Presidential elections and the fate of the reform faction

Trying to end the endless crisis of government?

The factional infighting heats up as the presidential election draws closer. But this is not just a political dispute. What we are also witnessing is the increasing tempo of the assault by the ultra-conservative faction on the reformists. Where is all this heading? Will the forthcoming election also be the final reckoning in the crisis which began when Khatami was elected to the presidency four years ago, and which has deprived the rulers of the Islamic Republic of a quite night’s sleep?

While a definite answer to this question is not easy, considering the complexity of social developments, we can at least say that, aside from its chance of success or failure, the evidence points to the existence of a project to turn presidential elections into a moment of reckoning. The fate of the crisis of the last few years is to be decided then, once and for all.

The system can no longer tolerate the existence of two governments and two parallel structures. The confrontation between the five organs of state: the Majles (parliament), the judiciary, the executive, the Council of Guardians [1], and the Expediency Council [2] have become a daily affair. Religious ruler Khamenei’s harshly criticises president Khatami’s speech a mere 24 hours later. "What are the motives [of those] who criticise such bodies as the judiciary and the Council of Guardians" he remarks darkly. An editorial in the daily Keyhan by Shariatmadari – Khamenei’s appointee - lambasts the Majles, calling its dossier black and demanding the sacking of deputies.


The ultra right was angered by two recent bills prohibiting the security forces from entering the universities and the homes of prominent clergy – an unambiguous referral to the attacks on the disgraced Ayatollah Montazeri – one time designated successor to Khomeini and now under house arrest. A paper close to Khamenei’ called it giving "immunity to clerics rejected by the Imam [3]". Revolutionary Guard chief Safavi openly declared that the security forces will ignore the ban.

There is talk of insecurity in the country and calls for re-establishing security. There appears to be a preparation for announcing emergency conditions. The judiciary is increasingly placing itself in the position of fighting "hooliganism" and "social evils" and for underpining security. Public whipping, and executions have increased and the security forces have set up operation headquarters. The overall aim is to prepare the subjective grounds for public submission and obedience just in case the people might get it into their head to resort to civil disobedience in the midst of a crisis. Majles deputy members and people like deputy Interior Minister Tajzadeh have been called to the courts – to add to the wave of arrest of reformist journalists.

When a large group of Majles deputies criticised the judiciary for its handling of those accused of serial killing of political opponents, the judiciary chief Shahrudi was quick to accuse them of echoing the few westoxified intellectuals. Teheran Prosecutor Alizadeh) threatened to put them on trial for speaking with the same voice as the newspapers linked to foreigners. And a string of other mullahs, ultra-conservative newspapers, and the Assembly of Experts came out in defence of the judiciary.

Final assault?

The Assembly of Experts [4] meets to consider the dangers ahead. Rafsanjani hints at its important deliberations but refuses to divulge anything. But their official communiqué was a clear warning to the reformists. Speaking in the Friday prayer, Ayatollah Meshgini, the leader of the Assembly warns "the Ghom religious seminary will not hesitate to confront any attempts to overturn the values, if need be at the cost of its own blood".

Since the oil price rise last year conflict in the economic field has been added to the political, given the sudden inflow of billions of petrodollars. It would seem that the forthcoming elections are a code-word for the final assault on the 4-year era of reforms.

What in fact is taking place is a battle to end the anachronism of the Islamic government in Iran: an unworkable amalgam of a republic with all its trappings of an elected assembly and presidency, and a non-elected religious ruler (on par with the caliphs of the middle ages), equipped with his parallel institutions at all levels with total control over the entire society. The aim is to do away with the republic and settle down to an Islamic "caliphate".

Theorist of the ultra-conservatives no longer hide the fact that the use of the term Islamic Republic in the early years of the revolution was merely a tactic to set against the monarchy. Four years ago Ayatollah Khaza’li – who used to sit in the Guardian Council – maintained he was contacted by the "other world" through the same medium which also contacted Khomeini and advised him to call the people onto the streets during the revolution against the Shah, and ordered him to support Khatami’s rival Nategh Nouri. Apparently Khaza’li has been contacted again by the Mahdi [5], though he has yet to reveal what those orders were this time round!

