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    Middle East
     Jul 15, 2009
Iran on a tortuous path to reconciliation
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's second term of four years carries the scars of a major credibility problem that can be either healed or worsened in the coming weeks and months, depending on how the government responds to the need for reconciliation with opposition groups.

Ahmadinejad's re-election last month was bitterly contested by the main losing reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and others amid charges of vote-rigging. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets; several people were killed and dozens of reformist politicians and scores of journalists


associated with the reformist camp were arrested.

Former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is also head of the powerful Expediency Council, has met with the families of some of the political prisoners and promised to pursue their cases.

Rafsanjani's much-anticipated Friday prayer sermon this week will likely generate another boost for the reformists and their call for the release of all prisoners. The test for Rafsanjani, who has yet to congratulate Ahmadinejad for his electoral victory, is how to press the demands of the reformists while at the same time playing an effective mediating role and a vital bridge over the great chasm that has opened since the presidential elections on June 12.

If Rafsanjani does not acknowledge Ahmadinejad's victory, as is expected of him by the regime's hardliners (ie, the so-called Principalists), then it is hard to see how he can wield much influence on the government in terms of compromise and reconciliation.

On the other hand, with passions still running high, as reflected in the latest letter of reformist candidate, Mehdi Karrubi, to the judicial authorities bemoaning an "undeclared coup d'etat" in Iran, Rafsanjani's Friday prayer has the potential to become a spectacle of political division in the Islamic Republic. This is at a time when Iran's foreign priorities demand a strong "show of unity", to paraphrase another defeated candidate, Mohsen Rezaii.

Instead of a "flash point" as anticipated in the US media, with adequate preparatory dialogue and "reaching out" to both sides, Rafsanjani's sermon could mark a turning point whereby a new mood of reconciliation replaces the current volatile political atmosphere.

In addition to Rafsanjani, Rezaii's role is also key, in light of his expressed willingness to criticize both sides and call on the other candidates, Mousavi and Karrubi, to admit that mistakes were also made on their sides and that they need to make amends with the re-elected president, just as the latter needs to show "respect for the people and their rights. I believe political justice takes precedence over economic justice."

Increasingly, Rezaii's view that Iran's enemies "came up with the idea of an explosion from inside" and meddled in Iran's internal affairs via the presidential elections, resonates with a lot of Iranians, albeit without necessarily agreeing with the government's tendency to label the recent protests as "foreign-induced".

According to a Tehran University political scientist who spoke with the author on the condition of anonymity, "Mistakes have been made by both sides and as long as this is not recognized and there is no self-criticism - a no-no in Iran's political culture even among the reformists - then I don't see how we can have a meaningful reconciliation."

Concerning "mistakes" made by the reformists, the professor made several observations: "First, Mousavi should have never called himself the winner before the results were in, and then he sent Mohsen Makhmalbaf [a famous filmmaker] to Europe where he lied by claiming that the Interior Ministry had called and congratulated Mousavi [for winning the election]. That is impossible and the Interior Ministry would never do that and everyone in Iran knows that.

"Third, instead of following the legal channel, in his first statement after the elections, Mousavi called on people to resist, and by doing this he pretty much stepped outside the legal bounds and then made it more complicated for himself by denying any legitimacy to the Council of Guardians. But Mousavi had agreed to participate in this election and the procedures dominating it and unfortunately not only did he not respect the procedures and the verdict, he also failed to see the sinister foreign hands that were fanning the fires."

Another prominent political analyst who is close to Iran's foreign policy establishment, also preferring to remain unnamed, informs the author that there is a great deal of concern about the negative impact of the election "controversy" on Iran's foreign policy. He adds that the entire political system has suffered in the international arena and it will take a "Herculean effort" by the country's leadership to offset the debilitating consequences of the "internal disunity" that has been displayed before "the eyes of the whole world".

Although not sharing the dire warning of a "system collapse" by Karrubi and others, this analyst firmly believes that the seismic tremors of a "political earthquake" have shaken the Islamic Republic, and that means "no quick fixes" will do to patch up the gaping wounds.

For his part, Ahmadinejad in his latest statements has been trying to reach out to the country's young and has promised to be a "president for all Iranians". To prove that this is more than rhetoric for public consumption, Ahmadinejad may need to broaden the base of his political support by including some moderate faces in his second administration.

A government of national unity is called for that dictates a more inclusive cabinet, otherwise the risks of political alienation on the part of many segments of the urban population remain high. In turn, this calls for a revamping and upgrading of Iran's restricted political culture, whereby the very idea of compromise and even a "coalition government" presently considered a taboo would be embraced as a feasible possibility.

Perhaps what is missing is a wealth of middle-of-the-road people who could intervene for the sake of cementing the current efforts at political reconciliation.

Calls on the World Bank, such as from 2005 Noble Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, to cease its loans to Iran over its nuclear program, overlook the nature of the World Bank's assistance programs for such popular programs as Tehran's sewage system and environment.

There have also been calls on the European parliament to impose sanctions on Tehran for its human-rights abuses, although these make no reference to Britain's alleged meddling in Iran's internal affairs. [1] Such appeals to the world community do not sit well with many Iranians who prefer to see a more balanced approach to the country's wealth of domestic and foreign problems.

1. See Afrasiabi, European parliament should investigate British meddling in Iran's internal affairs, al-Jazeera, JUly 1, 2009.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

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