The comeback of Iran’s reformist and centrist movements

By Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (for Safe Democracy)

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam writes on the recent rise of the neoconservative movement in Iran‘s increasingly diversified political spectrum. Unlike the neoconservative movements of the US or the UK, Iran‘s neoconservatives have advocated social welfare, capital redistribution, anti-corruption measures and have pursued a pragmatic foreign policy agenda. Yet, in Adib-Moghaddam‘s opinion, their traditionalist preference for preservation over reform, and their combination of the repressive tendencies of the Shah, with the revolutionary rhetoric of Khomeini, has not convinced the Iranian electorate, thus instigating the comeback, in the recent elections, of the reformist and centrist movements.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy and the forthcoming The Question of the Islamic Republic: Selected essays on the politics of post-revolutionary Iran. He teaches international relations at Oxford University.

DURING THE PAST FEW YEARS A NEW CURRENT HAS EMERGED in Iranian politics that has redefined the right-wing in the Islamic Republic. The ascendancy of the Isargaran and Abadgaran, Iran’s main right-wing movements, can be traced back to the municipal elections of 2003 when Abadgaran members won the majority of seats in Tehran and promptly elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Major in April of the same year.

Their electoral success was repeated in 2004, when the Abadgaran and Isargaran won the largest number of parliamentary votes, including most of the seats in Tehran. And it was against the backdrop of this shift to the right in Iranian politics that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was able to win the ninth presidency of the Islamic Republic in June 2005.

In discussing why I use the term neoconservative to describe Iran’s right-wing, the first thing I would like to mention is that domestically Iranian neo-conservatism is neither monolithically capitalistic nor, in terms of foreign relations, does it have expansionary aims. The Right elsewhere, like in the United States or the United Kingdom for instance, usually has a strong tendency towards deregulated capitalism which manifests itself in tax-cuts for the upper-classes and less emphasis on social welfare. There is also typically a propensity for reactionary foreign policies (example given: Reaganism and Thatcherism).

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his institutional backers, on the contrary, have advocated social welfare for the poor, capital redistribution, anti-corruption measures and have thus far pursued a rather pragmatic, although rhetorically confrontational, foreign policy agenda.

So what makes Iran’s right-wing neoconservative? A quick perusal of the sociology of Iranian neoconservatism shows that the movement has emerged out of the cultural attitude of patriarchal traditionalism among those orthodox strata of Iranian society whose ultimate aim is to preserve (rather than reform) the political structure of the Islamic Republic and reify (rather than reinterpret) the political tenets of Khomeinism. Ultimately, Iran’s right-wing has inherited the chauvinism of Persian nationalism heralded by the Pahlavi monarchs, and the populism of the early revolutionary years. As such they are representative of Iran’s political culture both before and after the Islamic revolution in 1979.

On the one hand, not unlike the Shah, Ahmadinejad and his followers feel quite comfortable advocating equality, emancipation, justice and virtue abroad, while closing down reformist newspapers, intimidating intellectuals and harassing nongovernmental organisations within Iran. And on the other hand, they portray themselves as the guardians of the Imam’s line (khat-e imam, Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy) neglecting that his was a movement for revolutionary change, and not retroactive political, socio-economic and cultural orthodoxy.

Not unlike their counterparts in the United States, Iran’s neoconservatives received a major blow in recent elections for the municipal councils and the 86-member Assembly of Experts. The latter oversees the performance of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has the power to dismiss him if necessary. Former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a pragmatist who lost against Ahmadinejad in the second round of the presidential elections in June 2005, won a landslide victory in the elections for the Assembly of Experts and reformists were able to secure most seats in the city council of Tehran and in Shiraz, Isfahan, Ahvaz, Khorramabad and elsewhere.

The fluidity of Iranian democracy defies forecasting and prognosis. But it appears that the focus of the Ahmadinejad administration on capital redistribution, decentralisation, and empowerment of the provinces vis-à-vis Tehran has not impressed the electorate. Despite the failure of the reformists to rally their forces behind a unified leadership and their inability to redefine a popular agenda based on their strengths –economic, cultural and socio-economic restructuring– they have dealt a serious blow to Iran’s neoconservatives at quite an early stage in their ascendancy.

I concur with my colleagues in Iran, therefore, in the analysis that the recent elections heralded the comeback of the reformists and centrists wings of Iran’s increasingly diversified political spectrum.

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