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Iran: Political System Undergoes Major Changes

  • Bill Samii --> It was apparent even before Iran's presidential election in June that the country's party system was undergoing changes. Disputes among the reformist and centrist parties reflected disagreements over how extensively they would operate within the political system, the proper response to the disqualification of reformist parliamentary and presidential candidates, and the reaction to widespread and ultimately decisive fraud in the presidential election. Rifts in the hard-line parties had as much to do with generational discord as they did with ideological and strategic disputes. Such discord continues to roil Iranian politics, and international observers are better served by focusing on these developments and their long-term impact than on futile arguments over how to persuade Iran to discontinue its nuclear activities.

The Militant Clerics Association
Hojatoleslam Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha agreed on 28 August to be secretary-general of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), Radio Farda reported. The left-leaning clerical party was created in 1988 when a number of prominent political figures split from the older and more conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran). In early August, the association elected former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami as its secretary-general, but he turned down the post, citing time constraints.

Musavi-Khoeniha has served as the state prosecutor-general and headed the now banned "Salam" newspaper. The Special Court for the Clergy found Musavi-Khoeniha guilty of spreading fabrications, disturbing public opinion, and publishing classified documents, and in August 1999 it sentenced him to 3 1/2 years in prison and a flogging. Due to his revolutionary credentials, the sentence was suspended and instead he was fined; he also was banned from publishing activities for three years and "Salam" was banned for five years (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 2 and 9 August 1999). Radio Farda noted that Musavi-Khoeniha was associated with the occupiers of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent hostage crisis, and it noted rumors of his communist tendencies.

The National Trust Party
Militant Clerics Association Secretary-General Musavi-Khoeniha succeeded Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, who resigned after the June presidential election and who has since created his own political party. The Militant Clerics Association tried to persuade Karrubi to stay on as its leader. Not only did he refuse to continue in this role, but he left the association completely. Karrubi acknowledged his anger with association members who did not back his candidacy in the election ("Sharq," 26 July 2005). Although the association backed him formally, only a few members backed him in practice. Indeed, Musavi-Khoeniha reportedly implied that Karrubi should resign in favor of another reformist candidate, Mustafa Moin. Yet another prominent member, Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, reportedly backed Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy.

Karrubi announced his plan for a new party just days after his loss in the first round of the presidential election. "Strong, powerful, inclusive parties must be formed to supervise institutions," he said ("Aftab-i Yazd," 23 June 2005). He would create a party for those who believe in an Islamic republic in which one does not act on behalf of the people, and he stressed inclusiveness. Asked about the future of the Militant Clerics Association, Karrubi said some of its members were coming with him. Karrubi said his new party wants to defend people's rights and supervise the government (ISNA, 5 July 2005). He said it is no longer enough for him to work in an exclusively clerical body.

Karrubi subsequently named his new organization the National Trust Party (Hezb-i Etemad-i Melli), and it received a permit on 13 August. Some of its more prominent founders are former parliamentarians Javad Etaat, Elias Hazrati, Hojatoleslam Rasul Montajabnia, Abdul Hussein Moqtadai, Seyyed Reza Noruz-zadeh, and Abdolreza Sepahvand, as well as current legislators Javad Amini and Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam (ISNA, 4 July 2005).

Contrasting the new party to other ones, Hazrati said the country's parties are elite institutions (ISNA, 6 July 2005). The new one, he continued, will consider the elites but it will also be "popular and broad-based and nationwide and it will have cells -- even in villages, hamlets, towns, and various districts and for interested social groups."

Karrubi in late-August speeches and interviews discussed reformist politics and his hopes for the future. Karrubi expressed great optimism about parties' potentials and downplayed the reformists' disagreements. He added that although the National Trust Party does not have any major problems with the other reformist entities, it is important to make distinctions. He said he expects his new party to have a profound influence on Iranian politics and its main objective is to form the next government after President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's term ends. ("Iran," 9 August 2005; Mehr News Agency, 29 August 2005; "Sharq," 30 August 2005).

