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Party Leader's Comments Signals Serious Rift In Iran's Reform Camp

File - Iran's former president Mohammad Khatami at a meeting in Tehran on Sunday, 14Apr2013.
File - Iran's former president Mohammad Khatami at a meeting in Tehran on Sunday, 14Apr2013.

Iran's reformist political faction seems to have split as one of the groups constituting its backbone has officially pulled out of the lose-knit political force.

After remarks by the leader of the centrist Executives of Construction Party, Iranian media reported Tuesday August 13 that the group has all but officially split from the reformist camp .

The reports came hours after the party's organ Sazandegi newspaper published an interview with Secretary-General Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, former mayor of Tehran and an associate of former president, the influential Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In the interview, Karbaschi dismissed former president Mohammad Khatami's role as the leader of the reform camp. He said: "The reform movement does not need a new leader. It basically needs a leader."

He also charged that "the reform movement lacks an organization," a criticism many have voiced from within the reform camp.

Tehran's former mayor Gholam Hossein Karbaschi. UNDATED
Tehran's former mayor Gholam Hossein Karbaschi. UNDATED

Within an hour, Iranian media took Karbaschi's comment as the pronouncement of an end to the Executives of Construction as one of the pillars of Iran's reform movement.

The split will have unpredictable consequences in the upcoming parliamentary elections in February.

Party spokesman Mohammad Atrianfar rushed to deny the reports, saying that "the interpretation of Karbaschi's comment was not true."

However, denials in Iran do not necessarily refute reports altogether. The tactic is frequently used to moderate a comment if the source thinks he or she has offended someone or has gone too far in expressing a view.

Atrianfar insisted that the Executives of Construction Party is still committed to the idea of reforms.

However, Khatami himself has never acknowledged his role in the reform movement as official leader, although some activists and media outlets have bestowed the title on him.

While according to Khabar Online website reformists in Iran are undecided about boycotting the upcoming parliamentary elections, Khatami has recently begged Iranian reformists "to sacrifice and come to the polls like before, to avert threats against the political system."

In the absence of a "proper organization" in the reform movement, Karbaschi has called for forming a "National Election Headquarters for Reformists."

Many reformists including the leader of the reform faction at the Majles (parliament), Mohammad Reza Aref have said that they are unhappy about the reform camp's performance in the previous round of Majles elections in 2016, when many MPs who won the election on a reformist platform later joined the conservative faction.

In the interview, Karbaschi has called for the reconstruction of the reform camp, adding that: "Reformist groups do like Mr. Khatami but this does not mean that they have agreed on his role as the leader of reform camp."

Karbaschi has also criticized Khatami and the reform camp's political behavior in the past as many within his party believe. Although party members helped President Hassan Rouhani and the reformists to win the presidency in 2017, they did not get enough share of political power in Iran.

Vice-President Es'haq Jahangiri is the only Executives of Construction Party member who has a key position in the Rouhani administration, however, he has often complained about having been side-lined by individuals close to Rouhani, including his chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi. Last year, Jahangiri told the press that he does not even have the authority to replace his own secretary.

Many political observers believe that without the support of the Executives of Construction, a party of experienced technocrats, success for reformists in the February elections is most unlikely. Khatami who is barred from media presence cannot do much other than sending a message on YouTube. And he has said himself that the people will no longer listen to him because they have been disappointed by reformists.

In fact, Karbaschi's support was crucial for Hassan Rouhani in both 2013 and 2017 presidential elections.

Centrist political commentator Sadeq Zibakalam in a tweet on Tuesday criticized both Karbaschi and Khatami for their political behavior. He wrote: "I can understand the Executives of Construction Party's pull-out from the reform camp, although it is a bitter development. Karbaschi and Marashi [another party leader] are not the only ones who have been disappointed by Khatami's inaction. But one should ask these gentlemen, is withdrawal from reform camp the right choice?"