Ex-Tehran mayor's murder case stirs infighting among Reformists

Confession to murder by Tehran's ex-mayor was perhaps the last thing Iran's already troubled Reform Movement needed ahead of key parliamentary polls next year.

al-monitor Mohammad Ali Najafi admitted on state TV to killing his wife, Mitra Ostad, May 28, 2019. Photo by Twitter.
Saeid Jafari

Saeid Jafari


Topics covered

elections, tehran, mohammad ali najafi, hard-liners, parliament, reformists

Jun 12, 2019

Considered a senior Reformist with a rich portfolio of top executive posts, Mohammad Ali Najafi has never been an ordinary politician in the Islamic Republic. During the years following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the prominent mathematician and MIT graduate moved among the ruling elites, serving in the Cabinets of Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi as well as former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. More recently, President Hassan Rouhani appointed Najafi as head of Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization.

In 2017, following a monthslong controversy and unprecedented pressure from rival hard-liners, Najafi was named Tehran's mayor by a Reformist-controlled city council. But he resigned seven months later for what he called "health reasons."

On May 28, Najafi sent shockwaves across Iran after confessing to killing his wife, Mitra Ostad, with a revolver inside her flat in northwest Tehran. The high-profile nature of the murder sparked a speedy investigation and legal proceedings in a judicial system widely known for its slow handling of criminal cases.

Unsurprisingly, many hard-liners leapt at the chance for a fresh wave of partisan attacks on this icon of the Reformist camp. Vatan Emrooz, an ultraconservative daily, described the murder as "a shot in the heart of the Reform movement." Like other hard-line media outlets, the paper offered detailed and comprehensive coverage of the incident, framing it as an example of moral decadence among Reformists.

The magnitude of the murder even sparked raucous debates among Najafi's longtime associates. Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, the chairman of the largest pro-Reform party in Iran, the Executives of Construction Party, lashed out at a section within the Reform movement that had relentlessly pushed to name Najafi as Tehran's mayor. "Whatever is behind the poignant murder of Mitra Ostad, those who two years ago ignored warnings from the compassionate political figures and organizations, and stubbornly dug this well in hell for Najafi and the greater Reform Movement, cannot deny their responsibility," Karbaschi tweeted on the same day the murder was reported.

Although Najafi was a member of Karbaschi's party, he was among the few within the Reform movement who spoke out against his nomination for the mayoral post. The party instead campaigned for Mohsen Hashemi, a son of the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The rest of the camp, however, doubted whether Mohsen Hashemi was a genuine Reformist. They maintained that his nomination would vacate one seat in the fully Reformist city council, paving the way for a conservative to replace Hashemi and change the council's balance.

While Najafi has yet to offer a full explanation for his resignation, his confession is reopening old wounds in the Reform movement. One of the toughest reactions to Karbaschi's tweet came from veteran Reformist figure Mohsen Mirdamadi, the last chairman of the outlawed pro-Reform Islamic Iran Participation Front. Three decades ago, the front, alongside Karbaschi's party, shaped the backbone of the Reform movement.

In a critical piece, Mirdamadi claimed that in the discussions leading up to Najafi's nomination, Karbaschi and others did not "utter any warning or comments that they make today against him." Mirdamadi also referred to rumors that Najafi's wife entered his life for "sexpionage" purposes. Such rumors allege that hard-line institutions hired his wife to act as a seductress and spy on Najafi, ultimately forcing his resignation from his mayoral post. 

"What is sad is that Karbaschi's personal hatred toward Najafi … should not have served as an excuse for him to joyously kick an already fallen man, one with whom he shared 20 years of friendship and political association," Mirdamadi said. He further suggested that the "sexpionage" rumors were valid. "Najafi's collapse today is partly rooted in his personal error of judgment and partly in the plot that was hatched against him."

Senior Reformist Morteza Alviri, a Tehran mayor from 1998-2002, also came out in support of Najafi. "I am the one who served as the temporary head of the city council when Najafi's nomination was on the agenda," he tweeted, "and I do bear witness that no negative reports or warnings came from Karbaschi or any government institution against Najafi."

The judiciary has already launched proceedings into the murder case, with the victim's family requesting "retaliation in kind" for Najafi, meaning, the death penalty. The hard-liners are rejoicing at what they see as a massive blow to the Reform movement. The Reformists, meanwhile, are repeating past experiences. It's a situation that will be familiar to observers: Once Reformists win elections by a landslide, they isolate rival conservatives and then enter a process of self-destruction and infighting.

Back in the early 2000s, Reformists held the presidency and had swept parliament and city councils across Iran, leaving little room for rival conservatives in elected bodies. Yet internal strife reached levels unseen in the history of the Islamic Republic. In the preceding elections, that divide cost the Reformists all their majorities.

Perhaps the most immediate victim within the camp over the latest differences is Ali Motahari. He lost his deputy parliament speaker post, a position he had managed to keep for three consecutive years. Lawmakers voted him out on May 26 and replaced him with Abdol Reza Mesri, who represents the rival but minority conservatives.

Iran's Reform movement could be on the verge of another crisis. In less than six months, they will enter a tight parliamentary election. The perceived failures of the Rouhani government and the population's economic grievances might have already done enough damage to sway elections. However, the most damaging element could be the reemergence of internal rifts in the Reformist camp, whose ability to hold on to leadership roles is quickly diminishing.

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