November 23, 2004


Iran's reformists lie in wait (Mahan Abedin, 11/24/04, Asia Times)

The decision by Mir Hoseyn Moussavi, the former Iranian prime minister, not to participate in next year's presidential elections has been greeted by huge sighs of relief in the conservative camp. Conversely, the reformists lamented the loss of their last credible chance to arrest the furious pace of power monopolization and consolidation by their conservative tormentors.

Irrespective of the pressures wrought on him by both camps, Moussavi in fact made a very wise decision. Politics in the Islamic Republic are likely to be marked by high levels of consensus and uniformity for the next five years (until the presidential elections in 2009) and, given the current mood, now is not the time for a man like Moussavi to return to the commanding heights of government.

However, Moussavi's brief return to the headlines of the Tehran dailies contains a thinly veiled secret on the long-term reconfiguration and transformation of politics in the Islamic Republic. The conservatives' ascendancy will not last forever, and Moussavi is still young enough to fight for the presidency another day.

Moussavi is something of a rarity in Iranian politics; the former prime minister has significant support among all constituencies in Iranian society. Much of this popularity stems from his eight-year tenure as prime minister from 1981-89. A brilliant administrator and a principled and uncompromising politician, Moussavi ensured the smooth functioning of government during the emergency years of the 1980s, when Iran was embroiled in a bloody war with Iraq. [...]

Few people would disagree that Iran's embattled reform movement is in crisis. But there is widespread disagreement on the precise causes and effects of this pervasive crisis. Many analysts have focussed on tactics and strategy, struggling to find consequential faults. This is, at best, misleading since the methods and goals of the reformists could not be more transparent and relevant. The primary weakness of the Iranian reform movement over the past eight years has been a lack of effective leadership. President Mohammad Khatami has proved to be not only a hopeless politician, but also a third-rate scholar and pretentious statesman.

Interestingly, the lack of effective leadership is also the Achilles' heel of the conservatives. The conservatives may soon be in control of all bastions of power, but in the absence of centralizing dynamics they are unlikely to be able to consolidate these gains. Instead they rally their supporters around hollow ideological slogans that not only conflict with the essentially "commercial" characteristics and interests of their coalition, but are also at odds with the realities of early-21st-century Iran.

Nonetheless, the conservatives are virtually guaranteed to dominate Iranian politics in the next five years. However, a resurgent reformist current is equally guaranteed to sweep the political landscape from the 2009 presidential elections onwards. There are many reasons for this, not least the fact that the conservative coalition will, in due course, fragment in the face of serious domestic and foreign-policy challenges.

In the meantime, reformers will need to devote most of their energies to identifying and developing capable leaders.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2004 8:23 AM
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