Who is a reformist and what is principle-ism?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Khatami’s recent withdrawal from the Iranian presidential elections came as a shock. The question now is what will happen to the ‘reformists’ before the elections slated for June 12.

However, the debate is obscured by the fact that the terms ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’ are increasingly inappropriate simplifications of the much more complex and confusing reality of Iranian domestic politics. Indeed, it might be that the ‘reformist’ candidates are not reformists at all; that the ‘conservative’ candidates can attract ‘reformist’ votes; and that everybody wants to be a ‘principlist’!

It is time to review the terminology – and maybe even the mentality behind – when talking about Iranian politics.

The Ubiquitous Principlist
Ever since Khatami’s landslide victory in 1997, Western media and scholars have described him and his allies as ‘reformists’ or ‘moderates’. While ‘moderate’ obviously depends on the observer’s subjective view, ‘reformist’ is interesting since that is how most of Khatami’s allies describe themselves. During his presidency, Iran scholars constantly emphasized that Khatami was only interested in reforming, and not overthrowing, the Islamic Republic. Yet some Western media portrayals nonetheless indicated that Khatami not just represented a liberal interpretation of Islam, but also a gradual secularization. This was reinforced in the portrayal of Khatami’s Other, his rivals, called ‘conservatives’ or ‘hardliners’. Such terms seems to signify this segment’s views on ideology, cultural values and their interpretation of Islam. To the common reader in the West, a picture thus emerged of a rift between a rigidly Islamist ‘conservative’ group in Iranian society and an open-minded, tolerant ‘reformist’ group. While such a picture is not completely devoid of legitimacy, it is not sufficiently nuanced. Indeed, several factors have complicated the use of terms such as ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’.

The 2005 campaign showed that the ‘conservatives’ were definitely not a united, uniform bloc. Thus, the term ‘neo-conservative’ was coined, mainly to denote the ‘second generation’ of politicians associated with Ahmadinejad. The current president is, however, a self-styled osul-garâ, a word that has led to the rather awkward translation ‘principlist’ or ‘principleist’. Osul-garâ‘i – ‘striving towards principles’ – could also be translated ‘fundamentalism’, as it refers to the fundamental tenets of Khomeinism. However, to avoid confusion with the Sunni fundamentalism of, say, Wahhabists, it seems that ‘principlist’ is now common use. Crudely put, ‘principlist’ became synonymous of the (neo-)‘conservatives’ around Ahmadinejad. The only problem is that it is not just Ahmadinejad who defines himself as a ‘principlist’. After Ahmadinejad adopted the term, other politicians soon declared themselves ‘principlists’, including those ‘conservatives’ who were opposed to Ahmadinejad; and now, even the main ‘reformist’ candidate appears to be a ‘principlist’!

Confusing? Indeed. Let’s look at recent developments as examples of the diverse, interlaced discourses of factional identification prevalent in Iranian domestic politics. The aim is not to re-classify or invent new categories, but rather to nuance the discussion of Iranian politics.

Is The Reformist a reformist?
It seems as if Khatami stepped down since he had promised to do so if another candidate – Mir-Hosein Musavi – would join the race. Musavi dragged his feet, but on March 9, he announced his bid. One question that bothers many now is of course: why did Musavi join the race at all, thus causing the allegedly popular Khatami to step down? A possible explanation is that Khatami knew that he would meet formidable obstacles that Musavi, with his outstanding credentials and political background, could avoid. However, as usual, conspiracy theories abound, one of them being that Supreme Leader Khamene‘i ordered Musavi to join the race in order to force Khatami – a severe challenge to Ahmadinejad and a nuisance to Khamene‘i and his ‘conservative’ clergy allies – to withdraw. The fact that such conspiracy theories exist first of all shows what many Iranians feel about the political game; but it certainly also has to do with the person of Musavi.

Originally a painter, architect and university lecturer, Musavi served as Iran’s last prime minister from 1981 to ‘89, when the position was eliminated. He is recognized across the political spectrum as an impeccable servant of the nation. His time as prime minister and close aide to Khomeini coincided with the bloody war between Iran and Iraq, and Musavi is praised for his attempts to keep Iranian economy alive despite the devastating war. Musavi represented the ‘left wing’ (another obscure term) of Iranian revolutionary politics: he was in favor of a state-regulated economy with a central role for collective cooperatives (ta‘âvon). Musavi could also be termed a ‘radical’ in the sense that he belonged to this ‘left wing’, which, among other things, challenged the historical Shi‘i clerical stance on the sanctity of private property.

