Thursday, November 10, 2005

Power Shift Leaves Reformers Out in the Cold

Vahid Sepehri, Radio Free Europe:
As the proverbial insult follows an injury, so the loss of public office by Iran's reformers has preceded public discord, and immediate political irrelevance, with power moving to the political right and center, into the hands of young radicals or veteran officials.

Some reformers have spoken since the defeat in the June presidential polls of forging a grand coalition around shared values, but others counter that there can be no unity for now among such a divided and divergent group.

Eighteen Voices

Iranian media have reported intermittent meetings of reformist groups, on 5 and 7 October, for example. Like the conservatives, reformers have a vehicle -- the Coordinating Council of the Reforms Front -- to maintain contacts among 18 reformist groups. Front representatives have also been meeting with "prominent reformist figures," Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, the rotating head of the front, told ILNA on 7 November.

Former legislator Ali Asghar Hadizadeh said on 16 October that "it is not easy to bring together 18 groups, indeed I think it impossible," adding that reformers would likely end up working in several fronts, ISNA reported that day. One is the smaller human rights and democracy front being formed by Mustafa Moin, a former higher-education minister.

Some reformers say shared ideas or concerns can help forge a front: Hadi Khamenei, a leftist cleric and brother of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told ISNA on 3 October that there were "dozens or hundreds of issues" to unite reformers. Hussein Rafii, a religious liberal, told ILNA on 10 October that reformers should promote "progressive Islam" and together confront bigotry. Concern over the return of retrograde religious ideas could certainly bring reformers together, former Interior Minister Abdulvahed Musavi-Lari told ISNA on 14 October. Conservative journalist Amir Mohebbian told Fars News Agency on 25 October that reformers seem agreed on one point: not to criticize the government for now. That, he said, is because "some" reformist "planners" believe it "was born on a downward slope" and is heading for failure. Reformers believe they should "keep quiet and allow the government to move toward its fall" without allowing it to blame them for failures, he said.

...And Diverse At That

Mostly, reformers admit they are divided. They constitute a diverse group, from political-center pragmatists to "radicals" -- members of the Participation Front, "national-religious" activists or liberals -- who advocate civil rights and freedoms more vigorously. In between, leftist parties espouse gradual democratization within the existing polity. Mohammad Reza Khabbaz of the leftist Solidarity Party told Fars on 10 October that while reformers have "common interests," if "certain radical and extremist...groups insist on their demands, effectively there will be no coalition." Legislator Bijan Shahbazkhani told ISNA on 14 October that radicalism and "criticisms beyond the...the constitution," had led Iranians to perceive all reformers as against "values" and the supreme leader's office. He said this was a cause of the presidential defeat in June. Similar attacks have led liberal Ezzatollah Sahabi to ask why traditionalist parties like the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin exclude liberals from the revolutionary "family," ILNA reported on 11 October. "I do not know why people oppose us," he said; "they should explain [it] to the public." The state barely tolerates liberals like Sahabi, while many reformers keep them at arm's length.

The political left is also divided, with former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi complaining of treachery in the June elections by ostensible allies. An unspecified group paid lip service to reformist unity, he told ISNA on 17 October, but had an "unwritten agreement" with an unnamed "former rival" and candidate, perhaps Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and "were busy with formal and informal [campaign] activities" for him. He said he believes reformers have rarely been united. "Was it because of a consensus that we presented four candidates in the...elections?" he asked on 21 October. "A little attention will show you there was never a consensus, [or] you would not have had one group boycotting the elections and another" not, he told ISNA.

No Public Face

Mohsen Armin of the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin told ILNA on 9 October that the reformist front is "extensive and diverse," and "one cannot expect to include all these groups under the same umbrella." A front, he said, needs a charismatic figurehead, currently absent. Karrubi told ISNA on 17 October a front needs a "common idea and program." On 11 October he said "reformers have differing ideas, preferences and...sometimes fundamental differences [that could not] be resolved with meetings, suppers and statements," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 12 October. On 25 October, he said until "differences are resolved, a consensus is not possible," ISNA reported.

Former parliamentarian Bahaeddin Adab said he believes this is the "realistic" view, and reformers cannot unite around "reformism" because "everyone has a different reading and definition of reformism," Fars reported on 7 November. He said he sees the formation of several groups: Moin's front, Karrubi supporters, a "moderation" front, and another "pursuing structural reforms," and "on the basis of these should not...expect a consensus," he said.

To these divisions, add perceptions of failure: Ibrahim Asgharzadeh told ISNA on 15 October that reformers suffer from "an excessive weakness" and have "somewhat lost their social support base." Mohsen Armin said on 9 October that reformers failed to "institutionalize" civil institutions that would have given reforms independence and momentum.

What should reformers do? Many insist they must examine their failures. Asgharzadeh suggested an "overhaul" of reformist theories on 15 October, but admitted reformers differ on the scope of necessary change. Participation's Muhammad Sa'dai suggested a "think tank" to produce theories, ILNA reported on 11 October. Armin and Karrubi have urged independent party activity, with some collaboration, while Participation's Davud Suleimani urged a written list of "common interests" to work on, ISNA reported on 15 October.

Reformers intermittently say they had a problem conveying their message to Iranians -- hence their defeat, and a recent interest by several parties in party dailies, websites, and satellite broadcasting.

Message Or Messenger?

But this, alongside talk of new theories, might indicate a mistaken conviction: that Iranians voted in the opposition because they did not receive the reformist message. It contradicts another stated reformist view that it was public sentiments and grievances that initiated institutional reforms. How could Iranians not understand a message they already espoused: the need for the rule of law and open government?

The problem might have to do with reformers' capacity to deliver the goods they promise, and essentially, about who really wields power in Iran. READ MORE

Power might be said to be the ability to impose one's will and implement stated goals. Reformers held office, but seemingly not power. They could not impose their will, firstly on an obstructive fifth parliament in the late 1990s, then against an intransigent Guardians Council, the body that can reject legislation as unconstitutional, electoral hopefuls as unfit for office, or election results as illegal -- as it has, repeatedly. Power seemed to elude reformers like a shadow, though they sought it out from one institution to another. This might have frustrated Iranians who then ignored reformist promises and pleas in the June polls. As former legislator Yadullah Islami told ILNA on 7 November: "The reforms that exist in the heart of society see reformers as guilty of not confronting godfather-like actions," presumably by conservatives.

This perception of impotence might for now restore a balancing role to the political center and to forces affiliated with the pragmatist Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a role lost for some years to reformers. Hashemi-Rafsanjani might not be the most popular man in Iran, but he wields some power as the head of a key political arbitrating body. That power could increase: firstly with new supervisory duties Ayatollah Khamenei has deferred to him, and also if he is seen as a bulwark against and alternative to right-wing radicalism.

A belief in Hashemi-Rafsanjani's potential might have led Mehdi Karrubi to meet with his former campaign rival. On 4 November, Karrubi said they had a recent "friendly meeting" in which "we discussed political issues, and...expressed concern over certain matters in the country," ILNA reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani invited him to rejoin the Expediency Council, which Karrubi left after the elections, "but I do not intend to return." Still, he said, one should remain "in continuous contact with...friends."
The problem the reformists face is that many Iranians are now looking for a fundamental change in their government. For the most part the "reformists" still support the rule of the clerics, and thus are still permitted a they seek incremental change role in the government albeit a limited one. But many Iranians have given up on the incrementalist approach. They are looking for a serious alternative. Internal support for the regime is at an all time low.