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Iran's Ex-President Khatami Walks A Tightrope During Protests

Former president of Iran Mohammad Khatami, File photo.

Iran's pro-reform ex-President Mohammad Khatami, who had conspicuously kept mum about recent deadly protests, broke his silence on Tuesday, November 26, warning that "foreigners" might exploit the anti-regime uprising.

Speaking to a handful of political and student rights' activists, Khatami described the protests as "breathtaking" and "deeply rooted," that need a thorough review and fair investigation to decide the "share" of different elements in creating the "riots."

Khatami, branded as the "ever-smiling cleric," had earlier accused the United States of stirring unrest in the Islamic Republic.

Once again, the former president tried to walk a tightrope between the hardliners who control most levers of power and ordinary people who want change.

While condoling the victims of the deadly recent demonstrations on both sides, the security forces, as well as the protesters, he also called for a deep probe into the roots of poverty, discrimination and mismanagement in the country.

Iranian pro-reform social media had earlier criticized Khatami, lambasting him for his silence. Even some of Khatami's staunch supporters lashed out at him for his silence in the face of tens of deaths and thousands of arrests during the protests.

However, Khatami's silence was not unprecedented. Not only he did not express support for protesters in a similar case (late December 2017 and early January 2018), but his reaction was even to support the government's rash treatment of the protestors.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani joined voices to deplore the recent protesters as "thugs", and "hooligans" playing in the hand of "hostile foreign enemies," pro-monarchy elements, and supporters of an exiled dissident group, Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MKO).

This also shattered any illusions that Rouhani is a centrist and also wants reforms. After all, his presidential candidacy was endorsed by Khatami.

The fact is that Rouhani has a share of responsibility in the decision to authroize the use of deadly force against protesters.

Nevertheless, Khatami, who has repeatedly been blamed for shying away from explicitly expressing his position, and "running with the hare, and hunting with the hounds," insisted that people suffering from "subversive illusions" in Iran were busy sowing seeds of division among the Islamic Republic’s two political camps, the so-called reformists and the dominant conservative allies of the Supreme Leader.

Khatami's warning against further division between the two camps is reminiscent of the slogans chanted by protesters in similar anti-regime demonstrations in December 2017 and January 2018.

"Reformists, Conservatives! Your days are over!" they chanted across the country.

For many years, Khatami was seen by ordinary Iranians as a man committed to reforms in the Islamic Republic. But since 2017, he has lost his credibility with many Iranians for either remaining silent in the face of increasing authoritarianism, official corruption and increasing poverty or siding with the views of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Khatami’s tacit endorsement of Khamenei’s policies have played a role in weakening the credibility of the so-called reformist camp, which in recent killings of protesters by security forces mostly remained silent or even backed the hardliners.

Numerous videos of the recent protests in various Iranian cities which have been published so far do not contain even a single slogan in support of Khatami or other "reformist" figures who appear to be more concerned about the upcoming parliamentary elections than the protests triggered by an overnight three-fold increase in gasoline prices.

It seems the reformists prefer not to see that disgruntled protesters are rejecting the regime as a whole – hardliners and reformists. Perhaps Khatami and his camp hope to avoid a hardliner backlash that would block their chances of getting seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections in February. But it is also more than that. Or many reformists see a threat to the regime, in which they have a vested interest and try to protect their own interests and those of their families and close circles.

But the irony is that hardliners also see the reformists as weak and losing esteem. Probably, this does not mean the end of the Iranian reform movement as we know it. But the fact that neither the government nor the people take it seriously will mean that the Islamic Republic is losing one of its classic political tactics of offering the reform movement as an alternative to voters during elections to claim it has a functioning democracy.