Around the death of Khomeini, ‘the right wing’ – primarily based around the traditional clergy and the bazaar merchants naturally opposed to state ownership – finally ousted their foes on ‘the left’ and abolished the prime ministry. Musavi withdrew from politics and devoted himself to the cultural scene. Now that Musavi is the main ‘reformist’ presidential candidate, it is interesting to read his (hitherto very few) statements. After Khatami’s withdrawal, Musavi wrote Khatami a letter, stating that

You know that I too believe that the correct way is reforms alongside a return to the principles…

The use of the word ‘principles’ (osul) is not a coincidence: Musavi is aiming to use his political record and image to attract ‘principlist’ votes. In a recent interview, Musavi elaborated:

I believe that ordinary people are both principlist and reformist in a true sense. For example, the people do not like a politician who will back down on the issue of nuclear technology… [but] the people rejoiced at the launch of a space satellite… [Such feelings] can be seen as ‘principlism’. At the same time, the people do not like it that the state interferes in their personal affairs, or limits their legal liberties, or that the state closes down one newspaper after another for petty mistakes. It is possible to call such a feeling and tendency ‘reformism’… Amongst ordinary people, principlism and reformism are not separate. I think of principlism and reformism just like the people do.

Thus, Musavi is simultaneously laying claim to Ahmadinejad and the ‘neoconservatives’ ’ rhetoric of ‘principlism’ and Khatami’s ‘reformism’. Together with his quasi-socialist discourse of social equality and justice that might succeed in ‘stealing’ from Ahmadinejad’s core voters, the poor masses, this seems to be Musavi’s main message. He might already have attracted support from some unusual corners: former Revolutionary Guard commander and so-called ‘moderate conservative’ Mohsen Reza‘i is rumored to back Musavi’s bid. Musavi recently appeared at a commemoration for a famous martyr of the Iran-Iraq War, alongside Reza‘i and Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Reza‘i is certainly not a ‘reformist’ – yet he supports Musavi’s bid for presidency, maybe due to their background as colleagues during the war.

It is also very possible that other similar figures might follow suit, as indicated by recent remarks from conservative critics of Ahmadinejad in Parliament and by other former Revolutionary Guards commanders. It is even rumored that Nateq Nuri – who was Khatami’s ’conservative’ opponent in the 1997 elections – has been secured a place in the future cabinet if Musavi is to be elected. That would seriously undermine the idea of a ‘conservative’/’reformist’ dichotomy: would such a cabinet, including ‘conservatives’, be ‘reformist’ at all? Indeed, some proponents of ‘reformism’ argue that Musavi should not be seen as a ‘reformist’ – at least not in the ‘Khatamian’ sense. Khatami recently stated that

We have never claimed that Musavi would enter the [presidential race] as the epitome of reforms.

This ambiguous statement indicates that Musavi’s policies will not be anything like those of Khatami’s. An observer recently wrote on the reform-minded website Khordâd that

Mir-Hosein Musavi has plainly declared that he is ‘not a reformist’ … and a few months ago, during a private meeting with [reformist groups], he denied any relation with these [groups]. Mir-Hosein Musavi’s actions and words clearly send a message that he does not want the vote of such reformist groups in society nor the problems associated [with such a vote].

Zahra Eshraqi – Khomeini’s granddaughter and wife of Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the former president’s brother – has also stated that “Mir-Hossein Musavi is a principlist”. It is interesting to note that the political bazaar today is filled with rumors of Mohammad-Reza’s possible candidature. In such an event, we will probably see Mohammad-Reza capitalize on Musavi’s ambivalent political rhetoric and present himself as a true ‘reformist’.

Two sides of one coin

Thus, Mir-Hosein’s currying of favor with the ‘moderate conservatives’ and the ‘principlist’ discourse can easily have a boomerang effect. Despite Khatami’s endorsement, it now seems far from certain that the majority of reformist voters will back Musavi.

