Iran's reformists lie in waitThe decision by Mir Hoseyn Moussavi, the former Iranian prime minister, not to participate in next year's presidential elections has been greeted by huge sighs of relief in the conservative camp. Conversely, the reformists lamented the loss of their last credible chance to arrest the furious pace of power monopolization and consolidation by their conservative tormentors.
Irrespective of the pressures wrought on him by both camps, Moussavi in fact made a very wise decision. Politics in the Islamic Republic are likely to be marked by high levels of consensus and uniformity for the next five years (until the presidential elections in 2009) and, given the current mood, now is not the time for a man like Moussavi to return to the commanding heights of government.
However, Moussavi's brief return to the headlines of the Tehran dailies contains a thinly veiled secret on the long-term reconfiguration and transformation of politics in the Islamic Republic. The conservatives' ascendancy will not last forever, and Moussavi is still young enough to fight for the presidency another day.
The rise and fall of Moussavi
Moussavi is something of a rarity in Iranian politics; the former prime minister has significant support among all constituencies in Iranian society. Much of this popularity stems from his eight-year tenure as prime minister from 1981-89. A brilliant administrator and a principled and uncompromising politician, Moussavi ensured the smooth functioning of government during the emergency years of the 1980s, when Iran was embroiled in a bloody war with Iraq.
The Iranian civil service - long accustomed to institutionalized corruption, nepotism and waste during the monarchical era - was transformed by Moussavi into a comparatively efficient and virtually corruption-free apparatus. For a Third World country that had just emerged from a revolution and was embroiled in a protracted foreign war, this was quite an achievement. Another remarkable feature of the Moussavi years is that Iran emerged from the war against Iraq with zero foreign debts and in 1989 was officially recognized as the only nation in the developing world with such credentials.
An architect by training, Moussavi hails from a traditional middle-class family. Educated partly in Britain, he managed to win over sections of the sophisticated and pro-Western middle classes in post-revolutionary Iran. Meanwhile his "Hezbollahi" demeanor and unflinching devotion to the core values of the revolution ensured he enjoyed massive popularity among the core constituencies of the Islamic Republic. In short, Moussavi's political popularity straddled two worlds without him ever having to compromise on his principles.
Labeled a "socialist" by his political enemies, Moussavi was constantly at pains to explain that he in fact favored a "mixed" economy. His own protestations are closer to the truth, since many of the economic policies pursued by his government in the 1980s were a reaction to the war rather than products of ideology. Nevertheless, Moussavi has always been firmly entrenched in the left-wing camp of the Islamic Republic. While in recent years many of his friends metamorphosed into "liberals" and assumed leading positions in the reform movement, Moussavi stuck firmly to his ideals. This has led some critics to question his political judgement and ask whether he fully understands the underlying dynamics that have transformed Iranian society over the past 15 years.
Those who have met Moussavi describe a quiet man, fiercely intellectual and with an impeccable eye for detail. Handsome, polite and soft-spoken, Moussavi is an unlikely Iranian politician. He can best be described as belonging to the "Amir Kabir" school of politics (named after the legendary Iranian prime minister in the middle of the 19th century). Amir Kabir served his Qajar masters while at the same time fighting the "evils" of modern Iranian politics; namely institutionalized corruption, sycophancy, effusiveness and a mindset that is predisposed to inferiority and superiority complexes at the same time - in short, the same evils that continue to bedevil the country's politics 152 years after Amir Kabir's murder on the orders of the incumbent Qajar monarch.
While Amir Kabir was knifed to death in a public bath house by shadowy agents of the tyrannical Qajars, Moussavi was brought down in a political assassination spearheaded by Hashemi Rafsanjani (who has earned a deserving reputation as a latter-day Qajar prince). In fact in July 1989 Rafsanjani was so intoxicated with power that he quickly rushed in legislation that abolished the institution of the premiership altogether; not content with only destroying the man, Rafsanjani was determined to destroy his legacy as well.
The Rafsanjani years could not be more different from the Moussavi era. Given the ludicrously pompous title of "commander of construction" by his supporters, Rafsanjani presided over the deconstruction of all the economic and social gains of the previous decade. Within a few years his government had incurred foreign debts exceeding US$30 billion. The efficiency of the Iranian civil service - ranking as the most noteworthy achievement of Moussavi - was relentlessly rolled back as cronyism, incompetence and rampant corruption gradually displaced meritocracy, efficiency and transparency.
Celebrated in the West as a modernist and a pragmatist, Rafsanjani in fact orchestrated the rise to power of the conservative coalition. Misrepresented in the West as defenders of Iranian and Islamic tradition, the conservatives are in fact distinguished by the colossal commercial interests of their influential constituents. The conservative coalition that is relentlessly trying to secure all bastions of power in the country today is chiefly made up of shadowy organizations such as Habibollah Asgar-Owladi's "Islamic Coalition Party", secretive clerics who pull strings from the shadows and ambitious offspring of leading clerics who have forged strong commercial links with rich and influential Iranian exiles in the cosmopolitan cities of Paris, London, Washington and Los Angeles.
