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Will Iran’s Reformists succeed in gathering all factions under one roof?

Iranian Reformists are gathering forces to form a new assembly. But while some think it could be a chance for a democratic entity to represent the movement, others argue that Reformists need to reconnect with society rather than forming new bodies.
Iran's former president Mohammad Khatami casts his ballot during the presidential election, north of Tehran June 12, 2009.REUTERS/Chavosh Homavandi/jamejamonline  (IRAN POLITICS ELECTIONS) - GM1E56C1H9U01

A fresh beginning to gather Reformist forces under one roof is perhaps the best way to describe the nascent Parliament of Reforms, a new assembly whose charter is set to be approved at the Council for Coordination of the Reforms Front by mid-November.

The idea of a comprehensive and democratic entity to represent Iran’s Reform movement has been on the table for quite some time, and a number of names have been suggested for it over the years. For example, the Executives of Construction Party once called for the “National Assembly of the Reformists.” Top Reformist strategist Saeed Hajjarian talked about "the hard core" of the Reform movement and 100 young activists, in an open letter to former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), spoke of the need to create a “National Institution of Reforms.”

All those ideas appear to have converged in what is now billed as the Parliament of Reforms. Freedom Movement of Iran member and political activist Emad Bahavar is one of the figures actively engaged in writing the charter of the emerging body.

Bahavar told Al-Monitor that “26 to 27 parties, a majority of Reformist politicians and figures who believe in the inclusiveness of this institution as well as certain individuals who are trusted within the camp, have shared their thoughts on this subject.” He added, “If a new Reformist front is to be established, a wide spectrum of groups and forces should be involved so it can be registered [with the Interior Ministry] as a coalition of Reformist parties.”  

While the ballots of an estimated 20 million to 24 million Reformists handed Khatami and later Hassan Rouhani the presidency, Bahavar indicated that such voters may not be able to play as important a role as perhaps they should in the new body. Still, he suggested that delegates for the nascent organization could be picked from across the country and then cast ballots in an internal vote to select members of the Parliament of Reforms.

In a Twitter post Sept. 3, Bahavar quoted Khatami as saying, “The Reformists’ Supreme Council of Policymaking is a temporary body and plans for the more democratic and selective Parliament of Reforms should be implemented swiftly.”

Al-Monitor asked Bahavar about the fate of the Reformists’ Supreme Council of Policymaking and the Council for Coordinating the Reforms Front, the two entities that currently make major decisions and outline policies of the Reformist camp. He replied, “There is speculation about their future … but nothing is clear as long as the plan has not been totally approved.” He continued, “I personally think that having such an entity [the Parliament of Reforms] will suffice; we do not need parallel bodies and two panels [in the Parliament of Reforms] can perform the duties of the councils.”

Prominent Reformist Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who served as Khatami’s chief of staff from 1997-2001, is critical of the plans for the Parliament of Reforms. He told Al-Monitor, “I think institutions that are organized with the participation of deep-rooted, known Reformists cannot fulfil any social needs, answer any questions or garner any support in society, because Reform is a notion that fundamentally does not need such organized activities.” Abtahi proceeded to accuse rival factions of “trying to put these real and sham Reformists at the center of their propaganda and fuel rivalry among them in a bid to overshadow the essence and message of the Reform [Movement].” He added, “This assembly [the Parliament of Reforms] and the [parliamentary] List of Hope are more or less ceremonial entities that take advantage of the banner of reforms. They meet, talk and create an assembly. But this is not society’s demand of the movement.”

Abtahi also touched on the Achilles' heel of the envisioned Parliament of Reforms, namely the absence of the physical involvement of Reformist voters. He said, “A parliament should be formed through a voting process. This body cannot be seen as an elected institution even among the Reformist groups and parties.” The former presidential chief of staff warned, “The Reformists face a deep crisis because they are engaged in [pursuit of] power and are attempting to use the mechanisms of power,” suggesting that the camp’s elites are divorced from current realities on the ground.

Abtahi told Al Monitor, “The Reform Movement has to renew its ideas and thoughts if it wants to remain relevant and exist. … The vision of reform that was laid out some 21 years ago by then-President Khatami should adapt itself to this new society and its requirements. We can no longer create a parliament or lead the new generation and fulfill their demands by just claiming that we are Reformists. The creation of such institutions is mostly in pursuit of personal interests and they harm the Reform Movement.”

Bahavar is also concerned about the future of the Reform movement in Iran, but argues that its ultimate fate could lie in the success or failure of the Parliament of Reforms. He said, “Society would react negatively to any disunity within the Reformist camp, which subsequently would trigger a fall in support for it.”

Al-Monitor asked Abtahi about the possible role that Khatami could have in the creation of new Reformist bodies. He said, “Although President Khatami is the pivot of the Reformist bloc, I have never seen him participate in the founding of any official entity. He may have met with them, but has not been involved in the formation of any institution.”

Referring to chants of “Reformists, Conservatives! The game is over!” by protesters in nationwide demonstrations in January, he concluded, “I do not think the Reform movement has reached its end in our country. Whatever the difficulties, it is still the only path before us.”

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