Wednesday, December 26, 2007


A Third Approach: On the Interaction between Secular Forces and Islamic Reformists in Iran


By: Mehrdad Mashayekhi

In a culture in which going to extremes is the most common way of dealing with new phenomena, approaches to problems are deeply polarized. In this type of culture, aggressive confrontation is chosen over moderation, unprejudiced attitudes, reason, critical thinking, and the pursuit of long-term benefits. This conflict and polarization permeate the political culture and dualistic labels such as liberator/traitor, progressive/conservative, pro/anti-people, and natural ally/enemy are commonly used. Similarly, when the issue of Iran’s “state reformism” is raised; these categories also rise to the surface of the political and ideological discourse.

During the last decade, secular political intellectuals and activists have reacted to the 2nd of Khordad Movement in diverse ways. Some were non-critical followers while others categorically rejected the movement, saying it was no better than the hardliner approach. As the elections for the Eighth Parliament loom large, it is crucial to re-define the position of Islamic reformists in the political landscape and to address them thoughtfully. This is particularly important for the segment of Iran’s political society (both inside and outside its borders) that supports a secular, democratic, and republican framework.

Polarized attitudes towards the reformists exist for several reasons. First, the weakness of reformist currents in Iran’s past political experience and culture has led to a mistrust of reformers. Even though some reform efforts have existed since the 19thcentury, the defeat of those few efforts and the persistence of dictatorship have yielded pessimism among the public and society’s thinkers about the concept of reform. It has also led to the demise of a culture in which such social and political attitudes can evolve. Therefore, during the 20th century, except for a few isolated cases, the political intellectualism of Iranians manifested itself in revolutionary ideas – an approach undoubtedly inspired by Marxism-Leninism.

Second, Iran’s reform movement is distinct from most other examples in the non-Islamic world in that the reformist wing of government separates itself clearly from the regime’s democratic opposition. The famous division of “insiders” versus “outsiders” was created by the Organization of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Republic, an important group within the reformist coalition. Consequently, the reformists’ pro-Islamic ideology is a barrier to cooperation– created by the reformists themselves, not by the secular, democratic opposition. In most countries with authoritarian governments, reformists inside and outside government have some degree of complicity in their vision of a future democratic government. In Iran, however, reformists seek a democratic Islamic republic, while the regime’s democratic opposition seeks a secular parliamentary republic (or constitutional monarchy).

Third, Islamic reformists have remained uncritical of, and have even justified, the failure of the eight-year reform project (1997-2005). The ineffectiveness of the 2nd of Khordad Movement resulted, in large part, from a lack of planning, elitism, internal squabbles, lack of leadership, conservative goals, a disconnect with civil society, as well as other factors. These factors were discussed in another article entitled: “The Impasse of the Islamic Reformists: Caught between the Regime and the Movement.” (1) Today, two and a half years after the reformists’ official ouster from government and Parliament, we still have not seen a formal, organized self-critique to analyze this failure and the fundamental shortcomings of the movement. Attempts were made to pin these failures onto the authoritarian policies of the government and nothing else.

A few reformists, individually, pointed to some deficiencies. But neither those individuals nor the main reformist organizations such as the Islamic Participation Front or the Organization of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Republic uses those deficiencies as a tool to guide them forward.

Saeed Hajarian, a prominent reformist theorist, writes: “Reform is dead, long live reform.” He insists on keeping the constitutional Islamic model and making the Islamic government more effective. The Organization of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Republic also talk about harnessing the unused capacities of the Constitution to impose some limitations on the existing regime: “Being present in elected organizations, including councils, Parliament, the presidency and the Assembly of Experts and attempting to limit the authority of leaders and hold them accountable are the most important goals of every reform-minded political group.” (2)

As Islamist theorist Abbas Abdi says: “The approach of the reformists in government was useless, even damaging. Continuing along their path was against all logic. Their policy of ‘wait and anticipate,’ was like spooning yogurt into the sea to make a yogurt drink [fruitless and idealistic]. Consequently, they should have either taken another approach, or if that was not something they wanted or were able to do, they should have at least stopped doing harm.” (3)

The three points explained above will naturally repel potential supporters for cooperation and widen the gap between secular democrats and Islamic reformists. In the last two and a half years following the defeat of the reformists in the presidential elections, they have fallen back into their so-called “return to Islamic roots” policy and avoided any cooperation and interaction with secular forces in Iran, even compared to the recent past. This attitude only adds to the pessimism of secular forces and to their increased opposition to reformists.

Fourth, in the meantime, a few non-religious expatriate reformists are offering unconditional support to Islamic reformists. In other writings, I have referred to them as “conservative republicans.” Their logic is that, in the present chaos, where hardliners control all aspects of government, there is no choice left for those in favor of reform but to support the reformist candidates in the Islamic Republic’s elections. Only a reformist victory will bring about a political opening and an opportunity for the democratic secular forces to reach out and connect with their grassroots.

Therefore, there are two contrasting tendencies towards Islamic reformists among Iran’s democratic secular opposition: one is to follow them in an unconditional way and the other is to regard them essentially similar to hardliners in government. The purpose of this article is to find some common ground between these two extreme approaches in order to establish a logical relationship with the Islamic reformists. Naturally, in order to make the best of the existing election process, sound policies will have to follow.


