What are Iran’s Reformists Thinking?

Today’s guest author is Reza H. Akbari (@rezahakbari). Reza is a Middle East researcher in Washington, DC. He received his MA in Middle East Studies from the George Washington University in 2011. His May article, titled “Ahmadinejad’s Last Stand,” was one of the most widely read articles on Al Ajnabee.

Undoubtedly, the disqualification of Hashemi Rafsanjani stacked the deck in favor of the Supreme Leader and the conservative elites by paving the way for the election of a candidate utterly loyal to the regime. Disqualifying Rafsanjani has, once again, confirmed that the regime’s inner circle is shrinking and that power is becoming more centralized than ever ahead of the presidential election on June 14 (and a possible run-off on June 21).

But why was the reformist faction counting on Hashemi Rafsanjani and why are they currently backing Hassan Rouhani? As long time regime insiders they can hardly be labeled as reformists.

The answer is simple. There is no alternative.

Following the 2009 disputed presidential election in Iran, all major reformist factions were ousted from the political scene and hundreds of reform-minded politicians, activists, and journalists were purged from public life. The 2009 reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are still under house arrest at unknown locations.

Significantly debilitated, reformists were left to wonder about their future in a seemingly exclusive regime. Realizing that no major reformist candidate would have a chance of getting through the vetting process carried out by the Guardian Council—the 12-member conservative body in charge of qualifying all election candidates—they viewed Rafsanjani’s decision to run as a blessing.

As one of the founding members of the Islamic Republic, and the current chairman of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani presented the best chance for the opposition factions in Iran. His long resume included influential positions such as the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Speaker of the Parliament, Interior Minister, the de facto commander-in-chief of the military during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). He is also credited for buttressing Ayatollah Khamenei’s ascendency to Supreme Leadership. The possibility of his disqualification by the ruling conservatives seemed slim, making him the only logical option at the time.


Currently, there seems to be major divisions within the reformists about election participation in the Islamic Republic. Reformists led by former president Mohammad Khatami announced on June 10 that they will endorse Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric who is also backed by Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Rouhani is a member of the Assembly of Experts and the Supreme National Security Council. He has inched closer to the reformists, but more than likely he is vying for popular support, and does not have any genuine plans for transforming the system.

Hassan Rouhani (pictured) now has the support of former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani

As a long time member of the country’s Supreme National Security Council and the former chief nuclear negotiator, he has proven loyal to the ruling establishment and has managed to retain his positions even after the 2009 shake-up. More than likely, anyone expecting him to cross the regime’s redlines will be disappointed. But he could help ease Iran’s international isolation by being less confrontational and sensational than his predecessor.

Once again reformists find themselves with no alternatives. Presidential candidate Mohammad Reza Aref, former President Khatami’s Minister of Technology, was the sole reformist candidate who dropped out in favor of Rouhani on June 10. Aref did not have the clout to be a real threat in a race packed with conservative heavyweights.

Nonetheless, a quote from him best explains the position of reformists who favor participation: “Boycotting the election is not a form of protest, it is retreating.”


By voting for Rouhani, reformists hope to create enough breathing room for the country’s diaspora to reignite the same grassroots activism experienced during Khatami’s presidency. The Supreme Leader may set clear limits but Rouhani’s moderate tone and pragmatism are appealing when measured against some other candidates.

Such an opening may allow the reformist faction to revive the activities of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a dominant reformist political group, credited for implementing the reformist agenda during Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005). In June 2009, Mohsen Mirdamadi, Saeed Hajarian and other prominent leaders of the party were arrested and the group was essentially dismantled. Mirdamadi is currently serving the remainder of his six-year sentence in Evin prison.

The release of Mousavi, Karroubi, and other political prisoners such as Mostafa Tajzadeh is another top priority for reformists in favor of participating in the upcoming election. Tajzadeh, a former Political Deputy Minister of Interior, was one of the seven leading reformists who sued several IRGC commanders for their alleged intervention in the 2009 presidential election. By electing a moderate figure such as Rouhani, they hope to reach that goal.


However, the reformists are far from united. In a recent statement published on June 4, the Mujahideen of the Islamic Revolution, a reformist political faction formed in 1991, asked the country’s reformists to boycott the upcoming election and refrain from supporting a candidate.

A statement released by the group said, “The upcoming presidential elections should not be viewed as legitimate” and the results will “more than likely be engineered.” The majority of the reformists who signed the statement live abroad and allegedly represent the point of view of this domestic faction.

Ayatollah Mohmmad Mousavi Khoeiniha, an Iranian cleric and the secretary general of the reformist Association of Combatant Clerics, has also voiced his disapproval of the upcoming election.

“I do not believe in election participation under any circumstances. Participation will only harm the reform movement… Election participation should be dignified. Election participation should be within the framework of improving the goals of the reform movement. We should not allow the current ruling faction…to lead us to a dead end,” Khoeiniha stated.

The reformist group opposing election participation is less clear about its ultimate goals. Given the country’s current intolerant state, they view participation to be superfluous and serving the interests of the ruling conservatives.


Iranian reformists are not naïve. Even Khatami indicated his doubt about the undemocratic nature of the election in prior months. “Even if we [reformists] are qualified, we will not have the right to get any more votes than what they [ruling conservatives] have already decided,” Khatami stated in a speech to university students in Tehran on May 9.

So, the problem for the reformist opposition is not their lack of understanding of the domestic political dynamics or being blindly optimistic about the future. The issue is their inability to reach a consensus about the regime’s ability to reform.

The regime has repeatedly cracked down on any meaningful reforms. Amid the height of the reformist era in the 1990s, popular student protests were crushed, prominent reformists were jailed and threatened, hundreds of reformist parliamentary members were banned from reelection in 2004, and hundreds of other reform-minded activists were jailed and threatened in 2009.

The current goal is to get Rouhani elected in order to create space for the reformists. But what if he is not the winner?

This is an uncomfortable impasse for reformists. If reforms are no longer possible, then what is the alternative? The Iranian opposition — and perhaps the greater public — is not ready to answer that question yet.


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