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Iran's 'second-generation' Reformists off to shaky start

A new group of Reformists has aligned to form a political faction that attempts to capitalize on the Reformist platform without repeating what they view as the original Reformists' mistakes.
Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami speaks with Reuters correspondents in Tehran January 22, 2008. Khatami has withdrawn his name as a candidate for the upcoming presidential election. Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005, oversaw a thawing in Iran's ties with the West. Those relations have since sharply deteriorated under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is expected to seek a second four-year term.  REUTERS/Caren Firouz/Files (IRAN POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTXCU5T

The latest chapter in the ongoing power struggle between Iran’s various political factions is the formation of a new Reformist group called Neda. The faction could be the much-needed impetus for the Reformists’ return to the political arena; however, ranking Reformists remain skeptical. By vowing to get closer to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the group could open some breathing room for Reformists, while at the same time disenfranchising the more radical elements of the Reformist camp.

The nascent group, which announced its decision to officially become a political faction by submitting a request to Iran’s Interior Ministry, consists of a 12-member founding board, under the leadership of Sadegh Kharazi, a seasoned diplomat and adviser to former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami. The majority of members belong to the youth wings of banned Reformist groups such as the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a political faction credited as the most dominant force within the 1997 Iranian Reform Movement, and the Organization of the Mujahedeen of the Islamic Revolution, a small, influential political faction. The prominent members of these groups were arrested and the factions were banned following the disputed 2009 presidential election.

There are many uncertainties surrounding the nature, ideology and ultimate objective of the new political faction. However, Kharazi has made it clear that one of their major objectives is to “play an effective role” in upcoming elections. Tired of the first generation of Reformists’ inaction following the 2009 presidential election, Neda has taken it upon itself to pave the way for the political participation of younger, second-generation Reformists

In an interview with the Reformist daily newspaper Etemad — as reported by IRNA — an anonymous member of Neda said, “After 2009, it appeared that the first generation of Reformists did not have any desire to enter the political arena again. However, the youth were very motivated and had the potential to do so, but Reformist leaders’ lack of desire for election participation became a big obstacle in their path.”

Based on reports from Iranian media, the name of the political faction is an acronym representing Nasl-e Dovome Eslahat, the Second Generation of Reforms. However, after strong opposition from senior Reformists, who believe the connotation may cause division among the ranks, the group changed its name to Nedaye Iranian, the Voice of Iranians.

The new political faction aims to replace the idealistic vision of the leaders of the Participation Front with a pragmatic approach. The members criticize the original Reformists’ approach following the 2009 elections, especially their decision to boycott the 2010 parliamentary election. “The first generation [of Reformists] has an idealistic view toward politics, but we are practical. This is our main difference,” another member said, according to IRNA.

In a sense, the creation of Neda is an attempt at a solution for the issue of political participation faced by the Reformist camp following the 2009 presidential election and during President Hassan Rouhani’s June 2013 campaign. Following the arrests of its many prominent leaders in 2009, the Reformist camp was left depleted and jaded, with many arguing for the boycott of upcoming elections. The reverberations of the debate continued with some inner-party dispute surrounding the decision for Mohammed Reza Aref, the only 2013 Reformist presidential candidate, to abstain in favor of the moderate candidate Rouhani. Essentially, the Reformists in favor of retaining political participation were left without candidates — due to regime pressure and intraparty decisions.

In what they describe as a sensible tactic, the nascent faction has also decided to get closer to the supreme leader. The members of the group were present during a visit with Khamenei on July 29. According to Sajad Salek, a member of Neda, this was not just a coincidence. “Appearing in the meeting with the supreme leader was not an accident. It was not a personal decision either. It was the result of long deliberations with friends, which became an approach. The group decided that one of the shortcomings of Reformists in previous years was distancing [themselves] from the supreme leader and ignoring the authority of the regime’s organizations,” Salek stated on his Facebook page.

Hadi Heydari, a prominent cartoonist for the Reformist Shargh newspaper and a member of Neda’s inner circle, announced, “Neda will follow the same path as Mohammad Khatami.” However, the former Reformist president’s reception, and the exact affiliation of the faction with senior Reformists, is ambivalent at best.

When asked about his reaction toward the faction, Khatami stated, “Reformists defend pluralism. Reforms are not defined within just one political faction or a certain group. Reforms are a historic process [and] … there are disagreements in this path, but the border between disagreement and altercation should be clarified. Disagreements should not turn into quarrels … various groups should be active, however, my priority was reactivating the already existing groups, whose activities have been limited.”

Other prominent Reformists such as Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Khatami’s former vice president; Mohammad Ghouchani, prominent Reformist political activist and journalist; and Ahmad Pournejati, former Reformist, former member of parliament and deputy director of IRIB, have all publicly criticized the decision behind the formation of the new faction. They fear that the new group, under the leadership of Kharazi, will create chasms within the Reformists and that they are moving hastily without a clear direction.

A more pressing concern is that the new group is attempting to bypass senior Reformist and moderate officials, such as Khatami and Rouhani, to establish itself as an independent faction of the Reformist camp. Such accusations resulted in Kharazi publicly disputing the assertions by stating that the group was not attempting to “move beyond the first generation of Reformists” and it is only attempting to begin the process of trust-building between the regime and the Reformist camp.

In its first official published statement on Sept. 15, which reads like a long article without a detailed framework, the faction announced that they would be functioning within the boundaries of the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the path of the supreme leader.

By rebuilding the regime’s trust toward the Reformists, and inching toward the supreme leader, Neda could potentially open up breathing room for the political activity of some conservative Reformist factions ousted in 2009, but it may disenfranchise the radical and moderate Reformists.

Thus far, under Rouhani’s administration, Reformists have faced many obstacles. The Participation Front and Mujahedeen Enghelab are still barred and there does not seem to be any hope for their reinstitution. If a new Reformist group could fill the vacuum created by the absence of more traditional factions, a path could eventually be paved for the return of all factions. However, the fear of the Reformist stalwarts is moving too much to the conservative side, compromising Reformist values.

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