The irrelevance of Iran’s reformists

Amid social upheaval, the reformist movement has proven once again it cannot offer a genuine democratic alternative.

A woman passes by a phone booth with a poster of leading reformists Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami during an election campaign in Tehran on June 12, 2009 [File: AP/Vahid Salemi]

On November 14, the Iranian government announced it was going to ration petrol and increase its price by up to 200 percent. The move caused public outrage and pushed people to the streets to demonstrate against what they saw as the authorities’ flagrant indifference to the precarity of their material circumstances.

Protests erupted in more than 100 cities across 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces and were spearheaded by the social foundation of the Islamic republic – the working, low-paid and unemployed poor, the marginalised on the urban periphery otherwise known as the “dispossessed”. This class stratum attacked gas stations, banks, military bases and even religious seminaries. Its mass participation in the protests demonstrated just how far the regime has failed its people and its own support base.

The Islamic leadership adopted several strategies to cope with this revolt against its austerity measures: repression, conspiracy theories about foreign interference, internet and mobile shutdowns and closures of schools and universities. The crackdown resulted in the death of  1,500 people, according to Reuters, and the arrest of many others.

Amid condemnations of the protesters by the Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, who called the protesters thugs, anarchists and enemy agents and by President Hassan Rouhani, who said they were “mercenaries, rioters and thugs”, leading members of the reformist movement, which purports to advocate for some social and political freedoms within the Islamic Republic, condemned the violence against the protesters.

“The root and context of the recent protests is in domestic corruption, humiliation, discrimination and inequality, not across the seas”, stated reformist leader of the 2009 Green Movement, Mehdi Karroubi.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, also a fellow leader of the 2009 protest movement, issued an even stronger statement, denouncing the state violence unleashed on the “hopeless” and “dispossessed”.

Former President Mohammad Khatami, the father of the reformist movement, Mostafa Tajzadeh and several other reformist leaders all issued statements critical of the violent crackdown on the protesters, saying they have the right to be in the streets.

Yet, just a year ago, during another wave of protests against austerity and political repression, these same reformists had a very different stance. Demonstrations similar to the current ones were held in small towns and provinces across the country; people were shouting slogans not only against the government but also against the whole regime. “Hardliners! Reformists! The game is over!”, one chant went.

Back then the Association of Combatant Clerics, which Khatami heads, was quick to describe the protesters as “opportunists and troublemakers [who] have exploited the demonstrations to create problems, insecurity, and destroy public buildings, while insulting sacred religious and national values”.

Reformist politician Masoumeh Ebtekar, one of Rouhani’s 12 vice presidents and the highest-ranking female in the government, referred to the protests as a Saudi-American conspiracy. Other prominent reformist figures and leaders such as Abbas Abdi called the protests “calculated and irrational”, while Tajzadeh warned against turning Iran into a Syria. 

So, in less than two years, the reformists have gone from condemning public protests against the authority of the Islamic republic to claiming that such actions are justified. This seeming political inconsistency is, in fact, quite consistent with the reformist project and its loyalty to the political leadership of the Islamic revolution. This loyalty translates into the use of rhetorical cooptation of any opposition sentiment – be it from the dispossessed, women, ethnic groups or any other dissenting voices – to neutralise their resistance to the regime.

That is, the reformists’ ostensible support for the protesters was insincere and was aimed at deceiving the protesters and directing their anger at the elected government rather than the unelected system. Their rhetoric aims to convince the angry public that the current regime with some modifications can still fix the ongoing crisis and provide a better life for the Iranian people.

Viewed in the context of the upcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for February 2020, the rhetorical acrobatics of the reformists make even more sense. 

Just like the rest of the Iranian political elite, they are increasingly anxious about the growing calls for the boycott of the vote. A low turnout would destroy the last vestiges of legitimacy the regime still claims to have. 

The public must be appeased before being asked to return to the ballot box and vote for those who opened fire on them. That is why, just a few weeks after they openly supported the protests, the reformists started urging people to participate in the election.

In early December, Karoubi issued a statement inviting the Iranian public to participate widely in the elections. A few days later, Khatami said that reformists will run in the upcoming elections and suggested that the vote is the only way for the current problems in the country to be solved. AbdiEbtekar and others have also called for extensive participation in the election.

I have closely studied contradictions in the discourse of the reformists, which reveal their oppressive and anti-democratic orientation. Such shifts in rhetoric are not an anomaly but a norm aimed at holding on to power and preserving the regime at all costs rather than producing a genuine democratic alternative.

Many reformists including Mousavi, Karoubi and Khatami, are among the founders of the Islamic regime, and while they have been sidelined and some put under house arrest, they are nonetheless part of the system.

Thus, any solutions they offer to resolve the current political impasse must be understood within this context. For example, they advocate for free and fair elections, which only extends as far as their own candidates and excludes many, including the Left, seculars, Baha’is or regime opponents in general.

They too believe in many of the oppressive practices of the regime, including extensive privatisation and socio-economic policies that lead to dispossession of the lower stratum, the institutionalised sexism and patriarchy of the system, and the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities.

So while the reformists have shifted their rhetoric to support the protests ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections, hoping to capitalise on public anger, they are unlikely to be able to offer anything new to the Iranian people in terms of policies or solutions to the current political and socio-economic crisis.

Since the reformists are incapable of delivering a democratic alternative to the current status quo, perhaps it is time to break their hegemony over the democratic movement and look for a new political current that can bring genuine political change to Iran.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.