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Inside Iran: Where are the Iranian Reformists? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- In Iran, the reformists have learnt three lessons from their defeat in the last presidential and parliamentary elections; firstly, not to boycott an election again; secondly, to be stronger in their confrontations and to avoid taking the middle ground when it comes to public demands; and thirdly, to unite and limit the number of their intellectual and organizational differences.

This is what the reformists tell themselves in preparation for a return to the political arena. Everyday there are debates between reformist politicians in Iran for the sake of forming a major coalition that unifies their various branches. The coalition will not necessarily comprise of all reformist trends as there are those that have stated that they are unaware of these efforts and not interested in joining them. One such example is the Etemad-e-Melli party [National Trust Party], led by former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who told Asharq Al Awsat that he had never heard of any efforts by some reformist parties to form such a coalition. However, Ebrahim Yazdi, the leader of the Freedom Movement Party and an active player in the formation of the new coalition, told Asharq Al Awsat that the reformist currents presented the idea to Karroubi, who refused to take part.

The idea of forming the new coalition stemmed from the growing concern within the reformist movement over losing its popular base, especially as communication has become difficult between the reformists and a wide section of society because a number of their newspapers and websites have been closed down. The reformists also feel the danger posed by the fact that they did not win the majority of votes in any election held recently in Iran. Since Khatami’s victory in the 2000 presidential election, the reformists have not been successful in elections. In the 2005 presidential election, conservative candidate Ahmadinejad emerged most successful, followed by pragmatist candidate and Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani. Meanwhile, reformist candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mustafa Moeen came out third and fifth respectively, in the first run of the election. In the last December election for the Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani-led pragmatists were the most successful by far, with the Karroubi-led reformists taking second place and the Misbah Yazdi-led conservatives in third.

Many prominent reformists do not blame these defeats on the conservatives and the support that they receive from authorities. Rather they blame their conduct during the last presidential election. In the first run of the 2005 presidential election, the reformists first split over the appropriate candidate to represent them, failing to reach an agreement, hence there were more than one reformist candidate, chief of whom were Mehdi Karroubi and Mustafa Moeen, a reformist in his fifties who had served as minister of science and technology under Khatami and who resigned in 2003 in protest against the campaign of arresting students, intellectuals, writers and journalists. Again the reformists split over whether or not to participate in the first run of the elections after the Guardian Council had rejected many of their key candidates. Then they split once again over boycotting the second run of the elections and backing Hashemi Rafsanjani by virtue of his being the lesser of two evils, compared to Ahmadinejad, who is unpopular with the reformists.

Calls for boycotting the election came from prominent reformist figures, which made such calls effective among students in particular. The first run of the elections was boycotted by Iranian female activists, including Shirin Ebadi, who also boycotted the second run, in protest against the rejection of many reformist candidates by the Guardian Council. Muhammad Reza Khatami, the leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest Iranian reformist party, and reformist MP Fatima Haqiqatjou also called for boycotting the elections. However, even before holding the second run of the presidential election won by Ahmadinejad, some reformists were concerned that the boycott might result in a setback for the reformist movement. The reformists who cautioned against this included Ebrahim Yazdi, the secretary general of the Freedom Movement of Iran, an illegal party although it has been operating normally for many years. Yazdi said that the Iranians had to vote in the election and work within the political system, pointing out that if Rafsanjani won, this would unify the reformists, who will then form a powerful opposition vis-à-vis the new government. However, the voices that called for the boycott were the winners.

Ironically, the boycott of the election by the reformists that led to Rafsanjani’s defeat by Ahmadinejad also undermined the reformists. The major winner from the crisis of the reformist movement in Iran today is the Rafsanjani-led pragmatist trend. Many reformists do not like Rafsanjani, but they say he is a “person with whom one can work.”

The reformists’ crisis restored much power to Rafsanjani because moderate merchants and technocrats voted for him in the last election for the Assembly of Experts. Today, as President Ahmadinejad’s government tackles economic issues and the nuclear file and in light of the reformists and many conservatives blaming the recent UN-imposed economic sanctions against Tehran on Ahmadinejad, pragmatist Rafsanjani made a return, though as a conservative pragmatist who is closer to Khamenei and the conservatives than the reformists. If Mehdi Karroubi, the former parliamentary speaker and Iran’s key reformist figure today, considered himself a conservative pragmatist in an Asharq Al Awsat statement, he differs from Rafsanjani in view of the latter’s capability of being a reformist pragmatist or a conservative pragmatist.

Iranian students did not forget the “reformist pragmatist” Rafsanjani during the last presidential election campaign. During one election campaign aimed at the youth, he said there must not be many restrictions when it comes to the dress codes. He also defended Mutaa [temporary] marriage and stated that during his youth, he did some things that he would rather not discuss. On the electoral stage, he allowed a group to play music, which is rare in Iran. Rafsanjani sought to talk to the youth about their issues using language that they understood. A number of young Iranians voted for Rafsanjani, whose pictures were handed out mainly by elegant young women on the high-class streets of northern Tehran. On the other hand, many youths did not believe that Rafsanjani could be as reformist as Khatami, thus withholding their votes for him.

However, whilst Iran was said to have been dominated by two major currents, namely, the conservatives and reformists two years ago, today a third current has emerged. The three are:

1. The Rafsanjani-led moderates or pragmatists.

2. The conservatives, whose political symbol is Ahmadinejad and intellectual figure Misbah Yazdi.

3. The reformists, whose political representatives are now Mehdi Karroubi, Muhammad Reza Khatami, the leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, and other reformist figures.

