By Thomas Erdbrink
Feb. 21, 2016
They clapped and cheered, and many shouted for the release of their political leaders under house arrest for the past five years. Some held up pictures of a popular former president, Mohammad Khatami. Pictures of his hands, to be exact, because displaying his portrait is illegal.
The young supporters of Iran’s reformist movement gathered behind the safe walls of a sports hall last week to campaign for elections on Friday for Parliament and an influential clerical council. Their longstanding demand has been tangible change, but the forced absence of most of their political leaders illustrated how far they were from their goal of a new and modern Iran.
A decade of relentless pressure from the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards and clerical councils dominated by hard-liners has confined Iran’s reformists. The reformists were a force during the presidential contest of 2009, but the movement was decapitated after its political leaders voiced support for the millions of people who took to the streets to challenge the fairness of the vote. Reformist parties were closed down, and hundreds of activists, politicians and journalists were given long jail sentences.
The election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 raised the hopes of the reform movement, and Iran negotiated a nuclear deal with the West and rejoined the world economy. But internally, virtually nothing changed. The political space remained constrained, and the hope that reformers would re-emerge as a guiding force has not come to fruition.
As the reformers again try to stage a comeback, their agenda, once a sweeping manifesto for change in the Islamic republic, has been narrowed to simply calling for a high turnout in the coming vote.
During the campaign rally, the new leader of the reformists, Mohammad Reza Aref, seemed most concerned with reassuring hard-liners who accuse his movement of opposing the legacy of the 1979 revolution. “We act within the system,” Mr. Aref said in front of thousands of supporters. “Nobody loves the revolution more than us. Like a mother, we feel concern for it and want to preserve it.”
For the elections, thousands of reformist candidates were barred from participating by the Guardian Council, a 12-member vetting body that is dominated by hard-liners. As a result, the remaining reformists have joined forces with supporters of Mr. Rouhani’s self-styled moderate government.
In the other election, for the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member council that in theory will choose the next supreme leader, the reformists are also supporting alternative candidates. Their main figure, Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the leader of the 1979 revolution, was also barred from participating.
Despite the obstacles, the reformists still want Iranians to vote. “Our main goal is to have a minimum of hard-liners, both in the assembly and in the Parliament,” said Hamidreza Jaleipour, an advocate for the movement. “Nothing more. We are just being realistic.”
In the early 2000s, the reformists openly sought to alter the Islamic republic’s rigid ideology, and rewrite laws in order to decrease gender inequality and promote personal freedoms. The leader, Mr. Khatami, served two terms as president, and for four years the reformists dominated Parliament. Backed by record numbers of voters, they seemed set to herald a new, more modern era for Iran. Instead, the period was dominated by political infighting, student protests, sit-ins in Parliament and the closure of dozens of reformist newspapers.
However, Iran’s young society has changed at a lightning pace over the past decade, propelled by the rise of the Internet, satellite television, the influx of oil money and cheap foreign travel.
In Tehran and other Iranian cities, long-forbidden Western music can be heard in restaurants, some women drive cars without the obligatory head scarf, and blocked social media sites can be reached with illegal software that is sold openly. But such freedoms are only tolerated, not encapsulated in legislation, as a way of allowing people to blow off steam without officially altering revolutionary Islamic ideology.
Political reforms have been aggressively blocked on all levels by hard-liners who have gained unprecedented power. Much has been done to undermine the reformists.
In recent years, Mr. Khatami has been rendered invisible. Newspapers are not allowed to publish his picture, and politicians, even his supporters, often avoid mentioning his name. Two former presidential candidates, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have spent more than five years under house arrest since becoming the figureheads of postelection protests in 2009.
For those who remained free, the experience hardened their conviction that compromise and adaptation were crucial to the reformists’ political survival. Especially for the coming elections.
“We need to remain on the political stage,” said Ibrahim Asgarzadeh, a reformist leader who was disqualified from participating in the elections. Old slogans and demands have been shelved. “Yes, we now do not loudly advocate freeing those under house arrest, human rights and freedom of speech,” Mr. Asgarzadeh said. “Our goal is to be a part of the establishment, in order to change it from within in the future.”
Others, who are critical of the movement, say its leaders are watering down their ideals to the point where there is nothing left. “Their agenda is minimal, their ambitions have shrunk to the same level,” said Behzad Nourfard, a former activist. “They are aligning themselves with people whom they hope will support them in the future. But who opposed them in the past.”
Iranians often say they get to choose between the bad and the worse in elections. While the reformists might have difficulty promoting their agenda, they are political kingmakers. They can attract millions of potential voters because they are the only viable political option for many urban dwellers. However, these people will vote only if they feel something is at stake. Used to self-censorship, and shy of the dangers of political activism, they tend to turn out in large numbers if they feel it is in their interest.
Fear of hard-line dominance is a major driving force. In 2013, in the final week before the elections, the reformists started supporting Mr. Rouhani, whom they saw as a technocrat, rather than a reformer. Many urbanites feared a hard-liner, Saeed Jalili, might win. Instead of opting for a boycott, the reformists offered support that was a decisive factor in Mr. Rouhani’s victory.
The nuclear deal engineered during his presidency has been a major success for the reformists as well. “But domestically we have not seen much change,” Mr. Asgarzadeh said. When thousands of reformist candidates were disqualified in January, Mr. Rouhani did not intervene on their behalf. “That was disappointing as well,” Mr. Asgarzadeh said.
Nevertheless, for this election, the reformists are again supporting the government, saying that anything is better than the continuation of hard-line dominance in Parliament.
The reformists are even supporting a conservative Member of Parliament, Ali Motahari, who stresses that he is independent and not a reformist. On religious issues such as the mandatory Islamic scarf, Mr. Motahari has emphasized that he is a hard-liner and promoted enforcement. The reform leaders are also supporting Ali Larijani, the current head of the Parliament, for a second term. Mr. Larijani has been repositioning himself toward the political middle, but is a scion of a conservative, powerful family.
Mr. Jaleipour, the reformist advocate, said the compromises were part of reaching political adulthood in a hostile environment. “We have learned from our errors and mistakes,” he said, adding that in the beginning, “we thought Iran could be democratized overnight. That was wishful thinking. We shouldn’t have high expectations. That only brings frustration.”