Iran’s reform camp is in crisis

Rohani is not alone in disappointing reformists. The “Hope Fraction” in the Iranian parliament has been almost completely passive.
Sunday 03/02/2019
Iranian President Hassan Rohani during a meeting with finance ministry officials, last November. (DPA)
Economic woes. Iranian President Hassan Rohani during a meeting with finance ministry officials, last November. (DPA)

Iranian President Hassan Rohani is hardly a reformist. He was the supreme leader’s confidante and his representative in the Iranian Supreme National Security Council for 23 years, from its inception until his election as president in 2013.

Rohani escaped unscathed from the 2009 controversy-marred re-election of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an election that produced numerous political casualties in the reform camp.

Rohani emerged intact and in a good position to run as a consensus reformist-pragmatist candidate in 2013. In that presidential election, and again in his 2017 campaign, Rohani took a radical, reformist stance against hardliners to mobilise the social base of Iranian reformers.

Since 2017, however, he has gradually but assuredly distanced himself from the reformist camp by adopting a policy of compromise with the conservatives.

Abdullah Naseri, a prominent reformist and adviser to former President Mohammad Khatami, said: “Unfortunately, Mr Rohani’s second term has been extremely ignorant [about the demands] of the 24 million people who make up Iranian civil society. Most of the reformists believe that he no longer wants to interact [with the reform movement].”

Four years ago, in clear reference to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Rohani said: “Wherever guns, money, newspapers and propaganda are joined, one can be confident that corruption will arise. Even Abuzar and Salman [allies of Prophet Mohammad] would have become corrupt under an organisation that accumulated different aspects of power.”

The days of such radical statements from Rohani have long since passed.

Rohani is not alone in disappointing reformists. The “Hope Fraction” in the Iranian parliament was supposed to represent the reform movement but has been almost completely passive.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a prominent reformer and political activist, warned that it cannot be assumed that voters will be as motivated to go to the ballot box in parliamentary elections in 2020 and presidential elections in 2021 as they were in the past.

Leaders of the reform movement argue that, if the trend continues, the movement may lose relevance.

From their perspective, the crisis began when they surrendered to the vetting of candidates by the ultra-conservative Guardian Council. Out of fear of being rejected by the Guardian Council, they argue, reformists relinquished their right to introduce genuine candidates and were forced into forging alliances with others, such as Rohani, who only nominally represent them.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, younger brother of the former president and one of the leaders of the reform movement, said: “I’m not supposed to sign on to whatever decision these [hard-line] gentlemen make.”

When asked if he worried that a boycott of elections could lead to the emergence of another Ahmadinejad, he replied: “I have no doubt that pressure on the reformists and activists will increase but today we are not living in a world where suppressing the media or throwing people in jail will lead to an extinction [of the reform camp].”

Abbas Abdi, one of Iran’s most influential reformists, predicted that “if today we were going to have an election under the same rules [i.e. the Guardian Council vetting candidates under the concept of beneficent oversight], reformists will introduce no candidate.”

Saeed Hajjarian, often credited as the father of the reform movement in Iran, recently said: “[For reformists], the way elections are currently run is comparable to begging for charity or begging for power.”

He argued that “the currency of the political bazaar is power” and “if you don’t have that currency, it is best to not enter that market until you gain it… If you do, begging will be your only choice… If power never changes hands as an outcome of elections, then what is the point of holding them?”

Not all reform activists embrace an election boycott. Zibakalam said he would vote despite the limitations imposed by the system. Mohsen Armin, a senior member of the reform movement and former deputy speaker of parliament, argued that reformists should not abandon the ballot box because that would allow a sweeping victory by hardliners. Instead, he said, pressure should be applied on the Guardian Council to accept the movement’s candidates.

As Iran’s economy suffers from US sanctions, mismanagement and rampant corruption, the mounting poverty and stress have led Iranians to vent their anger at the system via social media outbursts, strikes and scattered street protests. If influential reform leaders boycott elections, a widescale social media campaign could paralyse the vote, seriously damaging the legitimacy of the political system and negatively affecting Iran’s relations with Europe.

Khatami said: “If the nezam (establishment) insists on its mistakes… [and] reform fails, the society will move towards overthrowing the system.”