Reformism Redux?

In a speech to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy members, Hojatoleslam Ali Saeedi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative to the IRGC, made a veiled attack on moderates inside the Islamic Republic’s political establishment with potential significance for the upcoming 2013 presidential election in Iran.

It is fashionable for the Islamic Republic’s senior politicians, especially in recent years, to frame the country’s domestic and foreign policy dilemmas in light of Islamic history. Saeedi recently sounded a note of alarm about Iran’s domestic politics, comparing it to the civil war in Islam’s early history between Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the last of Islam’s four righteous caliphs and the central figure of the Shi’a faith, and Muawiyah, the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Although Ali had nearly won the war and reached within close proximity of Muawiyah’s tent, he chose to resolve the conflict by arbitration and in the ensuing talks was politically outmaneuvered, losing the struggle to Muawiyah.

Saeedi may have been making a veiled reference to the moderate forces in the Islamic Republic led by ex-presidents Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Rafsanjani, Khatami, and their allies (the Pragmatist and Reformist factions respectively) are advocates of a more moderate foreign policy, including concessions on Iran’s controversial nuclear program in negotiations with the P5+1, and this may be what Saeedi was referring to. The implication of Saeedi’s words are that if these moderates find their way back into power they would compromise on the nuclear program and thus squander a victory which is close at hand.

Is there merit to Saeedi’s fears that moderates may be trying to find their way back into the halls of power? Rafsanjani has recently taken on a much higher media profile, making a number of public appearances where he held hardliners to account for bringing the country to the precipice of economic ruin and war. The Reformists for their part appear to be recovering from their fall from grace in 2009. Due to their association with the demonstrations which arose to support presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, known as the Green Movement, the Reformists were systematically purged from power. Three years on, they have slowly regained their strength and appear to be making a bid to regain power. A number of recent events bear this out.

Ex-interior minister Abdollah Nouri, one of the most influential figures of the Reformist camp, recently met with Khatami to discuss the Reformist strategy for the upcoming 2013 presidential election. In another meeting with student supporters, Nouri discussed the creation of a Reformist “think tank”, and also suggested that a referendum should be held to see whether the Iranian people believed the nuclear program is worth the numerous problems it has brought, including economic sanctions and the threat of military attack. Mohammad-Reza Khatami, brother of the ex-president, also recently made a public appearance in which he compared Iran’s current situation to that which existed before the Reformists came to power in 1997 when, according to him, “all of the cruise missiles in the Persian Gulf were pointed at Iran”, implying that Iran under Reformist leadership with a more moderate foreign policy would be more secure.

The main message of these prominent Reformists to Iran’s political establishment, especially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and IRGC, seems to be they have distanced themselves from more radical Reformists in the Green Movement and that they will very likely not be boycotting the 2013 presidential election and in fact will compete to get their own nominee elected.

Re-entering Iran’s political establishment however may not be so simple for these moderates. Saeedi is an important figure within the IRGC and very close to the supreme leader. In attacking moderates in such a away he may be making it clear that hardliners within the regime are not prepared to let the likes of Rafsanjani and Khatami back in. If Reformist candidates for the presidency are not vetoed by the Guardian Council, then hardliners, backed by the IRGC, may take actions of their own to make sure there is no deviation from Iran’s increasingly authoritarian domestic state of affairs and confrontational foreign policy.

The Reformists however may have another major problem. Millions of Iranians took to the streets to support the Reformist candidate and the Green Movement in 2009, and over a 100 of them were killed and hundreds more imprisoned and tortured. By disavowing the Green Movement, Reformists would also in effect be disavowing the millions who took to the streets in 2009 to support them. If the Reformists follow this path, will the Iranian people be so enthusiastic to support them as they did in 1997 and 2009?