July 10, 2013 | National Post
Iran’s New President a Reformist? Hardly.
Co-authored by Saeed Ghasseminejad
Say what you wish about Iran’s newly elected president’s supposedly moderate credentials. There is little doubt that Hassan Rouhani won the vote of Iran’s reformist-minded middle class. But that says next to nothing about the current state of Iran’s reform movement.
Look no further than the man himself, his statements on the reform movement, and his past record both inside and outside government. The election of Hassan Rouhani to Iran’s presidency, far from being the revenge of the reformist “Green Movement,” is its death sentence. The Reformists have been finally, decisively and definitively co-opted by the regime.
There are three reasons to reject both Rouhani’s support by reformist voters, and endorsements from figures in the reform movement, as a sign that the Reform movement is back on the saddle.
Start with the man: Rouhani, Khamenei’s appointee on the Supreme National Security Council and the Expediency Discernment Council is not a reformist. He does not like to be called a reformist and tries to keep his distance from Reformists. Rouhani is not a dissident; he is not part of the opposition movement; he is not an outsider; he is not an opponent to the Supreme leader or the Revolutionary Guards; he is neither a liberal, nor a democrat; he is not even a moderate. The blood of dissidents is on his hands — not from the early days of the Revolution — but from the supposedly Reformist decade. Rouhani is and will be part of the establishment; a centrist conservative whose entire political career has been inside the security and intelligence establishment of the Islamic Republic.
Next, one should look at his support. Even traditional regime supporters among the working class and rural areas are hurting so much economically that they voted for him in order to express discontent at government policies. As long as he can fix the economy, the regime is safe.
If one shifts focus from voters to political sources of support for Rouhani, then it becomes even more apparent that there is little hope for the Reformist agenda. Rouhani, after all, is drawing his backing from the same regime constituency who supported imprisoned former presidential candidate, Mirhossein Mousavi. Four years ago, Mousavi’s campaign and political backing was coming from the camp of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — hardly a reformist. Why would Rafsanjani throw his weight behind Mousavi then and Rouhani now, if they held a promise of subversion for the Islamic Republic they all helped establish?
This is the third reason why the reformists are no longer an authentic opposition inside the system. When Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in 1997, he quickly earned the nickname of “Ayatollah Gorbachev.” For Westerners, whose memory of former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was still fresh, the nickname was endearing, since it was Gorbachev who, through his reformist mindset, initiated an internal process of change that eventually led to the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Communist empire. But inside Iran, there was something both derogatory and alarmist in the use of this epithet: Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, above all — who apparently coined the nickname — understood that you cannot reform an authoritarian regime without undermining its foundations altogether.
The regime refused to run the risk of becoming the next Soviet Union. By 1999, the reformist agenda was in tatters — drowned in the bloody repression of student protests in July 1999, with the full blessing of Hassan Rouhani, who was then in charge of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. And he was not merely a bystander: he called the students rabbles; sought the death penalty for them; and later proudly boasted of having given the order to suppress the student movement. How can anyone count his victory as evidence that reformists are back? That they had to support him at all is the ultimate defeat.
Since that fateful summer of discontent, reformist politicians have sought different goals — less change, more personal aggrandizement, which includes widespread corruption and graft. They are still at odds with outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — but they do no longer wish to subvert the system. They are too busy milking it.
The Islamic Republic has successfully co-opted the Reformist movement back into the fold, forever neutralizing its tendencies. But while reformist politicians in Iran may have lost interest in change, the people haven’t. Therein rests the hope for Iran’s future — not in some improbable push for reform from above, but in the continually mounting pressure from below.
Mr. Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington D.C. Mr. Saeed Ghasseminejad is a PhD Candidate at Baruch College, New York City.