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Comment | The Bankruptcy of Reform and the 'Burning Questions of Our Movement'

by AMIR FARESS

13 Mar 2012 21:37Comments
mousavi4_small.JPGThe failure to address basic issues of organization has exposed irresolvable divisions.

[ comment ] Although it would be premature to write the obituary of reform in Iran, the parliamentary elections on March 2 showed all too clearly that the movement is no longer a force to be reckoned with. While ten years ago, the reformists controlled the presidency and parliament and enjoyed a strong presence in many other key governmental institutions, today they are barely hanging on by a thread as a minority opposition. What is more, the movement is internally divided on the issue of political participation, to the extent that its most prominent figure, Mohammad Khatami, had to issue a public statement explaining why he voted. Many reformist outlets that emerged in the months before the 2009 presidential election to win over Iranians to the cause of reform actively dissuaded potential voters from taking part in last week's parliamentary balloting. Alliances that had for so long sustained the reform movement have been broken. To understand the underlying causes, let's begin with this question: What is reform?

The reform movement, which moved significantly onto the political stage when Khatami assumed the office of president after his landslide victory in 1997, does not lend itself to a clear definition. Its agenda is easiest to articulate in negative terms: It is not a subversive movement -- that is, reformists do not seek the immediate dissolution of the Islamic Republic as do monarchists, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization, and many other opposition groups. It is also not a right-wing movement (those who advocate the status quo in support of traditional conservatism). Broadly speaking, the reform movement stands between the subversion and preservation of the status quo. Finding it impractical, costly, and unnecessary to overthrow the system, the movement historically presented the ballot box as a way out of political deadlock and the smoothest means of transition to democracy. The inefficiencies of the electoral system notwithstanding, the ballot box provides the public important leverage as well as an outlet to express its demands. And this is where it gets problematic: the ballot box appeals to two distinct groups with diametrically opposed convictions. These groups are referred to here as "loyal reformists" and "disloyal reformists."

The loyal reformists consider reform to be a necessary evolutionary phase in the maturation of the Islamic state that guarantees the survival of the founding principles of the governmental system arising from the Revolution of 1979. The reforms they pursue are intended to strengthen the foundations of the system through the development of more inclusive domestic and foreign policies, thereby making the regime less vulnerable to upheavals at home and pressures from abroad. The second group, the disloyal reformists, holds that through gradual reform and "changes from within," the Islamic Republic will at some point make the transition to democracy. Like the Bolsheviks who responded to Lenin's call for political participation in the tsar's Duma (Russian parliament) following the 1905 Revolution, a sizable faction of the disloyal reformists have considered political participation in Iran as a necessary first step toward the eventual dissolution of the system. Other disloyal reformists have held to the Chinese model: introducing reforms in order to gradually undermine or water down the key tenets of the Islamic Republic. A reformed "Islamic Republic" might still retain its name in much the same way the People's Republic of China is today one of the world's leading capitalist states while its form of rule remains nominally communist. From the outset, the reform movement was an alliance between these two groups with opposite objectives.

Surprisingly, the movement has rarely come under criticism on this important point. Instead, its critics for the most part reduce it to one or the other of its two primary factions. Painting all reformists with the same brush, "subverters" (those seeking the immediate dissolution of the system) reduce the movement to its loyalist faction. The reform movement as a whole is loyal to the Islamic Republic, the argument goes, because participation in elections assumes and legitimizes a mechanism for resolving political disputes. Voting is hence grist for the mill of the regime's staunchest supporters, especially as the Islamic Republic boasts of a streak of high turnouts for an average of one national election per year since 1979, attributing this phenomenon to the referendum-like nature of elections in postrevolutionary Iran. The conservatives for their part reduce the movement to its disloyal faction, accusing the reform movement as a whole of being a fig leaf for those harboring subversive intentions. The reformists' consistent goal, from the right-wing perspective, is to take advantage of the ballot box to bring about gradual reform in order to undermine the system. There is a kernel of truth in both charges levied against the reform movement, but the critics go awry in assuming it to be a homogenous whole. It was not, at least not until the Green Movement. Up to that point, the reform movement was a broad coalition of unlikely allies seeking disharmonious ends.

The alliance between the loyal and disloyal reformists, which came in handy for mustering votes at election time, proved to be the movement's Achilles' heel in the days following the disputed presidential election of 2009. The response of the key reformist figures to the spontaneous street uprisings provided a litmus test to gauge the movement's expressed unanimous loyalty to the Islamic Republic. As the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put it, "If the political elite want to undermine the law, or blind the eye to pluck an eyebrow, whether or not they intend to they are responsible for all the bloodshed, violence, and chaos." Though many reformists raised doubts about the effectiveness of street protests, a significant number believed the demonstrations held great promise.

Like the Bolsheviks, who having served in the tsar's Duma for over a decade saw in the spontaneous February Revolution of 1917 an ideal opportunity to seize power by staging a second revolution that October, a sizable faction of the reform movement in Iran saw in the spontaneous protests an ideal opportunity to stage the final transition to a democracy -- or, to put it another way, regime change. The so-called Twitter Revolution left behind a clear and transparent record of subversive intentions harbored by at least some within the reform movement. It could no longer be denied that numerous "subverters" had found in the reform movement a fig leaf to hide their true sentiments. The moderate reformists for their part sought to tone down the street protests, but they could not agree to a blueprint for how to exit out of the crisis without losing face. The result was the alienation of a great many supporters of reform and with it the crumbling of an alliance, a phenomenon evident in last week's elections.

The Green Movement exposed the bankruptcy of reform. And that is a good thing. It was about time we realized that transition to democracy cannot take place in an intellectual void. Reformists could no longer talk from both sides of their mouths, promising eventual dissolution to some while pledging the polar opposite to others. Things must first be worked out on paper. Disillusioned and "disenfranchised," a former faction of the reform movement is now pondering some deep questions, most especially, "What is to be done?" Lenin addressed that very question some 15 years before the October Revolution in a pamphlet, "What Is to Be Done: The Burning Questions of Our Movement," in which he discussed the issues of organization, party, and the role of the intelligentsia. For many reformists, these burning questions were only an afterthought. What the Green Movement lacked in substance it tried to make up for in flash. Little good it did us. We evaded these burning questions in favor of activism in hopes that things would somehow work themselves out in the end, but that did not come to pass. And it was not for lack of trying. Activists did their part; if anything, they overdid it. If only the same could be said of Iranian intellectuals.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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