Leaders of Iran

Monday, December 20, 2004

"The Origins of Iran's Reformist Elite" (April 2003)

"The Origins of Iran's Reformist Elite" (April 2003): "The Origins of Iran's Reformist Elite
by Mahan Abedin

Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics, educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The confrontation between the reform movement and the conservative establishment that has dominated Iranian politics over the past six years is regarded by many political analysts as having reached a watershed. The refusal of hard-line clerics who control the commanding heights of government to allow further reforms, coupled with President Mohammed Khatami's reluctance to confront the clerical establishment, has led some to predict the rise of a "third force" in Iranian politics - the disaffected public, particularly the youth - and the eventual demise of the regime.[1]

One problem with this type of analysis is that it ignores the essentially elitist nature of the reform movement and exaggerates grassroots pressures for reforms. This so-called "third force" is too amorphous and fractured to buttress even the broadest reform coalition.

The reform movement in Iran is less an outgrowth of popular disenchantment than a reconfiguration of factional politics in the Islamic Republic. While most informed observers are well aware that the most prominent leaders of reform in Iran are products of the Islamic system, it is generally overlooked that most hail from its most sensitive and secret branches - the security and intelligence community. This reformist elite has forged its overall strategy outside the realm of public scrutiny and is not directly influenced by the disenchanted masses.

The Origins of the Reform Movement
The emergence of the reform movement in Iran has its origins in the Islamic Republic's mismanagement of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq and the demise in 1989 of its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The ascension of Hashemi Rafsanjani to the Presidency and the subsequent efforts by his faction and the Islamic right, led by the newly appointed supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to sideline the Islamic left caused ripples of dissent in the inner sanctums of the Islamic Republic. These schisms reached a climax in the April 1992 elections for the fourth Majlis (national assembly), when the Council of Guardians (which vets all candidates for elected office and can veto legislation) prevented the majority of Islamic left candidates - including such prominent figures as Behzad Nabavi and Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pour - from running on the dubious pretext of lacking "revolutionary" credentials.[2]

The genesis of the reformist elite can be located in the efforts of a former high-ranking counter-intelligence officer, Said Hajjarian, to establish a political and intellectual discourse distinct from the mainstream culture of the Islamic Republic. At first glance, Hajjarian appears as an unlikely reformer. Born to a poor family and raised in the desolate slums of south Tehran, Hajjarian was recruited early in his life into Islamic activism and participated in the Islamic revolution of 1979. He was quickly co-opted into the fledgling post-revolutionary regime's nascent Intelligence services. By the time the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (VEVAK) was formed in early 1984, Hajjarian had already proved himself a highly capable counter-intelligence officer.

Hajjarian left VEVAK in 1989 and promptly established his presence in a reputable think tank. The Center for Strategic Studies (CSS), officially linked to both the research department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a sub-committee of the Supreme National Security Council, served as an incubator for Hajjarian's reformist strategy and attracted other former officials of the security-intelligence apparatus who would play major roles in the reform movement, including Akbar Ganji, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence officer;[3] Hamid-Reza Jalaipour, a former high-ranking IRGC officer;[4] Mohsen Armin , a former IRGC commander based in Lebanon;[5] Mohsen Sazegaran, a former senior commander of IRGC ground forces; and Ali Mohammed Mahdavi, a former IRGC intelligence officer.[6]

CSS also included revolutionary figures with indirect ties to the security-intelligence elite. Abbas Abdi was one of the leaders of the 1979 seizure of the American embassy in Tehran. During the mid-1980s, he served as a deputy to the revolutionary prosecutor in Tehran, Mohammed Moussavi-Khoeiniha (who would himself come to be regarded as a "reformist"). Another prominent member of the student group that seized the American embassy, Ebrahim Asghar-Zadeh, was also affiliated with the center. Asghar-Zadeh held a number of sensitive positions in the 1980s, including a stint in the political-ideological department of the IRGC, and was elected to parliament.

The embryonic reform movement at CSS was dominated by several key institutions firmly rooted in the traditions of the Islamic left, including the Majma'e Rohaneeyoone Mobarez (Forum of Militant Clergy),[7] Sazemane Mojahedine Enghelabe Eslami (Organization of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution--OMIR),[8] and the Daftare Tahkeeme Vahdat (Office for Fostering Unity--OSU), a student representative body).

