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Iran’s Reformists hit by suppression at home, pressure from abroad

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Iranian Reformists have no choice but to reinvent themselves if they are to exert political influence.

Having drastically lost influence in domestic political tussling, Iran’s Reformists, staunch advocates against hard-liner dominance, are being further pushed to the brink by the United States.

Iran's centrist president, Hassan Rouhani, elected on the backs of Reformist voters, has been losing support since the US decision to pull out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and to re-impose harsh economic sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, Iranian opposition groups abroad are stepping up criticism of the very idea of reform. This comes as the Reformist discourse struggles under the weight of suppression at home on the one hand and the fallout of the movement’s own strategic mistakes on the other.

“There has been an all-out campaign in the media whose policies are designed in Washington, and on social media as well, against Reformists and the notion of reform here in general,” Hassan Asadi Zeydabadi, a Reformist activist, told Al-Monitor. “Ultimately, it is the popular support for the Reformists that keeps the US away from [realizing] the collapse of the regime, establishing a puppet government or even the dissolution of Iran, which is in line with what its regional partners, Saudi Arabia and Israel, want. They have come to the conclusion that more than anything, they need to remove this obstacle.”

Having seemingly revived “regime change” as official US policy, the Donald Trump administration’s stance on the nuclear deal, people close to the US president say, is ultimately aimed at increasing economic pressure on the Iranian people so they will rise up and overthrow the Islamic Republic.

Notable exiled regime-change advocates include supporters of Reza Pahlavi, son of the late shah, as well as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK). A cult-like group, the latter had previously been listed as a terrorist group in the United States, until being removed during the Barack Obama administration. Moreover, its support among Iranians has been hotly disputed. The MEK was exiled to Iraq in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, where it sided with President Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).

Iranian opposition groups got their hopes up in earnest when nationwide protests, primarily over economic grievances, dominated global headlines last winter. There have been campaigns ever since on Twitter calling for toppling the Islamic Republic and pushing the argument that Reformism is a dead end. Whether these online campaigns reflect the true wishes of the people living in Iran is, however, in doubt.

Given that the moderates' fate has become intertwined with that of the Reformists, Trump’s disruptive approach to the JCPOA has been seen as a blow to that camp as well.

“[Rouhani’s] foreign policy is based on moderation and tolerance,” Zeydabadi told Al-Monitor. “Naturally, when radicals in the US and Israel adopt hostile policies that are against the norms in international affairs, this weakens the moderate approach in Iran.” 

He continued, “Given that they seek to resolve part of Iran’s economic problems through foreign investment and interaction with the world, Trump and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s stance helps reduce the power of the moderates in Iran’s political structure.”

Indeed, only months into Trump’s presidency, the United States created uncertainty over its commitment to the nuclear deal, which Trump had widely reviled as a candidate. This served to keep businesses from engaging with Iran, in violation of the provisions of the JCPOA, which call for the United States and other deal signatories to refrain from rhetoric and actions that inhibit the normalization of trade with Iran.

The Rouhani administration had been banking on normalized trade relations to generate economic prosperity after years of sluggish growth under strict embargoes. With the United States having reneged on the deal, the Rouhani administration is under pressure to have the European signatories to the JCPOA guarantee the benefits Tehran had expected to receive.

Uncertainty over the fate of the nuclear deal has already had serious economic and political consequences in Iran, including a sharp fall in the value of the rial. The currency devaluation has had a particularly negative impact on the image Iranians had of the robustness of the country’s economy. As such, the battle on the international stage has been coupled with what Zeydabadi refers to as “wrong decisions [by the Rouhani administration] alongside the inadequacies of the administrative managers.” This has added to dissatisfaction with the president, which in turn, “has to some extent led to the disenchantment among supporters of reform as well.”

This all comes as Reformists struggle to regain the public’s trust after years of state suppression resulting in what many in the pro-reform camp refer to as “deviation” from the movement’s values. Ever since the pro-reform movement took shape under former President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Reformist candidates have been widely banned from parliamentary as well as city council and village elections. A crackdown following the disputed 2009 presidential election also silenced the voices of influential Reformist figures amid months of protests over alleged voter fraud in favor of the conservative incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In the wake of the unrest, Mehdi Karoubi and Mirhossein Mousavi, the two Reformist candidates in the 2009 election, were detained in 2011 and have since been under house arrest. Khatami, considered the leader of the Reform movement, has meanwhile been barred from making public appearances or giving speeches. Yet, thanks to social media, he still manages to make his stance known on critical issues, including on such sensitive topics as electoral participation.

Having lost all their tools to influence power, the Reformists teamed up with the centrist Rouhani in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections. Moreover, in the 2016 parliamentary and 2017 city and village council elections, they pinned their hopes on new faces unknown to many. Although these measures succeeded in winning ballots, the performance of the “new,” elected Reformists has been an additional cause of voter disappointment.

In an open letter to Khatami on June 12, 100 pro-reform activists urged “reforms within the reform movement” and sternly warned, “The intensity of pressure from all sides on the one hand and the internal inefficacies within the Reformist movement on the other have created the impression among a section of the public that the movement is no longer capable of offering change in people’s social lives, making them think of other solutions. Those solutions, we believe, could cost both the nation and the country dearly.”

Lamenting the dominance of “less committed individuals, bureaucrats and a conservative faction” in the camp, the activists propose forming an interim supreme policymaking body consisting of veteran Reformists. Whether the call for change in the approach to effectuating change in Iran will be embraced remains to be seen.

Zeydabadi, a law school graduate arrested in 2009 and sentenced to five years in prison, is among the signatories. “I think the reform movement has the ability to restore itself,” he told Al-Monitor. “The reform camp will still be unmatched in influencing public opinion, should it have the ability to speak with the people more than before.”