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Iran's Reformists Crippled Despite Electoral Victories

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani meeting with Mohammad Reza Aref and other reformists. Undated
This is an op-ed article by Morteza Kazemian, a contributor of opinion and analysis to Radio Farda

Despite several successes in recent elections, Iran's reformists now seem crippled by a lack of unity. The crisis is caused not only by the concerted counter-efforts of conservatives, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but also by their own internal problems.

Following the protests against the re-election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president in 2009 that brought the regime to the brink of collapse, reformist politicians came under heavy attack by the conservative establishment. Accused of igniting the protests, they became severely isolated. Many were arrested, and some received long-term prison sentences.

However, in 2016, they won the parliamentary elections, and this May they helped moderate politician Hassan Rouhani get re-elected, even winning city council elections. Their supporters had hoped for a strong reformist comeback, but they soon were disappointed.

Let’s take a cursory glance at some of the developments that helped crush the optimism of those who supported the reformist camp.

Rouhani has been unable to fulfill many campaign promises such as ending the house arrest of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi as demanded by many of his voters. In the meantime, more restrictions have been imposed on former President Mohammad Khatami. As one of the most popular Iranian politicians, Khatami played a crucial role in Rouhani’s victory in the election.

Another disappointment came with Rouhani’s choices for cabinet positions when he failed to appoint high-profile reformists as ministers.

His latest nominee for science minister is also a sign he has distanced himself from his base, which demands more freedom and political reforms. The nomination of Mansour Gholami, head of Bu Ali Sina University in Hamadan, has not only been criticized by students but also by some reformist MPs. His critics say Gholami has a record of neglecting students’ rights and freedoms.

Rouhani seems to be trying to please the supreme leader by avoiding hard-core reformists, who do not have much power in the current political constellation.

Due to their organizational weakness, reformists have failed to pursue their demands through the executive branch and despite criticism they have taken no measures to get their act together.

Another challenge faced by the reformist camp, which comprises a diverse group of people, is that it lacks unity on many core issues, such as political reforms, the relationship between state and religion, the role of civil society, and the interpretation of the constitution.

For instance, some reformists don’t mind the pre-screening of candidates for presidential and parliamentary election by the Guardian Council, which is responsible for the exclusion of many moderate politicians. Other reformists want to see the role of the Guardian Council eliminated in elections.

Some of them pursue only superficial changes, while others want deep structural reforms. For some, mobilizing citizens to vote for them is sufficient; others want to see an active civil society that becomes the engine for democratic change.

Reformists can also be criticized for some character deficiencies; some follow their personal interests or are avaricious, too pragmatic and afraid of challenging the powerful institutions.

Under such circumstances, the reformist movement faces a serious crisis that will put a big dent in their popular support. We cannot expect cautious, moderate reformists to take the initiative and try to solve the issue.

The only glimpse of hope is a small group who has not forgotten civil society, is deeply critical of the current situation, and has the courage to express its criticism.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Radio Farda or RFE/RL
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    Morteza Kazemian

    Morteza Kazemian is an Iranian journalist and political analyst based in Paris, who contributes to Radio Farda.