A comment in favor of federalism by Iran's former reformist president Mohammad Khatami has stirred controversy among political activists in Iran and abroad.
Speaking during a meeting with Tehran City councillors on May 11, Khatami suggested that "the most desirable democratic form of government for Iran could be a federative government, although Iran cannot be a federal state according to its Constitution."
Khatami also said that "maybe politically this is not the opportune time" for federalism.
Over 200 Iranian activists inside and outside Iran wrote a critical letter, lashing out at Khatami for saying that a federal government is the most desirable form of government for Iran.
They warned that such comments threatens the country's integrity and could even lead to ethnic disputes and civil war.
The letter, titled "No to federalism, no to national disintegration," maintains that no integrated country with a consolidated political system has ever been turned into a federal country." The letter however, mentions Iraq as an exception to the rule because of "colonial demarcations, dictatorial rule and foreign intervention."
The signatories to the letter said "Khatami has ignored the fact that Iran already exists as a country; and that is why he says the Constitution is the only barrier to Iran's move toward federalism, mindless of the fact that Iran is an age-old country that has always remained integrated."
They also questioned Khatami's claim, saying is not based on any research or applied experience. Pointing out Iran’s persistent problems such as corruption, failure of foreign policy, outdated industry, devaluation of national currency, suppression of civil liberties, ideological, religious and gender discrimination, they asked: "How federalism can offer a solution for problems Iran's clerical rulers have created?"
At the same time, U.S.-based Iranian scholar of political science Javad Tabatabai questioned Khatami and the city councillors' qualifications for such discussions that "will sacrifice the interests of the nation for the interests of a group Khatami leads," he wrote in a letter to the former president published on his Telegram channel.
Khatami was one of Iran's most popular presidents who still effectively exerts his charismatic influence over reform-minded Iranians at election times. However, he has recently said that it is unlikely that people would take his advice this time and vote for individuals he backs. Khatami advised Iranian reformists to vote for Hassan Rouhani in Presidential elections in 2013 and 2017.
But his public activism was only for the elections period. In fact, state controlled media had already been instructed not to give any exposure to the former president and it was even forbidden to publish his photos.
Following the 2017 elections, in October of that year Khatami was banned from attending public events and gradually the noose tightened, restricting him from meeting with close supporters and reformist aides. Many lawmakers protested but nothing changed.
Khatami's involvement with expanding local powers goes back to his first years as president in later 1990s. He pushed for local councils to be formed, and function albeit with limited powers and impact.
Tabatabai further called on Khatami to take back his comment and to suggest to his followers not to continue such debates.
But the fact remains that many activists defending the rights of Iran's ethnic groups advocate decentralization. However, both pro-regime and anti-regime proponents of a unitary Iran argue that decentralization will lead to separatist demands.
Speaking to Radio Farda, Tirdad Bonakdar, political scientist and lawyer in Tehran, noted that although Khatami is free to express any view as an individual, but many might be influenced by his comments without knowing much about federalism, because of his political background and his relative popularity in society. That is why some activists decided to react to Khatami's remarks. Some of Khatami's friends have said that this was not really Khatami's views. But Khatami must have had an idea about federalism and he knew that it was not a choice suitable for Iran, Bonakdar said.
Reformist political activist, Mohammad Reza Javadi Hesar in Mashad, defended Khatami telling Radio Farda that the discourse of Iran's reformists' is based on the idea of justice. What Khatami said was within the context of local councils. He stressed that local councils were first formed during his administration (1997-2005) and that he was alluding to the fact the people in various areas are interested in running their administrative affairs by local officials. So, if Khatami says anything about federalism, in fact he is pointing out the benefits of local government and dispensation of justice in society. What he says will unite people rather than fragment the society.
Meanwhile, London-based Abdollah Mohtadi, one of the founders of Iran's Kurdish Koumeleh party told Radio Farda that Khatami has pointed out Iran's ethnic diversity as a social and cultural reality. The discourse of federalism is one of participation in political power, based on decentralizing the structure of power, and attaching significance to ethnic groups' mother tongue. “Unlike radical nationalists of Iran, I believe federalism is a progressive idea which secures Iranian people's rights and brings them closer to each other”, Mohtadi said.
Bonakdar said he supported the idea of decentralization within the frameworks of Iran's cultural milieu and Javadi Hesar concluded that Khatami did not support the disintegration of Iran by suggesting a federative plan.