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In Iran, It’s Modernists Against Traditionalists

Supporters of Mir Hossein Musavi on Freedom Square in Tehran before the June 12 vote.
Supporters of Mir Hossein Musavi on Freedom Square in Tehran before the June 12 vote.
When reformist protesters gathered by the hundreds of thousands in the streets of Tehran on June 15, they offered a stunning sight.

Among their ranks were a former president of the country, Mohammad Khatami; a former prime minister, Mir Hossein Musavi; and a former speaker of parliament, Mehdi Karrubi. The last two were candidates in the June 12 presidential election. And all three – as their former positions suggest – are from the innermost circles of the Islamic republic’s leadership.

The show of high-powered solidarity contrasts sharply with incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s efforts to minimize the unhappiness of the opposition following the presidential election. He compared the reformists earlier, smaller protests to the passions that follow the loss of a football match, suggesting that things would soon blow over.

On June 16, reformists once again took to the streets in large numbers, even after seven people died in Tehran on June 15 in a clash near a police outpost. And the protests are likely to continue in the days ahead and, perhaps, gain new strength. The marchers on June 15 were calm, determined, and overwhelmingly peaceful.

All this is an indication that what is now happening in Iran reflects deep divisions in Iran’s political system. At stake are two competing visions within the establishment of where the Islamic republic goes from here.

Ahmadinejad’s victory – if it stands – risks being a death blow to the reformists’ dreams of a more modern and prosperous Iran that of necessity and choice would be more open to the world.

In effect, a new term for the hard-line president would deliver the reformists a one-two punch that started with his election in 2005.

Increased Efficiency

During that election, Ahmadinejad smashed one wing of the reformist movement -- the technocrats led by moderate conservative and then presidential candidate Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. That wing -- perhaps best known by its largest organizational body, the Servants of Reconstruction and for publishing its own newspapers -- champions modern industrial capitalism within the existing framework of Iran’s theocracy.

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (right) and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
The Rafsanjani campaign called for increased efficiency in the country’s economic development, the entry of experts into parliament, and an end to wasteful state subsidies that keep Iran’s oil-funded economy afloat but stagnant. It was backed by the modern business-oriented middle class and a large number of industrial groups.

But Ahmadinejad neutralized Rafsanjani by playing the populist card. There was no question of attacking his revolutionary credentials – Rafsanjani was a key figure of the Islamic Revolution and president of Iran from 1989 to 1997 – but Ahmadinejad did successfully attack him and his wealthy family as business profiteers.

Where Rafsanjani appeared to promise that a rising economic tide would lift all boats, Ahmadinejad implied the strategy was just a way of duping the poor.

Reformists' Second Wing

In last week’s election, Ahmadinejad sought to knock out the second wing of the reformist movement. That is the wing best embodied for the West by former President Muhammad Khatami and the organization around him, the Islamic Participation Party. It, too, has its own newspapers and its champion today is Musavi, who by official count won just 34 percent of the vote compared to Ahmadinejad’s almost 63 percent.

This second wing of the reformist front includes a wide spectrum of positions loosely described as between Islamic socialism and restricted capitalism. It, too, envisions a more modern economy that is more open to the world but wants to achieve it through strict state control to achieve a more egalitarian society.

Mir Hossein Musavi
In campaigning against Musavi, who was the prime minister of the Islamic republic from 1981 to 1989, Ahmadinejad again cast doubt on the reformists’ motives. And he again dismissed the idea that technocrats are needed to manage and grow the economy, saying instead the challenge is to assure the country’s oil riches are adequately shared with the poor.

In his 2005 and current election campaigns, Ahmadinejad has represented the third major camp in Iranian politics. That is a camp dubbed the “Principalists.”

The Principalists in recent years have often been backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, though he nominally is not attached to any faction. They include some of the most influential figures in the clerical bodies that elect the Supreme Leader, vet candidates for president, and assure laws passed by parliament are in accord with Islam. And they control the state media, in addition to publishing their own newspapers.

The highly conservative camp draws its strength in part from its close links to Iran’s traditional business class, the bazaar merchants. The merchants and the clergy share a common vision of the Islamic republic’s future that modernists say is rooted less in the present than in Iran’s pre-industrial traditions of bazaari capitalism.

Under those traditions, differences between rich and poor are accepted as part of God’s natural order but are to be eased by Islamic charitable giving. Similarly, differences of opinion are to be checked by religious solidarity. And Western ideas of liberalism and individual freedoms are considered decadent and to be kept at bay.

'Direct Intervention'

Ahmadinejad, who emphasizes his own poor background before rising to prominence as the mayor of Tehran, exemplifies bazaari capitalism in its purest form. He campaigned in 2005 on a promise to bring Iran’s oil wealth to the people’s dinner tables. And as president he made 60 trips with his entire cabinet across Iran to open new schools and sport centers and, at times, directly hand out money to the people.

The president’s “direct intervention,” his disdain for technocrats, and his lack of any larger economic strategy appear as recipes for disaster to most reformists. They would prefer to see Iran modernize, lift its standard of living, and move beyond its current dependence upon oil and oil prices.

But for the conservative Principalist camp, there are strong reasons to maintain the social contract as it is today. An economic system where a government addresses lack of economic opportunities by charitable giving only strengthens the public’s dependence upon those in power.

As Iran’s reformists now take to the streets in large numbers for the first time since their last president – Khatami – ended his term in 2005, there is no question they feel they have had enough.

Khatami’s efforts at reform were effectively blocked by the conservatives, and the first four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency have threatened to postpone change forever. The crowds may be right to think this is their last chance to see that does not happen.

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