Where are Iran’s reformists?

Damaged by crackdowns and compromise since 2009, will the next round of presidential elections make or break reformists?

Iran opposition 1
Iran's Green Movement protested for weeks after the contested 2009 presidential elections [GALLO/GETTY]

In some respects, in Iran, the sky is falling.

The latest round of sanctions has been lethal to the middle class. Iran has been slow to shift millions of barrels of oil, military tensions are building in the Gulf over the country’s talk of shutting down the Strait of Hormuz (a major oil choke point) and Iran’s controversial nuclear programme continues to draw an ebb and flow of threats from Israel.

Then there is Syria, where Iran has been siding with the government, which has waged pitched, bloody battles against the opposition for 17 months.

With politicians already jostling for influence in the lead up to presidential elections in 2013, this is a critical time for the reformists, a network of groups, both political and social, that calls for more press freedoms, rights for women and minorities and government transparency.

Iran’s current crises could either form the ideal circumstances for the opposition to rise; or perhaps be totally crushed under the weight of a hardline government that will not tolerate a challenge.

The Green Movement made headlines in 2009, when massive crowds took to the streets to contest the presidential elections. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept into his second term and reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were first sidelined. By February 2011, they were placed under house arrest, where they remain today.

Severe crackdowns followed, with many reporters, bloggers and lawyers working on rights issues being convicted of crimes against the government (or God).

“The reformist movement in Iran has hit a total dead end,” said Hasan Al-Omari, an expert on Iran and researcher for several think-tanks.

“Currently, the leaders of the Green Movement are either in prison, under house arrest or in exile, meaning they are unable to communicate with their followers, especially given that social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are filtered in Iran.”

In fact, the very integrity of the reformists, as a political entity, remains in question.

“It’s a movement that’s had to make some major compromises with those who have survived, and that has fundamentally changed the focus of the movement and even some of its ideological orientations,” said Roxane Farmanfarmaian, a political analyst specialising in Iranian geo-strategic affairs at Cambridge University.

Indeed, reformist and former president Mohammad Khatami, who chose not to run in the 2009 elections reportedly under threat of assassination, is the target of much criticism in the Farsi-language blogosphere, frequently accused of being in league with the hardliners. He’s also among reformists who have called for reconciliation with the Principalists, the party supporting the government of hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“The reformists suffered so seriously as a movement that to come back at all in terms of putting in certain ideas and candidates, they have had to shift allegiances and have had to make alliances that are no longer really reflecting the old Green Movement,” said Farmanfarmaian.

Continued crackdowns 

Reformist leaders now in Iran – even ones that aren’t in jail – are limited in how they can lead a movement, although some have managed to maintain public profiles. But they operate in a delicate climate.

Omari said that reformist leaders are under pressure from several angles – the hardliners, who would like to try them for sedition for their role in the 2009 protests, while the expat reformist community insists that they stand strong.

Even when Khatami speaks, as he did on July 20, about the possibility of there being a reformist candidate in 2013, the response from the establishment is harsh.

The day following Khatami’s speech in Esfahan, Hamid Reza Moghadamgar, the cultural deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, lashed out, calling reformists “extremists” and accusing them of “treason”.

But does the reformist movement necessarily need leaders to survive?

Not so, said, Ali Mazrooei, the editor-in-chief of Rahe Sabz (The Green Path), an online reformist publication, who describes the movement as both social and political in nature.

“It’s a horizontal movement,” said Mazrooei. “In Iran we have a very wide movement, and everyone in that movement is leading the movement.”

And despite the constant rounds of arrests in Iran – including a recent series of raids which saw 87 cafés shut down and an unknown number of women arrested by Iran’s “morality police” – Mazrooei says that reformists activists have had some success.

“It depends on the measure of success,” he said. “People follow their own lifestyle.”

Signs of life

Whether reformists will be able to field a candidate for the 2013 presidential election remains to be seen.

Even if they were to nominate a representative, the odds of him being approved as an eligible candidate by the Council of Guardians – a government body charged with vetting political candidates – are unknown. Then there’s the issue of disenfranchisement.

“Even though there’s a lot of head-butting with the government over domestic and international issues, who knows if that will motivate voters,” said Mohammad Shariati, Khatami’s former adviser.

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After Egypt’s recent revolution and elections which followed, many voters chose not to cast ballots in the presidential contest, Shariati said, and Iran’s reformists could also opt not to appear on voting day.

When asked if he’s hopeful that reformists will nominate a candidate, Shariati remained circumspect.

“There are two other discussions to be had – one about whether to have a nominee and another about who this nominee might be,” he said. Plus, he added, the first discussion can’t happen because there are still issues of “press freedoms, releasing prisoners and freeing political activists”.

This is not to say that reformists are counting themselves out just yet. 

Mazrooei says the fact that reformists are the target of crackdowns indicates that they are seen as having some muscle in Iran – after all, he points out, the powerless are not worth arresting.

“The authorities knows that if they are freed, they could lead the people,” said Mazrooei. “There is hope, because I think the majority of people in Iran are not satisfied and they are waiting for an opportunity to change the situation.”

However, whether such an opportunity will materialise is unknown, but given the precarious position Iran leadership is in – domestically and internationally. Farmanfarmaian says any such opening is unlikely.

“The situation at the moment is very closed, and the reason isn’t because of the reformists, but because of Ahmadinejad,” said Farmanfarmaian, pointing to the president’s track record of incendiary remarks and his increasingly contentious relationship with Khamenei.

“I mean, Iran is in one of its worst international situations since the revolution, since the hostage crisis. It’s time to build some bridges across the Gulf, get out of proxy wars, this kind of thing. And they need a president who can actually work with that,” said Farmanfarmaian. “This doesn’t leave much room for alternative expression, and the reformists fall right into that.”

Reform, not revolution

The path for the man deemed the winner of the 2009 poll has been rocky, and the past year has seen Ahmadinejad tussle with Khamenei over the limits of presidential powers.

Given Ahmadinejad’s move to position himself as an opposition to the Principalists who put him in power, it may seem that he’s poised to step into the role of a reformist leader.

But Omari said many Iranians do not see Ahmadinejad as an opposition figure, even in relation to Khamenei.

“[He’s seen] as the source of economic strife and the destroyer of Iran’s prestige,” said Omari.

Mazrooei summed-up Ahmadinejad’s tactics as “a play – not a real political act”.

If being able to have a candidate in the 2013 elections turns out not to be an option and protests remain out of the question, then Iran’s reformists, for now, seem content to work on thinking their way out of the situation.

Noori recently floated the idea of starting a reformist think-tank and says the movement should focus on a “strategy to create peaceful change” – a signal that reformists might be abandoning political ambition for now. A less aggressive approach, said Mazrooei, is what Iran’s reformists want.

“People in Iran don’t want a revolution. They don’t want to change a system like they did in Libya or something that is happening in Syria,” said Mazrooei.

“Iranian people they have an experience of a revolution and they don’t want to do that again. They have patience and they have a voice,” he said.

“They are waiting.”  

Follow D Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz

Source: Al Jazeera