The reform movement in Iran: Origins and horizons

The story of the Reform Movement begins in the mid-1990s when the Islamic Revolution was sputtering out and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) was facing social unrest, with social forces such as students and women seeking to change Iran’s authoritarian political system, rigid social mores, and stagnant economy.  Then in 1997 Mohammad Khatami, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance under then President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (1989-1997), led a highly successful campaign for that year’s presidential election that promised to reform the IRI. Khatami was responding to social pressure in Iran for change which he sought to use to restore his disgraced faction to power.


Khatami and his allies were the remnants of the Islamic left faction, hardliners who from 1979 to 1989 were the driving force behind many of the IRI’s signature policies. Domestically this included violently eliminating the political opposition to the IRI, enforcing strict Islamic morality through revolutionary committees and nationalizing Iran’s economy. In foreign policy they were behind the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran and were instrumental to the founding of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the first decade of the IRI they had been strongly backed by the Valiy-e Faghi or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and governed through the Executive under then Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi (1981-1989).

After the end Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), fall of the Soviet Union, the death of Khomeini, political stabilization of the regime through mass-purging of the opposition and social change, the Islamic left’s fortunes precipitously declined. First, the termination of the war ended the state of emergency under which the Islamic left had become accustomed to operating. Second, the collapse of Soviet Union delegitimized the very basis of their statist economic ideology which had been used to govern Iran’s economy for the first decade of the IRI. Third, the passing of Khomeini, a staunch supporter of the Islamic left, deprived them of the main foundation of their political power. Fourth, the elimination of political opposition through mass-executions, imprisonment and exile meant that the regime was now relatively stable and their brand of political authoritarianism and strict religious morality was no longer necessary. Finally, Iranian society had profoundly changed demographically, with a huge baby-boom during the war and many of the children of the revolution beginning to come of age. In short, the conditions which had enabled the Islamic left’s first decade in power simply no longer existed.

Their rivals, the Islamic right faction, capitalized on this by selecting their own Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new supreme leader and Rafsanjani as president, eliminating the Premiership from the constitution, veto-ing Islamic left election candidates through the Guardian Council, purging them from unelected state institutions, and more. Having been eliminated from the system, the Islamic left entered a period of retreat in which it reassessed its place in the regime. The emerged from this process “reformed”, the namesake of their faction.


Having lost their footing in the IRI’s powerful nonelected institutions, the newly minted Reformists under Khatami would regain political power by appealing to Iran’s restless society yearning for change, and channel popular frustration through elected institutions. In an interview with Akbar Ganji’s Rah-e No newspaper in 1998, Reformist theoretician Saeed Hajjarian characterized this strategy for achieving their goals as pressure from below, negotiations from above. The barren political landscape in Iran during the 1997 presidential election, including the lackluster Islamic right candidate Nateq Nouri, and the tacit support of Rafsanjani who by this time had distanced himself from Khamenei and the Islamic right, resulted in a landslide victory for Khatami.

While the initial shock of Khatami’s electoral victory sowed confusion and paralysis in the Islamic right, it was not too long before they rallied and counterattacked the Reformists under the banner of ‘preserving the principles of the revolution’, rebranding themselves the Principalists. Although the Reformists would go on to win the 2000 Majlis election and re-elect Khatami in 2001, the Principalists were able to effectively contain them through institutional obstructionism. For example, in the 2004 Majlis election many prominent Reformists were deemed unfit to stand for office by the Guardian Council. By following this strategy, the Principles crippled one of the pillars of Hajjarian’s two pronged strategy, namely the ability of Reformists to “negotiate from above”, by excluding them from political institutions.

While institutional obstructionism had a role in their string of defeats from 2004 to 2005, the loss of popular support also played a major part. Nothing better emblemized the perception that Reformists had failed the people than Khatami’s failure to support the student uprising of 18th of Tir in 2000. Furthermore, even after it became clear in the 2004 Majlis elections that Reformists would be largely excluded from the political system via the Guardian Council, Khatami squandered what was left of his credibility by continuing to insist that participation in elections was the only way forward, and actually presided over the election. The loss of popular support crippled the second pillar of Hajjarian’s two pronged strategy, “pressure from below”, paralyzing the Reformists as a political force.