Attacks to paralyse the executive for the forthcoming elections was not confined to the court case on Tajzadeh. The Office of Consolidating Unity – a student body close to the reformists – has been under concerted attack. There is evidence that the ruling faction has made preparations for overturning the rules of the game in the elections. The annulling of 700,000 reformist votes in Teheran in last year’s Majles election was just a practice run. Attacks on reformist gathering and meetings have resumed – such as those of Mohamad Reza Khatami [5] and Hadi Khamenei’ [6]. Asre ma, the organ of the Mujahedin of Islamic Revolution [7] is threatened with closure, and even such centrist figures as Taha Hashemi has been added to the "new hypocrites". A new organisation "The Martyr Seekers", close to the ultra-reactionary mullah Mesbah Yazdi, has uttered threats against him.

The overall strategy is to install the absolute caliphate of the velayate faghih. This will put a final end to the constitution. This is the supreme irony since it is Khatami and the reformist faction who continue to warn the rival not to breach the constitution, the same constitution that deprives them of any meaningful power. If disillusioned with the constitution, they warn, the masses will turn to alternatives.

Reformist failure

The other feature of the period is the nation-wide echo of the collapse of the reformist agenda. They are now completely desperate – in strategy and tactic. And this of course at a time when the crack at the top is at its widest – thanks not so much to the resistance of the reformists than the abandoning of the constitution by the ruling faction and their aggressive policy to ensure their uncontested power.

The third feature of the current is the fact that with the polarisation of the line-up, and the deadlock of the reformist and middle forces, the chances of popular government is increasingly a real potential. Of course, potentials do not automatically lead to success. History and complicated social movements are not made through fixed and predetermined directions. A potential can only become an actuality with a social force behind it, the conscious will and enthusiasm of peoples in their millions, organised along specific aims.


A suitable slogan which can achieve this actualisation is the idea of a referendum to decide the nature of government. It will stand in contrast to the factional power struggle and transform this into a struggle against the regime in its entirety. This is a slogan already muted in society and has the potential for mobilising a large population behind it.

The idea of a referendum, in its meaning referred to above, is the continuation, and logical end to the four-year march confined within the law. It can act as an action provoking slogan with mobilising potential. A mass line-up will be behind those wanting to overthrow the regime. The call for a referendum will act as an ignition key to the motor of revolution – by taking aim at the entire regime through direct mass action. It will allow the movement to move successfully out of the transitional phase it finds itself at present.

Those radical forces which believe in the right of people to determine their own destiny have no choice but to gather their own forces around the aims of the current phase. Otherwise they will be sidelined. They will be unable to convert the existing potentials into a powerful and decisive political reality.

The ruling ultra-conservative faction is making a last attempt to unify the Islamic regime in order to repress the popular movement. This it is doing by eliminating the reformist rivals and the other forces in the middle. In the present circumstances such an effort is likely to be costly, and may not succeed, and in the process will undoubtedly make the regime in its totality more fragile. Yet without the independent and organised presence of the people there is no reason for radical democracy to triumph. On the contrary the experience of the 1979 revolution showed that the lack of intellectual and practical preparation in moments of destiny could have heavy penalties.

Taghi Ruzbeh, February 22, 2001


  1. An institution appointed by the religious ruler which vets candidates for all elected office as well as laws passed by the Majles.
  2. Set up by Khomeini to arbitrate in disputes between the Majles and the Council of Guardians.
  3. Khomeini
  4. The highest organ of the state an elected organ – entirely made up of clergy – which chooses the religious ruler and totally dominated by the ultra-conservatives.
  5. The presidents brother and head of the reformist faction in Majles
  6. A leading reformer and ironically the religious leader’s brother.
  7. Not to be confused with the Iraq-bases opposition Peoples Mujahedin of Iran