The strategy forged by the embryonic reformist elite was both multi-faceted and incremental. At its most basic level a distinction was made between engagement in intellectual debates and strategizing in the political arena. The embryonic reformist elite had set upon the course of reforming the political and religious culture of the Islamic Republic through a revaluation of the set of revolutionary and religious values, which they themselves had helped to consolidate in the first decade of the Islamic revolution. This was to be buttressed by a simultaneous concerted political assault on the institutions of the Islamic Republic.

The Islamic left believed that the 1979 revolution had failed to deliver on its core promises. Instead of yielding a more prosperous and egalitarian future, it had produced economic decline and inequality. As one brave parliamentarian put it in a heated debate in 1990, the revolution had merely replaced a monarchical feudal system with a clerical feudal system. Ironically, it brought about not a more pious society, but mass secularization. It was this last failing, striking as it does at the very heart of the revolution, that was to become a major focus for the reformists.

The suppressive intellectual and cultural climate during the first half of the 1990s was not conducive to allowing the reformers to assert their presence publicly. Instead they continued to work behind the scenes, with CSS remaining the main coordination center for reform strategists and the only major think tank in the hands of the isolated Islamic left. Another important medium of reformist discourse was a publication established in 1989 called Kian. Although fiercely loyal to the core ideals of the Islamic revolution, it was the first tentatively reformist journal to emerge in the Islamic Republic.

Like CSS, Kian had become an intellectual coordination center for ex-radicals and senior ex-IRGC and VEVAK personnel. Its most influential voice was Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a radical ideologue who had spent the 1980s serving on the editorial boards of revolutionary publications. Mohammed Soltanifar (the future managing editor of Iran News Daily), who had been the head of the IRGC's paramilitary Basij force in Greater Tehran province, was also a major contributor to Kian. A member of its editorial board, Ali Rabi'i, had been one of the original founders of the IRGC and later transferred to VEVAK and served as a senior officer in its foreign intelligence department until 1994.[9] The editorial and journalistic connections that were forged in Kian proved to be crucial in the proliferation of the reformist press after the 1997 elections

Although the center was a powerful tool to influence social and cultural policies in the Islamic Republic, it was not a sufficient medium through which to form broad coalitions. In the mid-1990s, many in the security-intelligence elite left the center and established themselves as journalists and editors in the main Tehran dailies.

By the time Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency came to a close in 1997, the security-intelligence elite had established the essential foundations for an effective political movement. Hajjarian and his close associates in the CSS had a comprehensive political strategy to undermine the ascendance of the conservative Islamic right. Erstwhile Islamic radicals and ex-IRGC personnel had acquired the skills and connections to make a massive impact on the press scene of the Islamic Republic.

The Reformist Assault

The surprise election of Mohammed Khatami as president in May 1997 was a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic, and ushered in the much-awaited political context and climate for the efflorescence of the reformist discourse. After being effectively forced out of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in 1992, Khatami retreated into the obscurity of the National Library. There is no evidence that he co-operated with the CSS during this period. However, in addition to being firmly rooted in the Islamic left camp, Khatami is known to have had close long-standing relationships with many of the personalities that dominated the CSS at that time. This included Hajjarian. Indeed rumors have persisted on the fringes of the reform movement that Hajjarian had "recruited" Khatami for stewardship over the reform movement. There is no solid evidence to buttress this claim. However it is clear that Khatami possessed the profile and disposition that endeared him to the security-intelligence elite. The new president shared the same political background and ideological loyalty as the ex-security chiefs and his impeccable religious and revolutionary credentials made him acceptable to the clerical establishment. His discreet and patient disposition was ideal for what would no doubt be a long struggle.

