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
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
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
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
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.  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.
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
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.