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Opinion: Too popular for his own good? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In this Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009, file photo, Iran’s former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, attends a ceremony organized by his party, a group of pro-reform clerics, in Tehran, Iran, to announce he’ll challenge hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the country’s June 12, 2009, presidential elections. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

The failure of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg earlier this month raised a big question for me, because Khatami had previously announced that he planned to take part in the ceremony.

Ali Akbar Velayati, ex-foreign minister and senior advisor of Ayatollah Khamenei, told reporters that during a visit to Iran, Mandela had called Ayatollah Khamenei “my leader!” during a meeting between the two. Perhaps Velayati did not take Mandela’s way of speaking to people into consideration, as Mandela often used to call all presidents “his” president, and so on. In this he was not alone: I remember the late Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan using Sayyedi in their conversations with me when I met them.

Initially I thought perhaps Khamenei wanted to send a special representative to South Africa. But not only did he not send a representative to Mandela’s funeral ceremony, President Rouhani also did not participate—and neither did Khatami. So what went wrong here?

To be honest, I understand that sadly there is a huge gap between Iran’s style of governance and the legacy of Nelson Mandela. And when I found out the main reason behind Khatami’s failure to participate in Mandela’s ceremony, I was struck by the deep ignorance and arrogance that exists at the core of Iran’s government. Khatami was forbidden to leave Iran because he criticized the government’s handling of the June 2009 election and its aftermath.

It was obvious that the election was not free and fair, and that it was managed and orchestrated by the military and security forces. In the last three years, from the beginning of the imprisonment of presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mousavi’s wife, the scholar Zahra Rahnavard, Khatami publicly criticized the government’s treatment of them. It is clear that softly-spoken Khatami has his own way of speaking about this and other issues, and so he did not use rough or harsh language in his criticism, but if we think about the deep meaning of his words, it becomes obvious that that he put his finger on the core issue.

The question of why Khamenei does not want to offer Khatami any support is an important one. In addition, why did the security services prevent Khatami travelling to South Africa? Let me focus on the history of this issue. Almost four years ago, I was shocked to discover that Khatami had been banned from making a trip to Japan in April 2010 to attend a conference on nuclear disarmament.

“He failed to make the trip because he was informed by security officials that a travel ban has been imposed,” an aide said. But Alizadeh Tabatabaeia, a lawyer representing the former president said that there was no travel ban in place and that Khatami had only been “advised” to abandon his trip by government officials.

“No order was given prohibiting Khatami from leaving the country,” Tabatabie said. “The cancellation of his visit to Japan was decided following the advice of certain [government] bodies, and there has been no decision to ban Khatami from leaving the country.”

The former Swedish and Canadian prime ministers issued a statement of protest from the Hiroshima summit, which Khatami had been invited to attend, calling for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to lift the travel restrictions. “We strongly protest this restriction on his freedom,” they said. “International dialogue and mutual learning is especially critical on the crucial subject of nuclear disarmament because Iran is such a prominent participant in this debate.”

It is said that this time the security forces sent an official letter to Khatami informing him of his travel ban. Here I would like to focus on several points.

First, it seems Khamenei thought that sending either Khatami or Rouhani to Mandela’s ceremony would create a good opportunity for the world’s media to focus on Iran. Some reformist papers had announced earlier that perhaps Rouhani and Obama would meet each other in Johannesburg.

Second, in the era of Mohammad Reza Shah, there was a honeymoon period between the Shah and the chief editor and founder of the Kayhan newspaper. Every Wednesday, the Shah would arrange an appointment to meet Misbah Zadeh, who at the time was rumored to be the next prime minister, at his palace. One day Zadeh went to northern Iran to visit his home city, Rasht, and a huge number of the people gathered in the main square and streets to see him. When Zadeh came back to Tehran, however, there was no longer any sign of his weekly meetings with the Shah. Zadeh realized that the huge turnout in Rasht was the main reason the meetings stopped: the Shah did not like anyone else gaining popularity.

When the poet Rumi writes on the unique beauty of the peacock, he says: “The peacock’s plumage is its enemy, O many the king who had been slain by his magnificence!” (Masnavi, Book 1, verse 208)

Edward Said, the great Palestinian thinker, has a very thoughtful quote. He wrote once that in many western minds, the world could be divided into “the West and the rest.” This is not limited to the psychology of some Westerners, however; it is part of the nature of human beings, who like to think of themselves as being at the center of things.

In this way of thinking, if anyone else is closer to the center than you are, he should be pushed out of the circle.

This is why Khatami could not go to Johannesburg.