Iran's Conservatives Face the Electorate

by Arang Keshavarzian | published February 1, 2001

In May, Iranians will go to the polls to pass judgment on the record of President Mohammad Khatami and the reform movement he symbolizes. Although observers of Iran typically characterize the Islamic Republic's factional divisions as a single left-right split dividing the regime into unified "reformist" and "conservative" blocs, a multitude of potential cleavages belie this simple dichotomy. Since the 1979 revolution, a variety of opinions have existed within the regime's accepted confines. Two decades ago the principal debate within the regime was over economic issues, with a divide between an "Islamic left" championing state-led economic development and "conservative" forces seeking to preserve the private sector and enforce the system of property rights. Today the factions argue more over the balance of power between the democratic will and religious authority. Despite violence and high-profile arrests of reformist journalists and intellectuals over the past year, predicted fractures in the loose coalition composing the reformist Second of Khordad front—named after Khordad 2, 1376 (May 23, 1997), the date of Khatami's election victory—have not materialized. Instead, the end of 2000 witnessed public estrangement within the conservative camp, as sections of the right wing argued that Iranian public opinion has rejected the traditional conservative outlook. This self-proclaimed "new right" calls for constructing a platform that addresses the concerns of the electorate.

Schism on the Right

The Jamiat Motalefeh Eslami, or Islamic Coalition Society (ICS), which formed in the early 1960s to support Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his confrontations with the last Shah, is the most well-known, well-funded and dogmatic faction on the right. At the outset of the revolution, the ICS solidified its professed allegiance to Khomeini's principles with a cell-like associational structure drawing on religious circles in the bazaar -- Iran's merchant class. Since the revolution, ICS figures have held ministerial posts and acquired a deep financial interest in Iran's monopolized and rentier economy. After Khatami's victory, the ICS has viewed itself as the leading voice of social conservatism, seeking to maintain the power of the conservative judiciary to counter-balance reformists in the regime's institutions.

Last month, the managing director of the right-wing Entekhab daily, Taha Hashemi, announced that several conservative organizations will gradually distance themselves from the ICS. He mentioned that the Society of Engineers, the Islamic Association of Physicians and right-leaning student organizations as some of the emerging forces in a new conservatism. The ICS, Hashemi explained, has been unable "to reconstruct itself intellectually or respond to new intellectual developments." Despite its positive and important role, the conservative organization "continues to look at issues from the perspective it held forty years ago." Commenting on a series of landslide electoral victories for the reformist forces, the former representative to the last (Fifth) Parliament argued that those defeated in the elections must accept the people's criticisms and strive to renew themselves.

Other conservative newspapers attempted to downplay the schism, claiming that Taha Hashemi's remarks captured a dialogue rather than a divide. Amir Mohebiyan, an editor of the ICS-allied Resalat, reacted sympathetically to Hashemi's rejection of intransigence, saying that theories of "religious reformism" and "religious democracy" are a natural move for the right. Writing in Resalat, Mohammad Ali Amini, head of Tehran's ICS chapter, welcomed Hashemi's remarks as constructive criticism. Amini went on that he hoped friendly meetings between the ICS and other groups that believe in Khomeini's revolution would continue.

But activists and dailies allied with the Second of Khordad front eagerly quoted Hashemi as evidence that some hardliners were beginning to pay attention to public opinion. Dowran-e Emrouz, a pro-reformist daily, described the new conservative thinking as "neo-religious intellectualism" with a democratic tendency. The crisis of the right, the newspaper's editorial said, emanates from conservatives' inability to express their beliefs in a way that is comprehensible in today's world.

The New Right: More Than Slogans?

The rather surprising schism on the right comes less than six months before the May presidential elections. The "reformists"—defined broadly as those who call for restructuring the regime to ensure the rule of law, the expression of the popular will and the protection of personal freedoms—have been unable to effect dramatic policy changes despite their impressive national and local electoral victories. Conservative forces have benefited from the timely interventions of Ali Khameneii, Khomeini's successor as Leader of the Revolution. Khameneii has authority over the judiciary, the military, broadcast media and revolutionary paramilitary organizations. He has not hesitated to mobilize these institutions to rein in the reformists' popular mandate with press closures, arrests and media smear campaigns. These institutions also attempt to court public opinion by attacking the reformist parliament and president for threatening national security and the sanctity of religious values -- and their inability to resolve Iran's numerous economic woes.

In this environment, the neo-religious intellectuals have an opportunity to build a social base. But the practical costs of distancing themselves from the tightly organized and well-financed ICS will be high; the new right needs sources of funding to compete in the developing electoral system. Is there a social base in Iran that would allow the new right to establish an independent political identity?

As a growing number of the staunchest members of the revolutionary establishment present themselves as voices of "rationalism" and "the rule of law," the Iranian electorate is asking for more than labels and slogans. Taha Hashemi's statement about the ICS might mean that the right is now taking the electoral process more seriously. But the new right has a long way to go before they convince the "reformists" or the public that their political reappraisal is more than an opportunist ploy to capture voters, who broadly favor "reform." The new right has not expressed public support for the authority of the democratically elected parliament and the presidency, to acknowledge the general desire for a more open society and a more responsive political system. This would require the new right to define its view of the relationship between the Islamic Republic's democratic institutions and the powers of velayat-e faqih -- the rule of the clerics.

Lately, the right has claimed that the public is most concerned about the ailing economy. But the new conservatives—like the "reformists"—have not devised an economic program that goes beyond simply listing economic problems. On all the fundamental issues—the form and scope of privatization, the role of the parastatal foundations (bonyads), and Iran's relationship with the world economy, especially the US—the new right has an opportunity to distinguish itself from advocates of a state-controlled economy among the reformists and monopolists among the old right.

Back to the Bazaar

During the 1990s, the ICS and old right have not cultivated an active and regenerating social base. ICS member Hamid Reza Taraqi acknowledged the organization's passive stance toward youth when he told reporters: "We never tried to bring the youth towards us. Our goal was not to attract the youth to our organization; rather our goal was to attract the youth to the regime, revolution and values. We consider any youth who tends towards religion and values to be part of us, even though they are not members of our organization."

Most analyses of contemporary Iran accept that the bazaar—a religious social stratum unattracted to rapid social change—is the force behind the right. But while the ICS sees itself as the representative of Muslim merchants in the bazaar, today the vast majority of the traders seem aloof, if not hostile towards the ICS. The conservative Society of Islamic Guild and Bazaar Associations releases announcements supporting Khameneii and opposing "reform." Meanwhile, most merchants have in recent years kept a safe distance from organized and public politics. While a select few traders have benefited from ties to the regime, gaining access to cheap hard currency, import-export licenses and monopolistic niches, most have suffered from the closed and highly regulated economy. The new right—by mixing religious dogma and social conservatism with a dose of free market economics—might win support in the bazaar.

Such a development would force Iran's self-proclaimed reformists to explain more clearly how they plan to reform the regime that many of them fought to establish in the 1980s. If genuine dialogue within the regime emerges to replace the current cycle of political tit-for-tat and violence, then independent voices that don't fit into the regime's sanctioned politics might also speak more freely. On the other hand, if the fractures between "reformists" and "conservatives" are not transformed into self-critical dialogue, then the nascent democratic movement in Iran will stumble along as it has for the past three years, limited to slogans and insiders.

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