MERIP Press Information Note 45
Iran's Conservatives Face the Electorate
February 1, 2001
(Arang Keshavarzian, doctoral candidate at Princeton University, is
conducting research on the Tehran bazaar.)
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
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
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
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.
(When quoting from this PIN, please cite MERIP Press Information Note 45,
"Iran's Conservatives Face the Electorate," by Arang Keshavarzian, February
For background on problems facing Iran's reform movement, see MERIP Press
Information Note 30: Iran's Reform Dilemma: Within and Against the State:
The fall 1999 issue of Middle East Report (MER 212), "Pushing the Limits:
Iran's Islamic Revolution at Twenty," focuses on the Islamic left and its
program for reform. Kaveh Ehsani's thematic introduction is accessible
online at: http://www.merip.org/mer/mer212/212_ehsani_intro.html
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