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How Sincere is Rouhani’s Challenge of the Khatami Media Ban

The Times contributed to this narrative by reporting that Rouhani had challenged a ban that was implanted last year on the public use of the name or image of former President Mohammad Khatami. However, the report implicitly tempered the expectations that might be associated with such apparent defiance. It pointed out that both moderate and hardline politicians have predicted that Rouhani’s actions will not have any actual impact on the ban. Furthermore, Rouhani’s mention of Khatami was a modest step in its own right, considering that his speech avoided any mention of the Green Movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Mousavi and Karroubi have been held under house arrest since 2009, owing to their support for protests decrying as fraudulent the reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Four years later, Rouhani was seen by some as a moderating force and the answer to the Green Movement unrest. Fittingly, one of his leading campaign promises was the release of Mousavi and Karroubi, as well as an overall reversal of the policy of political imprisonment. But this talking point was largely abandoned soon after Rouhani’s election, leading many of his former supporters to become disillusioned with the prospect of reform.

Others, notably the National Council of Resistance of Iran, never saw reform as a realistic prospect. In their minds, Rouhani’s election served only to appease the Green Movement just enough to forestall further unrest, without leading to any meaningful reforms, with the arguable exception of the nuclear agreement with the West.

It is certainly possible to view Rouhani’s latest moves in the context of these tactics. His focus on Khatami at the expense of Mousavi and Karroubi could be seen as a deliberate effort to give the impression of reform without addressing more serious underlying issues. Harsh critics of the Iranian regime have levied similar accusations against Iranian officials in other areas, including the prisoner swap with the US, which coincided with the January implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

On the one hand, negotiations for that swap did lead to the release of four US citizens who had been held on false charges in Iran for periods ranging from several months to more than three years. But many critics of a US policy of rapprochement felt frustrated by the fact that other Americans were left behind, especially in light of the fact that the US released or dropped charges on some 21 Iranians, and may also have settled a financial claim to provide even more incentive for the swap.

One of those left behind was Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing on Kish Island in 2007 while conducting an investigation for a group of CIA analysts. It is widely believed that he has been held ever since by the Iranian regime. Tehran has never formally acknowledged knowing his whereabouts, but some individual Iranian officials have.

This week marks the ninth anniversary of his capture, and the Associated Press reported that a rally had been held on Saturday in his home state of Florida, led by his family and former colleagues. The event again gave voice to some people’s perception that the White House wasted its best leverage when it completed the prisoner exchange without accounting for Levinson. Naturally, supporters also expressed frustration with the apparent lack of cooperation from Tehran, even under the leadership of a supposedly moderate president.

The situation facing these prisoners raises questions about Rouhani’s interest in or ability to reform the country, not only because Levinson remains behind bars, but also because the regime’s behavior toward foreign nationals appears unchanged. This was demonstrated just before the elections when the IRGC arrested Namazi’s 80 year-old father an Iranian-American dual national, as well.

It was noted on Monday that UNICEF, a former employer of Baquer Namazi, had issued a statement expressing “deep concern” about the elderly man’s health and wellbeing, and offering general support on the basis of his past record. Neither Baquer nor Siamak Namazi has been made aware of formal charges. Neither has any evidence of wrongdoing or espionage been presented against them. In this sense, their stories are highly reminiscent of the stories of recently-released American reporter Jason Rezaian.

As has been pointed out in several commentary pieces, unfounded accusations of an infiltration network could serve to discourage foreign nationals and members of the Iranian diaspora from challenging the Iranian regime’s personal dominance over industries and businesses that are now beginning to open up for foreign investment. The same end could be served by other familiar government activities which the Rouhani administration has either participated in or declined to obstruct, including the country’s dramatic overuse of the death penalty.

Over the weekend, numerous international media outlets including Agence-France Presse reported that Iranian billionaire Babek Zanjani had been sentenced to death on the charge of “spreading corruption on Earth,” owing to accusations that he embezzled funds from oil sales during the Ahmadinejad presidency. He not the first to be sentenced to death on similar charges, and he will likely not be the last as the current government strives to continue giving the impression that it is carrying out meaningful reforms compared to the previous government.

But the AFP report pointed to a possible ulterior motive in the hanging of Zanjani and others like him. It noted that Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh used the case to warn foreign investors not to do business with independent entrepreneurs and domestic partners, but to deal directly with the Iranian government.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps alone is estimated to control more than 50 percent of Iran’s GDP under current economic structures. It has been speculated that the foreign investment that comes of the Iran nuclear agreement could begin to challenge that dominance. But the powerful paramilitary organization can be expected to fight back against this trend, and its chances of success will be amplified greatly if it has support from the supposedly moderate Rouhani administration.