February 23, 2017

Can Iran’s Khamenei Rule Out ‘National Reconciliation’?

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Caren Firouz/File Photo - RTX2FG6N

“Some people talk about national reconciliation; however, that does not make sense to me,” he said. “The people are already united. So why do you talk about reconciliation? Are the people against each other?” This has been a recurring theme in Iran since the contested 2009 presidential election and subsequent protests. Regardless of whether Khamenei opposes national reconciliation, recent history illustrates why he cannot resist some form of it — if he wants Iran to prosper — and the key obstacles that remain to its implementation.

Khamenei did indeed make his skepticism clear. “Are people not on talking terms with one another to need reconciliation? There is no estrangement,” he said during his speech. Probe a bit further, however, and a more comprehensive picture of what he is grappling with starts to emerge. Khamenei is the most powerful man in Iran, and while he does help shape the political process, he is also forced to respond to it. Politics do not remain stagnant and policy options are finite, thereby forcing Khamenei to reassess his positions and make choices in accordance with reality rather than rigidity.

To that end, Hassan Rouhani’s presidency shows why Khamenei has been forced to repeatedly wrestle with reconciliation. Since his election four years ago, Rouhani has maintained arguably the most diverse and inclusive political coalition in the history of the Islamic Republic. In turn, Rouhani’s consensus-building skills and team of technocratic managers have helped stabilize the economy, end Iran’s international isolation, competently manage the affairs of the state and take initial steps toward healing the lingering divide between state and society — all important prerequisites to any hope of durable national reconciliation.

In this regard, Iran’s 2009 election and its aftermath is the linchpin. Not since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War had the political elite grappled with upheaval that profoundly impacted their personal and systemic assessments of political survival. Recognizing this, Khamenei gave a sermon at the Friday prayers the week after the 2009 elections in an effort to have the last word, stop the protests and unify key stakeholders around him. Instead, the opposite occurred. To this day, he is still forced to address the events of eight years ago.

Only the most radical conservatives were willing to provide Khamenei with the unconditional backing he sought, but it came at a steep price. Their efforts caused unprecedented political and economic damage to Iran, leaving Khamenei with a dangerous mix of combustible challenges that he could not fix alone, because the only alternative to Rouhani’s coalition is the same cast of characters who created the mess in the first place. Thus, Rouhani’s election freed Khamenei from over-reliance on radical conservatives and proved that he needs Rouhani’s coalition just as much as the latter needs Khamenei, thereby forcing the supreme leader to accept the steps toward reconciliation thus far to facilitate greater stability at home and abroad.

The goal Khamenei likely sought to achieve in his Feb. 15 speech was not a repudiation of national reconciliation but rather a reiteration of the scope and terms he finds acceptable. Since 2009, Khamenei has sought to distinguish between political differences and his red lines in the Iranian political system. He directly referenced this point last week when he said, “When it comes to Islam, Iran, independence and resistance in the face of the enemy, the Iranian people … are united and act hand in hand. Of course, any two persons may have different opinions with regard to a given political issue, but this is not something important and effective and is considered as a normal and ordinary issue.”

More specifically, Khamenei’s red line on the issue of national reconciliation is also the most significant unresolved consequence of the 2009 elections: how to end the house arrests of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi — which directly correlates to the political unity that facilitated Rouhani’s victory at the 2013 polls and the push for reconciliation today. The president and his team have quietly worked behind the scenes over the past four years to secure Mousavi’s and Karroubi’s release. Khamenei has been willing to engage in the issue, but he has not budged from his bottom line.

In the first four months of Rouhani’s presidency, his justice minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, government spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani all reiterated the same message: Ending Mousavi and Karroubi’s house arrests is on the agenda, actions are being taken, but patience and quietly working behind the scenes is more likely to produce results than making noise. Today, Rouhani administration officials say they have done all they can to resolve the issue, but they do not have the power to unilaterally end the house arrests. To hear Iranian officials speak off the record, they say efforts to move the process forward have remained consistent, but personal animosity between Khamenei, Mousavi and Karroubi has stalled progress.

In a July 2016 speech, Khamenei gave perhaps the most clear and concise description of his position, “I am sensitive toward [the riots of 2009], and my judgment is grounded on not providing support to those who were leading the riots or [politically] exploiting the situation and have not to this date repented for doing so.” In short, he wants an admission of wrongdoing. But so do Mousavi and Karroubi, who know they hold their greatest amount of leverage while still under house arrest, precisely because their release is the only way for Khamenei to resolve this lingering, destabilizing problem.

Looking ahead, it is hard to see how Khamenei and Rouhani can turn the process of national reconciliation into tangible progress without ending the house arrests. Not only was it a Rouhani campaign promise in 2013, it is also a constant reminder of the major, directly related obstacles that remain: releasing political prisoners associated with the 2009 unrest, granting political reforms and implementing civil rights. This is akin to a fire smoldering beneath the ashes: Many Rouhani voters continue to raise these issues, and with the nuclear deal in the books, the pressure they exert on domestic policies could increase. Combined with the fact that Mousavi and Karroubi are aging and increasingly require medical attention, this issue has the potential to rock the country if either of them unfortunately dies while still detained.

Iran’s political atmosphere has changed since 2009, and fluid events on the ground have the potential to force a resolution. But ultimate responsibility for the house arrests lies with Khamenei. He continues to drive a hard bargain on the terms of national reconciliation, but a glimmer of hope remains. Because sociopolitical forces in Iran both affect and are affected by him, it is possible for the impact of political pressure to lead to progress. As such, Khamenei cannot refuse some form of national reconciliation if he wants Iran to prosper, because recent experience and a growing number of stakeholders point out that failure to resolve the issue can put the stability of the country at risk. The only question that remains is how far Khamenei is willing to go.

This piece originally appeared in Al Monitor.

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