Amid intensified factional fighting among conservatives who dominate the presidency, the parliament, and the office of the Islamic Republic’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an appeal for national reconciliation and forgiveness by a former reformist president is making a major splash in Iran’s political discourse.The May 18 speech of Mohammad Khatami to a group of Iran-Iraq War veterans has taken friends and foes of the former president by surprise in a country where charges of electoral fraud and the regime’s brutal suppression of post-election protests have completely polarized the population.
While in Iran’s highly fluid politics, nothing can be asserted with certainty, Khatami’s appeal for the country to embark upon a middle path could transform the past year’s highly corrosive and vacuous political discourse, which has been dominated by paranoia about "seditious" or "deviant" currents intent on overthrowing the regime.
Khatami, who appears to be positioning himself as a mediator between conservatives on the one hand and reformists who supported the so-called Green Movement on the other, was quite clear and to the point.
"If there has been injustice done to the system and Leadership, forsake them for the sake of the future, and the nation will also forsake the injustice that was done to it and its children," Khatami said.
He also called, as he has in the past, for the release of all political prisoners and the suspension of the house arrests of presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mussavi and Mehdi Karrubi.
The formulation asking Khamenei to forgive and change course while promising forgiveness on the part of the nation drew immediate and sharp responses, particularly from some of those who have suffered most from the regime’s repression.
Imploring Khatami not to wash clean "Khamenei’s bloodied hands," Mehdi Saharkhiz, the son of Issa Saharkhiz, the long-detained press chief in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance under Khatami, issued a blistering response, acknowledging Khatami’s right to "show (his) allegiance to the Satan." But he did not have the right "to give this allegiance in the name of the people," added the younger Saharkhiz, who currently lives in exile.
Others, such as exiled journalist Massih Alinejad, have criticized Khatami’s formulation, arguing that it reveals the essential weakness of the reformists and their reliance on a failed strategy of pleading for change when the power to implement it is so clearly lacking.
Yet other commentators have found in Khatami’s appeal an opportunity for initiating a conversation about the goals and strategies of reformists and the Green Movement for change spawned by the 2009 election.
Writing in the Tehran-based Rouzegar, Alireza Alavi-tabar, a prominent sociologist, reminded the daily’s mostly reformist readers that "blood should not be washed with blood" and that long-term social harmony required forgiveness.
Another influential reformist, journalist Abbas Abdi, also endorsed the forgiveness theme despite the fact that, during Khatami’s tenure, he was one of the foremost critics of the former president’s mild- mannered and conciliatory approach.
"Political resistance is not about implementing justice as some people assume," he said in an interview with Rouzegar. Rather, he went on, the aim is to reduce hardship and pain and increase happiness and satisfaction for the greatest number of people.
"Implementation of justice is the responsibility of the courts, but compromise and peace are antecedent to the courts, and politics is about compromise and peace," said Abdi, who was one of the students who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 and subsequently became among the regime’s most trenchant and effective critics.
Blasting exiles who call for a more-confrontational approach, Abdi charged that they really seek the regime’s violent overthrow. "They are not concerned about violated rights, harm inflicted, or the number of fatalities; they just want to implement the Iraq and Libya project in Iran," he declared.
Iran should consider South Africa’s reconciliation process and the Allies’ decision to treat defeated Germany with greater leniency after World War II then they had after World War I despite the graver crimes committed during the former, he said.
The bottom line, according to Abdi, is that the more success Khatami and fellow-reformists have in persuading people that compromise and forgiveness are the key to a better future for Iran, the more power they will gain in convincing Khamenei and other conservatives to change course.
"The main issue is power," he said. "Propagation of (Khatami’s) position and everyone recognizing it (as the best course) strengthen the critics and cause fissures in the opposing group, and this is a move towards rebalancing power."
Indeed, absent any organizational backbone to make its aim of gaining justice and a complete overhaul of the existing system a reality, the movement for change faces a serious challenge.
Further radicalization simply makes the conservative forces more paranoid, more determined to maintain power, and less open to compromise. It also makes the few leaders who can still appeal for reconciliation without fear of serious reprisals, including imprisonment, less effective in making their case.
Whether this argument will hold sway with that sector of the citizenry that feels both abused and powerless as a result of the repression meted out over the past year and a half remains to be seen.
At this point, however, what is certain is that Khatami’s attempt to initiate a national conversation about Iran’s future, the extent to which polarization harms the country, and the role of compromise in promoting democratic practices perhaps at the expense of immediate justice appears partially successful.
And this is already an important achievement in a country where the idea of compromise is generally understood and criticized as simply a form of appeasement of illegitimate power.