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Were Reformists The Biggest Losers In Iran Protests?

Iranian students clash with riot police during an anti-government protest around the University of Tehran, Iran, 30 December 2017

The recent unrest in Iran, which saw almost two weeks of nationwide demonstrations, cost the lives of 25 protesters and resulted in thousands of arrests. It also shook the very foundations of the clerical-military ruling elite.

But some Iranians say the biggest losers were the so-called reformists, a diverse group of politicians, former officials and public figures who believe Iran’s regime can be reformed without a revolution.

The reform movement began after the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997. The soft-spoken, educated, and well-mannered cleric tried to soften the rough edges of the religious-ideological regime exhibiting an unending revolutionary fervor.

After a short period of hope and relative press freedom, the conservative camp reacted, with the support of Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the rest of Khatami’s eight-year presidency passed in a tug of war as dozens of newspapers were closed and no meaningful reforms implemented.

However, Khatami remained the spiritual head of the reformists, and in recent years has been silenced by intelligence agencies who have even banned his image from the media.

Nevertheless, many expected Khatami and his well-known co-reformists to show some solidarity with protesters who came out across Iran starting on December 28.

Instead, Khatami and his comrades issued a statement that too often repeated the official line of the supreme leader and the hardliners. One takeaway was that the enemies of Iran had a hand in the protests.

This disappointed many who had expected more from the former president, and it sparked a debate as to whether the reformist movement is capable of changing Iran at all.

Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, undated
Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, undated

​One famous reformist and a former official of the Khatami administration, Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was himself put in jail as a dissident, says Iranians should keep trying to reform the system without revolutionary or extreme action.

On January 16, he tweeted, “The difference between reformists and extremists on both sides…we say…we should enter a dialogue of Iranians with Iranian, within the country, without the presence of foreigners and before destructive confrontation.”

Tajzadeh indirectly refers to examples such as Syria, where a protest movement led to a catastrophic civil war with no end in sight.

But on the other side of the debate are people such as renowned Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who last week in a letter to Tajzadeh wrote, “I don’t believe the Iranian regime is capable of being reformed.”

Makhmalbaf, who lives outside Iran, has been nominated for and won numerous international film awards and is a cultural icon for Iranians.

This is how he criticized the reformists: “You have made such an ideology out of reformism that if you lived during World War II, you would have opposed foreign forces fighting against Hitler and you would argue that Hitler can be reformed.”

Makhmalbaf also argues in his letter that reformists pretend there is no other solution except becoming another Syria or Afghanistan. They have promised change, while Iranians have participated in every election without concrete results. These elections, he says, have all been controlled by Khamenei.

He tells Tajzadeh, “Dear friend, reforms, revolution, or a foreign attack are just three ways to bring change, but unfortunately it is not the people who choose; it is the dictators who impose solutions on human societies.”

He then asks about Syria, “Who was it other than Iran and Russia who stood behind Assad and turned Syria into a horrible example? Dear Mostafa, the supreme leader himself together with Putin are responsible for the crimes in Syria.”

He ends his letter saying, “I don’t believe anymore that Iran’s ruling system can be reformed. Khamenei insists on religious tyranny, either out of fear or obstinacy, then in the end he will go either by revolution or an attack by foreigners who seek their own interests. This is why imposing bloody revolution or a foreign attack is his responsibility and that of idle reformists, not the desperate people.”