According to the daily Ham-Mihan, a public survey institute recently found that 57% of Khatami voters in Tehran would instead vote for Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf – currently the capitol’s mayor, who is often described as ‘a moderate conservative’ but has not yet announced his candidature. Only 29% would vote for Musavi while 14% still hadn’t made up their mind. Even though opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Iran, the report does point to a significant fact: that the idea that Iranians are divided between ‘reformists’ and ‘conservatives’ is somewhat obsolete. Indeed, the whole story is turned upside-down when we take into consideration a recent article in Tehrân-e emruz, a daily connected to Qalibaf. In it, an editorialist wrote that

an analysis of the view and executive-administrative approach of Mir-Hosein Musavi and Mahmud Ahmadinejad reveals the close resemblance of the two

In the piece, titled ‘Two sides of one coin’, it was also stated that Musavi’s candidature was “one step ahead, two steps back”; that Musavi is also a “man of rationing” (referring to Ahmadinejad’s controversial economic policies); and that Musavi has not made clear exactly how he differs from the current government. Sarcastically, the editorialist wrote:

Today, the policy of fattening the state is being executed, the cues [of people waiting for ration coupons and subsidized groceries] have returned to the streets and the most important government debate is how to target subsidies and promote a lessening of consumption … so why has Mir-Hosein, in such circumstances, suddenly rung the bell of danger?

The point is that Musavi’s policy of ‘Islamic Economy’ bears resemblance to that of Ahmadinejad – and, implicitly, that Qalibaf’s differs from these.

However, there are further aspects to this discussion. Qalibaf has presented himself with a ‘modern’ image: he is dressed in chic clothing, sports fashion sunglasses and appears as a suave, cool and youthful type. One of the controversies over Qalibaf was when he allowed Benetton to open a store in Tehran, and allegedly gave Mr. Benetton a private helicopter tour over Tehran’s skyline. Ahmadinejad’s supporters among the Basij militia criticized Qalibaf for being morally corrupt and facilitating the Western cultural invasion. On the other hand, figures such as Ahmadinejad and Musavi present themselves as austere ascetics, dressed in simple, locally produced clothing and living in humble residencies amongst ‘the people’. While Qalibaf’s constituency is the young and affluent, the private entrepreneurs and the globalized elites of northern Tehran, Ahmadinejad’s constituency consists of low-paid public employees, the unemployed masses of south Tehran, the poor in traditional, rural areas – as well as segments of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij.

Another sign that Musavi is tapping into Ahmadinejad’s constituency was his choice of venue for his first speech as presidential candidate. Naziabad is a poor area of southern Tehran. Musavi used to live here and even as a prime minister and despite Iraqi missile attacks during the war, he stayed here. Now, Musavi is looking for support among the ‘dispossessed’ and pious peoples of Naziabad – and other similar destitute areas throughout Iran. Furthermore, Musavi’s regular use of religious, revolutionary and wartime language underpins that he will not be seen as a candidate for the secular-minded liberals.

Thus, the categories of ‘conservative’ and ‘reformist’ once again fails to grasp reality: that a so-called ‘conservative’ (Qalibaf) might eventually score the allegedly ‘reformist’ vote of some liberal-minded Tehranis; and that a so-called ‘reformist’ (Musavi) might score votes in what is traditionally seen as ‘conservative’ areas. This political site is not about ‘reformist’ or ‘conservative’: it is a question of culture and class.

However, facing Ahmadinejad on home ground is not the only challenge facing Musavi. It seems he is lacking broad-based support from a very crucial segment: the students. First of all, the generation born in the 1980s does not know much about Musavi except that he is a ‘man of the system’. Secondly, they have still to see an original and far-reaching agenda for change. Musavi’s old-fashioned rhetoric and his cautious criticism of those in power is simply not an approach that appeals to this section of the electorate.

After Khatami’s withdrawal, an emergency meeting of the youth divisions of Khatami’s organization revealed a lack of support for Musavi. Rather than Musavi, some of the young activists pointed to a visitor at the meeting as their candidate – Abdollah Nuri. Nuri was one of Khatami’s trusted aides and served as his Interior Minister and vice-president. He was sentenced to five years in jail in 1999 for insulting Khamene‘i, ‘disturbing public opinion’ and advocating links with the US. Nuri has not yet announced whether he will join the presidential elections but nothing can be ruled out in the coming weeks and months.

Old wine in new bottles
So, how about the second ‘reformist’ candidate, Mehdi Karubi? Always a controversial figure, Karubi too belonged to the ‘left wing’ of Iranian politics in the 1980s where he was a key parliamentarian. In 2005, he split with the ‘left wing’ clerical body Majma‘-e rowhâniyun-e mobârez (Clerical Combatant Assembly) in order to create his own ‘party’, E‘temâd-e melli (National Trust). It seems that the 71-year old cleric is a candidate for every election, every time – but never wins.