Thus while the Reformists had begun with a great deal of momentum in 1997, by the end of Khatami’s second term as president in 2005, they were a spent force. The election of Mahmoud Ahamdinejad as president in that same year and the failure of the Reformists to win the election, marked the death of the first wave of the Reform Movement.


The Ahmadinejad’s first term proved difficult for both Reformists and some of their constituents, especially middle-class urbanites who were not attracted to the new president’s platform of social justice. By the 2009 presidential election Reformists re-emerged after four years of irrelevance showing signs that they would make serious push to win that election. Rallying around ex-Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, they used a modern election campaign and social media such as Facebook and Twitter to not only gain supporters but also create a mechanism that would allow them to mobilize large numbers of people in a short period of time. While the first incarnation of Hajjarian’s “pressure from below, negotiations from above” had failed, it was reinvented to reflect the desperation of the times. By conducting an electrifying electoral campaign and using social media, Reformists would tap into the deep vein of discontent that had built up during Ahmadinejad’s four years in office among certain segments of the population, and bring “pressure from below” by mobilizing this group onto the streets. This gave Reformists a new weapon to wield against Principalists in case of perceived electoral irregularities, using popular pressure to overturn the election results, elect Mousavi as president and thus restore their ability to “negotiate from above”.

And on June 12th, they were forced to wield this weapon when the election results were announced in favour of the incumbent Ahmadinejad. While there is no ‘smoking gun’ that proves that electoral fraud occurred, the widespread perception among certain segments of the population that it did was enough to bring thousands (and at its height, millions) of people in Tehran and other major urban areas, all channeled through Reformist social media. The Green Movement, the second incarnation of the Reform movement and Hajjarian’s “pressure from below, negotiations from above” was born.

While Reformists will strenuously deny it, their movement most resembles the colour revolutions of former Soviet bloc countries such as Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In colour revolutions one faction within a regime creates “pressure from below” by mobilizing popular energy and channeling it into “negotiating from above” and improves its own position in the regime, usually in the context of allegations of electoral fraud. While this strategy was successful up to a point in the semi-authoritarian former Soviet bloc, in Iran the Principalist faction and IRGC rapidly mobilized to crush the uprising. Through the act of applying popular pressure on the IRI, the Reformists had crossed a ‘red-line’ and from this point were effectively purged from the system, once again destroying their ability to “negotiate from above”.


With Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi (another presidential candidate) imprisoned and most Reformists leaders either in prison or exile, the second wave of the Reform movement has been broken. While Khatami has called for reconciliation between Reformists and the regime and Javad Bahonar (a Majlis representative) has even suggested they align with Principalists in the upcoming 2012 Majlis elections against Ahmadinejad [1], it is becoming increasingly clear that they will not be allowed to participate in any future presidential and Majlis elections. Where then, does the future of Reformism lay?

Some Reformists may heed Bahonar’s call and join Principalist ranks against Ahmadinejad. But prominent Reformists such as Abbas Abdi have rejected this notion outright. Having supported a regime that systematically undermined them and made their supporters pay a heavy price in blood and prison sentences on the streets, Reformists would be only further disgrace themselves by continuing to advocate reforms through elections. Furthermore, it may simply no longer be an option for them. Yet the notion of gradual change through elections is at the very core of the Reform movement, without which it simply cannot function.

Aditionally, it has been slowly ideologically disarmed by a new group within Principalists, the Iranian School led by Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Among other things, Mashaei has challenged the political role of the clergy, advocated greater social freedoms and engagement with the US, taking and even exceeding main pillars of the Reform Movement’s platform. Some Reformists will also likely be absorbed by this group.

Having lost its entire basis for existence within the IRI system, the movement appears to be shifting to the Iranian diaspora scattered around the world. Yet fundamental questions about the future of the Reform Movement remain. With Reformism inside Iran on its deathbed, what is the central organizing principle of the movement in exile to prevent it from splintering into a thousand pieces? Furthermore with gradual and non-confrontational reform through elections no longer a viable option, what is its strategy for bringing political change to Iran? Will it foment a revolution? Given that it has outright rejected this option, the Reform Movement in exile appears to have one possible choice. It must, for the time being, content itself with symbolic but hollow actions based on nostalgia for the events of 2009-2010 and adjust to life as just another opposition group in exile. It will be compete for attention and funding from Western governments, trying to remain alive so that one day it may become an instrument of regime-change in Iran, much like Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan or Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq.