Thursday, August 26, 2004

Iran's defeated reformists are divided over what to do next

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - Iran's defeated reformists are divided over what to do next: "Iran's defeated reformists are divided over what to do next

By Majid Mohammadi
Special to The Daily Star
Saturday, August 21, 2004

Iran's reformers are in crisis. The organizational framework for the reformist movement, the Second of Khordad Front, is considered by many Iranians to be passive, ideologically divided, and far too accommodating to the Islamic Republic's authoritarian establishment. The front has decreased its public demonstrations and its platform for an Islamic democratic state is purposefully vague. With its declining fate may disappear the last chance for nonviolent reform from within Iran.

Iran's reformists have four strategies open to them. The first is to join the overseas opposition, which believes the Islamic regime cannot be reformed and must to be overthrown. In the opposition's view, the only constitutional difference between the monarchy and the clerical regime is the nonhereditary aspect of the latter's rule, while other characteristics, such as being above the law, endure. The present regime violates human rights, denies sovereignty to the people as well as freedom of speech, expression and conscience.

Supporters of this strategy observe that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, began as a weak leader politically and temperamentally, and ended up combining Islamic guardianship with personal rule. In a regime where powerful, nonelected political and religious institutions have always had the upper say, there is little margin for elected bodies. The bad experience of Iran's sixth Majlis and the weakened presidency of Mohammed Khatami confirm this impasse.

The religious establishment has behaved like a political caste and imposed a strict code of public conduct. Now that the unpredictability of the political process is over and the hard-liners in the regime have reimposed themselves, the reform movement has nothing to offer. That leaves no choice but to get rid of the authoritarian regime. However, on the downside, adherents to this strategy have not provided a nonviolent plan for implementing it.

The second strategy involves returning to civil society and organizing and mobilizing the disenfranchised. This idea derives from criticism blaming the reformists' organizational shortcomings for their passivity toward the brutal actions of the regime. People who propose this approach argue that the reformist movement had no clear strategy in its various incarnations.

There are discouraging features in this scenario. The Iranian public has not shown much interest in participating in civil associations to organize its interests and build institutions. The government can stop any group from forming by not issuing it a license, and can ban any group by resorting to the judiciary. The public has repeatedly asked the state to give society some leeway, to no avail. Civil society institutions cannot articulate, negotiate, implement or enforce their claims. In contrast, the establishment of about 25,000 NGOs during the reformist period suggests this pessimism may be overstated.

A third strategy is for the reformists to repeat what happened between 1997-2003 and accept limited power. The argument in favor of this is that participation in the system would diminish the cultural and social damage of the clerical regime's authoritarian policies. However there are counterarguments. The reformists have no influence over the hard-liners, and the people who voted for Khatami in 1997 will not again accept an insider who makes positive gestures internationally, but fails to fulfill expectations domestically. Even prominent groups inside the Second of Khordad Front are suspicious of this kind of political action.

Finally, the fourth strategy is to prepare for a "velvet revolution," like what happened in Georgia or Czechoslovakia. This requires that reformers be active in civil society institutions and prepared to take over power when the authoritarian regime collapses. This strategy does not require holding positions of power, campaigning during the elections or joining the opposition; it only requires creating a network of reformers, organizing the disenfranchised, having a voice in public and being a minority in Parliament. The forces seeking to take over power in this way must keep their distance from the government and its corruption in order to gain the trust of the majority.

How do the reformist strands respond to each of these strategies? The student movement tends to favor returning to civil society. Reformists in the government lean toward accepting limited power. The silent majority favors a velvet revolution. And only a small group of reformers believes in joining the opposition, though most are aware of the impasse in reform and the autocratic nature of the Islamic regime and its constitution.

Time no longer favors reform-minded Iranians. The authoritarian camp has been able to obstruct reformist legislation, close more than 100 independent newspapers and magazines and repress political activists; it has the resources to halt the drive toward transparent and accountable government, without a popular mandate. It has also successfully broken the coalition of students, women and intellectuals that allowed the reformists to win executive and legislative powers in 1997, 2000 and 2001. The fact that different strategies exist is itself a sign of the growing separation between reformist groups. The window of opportunity for reform in Iran is indeed closing.

Majid Mohammadi, an independent writer based in New York, has authored books and articles on Iran and Islam ( He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR"


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