Some facts are, however, in favor of Karubi: a decent result in the 2005 elections (17%); a steady following among some of Iran’s ethnic minorities; vocal criticism of Ahmadinejad and his government’s repression of students, artists, Sufi dervishes and the opposition; support from some of Khatami’s former aides; and his populist promises of cash handouts to all Iranians if he is elected. However despite all this, Karubi is not widely seen as a potential winner. He too seems to lack the broad-based support of the younger generation. And again, there is the question: is Karubi a ‘reformist’ at all?

In Iranian cyberspace, it seems that some do not believe so. A renowned ‘reformist’ blogger, ‘Bahman Aqa’ recently wrote:

In my point of view, Karubi isn’t a reformist. He is one of the leftist clerical leaders of the 1980s who was thrown out of power in the 90s and now wants to come back in. He is very brave and outspoken. He writes a letter to Jennati and tells him everything he wants to tell him

This refers to Karubi’s controversial letter of 2007 in which he severely criticized the high-ranking Ayatollah Jennati for praising Ahmadinejad. ‘Bahman’ continues:

But the fight between Karubi and Jennati is just the continuation of the fight between the [leftist] Combatant Clerics Assembly and [rightist] Combatant Clerics Society of the 1980s. Then, the Supreme Leadership supported those of the ‘Assembly’, today it supports those of the ‘Society’

This view is indicative of the fact that for many Iranians, the intra-clergy and factional struggles are basically irrelevant: there is no significant difference between most of these candidates and even in name, their organizations sound similar. Terms such as ‘reformist’, ‘conservative’ and ‘principlist’ are in constant flux and prone to opportunist abuse from all sides.

The bottom line is that all candidates are loyal to the fundamental ideology of the Islamic Revolution and the fundamental framework of the Islamic Republic. The second common characteristic is that they all utilize populist slogans in one sense or another, even though ‘the people’ to whom they address their rhetoric are from different socioeconomic and cultural strata of Iranian society.

This piece should of course not be seen as an indictment of Iran scholars and observers. I have used (and will continue to use) somewhat simplistic terms such as ‘reformist’, ‘conservative’ and ‘principlist’ when describing Iranian politicians. As analysts working with a controversial field of some interest to public opinion, we are obliged to talk in a plain language with a minimum of exotic words and complex neologisms. We need to describe the general currents in a multifaceted and often ambiguous, obscure political landscape.

Yet, it seems evermore important today to exert caution when choosing words for describing political trends and presidential candidates in Iran. It is evermore important that we refrain from clear-cut labeling and binary definitions of ‘reformist’ vs. ‘conservative’. Iranian politics is dynamic and unpredictable. We might see a ‘conservative’ come to power in the guise of a ‘reformist’ – just as we might see a professed ‘principlist’ reform the country in a direction away from the ‘principles’.

9 responses to “Who is a reformist and what is principle-ism?

  1. This is another excellent article. Thank you.

    One quick question: why is Karrubi popular amongst ethnic minorities? And does his popularity cut across all minorities, or is it limited to particular ones? Thank you.

  2. Thank you very much, kind of you!

    The answer to your question is problematized by the fact that there are no statistics available, but I’m quite sure that he is popular among the Lurs – an ethnic group to which Karubi himself belongs. Furthermore, he has used a lot of energy on portraying himself as a defender of ethnic rights even though the issue is sort of tabooed for politicians. He has spent quite some time throughout the years in touring the periphery of Iran, including areas dominated by ethnic minorities.

    The majority of Kurdish voters (even though many Kurds boycott the elections or simply do not care) seemed to be on Khatami’s side. It will be interesting to see if any other candidate can win these votes; the same goes for Khuzestan, where a large segment is made up by Arabs.

    One potentially interesting candidate is a ‘reformist’ named Akbar A‘lami: a PM for Tabriz and vehemently opposed to Ahmadinejad. A‘lami, an Azeri Iranian, has been one of the very few politicians who has spoken out against the repression of Azeri ethnic activists and intellectuals. It remains to be seen if he is allowed to run. He most probably could not win – but would score high in Azeri areas.

    I think I will write a piece on this topic later on!

  3. That would be fantastic. I await that article eagerly.

    May I ask what resources you use to follow political developments in Iran? I am trying to follow these things more closely (and also work on my Persian) but there are so many sites that I don’t know where to begin

    Thank you.

  4. You can write me an email and I’ll give you some suggestions.

  5. What do you envision to be the role and or thrust of Ali Larijani and Moshen Rezai in the vortex of Iranian presidential politics? To which category -however loosely defined- to you place these potential candidates? Does either advocate opening links to the West?

    I also note that Karroubi seems to have adopted Obama’s slogan: Change. But to what does Karroubi seek to change?

    In recently speaking to Lord David Trimble (1998 Nobel Peace Laureate for his service concerning the “troubles” in Ireland), he used the term “moderate extremist.”

    I questioned Lord Trimble and also ask you if such designations only serve to mask politicians’ real positions and serve no useful purpose, especially in Iran where every candidtate seems to be a Principalist regardless of their respective reformist, conservative or radical predilections.

  6. Reg. Larijani and Rezai: Impossible to say right now. As I mentioned in the article, it might be that Rezai would support Musavi (in change for a post his cabinet maybe) – however, yesterday, Reza‘i released a communiqué stating that all rumors about his support for a particular candidate were baseless. We will have to wait to see what happens on the ‘conservative’ scene: will Ahmadinejad be the sole candidate? Or will others join in last minute? In the light of Larijani’s recent attacks on Ahmadinejad, it is possible that those so-called ‘moderate conservatives’ around Larijani would support an alternative candidate – maybe even Qalibaf (even though he would have a hard time finding support outside of Tehran).

    Reg. Karubi: Again, it is hard to say. His rhetoric is based on promises such as cash handouts – in other words, populist slogans. It is hard to see exactly how he defines ‘change’ apart from him instead of Ahmadinejad as president.

    Reg. designations: As I stated in the article, there are of course some differences between Iranian politicians – some profound, some a question of rhetoric or image. However, they are all united in their stand on the basic principles of the Islamic revolution and republic, including the idea of velâyat-e faqih. In this sense, they are all ‘principlist’.

    When Dr. Moin, the main ‘reformist’ candidate of 2005, proposed a broad-based coalition of ‘democracy-seeking currents’, he organized a meeting. At the meeting it became quite clear how he defined ‘democracy’: all those who were suspected of not supporting the velâyat-e faqih notion a 100% were ousted – including the ‘secular’-leaning part of the Melli-Mazhhabis. It is clear that this is where the ‘red lines’ of the ‘reformists’ are: you have to support the notion of the Rule of the Jurisprudent, full stop.

    In designating some as ‘moderates’ and ‘reformists’ and others as ‘conservative’ and ‘hardliners’ we must be careful to explain what we mean – and when we reflect the designations used in Iranian media and by the politicians themselves, we must be careful to understand these designations properly. For example, no ‘conservative’ politician calls himself ‘conservative’. ‘Reformist’ does not necessarily equal the ‘reform-minded’ nature of Khatami’s presidency.

    I do not think that Iranian politicians deliberately ‘mask’ their real nature. Iranians seem quite aware of who they are; if ‘we’ (Western observers) do not understand it, is our problem. However Iranian politicians – like politicians do all over the world – try to cater to and curry favor with other camps than the one they primarily belong to; and, as politics in most other countries, there will always be ‘fence-walkers’, ‘centrists’ and opportunists who will switch sides or take up policies normally championed by rival factions.

  7. I saw that I did not answer all your questions re: Larijani and Rezai:
    They are normally described today as ‘moderate conservatives’. However, we should not forget their backgrounds in Revolutionary Guards and the fact that they were described as ‘hardliners’ some years before Ahmadinejad and the rise of the ‘neo-conservatives’ (not that people cannot change!). Again, instead of all these designations, I think the only thing we can say for sure is that they are committed to the Islamic Republic – but that they seem more open to pragmatic coalitions across the political landscape (though probably not with persons such as Khatami or Nuri). Indeed, Reza‘i has talked of a Unity Government and re-instituting the post of prime minister.

    I am not sure how they stand on opening up to the West but my guess is that, like Musavi and the other current candidates, they would prefer such an opening to be gradual and that the US must take the first concrete steps. As Larijani said yesterday: holiday greetings are not enough. Iranian politicians across the board would like to see steps such as the dismantling of Jondollah, removal of sanctions or the release of Iranian funds frozen in the West before anything significant can happen.

    I would be happy to hear other opinions or comments.

  8. This was a very good read! After Khatamis wothdrawal, I have come to the conclusion that it is perhaps better to have a “conservative” techocrat than a weak “reformist”. Now that Khatami is out I hope that Qalibaf enters the race. He seems to be effective in a militaristic way (god we miss Reza Shah) and thats whats needed in Iran right now. He seems to have travelled quite a deal and sees the world differently than Musavi and other reformists.

    http://andishehblog.wordpress.com

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