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Iran's Presidential Election: How Should Reformers Participate?

Opinion Article by Malihe Mohammadi
Source: Rooz Online


Two Way
cartoon by Mana Neyestani

The Green Movement in Iran could not have taken shape without the spread of the larger reform ideas and movement in the country. On the other hand it was the conditions in Iran that fostered the reform and consequently the Green Movement. When I speak of reformers and reformism I essentially mean the Green Movement centered on Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi. And when I speak of reformers participating in the June elections, I mean a presence accepted by these two leaders and Mohammad Khatami’s supporters.

Today the biggest challenge in Iran’s political terrain is whether reformers will participate in the upcoming elections or not, and if they do, what form will this involvement take. This is not of importance just to the movement per se but also to all political groups inside and outside the country and even to the regime as a whole.

Till now, the question of reformers’ participation has focused on whether Khatami will gain the support of the reform leaders who are under house arrest or not. This is so because the participation of other personalities who have some connections to the reformers is not an issue with the principlists - the conservative ruling group who claim adherence to the principles of the 1979 revolution.

But while reformers supporting Khatami and the leaders of the Green Movement seem to have accepted the principle of “participation” in the elections, probably the same number of reformers have not yet agreed on how and at what level should this participation be. At the same time, it is likely that groups inside the regime too have not reached a definitive position on whether to allow reformers to run or not, even though ayatollah Khamenei recently announced that he supported the participation of all political leanings, thus creating a cautious opening on the issue.

Should this cautious direction turn into the supreme leader’s determination and will, then hardline and moderate principlist elements will be forced to obey the opening. The extremist ruling factions will have to abandon their notions that they can exclude their most important critics at a time when powerful forces of reform are blowing in the region, despite the imprisonment of reform leaders and the corrupt games and material payoffs in Iran.

So if reformists have generally agreed to participate in the elections and some elements inside the ruling circles have accepted their inclusion as well, then two assumptions must be seriously considered: The first, conditions for reformist participation are in place, and the second, the ruling establishment is not yet certain about allowing reformers to run.

Regarding the first, if conditions for reformers’ participation have been opened, then the two major views inside the reform movement cannot be overlooked. The first group expects reformers, i.e., Khatami, to use the presidential campaign period to launch a social movement and zeal because it believes that even if Khatami wins the elections he will not succeed in advancing the reform agenda. Their argument is based on Khatami’s record and the lack of his authority because the supreme leader holds all the cards in Iran’s political system.

The second group believes that reformers should take the administration of the country into their hands to push Ahmadinejad and hardline principlists out.

So while the first group questions the value of repeating what took place during Khatami’s 2 presidential terms, my question to them is do they not see the dangers the country is facing today? They look at Khatami’s 8 years with concern while during that period the economy of Iran grew even though it had just come out of the 8-year war with Iraq and unlike today when despite much larger revenues economic growth stands at zero. They question a period when despite all the hardships and arrests, it was still the freest in contemporary Iran and as attested by statistics a large number of youth entered the field of journalism and media, again the opposite of the prevalent conditions of today when journalists fled the country. Khatami’s period which is under question was also the time when NGOs grew in number and contribution, and when Iran enjoyed a more respectable image beyond its borders.

These facts are not unknown to reformers, so why are they afraid of returning to that period? I believe it is because they dream of a transformed Khatami who will be much more aggressive in advancing the reform agenda without realizing that nowhere in the world can one expect such an official candidate to rise. These reformers are not looking for a realistic candidate to improve the actual conditions of the country. They are looking for a messiah to lead the social movement. Such dreams are far from the step-by-step reform approach of the movement. Instead of drawing up and accepting gradual improvements in the various spheres of life in Iran, this faction strives for the impossible, and will be tasting nothing but defeat.

The second group that wants political power at any cost, I believe is unrealistic in the power it ascribes or wants to ascribe to Khatami or reformers in general. The problem with this group is that their unrealistic expectations during Khatami’s 8 years brought forth wrong lessons and eventually Ahmadinejad into the presidency.

The reality is that even if reformists attain executive leadership, they will probably have the same constrains they experienced during the reform period. But their positions and policies could actually create even greater constrains, making the group even less influential. For example if Khatami changes his posture and abandons his calls for the release of reform prisoners, including Mousavi and Karoubi because of pressure and wins the election without losing much support, he would still emerge as a much weaker president than some moderate principlists such as Aref, Najafi, or Qalibaf who would be able to make some improvements in the sphere of individual and political rights because they would not face the same degree of pressure from the public or the ruling principlists.

But the third option that does exist for reformers is to participate in the election, even if the chances of being rejected are high. Because of the high price they have already paid through the Green Movement, they cannot and should not pass by the new opportunity that is laid in front of them in the form of the June elections and the campaign atmosphere leading up to it. This is a unique opportunity to be used to engage with people and the public and present their views, goals and ideas. So agreeing on a single candidate with the support of Khatami, Mousavi and Karoubi is the only logical direction to take. One should not expect Khatami to have Mousavi and Karoubi’s courage, and even if he did, his outcome may be similar to theirs, which is not desirable under current circumstances.

I believe the most rational approach is to accept Khatami as the reformist candidate, or someone who is expressly supported by him while at the same time enjoys the blessing of Mousavi and Karoubi. This is the real moderate direction to take; away from the extremism of the left and the right, which threatens not just Iran but also countries in the region and other parts of the world.

But what if reformers are not allowed to run? Undoubtedly they would protest and pursue their demands through political activism. In that case they will not be the losers in the election but will pursue their battles as a serious and consistent political force for the next Majlis elections and the presidential elections in the future. This is the inevitable course under any despotic and oppressive regime. And it is what Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did. And eventually overcame.

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