On Tuesday, almost every major news agency in Iran, including IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency (FNA), quoted Ali Motahari as telling a Q&A held in the Ferdowsi University of Mashhad that he has met with the leaders of the Green Movement under house arrest to ask their plan after a potential release. “During the visit we had with them, they declared their affection for [founder of the Islamic Republic Imam] Khomeini and the Supreme Leader,” Motahari said according to quotes published by FNA.
Motahari explained his rationale as that the Green Movement leaders have erred in elongating their protests, which was in turn manipulated by foreign media, but the seven years they have served suffices as a punishment. Stressing that both sides have made their own mistakes, he reiterated that the ground is fertile for the release saying atmosphere in the country is currently incomparable with the sensational one back in 2009 and nothing happens after the release.
On Wednesday, parts of his remarks about meeting(s) with the dissident leaders were rectified, as a footage of the Q&A went online. The video showed Motahari saying an enquiry for such meetings has been submitted to senior officials of the country, as he expressed hope that a permission would be granted.
The release of the dissident leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi was promised during Hassan Rouhani’s presidential campaign in 2013. In fact, many still see the promise to be as important as his pledge to resolve Iran’s nuclear dossier through negotiation with world powers. Former President and pro-reform leader Mohammad Khatami joined Hashemi Rafsanjani to back Rouhani. However, early after Rouhani took office, things became worse for pro-reform groups when a media blackout was imposed on Khatami too.
Despite claims that his administration has been pursuing the house arrests and media blackouts, officials have repeatedly stated that it is practically not within the administration’s mandate but takes a consensus inside the establishment. Over the past year, Rouhani administration officials and sympathizers have been more open to link the issue to the establishment, dashing the hopes of its realization. The administration’s strongest supporter, the newly deceased Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani was quoted famously in late May 2016, saying the administration does not have the power to release the house arrestees and expectations should be kept in check.
In spite of the cold waters poured repeatedly, a series of parallel efforts indicate that at least one side of the game is ready for a change. Ironically, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who stood attacks from hardliner Principlists for his implicit support of the protests in 2009, renewed hopes for the release through his last politicized gesture, i.e. his demise. His popularly attended funeral saw two very different groups of attendants: those who hailed Rafsanjani for his camaraderie with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his roles in various positions ever since the revolution, and those, fewer in number, who chanted slogans demanding the release of the dissident leaders. His funeral was hailed as a display of solidarity in the face of differences, providing fresh context for adherents a paradigm shift toward a national reconciliation.
A fresh initiative by the Reformist camp to mend fences with the establishment could be seen in the same light. Concerned about the vacuum Hashemi Rafsanjani left behind, pro-reform groups are now working out ways to approach the establishment, emphasizing a renewal of ties with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Days before the fifth anniversary of the house arrests, an online petition has also been launched to sign an open letter to the chiefs of the three branches of the government, asking them to relieve the ‘pain in the neck’ through prudence. “The glorious funeral of the late Ayatollah Hashemi acknowledged that Iranians have reached recognition and sophistication to see the road to prosperity and success through solidarity, appreciation, and toleration of different views, not in hostility and enmity’” begins the letter, which has collected 18 thousand signatories so far.
Amid preparations for a highly anticipated reelection bid by President Hassan Rouhani, whom Kayhan daily’s director Hossein Shariatmadari said opposed the freedom of dissident leaders in secret, some observers see the new developments as an old tactic to appease those who backed Rouhani, with an eye to the release.
However, even a timid welcoming response from the Principlist camp tends to be a game-changer. The media blackout on Khatami was first broken when outlets covered his filing a lawsuit against a former military commander who had accused him of receiving financial support from the Saudi King, in an interview with pro-reform Shargh daily. Now even Raja News, a hardliner Principlist movement, which compares the new Reformist initiative with efforts by the notorious Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO) early after the Revolution, picks a photo (above) of Khatami and Hashemi, shaking hands in front of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during Khatami’s inauguration ceremony in 1997.
An interview with ex-deputy speaker Mohammadreza Bahonar, considered an influential voice with the Principlists, went viral on Wednesday in which he was quoted as saying he did not see Mohammad Khatami as a leader of the ‘sedition’, a label used in official rhetoric as reference to the 2009 post-election protests. “It may be said that he is not an opposition to the establishment. Then, he could prove this with an official statement and then enter the scene as a player. His involvement will definitely bring blessings,” Asr Iran quoted him as saying.
The public statement came on Tuesday in remarks Khatami made, addressing a group of war veterans. In an implicit reference to the threats that have loomed large following Donald Trump’s presidency, Khatami said time is ripe for the union of all forces. “Nobody should remain in the past. Everyone should look ahead. Those in prison or house arrest also have sympathy for the country and the Revolution and stand against foreign threats … We should use this opportunity, pave the way for national reconciliation, and move ahead prudently toward defending Islam, the Revolution, the country, and the people’s interests,” said Khatami, according to his personal website. However, a majority of the Principlists have signified over the past six years that only a repentance and apology would do the trick. Seeing it coming in advance, Ali Motahari told the students of Ferdowsi University in Mashhad that there is no such a thing as “forced repentance” in Islam.