Saturday, June 04, 2005

Iran reformist camp’s dilemma: Change or drop out

The Peninsula:
Squeezed out of power and undermined by religious hardliners, Iran's reformist camp has been thrown into an existential dilemma over whether to seek change from within the system or drop out of tightly controlled mainstream politics altogether. READ MORE

Iran's main pro-reform party, once the darlings of an electorate hungry for change, has only reluctantly decided to contest the June 17 presidential elections, after its candidate was disqualified from standing but later approved.

The danger is that the man bearing the flag of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), Mostafa Moin, could face a punishing backlash from voters who twice elected incumbent President Mohammad Khatami, only to see his brand of "Islamic glasnost" stalled by unelected hardliners.

"People have understood that reforms are not possible within the current system," prominent dissident activist Hashem Aghajari, on the more radical side of the political left, said.

A similar view is held by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who has also opted for a boycott. "As long as there is supervision (to select candidates), I will not take part in any elections," she said.

Activists like Aghajari and Ebadi argue that regardless of who is elected, the real power will continue to be in the hands of supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the hardline-controlled judiciary, security apparatus and political oversight bodies. All are unelected forces that can easily dictate the politics of any elected government in Iran.

Added to the bastions of power held by the religious right is Iran's parliament, seized by hardliners after reformists were barred from even contesting the February 2004 elections.

Hence the pressure on the IIPF to join many reformist voters by boycotting the polls altogether, distance themselves from the regime and launch a more grassroots movement that could go on to challenge the regime's legitimacy.

But Khatami is eager to defend eight years of struggle and repeatedly asserts that change must come slowly and from within.

His former vice president. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who quit the cabinet last year over frustration with the parliament, explained that the core problem was "finding an equilibrium" between working within the ideological confines of the regime and satisfying demands for change. "It is this paradox that is the heart of the current political crisis and this frustration," he said.

Frustration is something the reformist camp has become accustomed to.

Reformist newspapers have been shut down, activists jailedand politicians have been barred from elections in calculated plans to keep them from holding any position of power.

Added to that was Khatami's perceived inaction.

The president's brother, IIPF leader Mohammad Reza Khatami, is angered over his sibling's performance, particularly during the crisis that surrounded the candidate disqualifications last year.

"He should have resisted more," Reza Khatami said of the president. "He should have taken the issue right to the end." President Khatami, however, is not a part of the IIPF. His own party, the Association of Combatant Clerics, decided to go through with contesting the February 2004 polls and suffered as a result.

Ahead of the presidential polls, both the Combatant Clerics and the IIPF are fielding their own candidates, Mehdi Karoubi and Moin. The split provides further proof that the Islamic republic's political left is also badly divided.

"There was a divergence of opinion over who had the best chance," Karoubi explained.

The reformist vote could split even further, with some leaning towards pragmatic conservative and ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani may not be sufficiently reformist for most people but is nevertheless seen as having the clout Khatami lacked.

Moin is seen as only having an outside chance, and his defeat may herald a new era for Iran's embattled reformist camp, which may turn out political lobbyists rather than impotent political leaders.