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The Iranian Reformists Need Reforming

July 19, 2018
5 min read
Former president Mohammad Khatami believes that interaction and dialogue with the regime must continue
Former president Mohammad Khatami believes that interaction and dialogue with the regime must continue

June 12 marked the anniversary of the disputed 2009 presidential election. That day, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) published a letter signed by 100 reformist activists to former president Mohammad Khatami expressing their worries about the declining popularity of the reformist movement. 

Writing to Khatami, the most influential figure in the reformist movement, the activists called for changes in the Reformists' Supreme Council for Policymaking (RSCP).

The council was created in November 2015 in anticipation of the upcoming parliamentary elections. It is considered the highest body for major reformist parties and groups and helps decide policies and electoral campaigns. The council is headed by Mohammad Aref, a member of the parliament from Tehran, who these reformist activists have targeted for criticism.

In their letter to Khatami, the activists implicitly attacked Aref for turning the council into a “campaign headquarters” for himself to secure his reelection and his future position. “This abuse of [his] political position has created a negative feeling among many supporters of the reformist movement,” they wrote. The signatories recommended that new figures be brought into the council, called for a change in management and for the council’s mission to be redefined as the creation of a “national reform institution.” Although they did not clarify what the institution would do, it is possibly related to what some reformists have described as a need for a “Reform Parliament,” a body represented by reformers that would replace the council as the highest decision-making authority among the various groups and parties.

They also recommended that Reza Aref be replaced by Abdollah Nouri, a cleric, reformist politician and a former interior minister under President Khatami. In 1999, Nouri was sentenced to five years in prison in for publishing “sacrilegious” articles and opposing the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, though he was released after three years in 2002 after, at the urging of the parliament, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei pardoned him. During his trial, Nouri did not accept the authority of the Special Clerical Court that sentenced him and never asked the Supreme Leader for clemency.

The Secret Meeting

Three weeks after the recent letter was published, it was reported that the main people behind the letter had had met with Mohammad Khatami. It is not clear how many people were present at the two-hour meeting, but the publication of its details, and Khatami’s alleged statements in particular — as reported by those present at the meeting — ignited a quarrel among Iranian reformists.

The clash reached its climax when, in a series of tweets, Tehran-based journalist Sasan Aghaei claimed that the core of the letters’ sponsors were members of the Central Council of the Reformist Union of Islamic Iran People Party and that they were pursuing a “hidden agenda.” According to Aghaei, three weeks after the publication of the letter, 20 of the signatories decided to write a second letter and complain about not receiving any response from Khatami, but when they did, they learned that Khatami had already given a response. After further inquiry, they discovered that “seven members of the gang” had already met with Khatami but had not told anybody else about it.

Igniting Controversy

Aghaei said the break-off group of seven then reported what Khatami had said during the meeting, including that the reformists “cannot touch Aref and he will not be replaced.” They further claimed that Khatami supports interaction and dialogue with the regime and is not going to change his stance; and that he said the Reformists' Supreme Council for Policymaking could not be replaced. And finally, they said he insisted he had no more patience left to get entangled in quarrels among reformists — he had established the RSCP to reduce his own load of responsibilities.

Khatami also recommended to Aref that he bring in one of the signatories onto the council. According to Aghaei, the seven reformists present at the meeting were happy with the response, claiming it would be a great achievement for the reformist movement if one of them was included in the council — despite the fact that the letters’ signatories had insisted that they were not out to get anything for themselves.

In addition to the arguments between reformists, Khatami also sparked controversy when he reportedly talked about Mir Hossein Mousavi the 2009 reformist presidential candidate who has been under house arrest since February 2011. According to the group, Khatami had told Mousavi that he would not follow his lead, and that his way was to interact with the regime.

One of the seven who met with Khatami is reformist activist Mehdi Mahmoudian. But he denied that Khatami had said this to Mousavi. However, the journalist Masoud Kazemi, who was also present at the meeting, quoted Khatami as saying: “Interaction with the regime must not stop. I said this to Mr. Mousavi In 2009.”

However, it is important to remember that these are all accounts from the seven reformists who met with Khatami — and not from Khatami himself. He has not yet denied or confirmed these reports, and nor has his office. 

All these activities, meetings and criticisms are currently taking place under the banner of “reforming reformism.” But it seems that even this first step toward “reform” has led to divisions and infighting among the reformists themselves. This is neither new nor unusual, but it says a lot about their chances for real change. 


More on recent discontent with, and within, the reformist movement in Iran:

People Have Left the Reformists Behind, January 2, 2018

Why Reformists Do Not Empathize with the Protesters, January 2, 2018

Reformists Should be Brave and Challenge Hypocrisy — But They Won’t, May 15, 2017



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