Reactions to the Tightening of Restrictions on former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami

Raz Zimmt follows the online discourse of Iranian reformists trying to stir public opposition to the political oppression of activists against the regime in light of the new restrictions on former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

Mohammad Khatami.  The caption reads "Master of reforms is here to stay in the heart of the Iranian nation."
Mohammad Khatami. The caption reads “Master of reforms is here to stay in the heart of the Iranian nation.” From Twitter. 

In October, new restrictions were imposed on former Iranian president and reformist leader Mohammad Khatami, prompting a stormy outbreak on social media in Iran. Well-aware of the public sympathy for Khatami in Iran, especially among supporters of the reformist opposition, the regime has long since employed restrictions to curb his popularity. However, the recent online eruption suggests that tightening these restrictions has only increased Khatami’s popularity, and generates greater sympathy for reformist leaders. While the regime has succeeded in blocking reformists in the political arena, the strong reformist presence on social media has gained the movement increasing public influence. 

Social media and various outlets affiliated with the opposition reported in October that new restrictions had been imposed on reformist leader Mohammad Khatami, who served as Iranian president from 1997 to 2005. Khatami was placed under severe restrictions by the regime, and denounced as a traitor by loyalists since 2009, when he sided with the opposition during the political crisis and bloody riots that erupted over allegations that the election results that year had been falsified.  Unlike reformist leaders Mir- Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, Khatami has not been placed under house-arrest. However, he is nevertheless barred from leaving Iran and his travel within the country is controlled. Moreover, all official state media are forbidden from showing his picture.

Recently, Khatami attended several public events, and in one case was photographed alongside conservative politician Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s Parliament [Majlis]. His public appearances and calls to release reformist leaders from their house-arrest angered the regime. According to the reformist website Kalemeh, the Special Clerical Court, headed by the conservative Ebrahim Raisi, banned Khatami from taking part in any public, political or cultural events for three months. In addition, he is barred from meeting senior government officials, clerics, political activists, trade union activists, and students. [1] A spokesman for the judiciary denied new restrictions, but Khatami’s attorneys and confidants confirmed he had recently been notified of these new measures. [2]

Social media users in Iran launched an online campaign to lift the restrictions. Using the hashtags “Khatami is here to stay” and “We will not allow Khatami to be erased,” protestors praised him as an admired leader and a symbol of Iranians’ desire for freedom. “Khatami is an idea, one cannot jail an idea,” one protestor tweeted.[3] “We will not allow history to be erased,” wrote another, adding that the former president played a meaningful part in Iran’s modern history.[4] Khatami’s image was widely shared on social media in defiance of the ban in official state media. Protestors declared the regime’s efforts against Khatami futile. “He is locked in our hearts and we will not release him. You want to lock him up, but what shall you do with our hearts?” was one rhetorical question on Twitter. [5] Other users described the regime’s policy as a double-edged sword, ultimately increasing support for Khatami. “The sword of his words grows sharper and of greater influence,” as one tweet put it.[6]

Protestors also demanded that the two reformist leaders be released from their house-arrest of six years, and some criticized President Rouhani for failing to act on his authority as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council to end the years-long political oppression of reformists. This criticism reflects reformists’ increasing disappointment with Rouhani, who won their votes but does little to improve civil liberties for fear of confronting the conservative religious establishment headed by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei.

Some critics singled out Ebrahim Raisi, head of the special tribunal established in the 1980s to try clerics for various crimes, including political offenses against the regime. The conservative cleric had run for the presidency in the last elections that were ultimately won by Rouhani. Online critics accused Raisi of exploiting his court position to avenge his defeat by targeting his political adversaries. [7]  Several reformist lawmakers also joined this charge, such as Mahmoud Sadeghi, who tweeted that the sanctions imposed on Khatemi by a former presidential candidate underscores the danger averted by Rouhani’s reelection. [8] Taking their online protest to the next level, 86 members of the Majlis reformist faction submitted a letter to Rouhani, calling the new restrictions a blunt violation of the human rights anchored in the Iranian constitution. [9]

On the whole, the online reactions to the tightened restrictions on Khatami illustrate the limits of power of the Iranian regime.  Certainly, the government may exploit its control of non-elected bodies, including the judiciary, to continue oppressing its political adversaries. However, this appears to have the opposite effect, as Khatami’s case demonstrates well.  After an eight-year term as president, he was widely regarded a failure, especially where advancing reforms and securing civil liberties were concerned. Khatami owes much of his rehabilitation and present public support to the social networks, the main arena in which reformists campaign against their political oppression. Khatami himself has become a symbol of Iranians’ ongoing pursuit of freedom. 



[1] “Special Clerical Court  headed by Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi responsible for restrictions against Khatami,” Kalemeh, October 5, 2017. 

[2]  “New restrictions on Khatami confirmed,” E'temaad, October 8, 2017

[3]  @RohiAmiri88, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[4]  @Shahgrap, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 15.10.17: .

[5]  @AsadiradAli, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 15.10.17: .

[6]  @najafi_tehrani, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[7] @nasazegar, Twitter, October 15, 2017.  

[8] @mah_sadeghi, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[9] “86 Majlis members protest to President the new restrictions on the reformist government president,” Alef, October 8, 2017.