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The Iranian regime and the impasse of reformists' return

Hassan Fahs

Published: Updated:

The conservatives, in a bid to thwart these leanings and the vision that the new movement is propagating, have rekindled the proposal to hold a referendum to transform the country’s presidential system to a parliamentary one.

In recent weeks, the Iranian political scene has been witnessing remarkable political ado and multiple intricate and complex meetings aimed at crystallizing a political project that reproduces the left/right, or reformist/conservative political dualism, that dominated the Iranian theater in the past two decades, albeit this time with different tools, mechanisms, and designations.

Figureheads and leaders with proven prominent and articulated roles in Iranian political life, whether within the forces of the leftist opposition or the conservative right, have initiated a series of meetings and dialogues based on their cognizance of the need to breathe new life into the moderate reformist discourse. They hope their efforts would help better confront the next stage and deal with social, political, and ideological developments, especially in light of the outcomes of the 2018 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections, which reflected the endeavors of regime forces and the deep state to tighten their grip over the state and sideline opposing or dissenting forces from the political, cultural, social, and even economic arena.

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The broad spectrum of participants in these meetings and dialogues ranges from moderate reformist forces represented by their leader, former President Mohammad Khatami; to leftists or moderate reformist forces in the Executives of Construction and Ummah parties; all the way to the moderate right, represented by former President Hassan Rouhani, together with former Speakers of Parliament Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri and Ali Larijani, and former Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, who shifted from extreme right to a more centrist orientation.

The breadth of this spectrum reveals the extent to which these leaders fear for Iran's political future due to the trends and policies that are beginning to shape Iran’s internal situation in terms of the tight grip over state institutions and the country’s political administration process, and the likelihood that this negative trend will worsen in the post-Supreme Leader stage.

The latter has thus far been striving to balance out these forces, albeit without attempting to conceal his inclination to side with the forces of the deep state that ensure the continuity of his project with respect to maintaining the operational mechanisms of the system established over the past three decades.

Iranian parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf speaks during a parliament session on the occasion of Parliament Day in Tehran on December 1, 2021. (File photo: AFP)
Iranian parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf speaks during a parliament session on the occasion of Parliament Day in Tehran on December 1, 2021. (File photo: AFP)

The conservative current, regime forces, and deep state are aware of just how challenging the opposite camp’s efforts could be on the political, social, ideological, and doctrinal levels. However, they are trying to simplify and trivialize the goals of these political leaders who once played pivotal roles in the state and the regime as being aimed at forming a ‘shadow government’ whose sole objective is to keep track of the failures of the current Ebrahim Raisi-led government, not to correct its ways, but rather, to weaken it as a starting point to revive their chances of returning to power and decision-making circles.

Regardless of the justifications that the regime and state give to the activities of these leaders, the latter’s public meetings and the indications they bear in terms of concrete, relentless efforts to save the state from sliding towards tyranny, reveal that all the measures to which the regime and its institutions resorted have failed to achieve their goal.

The regime had tried to besiege Khatami and remove him from the scene and the political process, prosecute Rouhani and hold him responsible for the economic collapse and the failure to manage the political crisis and sanctions, remove Larijani from the circle of influence, impose isolation on Nategh-Nouri. Yet, even all these efforts could not clear the stage for the conservative forces to seize the political scene, control the state’s direction, and translate the regime's orientations to the establishment of an Islamic government.

On the other hand, these leaders do not hesitate to voice the challenges they are facing in restoring the confidence of social, cultural, and dynamic political circles and reproducing a new discourse capable of convincing these segments of the possibility of constructing a political project that is neither destructive nor subversive; instead, one that revives hope in the possibility of achieving social and political justice by maintaining democratic life within the framework of a genuine republican system.

These leaders believe that the key to achieving these goals begins with restoring the reformist discourse, especially after the setbacks it suffered in the past two decades and the retreat of the radical reformist project to the limits of maintaining its share of power and participation in the state at the expense of the aspirations of the grassroots that voted them into positions of decision-making out of their belief in the change discourse they championed.

Reproducing the reformist discourse means rebuilding the middle class, which has been teetering on the verge of annihilation in recent years due to the worsening economic crisis rooted in multifaceted causes and driven by the economic sanctions and the US-enforced embargo, in addition to the growing role of economic institutions affiliated with the regime and military establishment at the expense of the private sector. The private sector has traditionally been viewed as a backbone for the middle class, which is the driving force in any society and the true carrier of any political change project.

Hence, these leaders will face the challenge of presenting an economic vision that re-mobilizes productive sectors and restores the middle class.

Preserving the “republican” aspect of the Iranian state is the most prominent concern of these leaders, given its role in ensuring democracy, pluralism, and social and political justice. This concern stems first from loyalty to the founding principles of the revolution, and second from the pluralism and diversity of the Iranian society, especially if one were to consider the behaviors of deep state groups. These behaviors indicate the prevalence of a concept of absolute power of an ideological religious nature, which is used to consolidate power and control within the framework of an Islamic state or government.

These leaders are working to bring political life in Iran out of its political impasse under the existing constitutional texts –the same ones that allowed the regime’s forces to impose their will–and hence push the Supreme Leader to agree to a referendum on amending the constitutional texts on the powers and office of the President of the Republic and rearranging the relationship between the offices of the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, and the Speaker of Parliament.

However, this endeavor clashes with the Supreme Leader’s permanent concern that allowing constitutional referendums could pave the way for raising the issue of the Supreme Leader's powers and the concept of the Wilayat al-Faqih next.

The conservatives, in a bid to thwart these leanings and the vision that the new movement is propagating, have rekindled the proposal to hold a referendum to transform the country’s presidential system to a parliamentary one, which entails reinstating the office of an elected Prime Minister chosen by direct popular vote and answerable to Parliament.

Any political movement outside the conservative camp is keen not to provoke the regime, adopting phrasing that heeds the sensitivities of the regime and its leadership, which are unable to fathom the idea that reformist or opposition forces exist in the country. This keenness stems from preoccupation with the future of the state in the post-Supreme Leader era, and the need to recreate a political center of gravity that expresses the orientations of grassroots and social strata and imposes their position in decision-making and in Iran’s political future.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, British newspaper Independent Arabia.

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