The alleged rights abuser in Rouhani's cabinet

Commentary: In the struggle for a democratic Iran, past violations may need to be forgotten

Proposed as the new Iranian Justice Minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, center, smiles as he attends a session of parliament to debate on President Hassan Rouhani's proposed Cabinet, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Aug. 12, 2013.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Last month, Iran's parliament confirmed Mostafa Pourmohammadi as minister of justice in newly elected President Hassan Rouhani's administration. The appointment has led to a backlash by human-rights organizations and pro-democracy advocates who cite Pourmohammadi's role in the extrajudicial execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

The election of Rouhani, a moderate, initially encouraged observers who hope for Iran's transition to a full-fledged democracy and for peaceful negotiations between Iran and the United States. But can Pourmohammadi's appointment be reconciled with these hopes?

To be sure, there is reason for pessimism. If Rouhani's cabinet is to be judged on its record of human rights, Pourmohammadi's appointment is catastrophic. Accepting it without protest is tantamount to indifference to justice.

However, there is also Iran's path to democracy to consider. Peaceful democratic transitions typically depend on creating a sound balance of power between government and a strong civil society that organizes and empowers citizens. Achieving such a balance often requires reconciliation between civil society and the leaders of the regime. Although Pourmohammadi should one day be tried for his crimes, but pro-democracy Iranians should not take his appointment as reason to doubt Rouhani's campaign promise to lead a government of "prudence, hope and moderation."

Picking his battles

Other countries that have successfully transitioned to democracy have undergone difficult negotiations between the ruling regime and opposition forces backed by strong civil societies. Such processes often required painful reconciliations but eventually yielded free elections and the peaceful handover of power.

These negotiations were the product of challenging historical compromises. In South Africa, for instance, opposition leader Nelson Mandela did not punish the white minority or the National Party members who had enforced decades of apartheid, the system of racial segregation that oppressed the black majority. Rather, he advocated for a policy of "forgive but not forget," even after he served in prison for 27 years. And when he became president in 1994, he chose FW. de Klerk, the last ruler of the apartheid regime, as the deputy president. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed shortly thereafter to help cope with apartheid's legacy.

In 1989 Chile held its first free elections, which ended 16 years of military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. The transition went smoothly because the opposition forces did not villainize Pinochet or his backers. Instead, they offered concessions: He was made a senator for life and remained the commander in chief of the armed forces until 1997.

Similarly, in Spain after General Francisco Franco's brutal reign, the opposition did not punish Franco's followers and chose to forgive and forget.

Rouhani must compromise with Khamenei so he can address Iran's immense and pressing issues.

Such examples demonstrate that it is possible for countries under oppressive regimes to transition to democracy through negotiation, compromise and participation by all, including members of the former regime.

In Iran there has not been a revolution or a transition to democracy. The Islamic Republic is still in power, and this year’s presidential election unfolded within the framework that the regime set up. Most of the power still resides with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who did not allow Rouhani to appoint his first choices to lead the ministries of intelligence; the interior; culture and Islamic guidance; and science, research and technology.

Pourmohammadi's appointment was also not entirely in Rouhani's hands. According to Iran's constitution, the minister of justice, who is responsible for coordinating among the judiciary, executive and legislative branches, is selected "among those that are proposed to the president by the judiciary chief." This means that Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief, proposed Pourmohammadi for the post. Pourmohammadi himself claimed that it was the heads of the three branches of the government -- not Rouhani -- who selected him for the position.

Click for in-depth coverage of Washington-Tehran talks

Politically, Rouhani cannot oppose Khamenei, the judiciary and the parliament right from the beginning. He must compromise now so he can address Iran's immense and pressing issues, including the terrible state of its economy and the diplomatic standoff over its nuclear program, which has led the United States and its allies to impose harsh sanctions. The most important concession that Rouhani has obtained from the opposition, in turn, is the appointment of Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister. Although Zarif is close to Khamenei and previously said he would take no action without the Supreme Leader's consent, his appointment has elicited praise from many political analysts and diplomats in the U.S. and other Western countries for his diplomatic skill and conciliatory tone.

Pourmohammadi has very close ties to Khamenei, the judiciary, the parliament and government hard-liners, which may help Rouhani. Releasing political prisoners and ending the long house arrests of political dissidents -- including former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, former speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard -- were promises Rouhani repeated many times during his presidential campaign. Pourmohammadi has supposedly undergone a positive transformation and promised Rouhani to do his best to help free the prisoners. If Pourmohammadi helps the president secure their release, Rouhani's early campaign pledges will gain confirmation.

Ending Khamenei's reign

Pourmohammadi is only one of several criminals serving Rouhani and Iran. Khamenei, for one, is still in power. He has led a regime that is responsible for violently suppressing peaceful dissent. The infamous Chain Murders, a series of killings and disappearances of prominent Iranian dissidents that lasted a decade, reportedly occurred with the Supreme Leader's knowledge. During his Friday sermon on June 22, 2009, Khamenei also ordered the brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections. Challenging Khamenei and his regime is still the highest priority among pro-democracy advocates.

Rouhani is the head of the government, not the leader of the democratic movement. But those who support democracy must take advantage of his administration to strengthen the people's collective power and try to obtain the freedom of opposition political leaders in the hopes of creating a balance of power between the state and civil society. Recent history has shown that this is the best way for Iran to transition peacefully to democracy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter