The Rise, Retreat, and Potential Revival of Reform Politics

Optimism among reformists was at its peak soon after former President Khatami won his first term in 1997. That enthusiasm dimmed as the Supreme Leader Khamenei and his clerical allies repeatedly exploited the structural weakness of the president’s office to thwart reform. And President Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005 left many liberals despondent. “Every morning I wake up and remind myself that I am in Iran,” a professor of agriculture told us. “I keep my expectations low.” In the run-up to the December 2006 elections for municipal councils and for the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member council that advises and selects the Supreme Leader, many opponents of President Ahmadinejad despaired of a positive outcome. “Iranian elections are massive. We have more than 46 million eligible voters for more than 130,000 seats,” a professor from Yazd told us. “But the Council of Guardians makes sure that their conservative candidates dominate every race.” Two physicians in Esfahan complained that more than two-thirds of the candidates for the Assembly of Experts either were not allowed to run or dropped out of the race. This vetting extended to the municipal council elections throughout the country. Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati complained that the decisions on who would be allowed to run for the municipal councils “are governed by bribery.”

Despite the very real controls on who can run in Iran’s elections, the December elections had surprising results. President Ahmadinejad, whose clerical sponsor had himself been barred from contesting by the Council of Guardians, saw an allied slate of candidates known as the Pleasant Scent of Service win only three of the 15 council seats in Tehran, where Ahmadinejad served as mayor before being elected president. Moderate conservatives won seven seats on the Tehran council, reformists won four, and an independent took one. Elsewhere, the pro-Ahmadinejad slate won just three of 11 seats in Isfahan, four of 16 in Tabriz, one of 11 in Shiraz, three of nine in Qom, and one of nine in Ardabil, where Ahmadinejad had once served as governor. In the election for the Assembly of Experts, the big winner was former President Rafsanjani, who received more votes than any other candidate in Tehran and has recently argued for a more conciliatory approach on Iran’s nuclear standoff with the U.S. Significantly, Rafsanjani’s victory came after former President Khatami brokered an agreement that saw to it that Rafsanjani, Khatami, and the reformist former speaker of parliament, Mehdi Karrubi, did not field competing candidates for the assembly seats. Turnout was over 60 percent. Whether the election results indicate a popular rejection of Ahmadinejad’s histrionic politics or a backlash against him among the clerical establishment is difficult to sort out. But observers of Iran, and U.S. government officials in particular, would do well to pay closer attention to the shifting currents in Iran’s politics.

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