By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Monday praised a reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, for helping reformists and moderates to triumph in February elections, defying a media ban on any mention of the ex-leader who championed detente with the West.
Rouhani and his allies made big gains in Feb. 26 elections to parliament and a clerical body that will elect the next Supreme Leader, though the conservative Islamic establishment retains decisive power in the country.
Like Khatami before him, Rouhani faces stiff resistance from conservative hardliners to his efforts to open up Iran to the outside world and to push for political and social reforms.
Iran's media are banned from publishing the name or images of Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005. But Khatami, still one of Iran's most popular politicians, managed to publish a five-minute video on social media before last month's elections that are credited with swinging the balance in favor of the reformists and moderates backing Rouhani.
"No one can silence those who served the nation," Rouhani told a crowd on Monday in Khatami's home city of Yazd in central Iran, referring to the former president as his "dear brother".
His remarks, broadcast live on state television, drew prolonged cheers from the crowd.
Iran's Interior Ministry has not yet published a final list giving the affiliation of the new lawmakers in parliament, but the results in Tehran and other major cities show the legislature will be more friendly to the pragmatist Rouhani.
The opposition website Kalemeh said on Saturday that security agents had not allowed Khatami to leave his house to attend the wedding of the daughter of Mir Hossein Mousavi, an opposition leader under house arrest since 2011.
On Sunday, in his first news conference since the elections, Rouhani denied there were any new restrictions on Khatami.
Asked about the media ban on Khatami, Rouhani said: "It's a complete lie that the National Security Council has banned the publication of anyone's photo. The National Security Council has no such directive and if anyone claims otherwise, he is breaking the law."
But the spokesman for Iran's judiciary promptly reacted to Rouhani's comments and said the ban was still in place.
"Khatami's media ban is a judicial order ... Whoever violates it will be prosecuted," Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.
"Rouhani is either too busy to remember the details of the case or he is joking."
Under Khatami's successor as president, hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served from 2005 to 2013, Iran's ties with the West deteriorated sharply over the country's nuclear program.
Khatami endorsed Rouhani's candidacy in the 2013 election. Rouhani's government clinched the removal of international sanctions against Iran after agreeing to curb Iran's nuclear program.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Gareth Jones)