Obviously, the hardliners in government and, to a lesser degree, the reformists represent certain social forces. In my opinion, at least 60 percent of Iran’s society is not represented by either group, and, potentially, can be mobilized by secular forces. At this time, however, no group has the capacity or hope of filling this void. But even in these chaotic circumstances, secular intellectuals and political forces must keep in mind the historical interests of seculars in Iran.

Considering Iran’s current complex environment, my overall perception of the religious reform movement is fairly positive due to its potential to deliver cultural and political diversity and a softer Shi’a discourse. From this perspective, a democratic regime in Iran can only emerge from a fundamental compromise between democratic religious groups and democratic secular forces despite their internal diversity. Religious democrats should not assume that adopting such a positive position would automatically result in deferential, non-independent, or non-critical reactions at every juncture. The essence of this approach, which must be communicated through constructive dialogue, is to make the reformists realize that eventually they must come to terms with Iran’s secular society as an important social phenomenon which can tip the scales in the future elections. Reformists sometimes overlook the social importance of secularism by underestimating the political power of this segment of the society. At the same time, they occasionally blame the forces which advocated for boycotting the latest presidential election for their defeat. But aren’t most of those who withheld their votes in fact disillusioned secular people who would have willingly participated in the election under the right circumstances (and may still)?

The reformists must also make clear their position on the issue of electoral freedoms and refrain from double talking in this area. For Iran’s secular groups that are barred from being elected, the idea of free elections (literally) is a positive strategic policy. Meanwhile, for reformists, who have some advantages even under the present regime, a free election has much more limited benefit. Let us look at some contradictory statements from the recent congress of Organization of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Republic: “Reformists must participate in the elections as long as there is some acceptable degree of freedom of participation. Even though they are struggling for their ultimate goal to bring about legal, free, and fair elections as the most basic condition to realize the government of people, they should continue to participate in elections with reasonable competitive freedom, even if these elections are not completely fair. […] Choosing to participate in only an ‘ideal’ election makes the opportunity to participate very unlikely. Of course, if an election lacks the minimum requirements for competitive participation, boycotting or not participating would be unavoidable.”

This should raise some important questions to the Islamic reformists: For example, do the majority of Iran’s elections, like the Ninth presidential elections in 2005 and the elections to the Seventh Parliament, enjoyed a reasonable level of participation? Also when reformists who enjoy many privileges and possibilities (compared to secular forces) are asked to rethink participating in an election that barely meets minimum standards, how can secular forces, which do not even have the right to present a candidate, be expected to participate and vote for the reformists?


To conclude:

For the modern, democratic, and secular forces of Iran’s society (who mostly belong to the urban middle class), finding suitable approaches to self-organization, promoting collective awareness, and being sensitive to their constituency (within a religious political regime) are the top priorities. Those political organizations and groups that are supportive and cooperative towards this segment of society must play a constructive role in this endeavor and must stay committed to it. Currently, these forces have a policy of non-participation in today’s non-free elections. This does not preclude their participation under exceptional circumstances or specific criteria. Also, this does not prevent them from participating in the process of an electoral campaign during which they can publicly discuss their demands and requests.

For Iran’s democratic secular forces, the struggle for “free” elections, with all its pre-conditions such as freedom of speech, assembly, party formation, and elimination of government censorship bodies, is a strategic goal. However, in a non-free election, we must distinguish between the short-term temptation to vote for a “lesser evil” and a long-term strategy to carve out a political space for secular forces. While it remains true that if reformists hold high positions in government, the environment and conditions for the democratic secular forces will improve. But this sound logic should not create a vicious circle; the secular forces are forced to select their candidates only between the reformists and hardliners. This begs the question, what incentive will remain for the reformists to elevate the elections from the current level (in which they have a strategic advantage) to the level of a free election?

Perhaps one way to address this exceptional problem is the formation of a “pact” between secular forces (if they are able to organize themselves at minimum level) and the Islamic reformists. In this pact, the reformists would commit to publicize and implement certain demands of the secular forces, and the seculars would, in turn, lend their support to the reformist candidates. The advantage of this plan for seculars is that they can have a limited impact, on their own terms, rather than being unconditionally supportive, while continuing to pursue the long-term goal of free elections. Consequently, if the religious progressive religious reformists want a free and democratic Iran, as they claim they do, and recognize that secular forces have a place there, they must adopt a strategy of incorporating the seculars’ demands into their election policies.

In Iran, under the leadership of the Supreme Leader, there has been and will be major contradictions, such as the likes of Ahmadinejad. This should not be used as an excuse to disregard our fundamental democratic duty to recognize the rights of the “excluded laic” (4) Iranians.


1. This article was first published by Mehrdad Mashayekhi under the title: “The Impasse of the Islamic Reformists: Caught between the Regime and the Movement” Ayin Journal, Issue 3, Tehran, May 2006.

2. From the final resolution of the eleventh annual meeting of the Organization of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Republic, October 23, 2007.

3. Abbas Abdi, Commentary on a Dual Governing Strategy.

4. A term used by Islamic reformist sociologist Hamid Reza Jalaipour.

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