Rafsanjani's single-minded pursuit of consolidating his own power led him to strike Faustian deals with widely different constituencies. His courting of shadowy politicized clerics enabled these wily old men to not only broaden their political influence but also gain a foothold in the impenetrable sanctums of the Islamic Republic's powerful intelligence community. This had disastrous consequences, as evidenced by the serial murders of leading dissidents, journalists and artists. Rather bizarrely, Rafsanjani courted elements of the previous regime at the same time. Functionaries in the civil service back in the 1970s were invited back to the country as "consultants" to ministers. One such candidate - known for his strong links to the deposed Shah's family - was made a senior manager in the country's main tourist organization before he was literally forced out of his office by families who had lost relatives during the Iranian revolution.
More ominously, former Sazamane Etelaat Va Amniate Kechvar (Iranian Security and Intelligence Service, 1956-79) officers - who in the 1980s had acted as liaisons between Iranian intelligence and Western and Israeli intelligence agencies - were invited back into the country to set up political and strategic "consultancies". One such individual - a Jewish Iranian exiled to London in 1979 - caused a stir in 1992 with his campaigning on behalf of the Israeli Labor Party on the eve of the 1992 Israeli general election. One of the meetings he organized in Tehran descended into chaos as Jewish-Iranian supporters of Labor and Likud turned on each other. In perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the Rafsanjani years, the "Basij" (paramilitary wing of the revolutionary guards), touted as the ideological army of the Islamic Republic and apparently committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, had to intervene to stop the protagonists from literally tearing each other apart.
Few people would disagree that Iran's embattled reform movement is in crisis. But there is widespread disagreement on the precise causes and effects of this pervasive crisis. Many analysts have focussed on tactics and strategy, struggling to find consequential faults. This is, at best, misleading since the methods and goals of the reformists could not be more transparent and relevant. The primary weakness of the Iranian reform movement over the past eight years has been a lack of effective leadership. President Mohammad Khatami has proved to be not only a hopeless politician, but also a third-rate scholar and pretentious statesman.
Interestingly, the lack of effective leadership is also the Achilles' heel of the conservatives. The conservatives may soon be in control of all bastions of power, but in the absence of centralizing dynamics they are unlikely to be able to consolidate these gains. Instead they rally their supporters around hollow ideological slogans that not only conflict with the essentially "commercial" characteristics and interests of their coalition, but are also at odds with the realities of early-21st-century Iran.
Nonetheless, the conservatives are virtually guaranteed to dominate Iranian politics in the next five years. However, a resurgent reformist current is equally guaranteed to sweep the political landscape from the 2009 presidential elections onwards. There are many reasons for this, not least the fact that the conservative coalition will, in due course, fragment in the face of serious domestic and foreign-policy challenges.
In the meantime, reformers will need to devote most of their energies to identifying and developing capable leaders. It is difficult to overestimate the democratizing potential of the Iranian reform movement. What started off as an experiment by former members of the Islamic Republic's security and intelligence services in the early 1990s has metamorphosed into a complex movement that broadly articulates the wishes and interests of the majority of the Iranian people. Indeed, the first two years of the Khatami presidency saw Iran beginning to turn into a genuine democracy, with meaningful elections marked by unparalleled participation, a vibrant civil society and near total freedom of the press. Had Khatami been a competent leader and not squandered one opportunity after another, Iran may have been a very different country today.
If the reformers are serious about finding competent leadership they would be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Moussavi. Those who criticize this choice on the basis that reformers need to find leaders among the new generation are missing a very important point. Indeed, for all the exaggerated talk about Iranian youths and their unparalleled dynamism, it is interesting to note that the new generation has not produced a single political event of any significance. There are, of course, cultural reasons for this as Iranian society is profoundly patriarchal; in Iranian folklore, as exemplified by the legendary "Shahnameh", the father always slays the son.
Those who criticize the choice on the basis of Moussavi's "socialism" or other half-truths are missing yet another point. In contemporary Iran the ideology of the leader is not necessarily influential, as the reform movement has redefined the role of leadership. If the demise of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 marked the end of "charismatic" spiritual leadership in Iran, then the abuses of Hashemi Rafsanjani and the incompetence of Khatami mark the end of the all-powerful "executive" leader. This is not to say that leadership is not consequential, but to emphasize the fact that it is the core constituency that determines the ultimate path and not the leadership. What the reform movement needs above all is a leader who is uncompromising in the face of serious pressure and is able to unite the disparate ranks of the reform movement under a cohesive set of policies. Moussavi fits the bill on both counts.
Of course much will depend on the willingness of Moussavi to re-enter the world of politics. But those who are well versed at deciphering the cryptic communications of Iranian leaders cannot help thinking that Moussavi's sudden courting of publicity and his equally sudden retreat from the limelight holds some meaning. The conservatives may yet learn that quiet men do not necessarily lack serious ambition.
Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the Jamestown Foundation.