Former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami gave an online speech on Sunday in which he warned of the potential for violence in Iran. After a long period of public inactivity, Khatami appeared out of nowhere, with an important and alarming message but a questionable ability to influence Iranians.

Khatami was once the face of reform for Iranian politics, and many Iranian progressives had held out hope for change during his time in power from 1997 to 2005. Khatami used all of his limited abilities to try and alter much of the nature of Iran’s gloomy reality conditioned by the religious dictatorship. Khatami’s term of hope was followed by Ahmedinejad’s conservative populism, all of which culminated with the infamous and disputed election of 2009. Since Khatami left power, a whole generation of Iran’s voters has changed. The soft-faced cleric Khatami has lost a lot of leverage with the public, and much has changed in the spirit of Iran’s politics since those early 2000s.

In his speech, Khatami came across as refreshingly profound. He underlined that the corruption among Iran’s elites reaffirmed the gap between the rich and the poor and that distance between social classes in Iran has been growing exponentially, with the middle class effectively disappearing. Khatami claimed this social disturbance would be the prime cause of uncontrollable violence within society and the ineffective attempts of the state to reciprocate this violence — thus leading the country into a vicious cycle of chaos.

The main question about Khatami’s gloomy predictions is not whether his assessment is correct, but whether it has much practical value at this point in time. Other than being a spot-on analysis of a dire situation in Iran, this warning seems to have come too little too late. For a decade now, social harmony in Iran has been waning through a series of protests and increasingly violent crackdowns by the state. Starting in 2009, Iranians have been taking to the streets. However, as time passed, the nature of the revolt changed. By 2017, the protests were not demanding subtle reforms, but a radical makeover.

The protests in 2009 were easier for the Iranian regime to handle. The protesters had demanded free and fair elections when Khatami was still a trustable figure and someone who was listened to. Protesters described themselves as reformists and just ultimately wanting to tweak and upgrade the existing system. However, by 2017 things were radically different. The state cut the subsidies for oil, and protests erupted in Mashad, a very conservative, largely pro-regime city. The demonstrations then quickly spread all over Iran. This time, however, it was obvious that the protesters were not asking for subtle changes or democratic upgrades, but a substantial improvement of the quality of life. Some protesters chanted for the return of the Shah, and some openly burned the posters of the country’s leader, Ali Khamanei. The core protesters this time were not middle-class urbanites like in 2009, but the rural working class — once the very heart of the regime’s support. This signaled that the reform movement to which Khatami belonged was dead, but that at the same time the regime was sinking as well. 

At that time, in 2017, even the reformist Khatami described the protesters as thugs and claimed they were supported by foreign powers.  

Another line of protests took place in the beginning of 2020 when, in a retaliatory frenzy against the United States’ killing of the IRGC’s Qasem Soleimani, Iran downed a Ukrainian commercial jet and attempted to cover it up. As a result, people took to the streets and demanded government responsibility for this reckless tragedy.

An inevitable curse of all totalitarian regimes is that sooner or later, the elite is bound to disunite from the people, turn to a paranoid understanding of reality while failing to address the real problems, and eventually resort to violence as the final tool for holding on to power. This developmental path has been a constant for almost every dictatorship in history. This is what we have been seeing in Iran as well.

Khatami may be an outdated political figure. He has no base to talk to or convince. The new generations do not remember much about his presidency, except for his frequent silence at critical times. However, as much of a reformist figure Khatami may be historically, he has still been a part of the regime-approved elites whose public appearances are heavily controlled by the state. By allowing Khatami to give a speech or by maybe even instructing him to do so, the regime showed certain signs of desperation. The system allows figures like Khatami to speak only when they are needed. Possibly the thought at the top was that through his speech Khatami would be able to initiate a sense of necessity in rebuilding trust in the system. In his speech, Khatami sounded like he was putting an equal sign between the responsibilities of the regime and those of the protesters. It is possible that, by allowing this position to be promoted, the Iranian state hoped that his seemingly balanced remarks would increase the desirability of stability in the country. And stability ultimately stands opposite to change in politics.

At the end of the day, however, history has always taught us that regardless of how powerful a totalitarian regime may be, reality cannot be manipulated or obfuscated forever. The regime must decide to either find a way to address the most pressing problems or face its ultimate demise. The last decade in Iran has shown the Iranians that they cannot count on free and fair elections. Over the course of years, this transitioned into much more primal concerns about the severely deteriorated quality of life and the lack of prospects for a hopeful future. When the protests start springing out of desperation and empty stomachs, it appears it may be too late for even the reformist elites to stage a successful unification effort between the miserable and the state.