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Iran: Reformists Say That Right Destined To Split

  • Vahid Sepehri --> Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf (in file photo) is regarded by some as part of a "new fundamentalist current" (Fars) January 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's conservatives regularly maintain that they are united in the broad principles they espouse; just as regularly, reformists argue that there is a persistent division on the right. Could the right-wing electoral defeat in December divide conservatives once and for all?

Iranian conservatives frequently rally around principles that include the "fundamental" values of Iran's polity, its Islamic credentials, and the paramount position of the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is among the reasons they rarely refer to themselves as "conservatives," but rather "fundamentalists" or sometimes "principled" or "value-oriented" (arzesh-gara) politicians -- to highlight their concern for certain principles, not just power.

Reformists contend that there is a persistent division between more radical right-wing forces associated with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his allies, on one hand, and pragmatists or traditionalists associated with senior clerics like Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, on the other. Signs of that division include the failure to field a joint presidential candidate in 2005, and more recently, the existence of two conservative lists in the December 15 municipal elections.

Reformists say that municipal voting and balloting for the influential Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that oversees the supreme leader's office, marked a repudiation of government radicalism and support for moderation.

Azar Mansuri, a deputy head of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, was quoted by ISNA on January 6 saying that "moderate conservatives clarified their divide with radical conservatives." She added that a "third current" of pragmatic conservatism is taking shape, and said recent elections allowed them to "clarify their frameworks". Mansuri said that when the Ahmadinejad government came to power in 2005, "this divide in the fundamentalist faction became clearer [with] every day." She predicted that the rift would "continue in the future" if some "singular" conduct by radicals persisted -- the latter a presumed reference to presidential tirades and confrontational discourse, as well as a purported bid by radicals to take control of all state institutions.

Mohammad Salamati -- the secretary-general of the left-leaning, reformist Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization -- said according to ISNA just a few days later that such a "third current" exists and began to take shape around the 2005 presidential election.

Three Or More...

Commentators tend to leave references to such a "current" general, rather than identify its personalities or boundaries.

But Salamati speculated that the "third current" would have to form its own political party -- thus formalizing divisions within the conservative camp. "Contradictions" in the conservative camp are "essential," he said, "and cannot be resolved easily." Salamati went on to claim that "the faction known as 'fundamentalist' is not united...and [that] there are at least three political groups in that current" with each "going its own way" with its own "material and organizational interests."

Right-wing journalist Masud Dehnamaki warned in statements quoted by ISNA on January 9 that four broad "currents" could emerge if the political right fails to unite. He described them as a reformist front; traditionalist conservatives; what he called a "new fundamentalist current" associated with Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and the secretary of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezai; and, finally, supporters of President Ahmadinejad and his government. He predicted Ahmadinejad supporters would suffer if they moved away from the conservative mainstream.

Conservatives tried a unified approach in their bid to nominate a single presidential candidate in 2005 -- bringing elders together to find a consensual candidate. That effort failed amid a flurry of reports on the existence, nonexistence, or dissolution of various formal and informal councils of "fundamentalist" elders.

New Election Pressure

The situation could repeat itself as conservatives face the next set of parliamentary elections. A supporter of one of the more successful lists in the recent municipal elections, Mujtaba Shakeri, a supporter of the Great Coalition of Fundamentalists (Etelaf-i bozorg-i Osulgarayan), has suggested that a conservative list for the parliamentary elections be formed around that of his group. Predictably, another prominent conservative, Mariam Behruzi, was quoted by ILNA on January 8 as cautioning that negotiations on that topic would have to include all members of a key coalition of more traditional conservatives: the Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. Behruzi added that she knew nothing of any "group called Fundamentalist Trustees" (Motamedin-i Osulgara) seemingly trying to unite conservatives.

Mohammad Hashemi, the brother of ex-President Hashemi-Rafsanjani and a member of the centrist Executives of Construction, muddied the waters further. ISNA reported on January 8 that he conceded that there are conservative divisions but added that such differences are so abundant that political life is now characterized by the proliferation of groups -- reformist and conservative -- that must inevitably form electoral coalitions. Hashemi warned that voters are no longer paying attention to factions or groups but instead are voting for familiar personalities. He said it is unclear whether conservative divisions are "fundamental" or "strategic."

A newly elected member of parliament for Tehran, Hasan Ghafurifard, claimed that several groups -- supporters of Tehran Mayor Qalibaf, the Front of the Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership, and government supporters -- are broadly "convergent" but merely disagree on "specifics," ISNA reported on January 6. Ghafurifard warned against overstating those differences. He went on to argue that phrases like "traditionalist right," "leftist," and "traditionalist" are "Western labels" that are "not in keeping with the realities" of Iranian politics. He said the labels "fundamentalist and reformist" are simply "the...most suitable names these factions have chosen for themselves."

Greater Malaise

Divisions within the conservative tent may be due to a larger malaise over how conservatives can reconcile their vision of Iran with what Iranian voters want. Reformers sometimes argue that the electorate has changed since the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. The effort to attract voter support might have contributed to a conservative split: Some conservatives appear to seek the legitimacy that votes confer, and might regard radicalism and revolutionary rhetoric as deterring voters. Reformers claim that one of their ploys is to hide behind appealing titles that blur their conservative identity -- such as "Developers" in the last parliamentary elections, and more recently the Sweet Scent of Service, the list associated with Ahmadinejad.

"Fundamentalism, as the supreme leader has explained in this respect, has specific definitions."

Publicly, there is unity -- as stated by Mohammad Nabi Habibi's Islamic Coalition Society, which is a member of the Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. On January 3, according to ISNA, Habibi denied that younger "fundamentalists" and "the traditionalist right" are divided. He said that "fundamentalism, as the Supreme Leader has explained in this respect, has specific definitions," and went on to claim that he does not know a single "person or formation that wishes to act outside that framework."

The daily "Etemad-i Melli" on January 11 called Habibi's Islamic Coalition the "backbone" of the traditionalist Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. And the paper noted that the Front of Followers did not support the pro-Ahmadinejad list in December's elections. It speculated that the recent announcement of unspecified changes in tactics by the party might even herald the party moving away from the government.
The Structure Of Iran's Government

INSIDE THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic governed under a 1979 constitution that was revised in 1989, when presidential powers were expanded and the prime minister's post was abolished.
Appointed -- not elected -- offices and bodies hold the real power in the government. The supreme leader, who serves as a chief of state would, is appointed for life by an Islamic religious advisory board that is called the Assembly of Experts. The supreme leader oversees the military as well as the judiciary and appoints members of the Guardians Council and the Expediency Council.
The Guardians Council -- some of whose members are appointed by the judiciary and approved by the parliament -- works closely with the government and must approve political candidates and legislation passed by the parliament. The Expediency Council is responsible for resolving legislative disputes that may arise between parliament and the Guardians Council over legislation.
The president, who is popularly elected for a four-year term, serves as the head of government. The legislative branch is made up of a 290-seat body called the Majlis, whose members are elected by popular vote for four-year terms...(more)


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