Originally published in Foreign Policy Association Blogs
by Reza Akhlaghi
Ever since the failure of their reform agenda and their subsequent marginalization by the coming to power of Ahmadinejad, Iran’s reformists have been in near constant search of a well-articulated stance on their role in the country’s political future. The reform agenda by Iranian reformists was crystallized in the two-term presidency of Mohammad Khatami, a period also known as the reform era.
The quest by Iran’s reformist camp for relevancy entered a complicated phase after Ahmadinejad’s controversial win for a second term in office in 2009 elections, elections that reformists regarded as a great opportunity for their re-emergence on the political scene as a force of democratic change and thus make up for their losses during the Khatami presidency.
The reformers’ first and foremost goal was, and continues to be, the preservation of the theocracy in Iran, while insisting on the necessity of implementing certain democratic reforms. Iranian reformists consist of former officials in the Khatami administration, religious nationalists, as well as former revolutionary guards. While in Iran the ranks of reformists have been engaged in disputes over the merits of participating in the country’s next year’s parliamentary elections, those reformists who fled to the West for safety as a result of post-election repression, have developed competing discourses as to what reform should constitute and what the future of Islamic Republic should look like. Reformists’ ambiguous stance on key critical issues has led to their declining stance in the Iranian public, while this ambiguity has amplified the sense of distrust toward them by the current leadership.
Since the 2009 elections, significant developments have taken place both in Iran’s internal affairs and geopolitically within Iran’s sphere of influence. Internally, Ahmadinejad and his administration are facing serious prospects of falling from grace as their efforts to challenge the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and exert a more independent executive branch of government have met with arrests of aides and confrontation with the clerical establishment. Geopolitically, Iran is facing what is certain to be a changing Middle East as the Arab Spring, with all its ups and downs, threatens to jolt Tehran’s geopolitical standing in the region.
Now with parliamentary elections looming large in Iran’s faction-based politics and continued turmoil in the region, Iran’s reformists, irrespective of their ability to articulate a clear agenda, will find themselves organizationally handicapped to launch an effective political campaign apparatus capable of reaching millions of Iranians. And with past record of President Khatami—reformists’ star contender—in executing on his reforms, the reformists will most likely fail to generate excitement among the Iranian electorate and rally them for a strong turnout.
For Iran’s reformists, chances of becoming a political force to be reckoned with are diminishing as they face a crisis of trust on several key fronts.
For one thing, the clerical establishment has consistently viewed reformists, including during Khatami presidency, as a force bent on easing the clergy’s grip on levers of power through democratic reforms. The clerical establishment was also deeply suspicious that the reformist camp had a plan to move gradually toward forming a secular legislative branch. Come 2009 elections and the clergy’s suspicions of reformists turned into utter distrust as reformists were directly associated with the Green Movement. They were dubbed by both the clergy and the IRGC leadership as “seditionists.” Hence the widespread crackdown on reformist political figures and journalists intended largely to damage their political aspirations.
On the other front, Iran’s post-election ruling elite—crystallized in the IRGC leadership—view reformists as a spent force whose only potential remains in disrupting the social order, and one with ambitions to strip the IRGC of its control over the economy and the political process.
Moreover, ideologically, the democratic aspirations of reformists (albeit within the limits of the Islamic Republic) run counter to the current nationalist agenda of the IRGC. For the latter, socio-economic stability is of vital importance and a newly-found Persian nationalism is a tool to win back the hearts and minds of Iran’s youth. For the IRGC leadership it is also crucial to leave behind the Ahmadinejad presidency free of social unrest as it consolidates power and prepares the public opinion for the 2013 presidential elections. Therefore, the detention of the Green Movement’s leadership and intimidation of reformist journalists will almost certainly continue.
In light of the above developments, it is time to look at reform in Iran as part of a bygone era. The rising expectations of Iran’s largely young, well-educated, and connected population, coupled with their deep frustration with the theocracy, far outweighs reformists’ undefined and ambiguous position on what constitutes social and political freedoms.