However, these currents are not decisively and conclusively divided. Within the reformist movement, for example, there are sub-trends from the extreme right, such as Karroubi, who is careful about his relations with the official institution, and the extreme left, such as Ebrahim Yazdi, who is an outspoken critic of the conditions in Iran without heeding any political calculations. In the center of the reformist movement is the Islamic Iran Participation Front led by Muhammad Reza Khatami, who is closer, paradoxically, to the Rafsanjani-led pragmatists than other sub-trends within the reformist movement. Furthermore, within the conservative current, there are figures such as the Expediency Discernment Council secretary Mohsen Rezaee, who is closer to the pragmatists than to the Misbah Yazdi-led rightist trend within the conservative current.

These moderate conservatives include Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and many of them are popular with the Iranian public and a source of concern for the Ahmadinejad government today. Mohsen Rezaee has recently criticized the Iranian president, pointing out that the Iranians have suffered enough from the bureaucratic economic administration. One indication of the influence enjoyed by this current is when both Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and Rafsanjani agreed that the Expediency Discernment Council should oversee the economic policies of President Ahmadinejad.

If some say that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tends to back the conservatives at the cost of the reformists for the good reason that some trends within the reformist movement question everything even the absolute powers of the supreme leader, the role of clerics in government and the role of the various establishments in Iran, such as the Guardian Council, the Expediency Discernment Council and the Assembly of Experts in decision making, some view this as oversimplification and believe that the supreme leader has to balance the various political forces in the country, which is not an easy task. Investment expert Khesro Mohebi told Asharq Al Awsat: “There are many differences between the various Iranian factions. Ahmadinejad’s faction follows a certain trend, the reformists another and the moderates yet another. They do not have political unity or converging views regarding the different issues. The supreme leader has to take all these views and trends into account. They are all powerful and none of them can be ignored. The Ahmadinejad-led conservatives are powerful, the Rafsanjani-led moderates are very powerful and even the reformists are powerful. Khamenei cannot decide the outcome of the struggle between these factions, because each has its own share of power and influence.”

The problem with the reformists is that their influence was largely affected after Khatami had left office. In part, this is due to Khatami’s charisma and his name is mentioned frequently. When you ask someone about the economy, the political situation, the film or the music market, the answer will usually refer to Khatami and the situation during his rule. Khatami is present in all debates. People blame him and hold him partially responsible for the failure of the reformist movement, but at the same time they appreciate him. “He should have been more capable in confrontation. This man assumed power through the votes of millions of Iranians and should have been more courageous,” said college student Muhammad Tawakkuli. Others, however, view matters in another way, “I like Khatami. I still like him. Khatami is an intellectual rather than a politician in the normal sense of the word. You cannot wrong Khatami by categorizing him as a politician. He is not. He is an intellectual and is sensitive and by practicing politics, he sought to bring to it the concepts of culture and tolerance. You judge him by what he wanted to do rather than what he did,” said Iranian activist Nahid Tawasuli.

However, Khatami’s political heritage is not something of the past entirely. A female Iranian student who requested anonymity told Asharq Al Awsat that Ahmadinejad cannot abolish many of the decisions made under Khatami, pointing out that this in itself implies that Khatami succeeded by far and that talking about his failure and the accompanying feelings of bitterness are exaggerated. “Ahmadinejad tried to remove satellite dishes, and then backed down on this measure. He tried to return the Basij’s role in controlling women’s clothing and recanted. The same happened when he sought to restrain social freedoms. Why? Because the reforms introduced under Khatami cannot be retracted. If one tried, one would encounter objections from women and students. That is why I believe that Khatami did not fail in everything,” she added.

Today’s problem with the reformists does not lie solely in determining a political agenda that returns them to the political scene but also in finding a reformist figure who is as charismatic as Khatami and who, at the same time, can overcome the obstacles ahead of reformists who are not close to the influential institutions in Iran, atop of which are the supreme leader, the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts. The available reformist figures today include Mehdi Karroubi, who resigned from all his political posts in 2005 in protest against interventions in favor of Ahmadinejad in the presidential election and who later established Etemad-e-Melli party and newspaper. Today, Karroubi appears as the reformist with the most influence on the official institutions, but does have the same influence on the youth and women? The answer would be no. He seeks to avoid crossing the lines of the regime, which probably deprives him of such popularity amongst the youth, according to some; there is also Muhammad Reza Khatami, the current leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest Iranian reformist movement, as well as Ebrahim Yazdi, although this may be too radical for the official institutions to bear as an outspoken critic, and Mustafa Moeen, who is in the middle of the reformist circle but his future projects are unknown. The reformist movement in Iran also includes many others, such as Iranian cleric Yousefi Eshkevari, who the authorities forced to remove his religious attire following his participation in the Heinrich Bِll conference in Berlin, Germany. Ever since, he has further engaged in the reformist movement.

Not all reformists enjoy popularity on the street, and their level of support varies depending on their proposed agendas. The reformists now take advantage of the economic problems facing Ahmadinejad’s government as the average citizen wants a better economic administration. “I’m not concerned about an American attack on Iran, because this will not happen. I’m concerned about the economy and being able to afford my rent. This is my concern. Practically, we have economic capabilities, but our economic program is unsuccessful,” said Muhtadi Mawlawi, a young staff member at a state school.

The reformists are trying to move forward, become active and form alliances based on their certain popularity on the street, but will the youth vote for them in any coming election or will they continue to be disappointed? Jameela, an Iranian student, expressed doubt about the reformist camp, pointing out that the main problem was the absence of a prominent reformist figure. “Karroubi is kind of reformist, but he is not so in the full sense of the word. Amongst the others, no one has stood out so far,” she told Asharq Al Awsat. Kamran, a Kurdish Iranian taxi driver, was more pessimistic. “They are all alike. Rafsanjani is like Khatami and they are both like Ahmadinejad. Nothing changes. Streets are old; houses are old; vehicles are old; has anything changed?”