The Participation Front
Said Hajjarian, a prominent reformist ideologue, has said that the Islamic Iran Participation Front is going to select a new leader, and this will be a new beginning ("Sharq," 27 July 2005; "Farhang-i Ashti," 30 August 2005).

Hajjarian stressed that the reform movement will continue through the inclusion of a variety of groups, including national-religious activists, in a broad front. What the front needs, he said, is a new leader. A hard-line daily suggested the new leader would be Moin ("Siyasat-i Ruz," 30 August 2005).

The Moderation Front And The Executives Of Construction Party
Shortly after his defeat in the second round of the presidential election, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani met with his backers and associates and said an Islamic culture is what is best for the country, and that Islam rejects extremes ("Farhang-i Ashti," 28 June 2005). "The formation of the Islamic Moderation Front [Jebhe-yi Ettedal] is a necessity, and it would be better for some of our colleagues to become the forerunner and compile an instrument of association similar to that of the Islamic Republic Party [which existed from 1979-1987]," he said. Hashemi-Rafsanjani advised against haste in forming the front.

Although Hashemi-Rafsanjani called for creation of the Moderation Front, his own relationship with it is far from obvious. A member of the Tehran Militant Clergy Association, he also is seen as the center-piece of the center-right Executives of Construction Party. Indeed, Executives of Construction central council members Mohammad Atrianfar and Hedayat Aqai said Hashemi-Rafsanjani does not plan to create the Moderation Front, rather, he is willing to back such an entity if and when it is created (ISNA, 15 July 2005; "Farhang-i Ashti," 25 July 2005).

At first glance it would seem that there is little support for such a front, especially if Hashemi-Rafsanjani is connected with it. However, even if he did lose the presidential election he still garnered 10,046,701 votes on 24 June, compared to 6,159,453 votes the previous week. In the few days between rounds, in other words, the former president secured the support of conservatives, reformists, intellectuals, and clerics who did not back him previously. An editorial in a reformist daily referred to this gain in votes as "an astonishing display of national convergence among scattered assets who only common point was 'Iran and Islam,' in the general sense, uninhibited by ideological interpretations" ("Sharq," 24 July 2005).

The future of the Executives of Construction is unclear, too. Atrianfar said its leadership will remain unchanged, but it must refocus its efforts and devise a platform that reflects public concerns ("Iran," 6 August 2005). Turning to parties in general, he said that after the election they have lost their vitality and need to renew their activities.

An outside report, on the other hand, said the Executives of Construction Party is in crisis ("Siyasat-i Ruz," 10 August 2005). In an effort to reshape itself it is expelling some of its old members.

Pointless Parties?
Article 26 of the Islamic Republic of Iran's 1979 constitution permits the formation of parties. A parties law went into effect in 1981, and there now are more than 100 of them. Yet, parties in the sense of entities with mass membership have yet to take hold in Iran, and some Iranian observers, therefore, remain critical of them. A commentary in a reformist daily warned that the creation of new alignments and coalitions -- and it cited Karrubi and Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- always follows elections ("Farhang-i Ashti," 30 June 2005). The conservative commentator Amir Mohebbian said the presidential election showed that the public does not have confidence in parties or prominent individuals, regardless of their ideological inclinations ("Etemad" and "Farhang-i Ashti," 21 July 2005).

The popular and dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri criticized the party process in a 2 July statement about the presidential election that was available on the Internet ( "Unfortunately, in our country the matter of strong or powerful political parties has not been established," Montazeri said. "Some spontaneous and transient parties are set up, which after a while become ineffectual." He contrasted this situation with "progressive countries around the world," where candidates are chosen from "established powerful and popular political parties comprising society's elite and intellectuals, for whom the people cast their votes once they have learned about those candidates' competencies."

Party development is important in mass mobilization and in the formulation and expression of political objectives. This is translated into results during elections. But in the Iranian case, the importance of elections remains questionable due to the interference of unelected institutions like the Guardians Council in the polling process. After new officials take office, furthermore, their efforts can be blocked by individuals who are unaccountable. Nevertheless, this is an area that is flexible. Iran is steadfast on its nuclear ambitions, however, and has shown that it will not be swayed.