What is a ‘Reformist’ in the Context of Iranian Politics?

When talking about politics in contemporary Iran, Western media tend to divide the Iranian political sphere into two distinct hemispheres, namely the “Reformists” and the “Hardliners.” In this division, the Reformists are supposed to be the “good guys” and the Hardliners the “bad guys.” Here I am going to tell you why this division is misleading. Not that it is completely nonexistent. Rather, the manner of its application by Western media and the implications it makes are misleading.

There is indeed a difference between the Reformists and the Hardliners. The difference is that they belong to two major classes of the Islamic Republic. It is not necessarily the core ideology, but personal affiliation and power politics that make the difference. Simply put, while the Reformists belong to the Khomeinist faction, the Hardliners belong to the Khameneist faction of the Islamic Republic.

To clarify, those who call themselves Reformists were mostly close affiliates of the first Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. These were sidelined after Khomeini’s death in 1989 by the advocates of the next – and now incumbent – Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is the followers of Khomeini, who now call themselves “Reformist,” that have given the derogatory epithet “Hardliner” to the followers of Khamenei.

However, the truth is that many of these so-called Reformists who are regarded as “Western-friendly Islamists” by Western media were the first to scale the walls of the American Embassy in Tehran while chanting “Death to America” right after the 1979 Revolution. They were also the main ideological and operational force behind the large-scale execution of all sorts of political dissidents in Iran during the 1980s. As a case study, a glance at the history of the three foremost Khomeinist personages that later became known as “Reformist” sheds light on their true nature and origins.

To begin with, Sadegh Khalkhali (1926-2003) was appointed head of Islamic Revolutionary Court by Khomeini immediately after the 1979 Revolution. In that capacity, he unleashed such a reign of terror that earned him the epithets “Hanging Judge” and “Butcher of Revolution.” Hundreds were summarily executed as a result of Khalkhali’s swift death sentences and even by his own hand, most without access to even a rudimentary defense. Among them was Amir-Abbas Hoveyda (1919-1979), a long-time Prime Minister (1965-1977) under the Shah, whom Khalkhali himself reportedly shot in prison.

Years later, in the mid-1990s, when Radio BBC Farsi interviewed Khalkhali, defiantly defending his previous actions, Khalkhali stated that he had no remorse for what he had done, and that he would once more execute those he had executed before if they were alive. When Khalkhali died in 2003, a great number of Reformist figures, including President Mohammad Khatami and Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karroubi, issued endearing condolences. Karroubi, who is now regarded as a leading Reformist by Western media, in particular praised Khalkhali’s performance “in the early days of the Revolution.”

Next, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour (b. 1947) was the Iranian ambassador to Syria in the early 1980s. In that capacity and as part of the Khomeinist project of “Export of Revolution,” he established the formidable Hezbollah in Lebanon. Under Mohtashamipour’s supervision and with Hafez Assad’s approval, a contingent of IRGC elite was sent through Syria to the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon to train the Lebanese Shiite militia, both militarily and ideologically.

Tenets like Jihadism and acts like suicide bombing that are now typically associated with the Sunni extremists by Western media were in fact among the main principles that the Mohtashamipour-led IRGC elite instilled in the Lebanese Shiite militia for the first time in the history of modern Islamism. Since then, Hezbollah has carried out some of the deadliest attacks against all those whom the Iranian regime regards as rivals or troublemakers, including Westerners, Jews and Arabs.

Mohtashamipour was later appointed Minister of the Interior by Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, now promoted as a major Reformist figure by Western media. In the sixth Islamic Republic Parliament (2000-2004), which was a majority Reformist Parliament chaired by Karroubi, Mohtashamipour was head of the Reforms Front Coordination Council. Mohtashamipour was also head of the Staff for Karroubi’s Election Campaign during the notorious 2009 presidential election in Iran.

Last but not least, Mohammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha (b. 1942) is the secretary general of the Association of Combatant Clerics, the once chief Khomeinist faction that is now a Reformist association and in whom originate almost all the major Reformist figures. Regarded as the Grey Eminence of the Islamic Republic Left for his mostly “behind-the-scene” performances, Khoeiniha was the real architect of the American Embassy takeover in Tehran on November 4, 1979. According to Bowden in Guests of the Ayatollah, Khoeiniha was still a staunch defender of the embassy takeover in 2006 when the book was published. Khoeiniha was one of the most important backers of Khatami in the late 1990s, and, true to his sobriquet, is seen as a major behind-the-scene influence in getting Khatami to presidency.

Now, those all-powerful people, which in the 1980s used to style themselves as the “Line of Imam” in reference to “Imam” Khomeini, were later sidelined by Khamenei’s clique after Khomeini’s death in 1989. Divested of power, pragmatism and convenience dictated that they choose a more appealing and “moderate-sounding” appellation for themselves than the blood-loaded “Line of Imam,” namely “Reformist,” so that they can mend fences with their archetypal enemy, the United States.

As such, by making overtures to the Americans, these Reformists hoped to enlist the services of the “Great Satan” to undermine the clique of the Supreme Leader so that they themselves can re-attain power in Iran. Ideology-wise, however, as was noted in the case of the three Reformist figures studied above, they are still the very “Line of Imam” that mass-executed Iranian dissidents and bombed the American barracks and called – and are still calling – for the annihilation of Israel.

This can now be easily perceived in the positions some of the personages associated with the Reformists assume; namely President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. For instance, with regard to the question of the recent ballistic missile tests by the Islamic Republic that explicitly threatened Israel, Rouhani and Zarif both toed the Supreme Leader’s line by passionately defending the Iranian regime’s missile development program.

As a matter of fact, since their inception, the Reformists’ foremost function has been to follow the objectives that the so-called Hardliners set forth for them, but with a catch: they are supposed to do it through diplomacy and show of goodwill rather than threat and coercion. During their seeming ascendency in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the so-called Reformists did not implement even a single constitutional reform in Iran. Instead, they have been somewhat successful in furthering the Islamist ideology and strategic objectives of the Iranian regime by misleading the West. As such, what the Reformists constitute in effect is the Islamic Republic’s showcase for the eyes of the world.

Therefore, one can say that these two appellations, i.e. Reformist and Hardliner, mostly reflect the rhetorical struggle between the Khomeinists and the Khameneists rather than having any real substance. However, since the Khomeinists/Reformists have somehow managed to infiltrate the Western media, they have been able to cast their own vocabulary and version of the story as “truth and nothing but the truth.” Indeed, it can be said that one owns the truth when one has a monopoly on defining it.

We should know better. When both the “Hardliners” and the “Reformists” stem from the same ideological springhead of Islamism, Anti-Westernism, and Export of Revolution, whatever appellation they give themselves will make no difference in practice: it’s a deadlock. That is why, as I predicted a long time ago, the much-eulogized Nuclear Deal was doomed to failure even before it had been concluded. That reality is now only being laid bare before our eyes.