown. I stop at the minimum number, i.e., 3.35 million, because the disaster is so big that even this number is enough to prove it.”
By adding this number to other figures related to unused ballots, Reza Khatami concludes that the fraud involved 8,589,993 fraudulent ballots. Hence the nickname “8-million fraud” trial.
Khatami’s defense also quotes from the unpublished diaries of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, citing the entry for June 15, 2009, three days after the presidential election. “Mohsen Rezaei came here tonight. He said that he had had a meeting with Messrs. Shamkhani, Larijani, Soleimani and Ghalibaf, who believed that eight million fraudulent votes had been cast. They told Mr. Hejazi to inform the Supreme Leader.”
In his defense, Reza Khatami even used statements from a number of principlists to prove his claim.
The trial of Reza Khatami, his sentence and the publication of his defense has reopened the wounds of the 2009 presidential election — although the heightened tensions between Iran and the US has relatively overshadowed the fight over that controversial election and domestic politics in general.