How and Why the Reformers Lost Hope

How and Why the Reformers Lost Hope
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The established order's security policies and the economic situation have made Iran fragile internally, despite its capabilities with drones, ballistic missiles, and nuclear power.
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Researcher Oral Toğa

The reformists are entering the March 1st elections amidst significant disillusionment and ensuing debates. The Reformist Front announced that it would not have candidates in many provinces and would not support any list. In contrast, moderate reformists argued for participation in the elections, contending that calls for boycotts were harmful, thereby sharply opposing the stance of the Reformist Front. The media outlets of the moderates targeted the Reformist Front and its members with a series of publications. The conservative faction, seizing this as an opportunity, made broadcasts and conducted interviews that fueled the debates.

From the outset, the reformists' primary concern was the fear of being sidelined through electoral engineering, as had happened in previous elections. Indeed, this fear materialized. However, the essence of the Guardian Council's existence is to engage in some form of engineering during elections. That is, the Guardian Council makes decisions and selects candidates based on a certain ideology and political direction in every election. Hence, electoral engineering is not a novel issue in Iran. Previously, this system filtered out figures like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who were more outspoken and at odds with the system, but this time it targeted the reformists. Realizing this situation clearly, the reformists had been meeting since last year to decide on their course of action. While some believed that selecting "reliable and clean candidates" could overcome the vetoes of the Guardian Council, others were convinced that these vetoes could not be bypassed under any circumstances.

During this period, former President Hassan Rouhani emerged as one of the most encouraging voices within the reformist camp. In a meeting with various reformist figures in September 2023, he said, "We learned about partisanship from Martyr Beheshti. He emphasized the importance of forming parties at the outset of the Revolution and succeeded in establishing the Islamic Republic Party, which was very effective. We must continue on this path. After the 2020 and 2021 elections, there is a sense of despair and disillusionment. It seems many people have withdrawn and succumbed to despair. In these conditions, parties have an even more important role." However, Rouhani's veto by the Guardian Council was a low point, signaling that nothing would change for the reformists. After the vetoes of Rouhani and many reformist figures for their candidacies in both the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Assembly of Experts, the picture and attitude became clear, leading to increasingly loud calls for a boycott.

Ali Motahari set himself apart by securing the support of four different parties and created a list named "Voice of the Nation." The Executives of Construction Party, Voice of Iranians, Moderation and Development Party, and the National Trust Party supported Motahari on this list. The list included individuals from various professional groups as well as a significant number of young people. Motahari maintained a "non-aligned" and "independent" stance, carefully not deviating from a moderate line. During the list's presentation, he emphasized the critical nature of the elections, stating that this election would send a message both to Iran and the world. In his speech, Motahari also touched upon the issue of the hijab, indicating that it was not the country's primary concern, thereby subtly critiquing the established order.

Motahari summarized his thoughts as follows: "The solution lies in avoiding slogans, voting for moderate and rational individuals, and gradually creating openness in the Assembly to foster an environment of change and reform. If a moderate minority forms in the Assembly, it could lay the groundwork for the establishment of a moderate and effective government. The people do not seek a fundamental change in the system, only structural reforms." These words clearly delineate the divide among the reformists. For a group that has emerged alongside the Reformist Front, elections are deemed pointless, far removed from the will of the people. In essence, entering an election in what has become a "play your own game" scenario is considered meaningless, as such a structure is not acknowledged anywhere. The Reformist Front initially pursued a "return" to this process. In May 2023, a 15-member group convened to select the leadership of the Reformist Front, renewing hopes for a political turnaround. The meeting was even timed to coincide with the anniversary of Muhammad Khatami's election victory in 1997, a significant moment for the reformists. However, today, they have completely lost hope. In contrast, moderates argue that leaving the system is not a solution. They believe that maintaining a presence, albeit a minority one, within the system is more prudent. Figures like Motahari represent this mindset.

How did it come to this?

The reformists once identified themselves with "progressivism" in the country. Today, they are struggling to exist within the system. This situation tells an interesting story about the journey of the reformist camp, especially considering the past 25+ years since Khatami's victory. Analyzing this issue solely within the context of Iranian domestic politics would be insufficient. When Khatami came to power, the world was unipolar, and the United States had not yet made a significant presence in Afghanistan or Iraq. Internet access was not widespread, and mobile phones were a recent invention. Today, everyone carries computers and the internet in their pockets. The transformative power of information is intensely felt in Iran, as it is everywhere else. In the current multipolar world order, Iran seeks to strengthen its position by capitalizing on the changing geopolitical landscape. The established order attempts to resist the impact of information on the masses while trying to take advantage of regional and global developments. Both issues are security-related, leading Iran to view both global events and its domestic politics through a security-focused lens. The concept of the "Security-Freedom Dilemma" regards words like "reform," "dialogue," "agreement," "change" as opening doors to direct threats.

The disillusionment created by Ahmadinejad's era and the social unrest following his reelection in 2009 saw Rouhani's government as a "return" for the reformists. Diplomatic initiatives and the signing of the Nuclear Deal kept these hopes alive. Indeed, this was reflected in the 2017 Presidential Elections, where Rouhani was reelected with approximately 24 million votes (57.14%) and a 73% turnout. However, things took a turn for the worse for Iran after 2017. The death of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was a devastating blow for the reformists. The return of sanctions following Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Nuclear Deal, the economic downturn, inflation, protests, the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, and the coronavirus pandemic saw the established order taking control and sidelining the reformists.

The political maneuvers led by the Revolutionary Guards ensured that the 2020 and 2021 elections were engineered without any mishaps, transitioning the Parliament and the Presidency into a "revolutionary" structure. However, the events following 2018, culminating in the Mahsa Amini protests, have significantly diminished public interest in politics. The political crisis in Iran is on a different level than the exclusion of reformists from the political scene. The vetoes deepen this rift. The established order's security policies and the economic situation have made Iran fragile internally, despite its capabilities with drones, ballistic missiles, and nuclear power.