Iran Election Watch 2013: The Reformist Current – At a dead end

In a speech on 07 March 2013 during a ceremony commemorating Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corsp (IRGC) clergymen martyred in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi attacked the Reformist Current in one of the first majour attacks against them in the lead up to the 2013 Iranian presidential election campaign. In the speech, which contained many indirect allusions, he said that Centrists (led by former President Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani), Reformists (led by former President Mohammad Khatami), and the Green Movement (led by former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karroubi) were united in a conspiracy against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and regime, and that they were organizing themselves for the upcoming presidential election.

Referring to Khatami and the Reformists, Moslehi claimed that they were in contact with networks outside of Iran, including BBC Persian and VOA Persian News Network, from whom they were receiving financial and other support. He rhetorically asked how people could trust the Centrists, Reformists, and Greens after the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential election when they struck a blow against the regime by undermining the legitimacy of the election: “The individual who the domestic and foreign anti-revolution networks want to make a candidate [Khatami], has great debts to the nation of Iran.”

This is by no means the first attack by hardline senior regime officials on the Centrist-Reformist-Green coalition. This coalition has been under attack since its inception in the aftermath of the controversial 2009 presidential election. However, the source and timing of this attack may be indicative of what is in store for each of these three political currents in the coming months. Moslehi is believed to be close to the supreme leader, and thus is likely to be conveying the official position of the regime. Furthermore, in his capacity as intelligence minister he will oversee the background checks on presidential candidates as part of the Guardian Councils vetting process. The implication here is that Reformist candidates, particularly those of the stature of Khatami, are unlikely to be approved by the Guardian Council.

This poses larger questions about the position of the Reformists within the regime’s political elite, their strategy toward the upcoming 2013 election, and their long-term viability as a political current. During the heady weeks that followed the 2009 Iranian presidential election, Centrists and Reformists joined together to contest the election outcome at the level of Iran’s political elite. They were joined at the social level by activists who largely represented Iran’s critical urban middle class. This latter group, who advocated a more radical version of Reformism and is represented by Mousavi and Karroubi, are known as the Greens. This Centrist-Reformist-Green coalition appeared to follow the strategy formulated by Reformist theoretician Saeed Hajjarian: “Pressure from below, negotiation from above”. This essentially meant that while social forces generated pressure on the regime, the Centrist-Reformist-Green political elite would negotiate with hardliners for a greater role within the Islamic Republic’s political establishment. This strategy failed during the 2009-2011 Green Movement demonstrations for a number of reasons, two of which have been outlined below. First, they were unable to generate sufficient pressure from below because they held their urban middle class supporters on a tight leash and were unwilling to expand their movement to include other social forces such as the working class and ethno-linguistic minorities. Second, the regime’s hardline leadership was simply unwilling to negotiate and opted to repress the Green Movement. In this sense, the Centrist-Reformist-Green coalition’s two-pronged “pressure from below, negotiation from above” strategy was like a scissor where one of the blades is weak and the other broken.

In the aftermath of the Green Movement demonstrations the Centrist-Reformist-Green coalition broke apart as all three of its political components came under physical and ideological attack by regime hardliners. Over the fullness of time, the Greens have been effectively marginalized by the regime and abandoned by the Centrists and Reformists. By abandoning the Greens, the latter two political currents hope to be allowed back into the Islamic Republic’s political establishment. This approach has come into sharper focus after a visit by moderate Reformist figures Abdol-Vahed Mousavi Lari, Eshhagh Jahangiri, and Majid Ansari with Khamenei. Looked at from a broader perspective, Reformists still appear to be following the old formula of “pressure from below, negotiation from above”, believing themselves to still have sufficient social support and legitimacy to do so and that the regime is willing to negotiate.

Given all that has happened however, why do Reformists even dream that the will be allowed back into power? What pressure can they generate from below? By casting the Greens by the wayside and backing off from their previous “red-line” demand for the release of Mousavi and Karroubi from house arrest, Reformists have alienated much of their social base. Their track-record of constant political failure and moral cowardice makes it an uncertain proposition whether they have a support base willing to generate pressure from below on their behalf. Furthermore, regime hardliners have made it more than clear that they are unwilling to negotiate with the Reformist political elite. The hardline establishment appears to be seeking to put its house in order through the upcoming presidential election so to present a strong united front for upcoming negotiations with the United Nations Security Council Permanent Five plus Germany (P5+1). This precludes compromise with Reformists, which may be viewed by foreign observers as a sign of the regime’s weakness. If in the Green Movement demonstrations the Reformist strategy resembled a scissor with one broken blade, today it appears that both blades are broken.

One also has to wonder what the Reformist end-game is. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that high-stature Reformist figures like Khatami are allowed to participate in the election. After the experience of 2009, does anyone seriously expect that they will be allowed to win? Even if by some miracle a Reformist is “elected” as president, do the recent experiences of Khatami and Ahmadinejad leave any room for doubt about whether they will be allowed to truly govern?

The Reformist strategy has been broken for a while now, but it has taken some time for this to become apparent to all. Today however there does not even appear to be a path forward for Reformists. For all intents and purposes they appear to have arrived at a dead-end. It would be unwise to count them out altogether, as they have been able to reinvent themselves in the past. But their track-record of political failures, strategic ineptness, and infidelity to supporters at the social level does not inspire confidence in them as a political current that will lead Iran into the future for the current generation of Iranians coming of age. The vacuum created by the Reformists’ decline will invariably lead to the rise of new political currents, some of which may not be as loyal to the Islamic Republic as the Reformists have been. Today the picture looks very bleak for them indeed.