Reformists fight off irrelevance in Iran

For one spring evening in a blue-tiled mosque just south of Tehran, it sounds and feels as though the hour of the Iranian reformists has come again.

The mosque is packed with men and boys chanting the name of Mohammad Khatami. They push and shove in the hope of catching a glimpse of the former president who tried to smooth some of the sharp edges of the Islamic republic and open a “dialogue” with the West.

The momentum for change dissipated during the eight years of his bold but ultimately ineffectual presidency and the three years of hardline retrenchment under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that has followed. But some of the old reformist fervour appears to resurface at this rally in Islamshahr, a town south of Tehran, creating a jolt of excitement before today’s parliamentary elections.

“People want freedom,” Khatami tells the crowd, which responds with a loud murmur.
“They want the freedom to choose their own future, their own political system and freedom to hold their leaders to account and freedom to make change without resorting to violence.”

Khatami (64)is bundled out by his bodyguards. The chants go on for another minute or so. Discarded election fliers lie thick in the mosque’s courtyard as it empties. The night’s clamour may have been caused more by the discomfort of squeezing into a small space rather than any great revivalism.

The reality is that the euphoria of 1997—when he was elected and when a profound transformation seemed at hand—is long gone. Now the reformists are fending off irrelevance. Even if their performance in today’s election exceeds all expectations, they cannot win. Hundreds of their candidates have been disqualified by the government for “lacking Islamic authenticity”, leaving their bloc able to contest in half the 290 seats in the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament.

“Yes, I support Khatami, but what is the point of voting in an election when the result is known in advance?” said Mujtaba Mivehchizadeh, one of a group of young men outside the mosque worried about youth unemployment and galloping inflation. “Even when Khatami was president, he was not allowed to do anything. So why would I vote?”

Managed democracy

The question hangs forlornly over the exercise in managed democracy. Of the other big names in reformist politics, the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, prefers to fight his battles in the opaque world of Iran’s clerical hierarchy.

The other, Mehdi Karrubi, the ex-Majlis speaker and the head of the National Trust party, rejects an election boycott. “We believe it is our right to participate, we should make use of that right,” he said. “We are still hopeful we can be a powerful minority in the Majlis.”

A boycott would play into the hands of the president and the fundamentalist clergy, say the reformists. Without any voice in Parliament, the reformists would have no public visibility and no platform from which to launch a presidential campaign next year. Karrubi is looking towards 2009. Khatami is under pressure from his supporters to run too.

The prospect of a presidential contest is also driving politics on the right.

Ahmadinejad is not running his own list of candidates today because he fears it will become a referendum on his performance. His political group, the Sweet Smell of Service, performed badly in recent local elections. But other conservative figures, who now call themselves “principlists”, are manoeuvring for a head start in the race for his job.

In the holy city of Qom, no reformists have been allowed to stand, but a real contest is under way nevertheless. The city, 144km from Tehran, has been the centre for Shia learning and pilgrimage since the 12th century when a shrine was erected to Massoumeh, sister of the Eighth Imam, Ali Reza.

Qom was also once home to Ayatollah Khomeini. It is his legacy that is being fought over in this poll. Ali Larijani, a former nuclear negotiator, has opened his campaign headquarters in Qom. He has been joined by Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the Tehran mayor, and Mohsen Rezai, an ex-Revolutionary Guard commander, under the principlists banner.

Leaders’ unease

They all share Ahmadinejad’s aversion to democratic reforms that might water down Islam’s role in Iran, but they are uneasy with his style, quixotic economic policies and provocative manner on the world stage. “Iranians shouldn’t behave in a way that creates problems at the international level for themselves,” said Mohsen Gharavian, one of Qom’s most fiercely conservative clerics and a former Ahmadinejad cheerleader.

The president still has plenty of support in Qom. Ali Reza Tekie is standing as an independent, but signalling his unwavering support for Ahmadinejad, said that Iran’s economic problems had been imposed by outsiders, namely the US, Britain and Israel, and that the disqualification of opposition candidates was the fault of the reformists. “They put forward candidates they knew were unqualified and to create a bad atmosphere,” he said, adding that preventing the reformists from ever taking power again was “the national and religious duty of every Iranian”.

Every detail of the election appears to have been arranged with that aim in mind. It is being held a week before Norouz, the Persian new year, when the entire nation is on the move. Campaigning was only allowed to begin eight days ago and had to stop 24 hours before the polls opened. Complicated rules were promulgated just before the election limiting the size of candidate photos, and the banners and fliers that can be used. The head of the election commission, Alireza Afshar, is one of Ahmadinejad’s old Revolutionary Guard comrades.

“This is not a fair election. In two-thirds of the seats there is no real competition,” said Mohammad Atrianfar, a Rafsanjani adviser and journalist whose newspaper, Shargh, was shut down by the authorities last year. “This is a crippled democracy,” he said.

Crippled, but not yet dead. For all its limitations, political leaders of every hue still believe there is something worth fighting for in the Majlis election. The question today is whether the Iranian public agree.


The supreme leader is at the zenith of the Islamic Republic. He is the military commander in chief, and has the power to dismiss the president. In theory, he can be dismissed by the assembly of experts, a senate-like body whose 86 senior clerics are elected for eight-year terms. In practice, the supreme leader’s job is probably for life, and the assembly is responsible for choosing a successor.

The president is elected directly for four-year terms, takes the lead in domestic and foreign policy, and appoints ministers. He cannot defy the supreme leader, however, and can be overruled by Parliament, the majlis. The majlis has a four-year term and can draft and pass legislation. Laws must be approved by another clerical committee, the guardians council. The guardians council, together with the Ministry of Interior, also has to approve all majlis candidates. Conflicts between all these competing centres of power are umpired by the expediency discernment council, yet another clerical panel appointed by the supreme leader. - Â

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