Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat—Mohammad-Reza Aref has long been a familiar name to many Iranians, but it was his role in the presidential election campaign last year that pushed him into the global media spotlight.
A former minister of technology and vice-president under President Mohammad Khatami, Aref ran for the presidency as a reformist candidate but dropped out of the race in order to avoid splitting the reformist vote and to bolster the chances of Hassan Rouhani, who ended up winning the race.
Widely tipped by some Iranians and observers as a future candidate for a senior post under Rouhani, Aref spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat’s sister title, Sharq Parsi, about his thoughts on the reformist movement in Iran, the country’s next round of elections and what role he would play, if any, under Rouhani.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You shot to prominence after you dropped out of last year’s presidential election. Thinking back, what do you recall of the atmosphere that surrounded the elections?
Mohammad-Reza Aref: To answer this question we have to remember the atmosphere [in Iran] before the 2013 election. Our country suffered serious traumas in the years following the election in 2009.
I regret to say that wisdom had been degraded in important segments of the government. Arbitrary and inexpert decisions had become routine in the management of affairs. Bad behavior such as lying had become normal for managers and this culture was spreading across society.
In the meantime, the bigger problem was that significant parts of society and some political activists, including reformists, had lost hope, preferring isolation or indifference. Political parties, the media and student movements had been overshadowed by security restrictions and the elite and ordinary people were loath to cooperate.
Under such circumstances my allies and I decided to become actively present in social and political affairs and set out on our main mission to bring back wisdom and ethics to the political and social arenas. I think that we realized our goals to a great extent.
Q: Do you represent the section of the reformist movement that believes in reforming the government from within? If so, how do you plan to introduce cohesion into the reformist movement, which has become split on this issue?
I deeply believe that the reform movement is a pure revolutionary one and that reformism must exist as long as Iran and the revolution exist. The country’s leadership and its political arena should never be devoid of reformism. Reformism means hopeful and patient commitment to reformist goals and methods. Therefore, reformism is defined only within the framework of the system and it seeks to reform [national] affairs.
I did my utmost to realize all reformist objectives. I consider myself an active member of the leading reform movement and I am proud of it.
Let me tell you my own definition of reformism. I believe in reformism as a political ideology and a method whereby efforts will be made to acquire political power in order to reform the political system. It will do this by removing the obstacles to development and progress and realizing the ideals of the  revolution and the Constitution in such a way that a popular and accepted government will take office in Iran in conformity with Islamic, human and international conventions. I’m personally opposed to defining reformism as the elimination of political rivals for the purpose of achieving more power.
The reformist believes in wisdom, ethics and helping others—even political rivals—to realize the reform, growth and progress of the country. I consider prudence, patience and continuous efforts to raise public awareness and to interact with rivals and even political opponents as being necessary for sustainable reforms and the realization of political objectives.
Therefore, in the reformist approach my allies and I have adopted, we will never use any method that involves seeking superiority over a political rival. We will also refrain from any non-reformist method.
But with regards to cohesion in the reform camp, we need first to inspire activists and the youth with a belief in reformism and a commitment to reformist objectives and methods based on prudence, ethics and solidarity.
In practice, I believe that in future political events such as the 10th legislative elections [in 2016], political activism will take shape within the framework of political fronts comprised of convergent political parties and associations. Therefore, just as my allies and I did our best to bring about consensus among reformists, we will act more seriously and actively in the future.
Q: Do you plan to establish a political party or will you work through existing pre-election alliances?
As far as the development of reformism is concerned, I have three hypotheses: First, it is possible to strengthen the country and the revolution through reformism; second, the precondition for promoting reformism is the participation of the people and their involvement in all affairs; third, the participation of the people is possible through legal channels and there is no option but to develop and strengthen political parties and non-governmental entities.
Therefore, if we believe it is possible to reform the political system—which I do—then the survival of reformism depends on the development of non-governmental organizations and parties.
In the meantime, I am well aware of the obstacles and challenges to the development of parties in Iran and I believe that . . . the presence of all political activists within a single party is impossible at least in the medium term. I will therefore pursue three strategies: first, bolstering reformist and moderate political parties and associations; second, supporting newly established reformist and other parties; and third, working within a framework of alliance and consensus as a Unified Reformist–Moderate Front in the upcoming legislative election.
Q: Will you run for parliament? If so, how many seats will you contest?
We will definitely stand in the next Majlis [parliamentary] election, and given the stagnation of political activities in previous years and the weakness of some political parties and associations, it is necessary to begin activities now in order to identify young, effective and efficient forces in order to have a Majlis capable of making decisions on behalf of the country. But it does not necessarily mean I will personally run for parliament; such a decision would be premature now. The important thing will be to provide people with better choices by mobilizing valuable forces across the country.
Our objective is for the majority of parliament to be won by competent people and for the legislative body to be genuinely representative. “Mobocracy,” extremism and rent-seeking must be kept away from executive and legislative bodies. State affairs must be administered ethically and with wisdom and moderation and scientific fact and the views of experts must always be prioritized in all decisions and legislation.
Q: What distinguishes moderate reformists who have previously served in the government from Rouhani’s followers?
I don’t understand why, when the word “reformist” is used, so many different descriptions follow. You spoke of moderate reformists inside the regime. But I believe that reformism means moving on the moderate line and within the framework of the law. Anything else is not reformism.
I see reformism as a clear indication of Imam Ali’s [revered by Shi’ites as the Prophet’s rightful heir] view that the country’s affairs could be run most effectively with moderation. We are seeking an ideal society whose people will be oriented towards law and ethics and whose government will be popular and in conformity with human, Islamic and international criteria.
Reformism judges itself on its moderation and respect for human dignity and through its adherence to ethical behavior. It will definitely use democratic methods to realize its political objectives and will refrain from unethical methods and extremism because both government and the people believe in [political] moderation able to serve as an example for a successful life in the international community. Therefore, I consider [political] moderation as an inseparable element of reformism.
Q: You served as first vice-president under President Khatami, who was a reformist. What do you think were the weaknesses and strengths of the Khatami administration?
With regards to weaknesses, every administration has its shortcomings. Its biggest strength was promoting the discourse of religious democracy, so that our religious people would recognize their own right to decide their destiny and see their active and serious participation as the only way for society to survive and achieve happiness. However, one of the main weaknesses of the reformist administration was that the necessary infrastructure had not yet been prepared to realize many objectives, and despite all efforts no infrastructure was in place for people to participate in political life.
Q: How do you envision your political role under Rouhani?
I will definitely not hesitate to help the government succeed if need be. I have felt the same throughout more than 30 years of service to the Islamic Republic. Even under the previous administration, when I was not ready to cooperate because of my disagreement with its views, I always expressed my views and experiences to managers and politicians.
Unfortunately, the previous administration did not pay attention to the experiences of former managers. But under the administration of Rouhani I see my most significant task as helping the government develop the non-governmental sector. I believe deeply that this valuable social asset must be developed through civil associations, so that their potential can be utilized.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Persian.