IranPolitik Historical Archive: Saeed Hajjarian and the Pragmatist-Reformist divide in Iranian politics

In a recent interview with Andishey-e Pooya magazine (as reported by BBC Persian), Saeed Hajjarian, the chief theoretician of Iran’s Reformist faction, discussed the history of the political divide between the two ‘moderate’ factions in the Islamic Republic, the Pragmatists and Reformists. This divide continues to be significance today, and may have important consequences for the 2013 Iranian presidential election.

The origins of this divide go back to 1989, the year Iranian politics underwent a fundamental transformation. Before 1989, the Islamic Republic’s political establishment was divided between the free-market oriented Right faction, represented by then president Ali Khamenei and parliamentary speaker Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and the statist Left faction, represented by then prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and supported by supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1989 three key events transformed Iran’s political landscape. First, Khomeini’s death removed one of the main pillars of support for the Left, and the assumption of the supreme leadership by Khamenei empowered the Right. Second, the fall of the Soviet Union to some extent discredited the statist ideology of the Left. Finally, the termination of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), which had justified the creation of a state-led war economy, created space for private actors to enter the economy and undermined the Left’s statist economic model. In this context, the Left attempted to redefine itself and find a new identity. In the 1989 and 1993 presidential elections the main Left groups, including the Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC), publically supported Hashemi-Rafsanjani, whose faction in the post-1989 context was known as the Pragmatists.

In the interview, Hajjarian made it clear that the Left’s support for Hashemi-Rafsanjani was not always reciprocated. He specifically cited one example at the time of the 1993 election when Hashemi-Rafsanjani mocked the ACC, saying that if they did not support him they would go to the “rubbish bin”.

This caused significant consternation within the Left and gave impetus to the transformation of this faction into the Reformists. Hajjarian, a former senior officer in the intelligence ministry, was working in the Center for Strategic Research (CSR) alongside future Reformist leaders Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha and Behzad Nabavi during this period. Mousavi-Khoeiniha left the CSR in part over president Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s hostility to the ACC and founded Salam newspaper. This newspaper would go on to be one of the main voices in the Reform movement, and its closure was at the center of the 18 Tir student protests which rocked Iran in 1999.

While Mousavi-Khoeiniha and other ex-Left politicians were laying the foundations for the nascent Reform movement and moving away from Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the Pragmatists, Hajjarian was trying to act as a bridge between the two factions. One of the main ideological debates between them was over where reform was most desperately needed: The economy or politics. In the interview he claimed that he beseeched his fellow Reformists to maintain ties with Hashemi-Rafsanjani:

“We said that [we Reformists] must work with Hashemi [Rafsanjani] and not distance ourselves from him. I felt that Hashemi would slowly come toward us and [the idea of] political development. I spent my days in the [Hashemi-Rafsanjani administration’s] Center for Strategic Research and my evenings at [the Reformist] Salam newspaper.”

During Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s presidency (1989-1997), the Pragmatists attempted to bring some sense of normalcy to the Islamic Republic by pursuing economic reform. According to Hajjarian, one flaw in the Pragmatist strategy was that economic reform was not possible without political reform (what Hajjarian calls “political development”).

While the Hashemi-Rafsanjani presidency in the 1990s had a number of notable achievements, including economic reforms which opened up the Iranian economy relative to the war years and heavily invested in infrastructure, Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the Pragmatists had a limited social base and were not able to see their project to fruition in the long-run.

In 1997, the Reform movement, which had been developing during Hashemi-Rafsajani’s second term, came to power with a spectacular victory in that year’s presidential election. In the next eight years, the Reformists would also briefly take the city and village councils and the Majlis (Iran’s legislature). They quickly went on the offensive against Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the Pragmatists despite having come to power with their support.

In the 1999 parliamentary elections the anti-Pragmatist message of the Reformists seriously hurt Hashemi-Rafsanjani and led him to bow out from the election in the final stages. The distrust once again reared its head in the 2005 presidential election, where the Pragmatists and Reformists ran rival candidates and, by splitting the vote, enabled the election of Principalist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ultimately, it appears that the Reformist strategy of emphasizing political reform was, in isolation, also not fully successful. Indeed, it may be that both sides were wrong to separate economic and political reform. Hajjarian’s interview gives the sense that their reform projects would have had a higher chance of succeeding had these two factions joined forces.

Yet it is not surprising that they were at odds between 1989 to 2005. In this period, there were few others on Iran’s political stage. It is only since 2005 that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and hardline Principalist faction have risen to dominate the country. Since these new threats have arisen, Pragmatists and Reformists have begun to cooperate more. The 2009-2010 Green Movement demonstrations would not have been possible without the cooperation of these two political forces. It will be very interesting to see if they once again form a common front for the upcoming 2013 presidential election. If history is any indicator, the continuation of the divide between Pragmatists and Reformists will once again lead to their failure in Iran’s unforgiving politics.