After Khatami's election, the security-intelligence elite began a relentless press campaign to undermine the dominant hard-line ideology and buttress political efforts to reform the institutions of the regime. The emergence of the daily Jame'e in February 1998, edited by Shamsolvaezin, heralded the beginning of the reformist press assault. Over the next three years, dozens of reformist dailies, weeklies and monthlies mushroomed in Iran. This period was marked by repeated attempts by the hard-line judiciary to suppress these mouthpieces of reform. Indeed a pattern emerged whereby the staff of major reformist papers closed by the regime would promptly reestablish these outlets under new names, prompting hard-line political commentators to bemoan "serial newspapers." [10]

Out of the hundreds of journalists and political commentators that emerged in the first few years of the Khatami presidency, only a handful made a truly great impact. Most belonged to the security-intelligence elite. Akbar Ganji's prolific literary and journalistic enterprise consolidated a new form of political language and discourse in the Islamic Republic. He coined the term "degar-baash" (subscribers to different life styles) to emancipate and legitimate cultural diversity, while his neologism "tavaab-saazi" (manufacturing repentants) was designed to discredit illegal practices by the judicial-security apparatus.

Ganji also proved himself as a brilliant investigative journalist. He tirelessly followed up the "serial murders" case of late 1998. His conclusions were damning. While praising VEVAK for accepting responsibility for the murders, which were said to have been perpetrated by "rogue" elements, Ganji set about identifying, and inevitably broadening, the "rogue" circles.[11] In particular, he identified a number of senior clergymen who had acted as spiritual mentors for these "rogue" VEVAK personnel and had issued fatwas against dissident activists and writers.

In addition, Ganji exposed Rafsanjani in a flurry of articles prior to the February 2000 parliamentary elections, in which the ex-president was participating with the undeclared aim of securing the speakership. Ganji's exposés on the financial corruption of Rafsanjani's family and his role in prolonging the eight-year war, as well as his indirect role in the serial murders case, sabotaged his election plans and directly contributed to his humiliating defeat.[12] Furthermore it had become increasingly apparent to the Conservative bastions of the regime that Ganji's exposes on the serial murders case and other matters could not have been made without the assistance of his former friends in IRGC Intelligence. To some in the conservative-controlled judiciary and security services, Ganji epitomized the dangers of "well-connected" reformist elites subverting the Islamic Republic from within. His imprisonment was intended to disrupt the flow of sensitive information from sympathetic elements in the intelligence community to their former comrades.[13]

Hajjarian spent the early years of the Khatami presidency promoting political and journalistic concerns. Alongside Abbas Abdi, Mohsen Mir-Damadi and Mohammed Reza Khatami (President Khatami's brother), Hajjarian established the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), which subsequently became the main bastion of pro-reform activists. Hajjarian intended the IIPF to mature into a conventional political party. Other prominent reformists shared this hope. The former spymaster's journalistic activities, exemplified by his editorials at the Tehran daily Asr-e-Ma, were designed to engineer the right context and climate for the political fortunes of the IIPF and the wider reform movement.

Hajjarian devoted himself to tackling some of the most important intractable philosophical and political problems of the revolution. His attempts to diminish the powers of the institution of Velayat-e-Faghih, the supreme symbol of clerical hegemony in the Islamic Republic, were designed to champion the "democratic" basis of the revolution at the expense of its metaphysical concoctions. However Hajjarian, like the other chief reformists, was careful not to irremediably sabotage the theoretical foundations of the Islamic State. Indeed he proves himself reluctant to reject theocracy. Instead Hajjarian presents a taxonomy of theocracies: theo-autocracy, theo-aristocracy and theo-democracy. The implications are clear; Iranians can attain representative government within the paradigm of the Islamic State and hence have no need to seek secular solutions. This is not to say Hajjarian does not identify and elucidate the Achilles Heel of the theocratic component of the regime. Through his encyclopedic grasp of both Islamic and Western philosophy, and their historical context, Hajjarian elaborates on certain subtle theoretical and religious facts. The unlikely editorialist tacitly conveys that Shiite Islam, through its inherent penchant for interpretative diversity coupled with its amorphous ecclesiastical structure, is ill equipped to sustain a theocracy in the post-modern age. The theocratic ideology in Iran, therefore, lacks religious, historical, institutional and ideological legitimacy.

Hajjarian's reluctance to deduce the obvious conclusions from his innovative approach to analyzing the theoretical incongruities of the Islamic regime was symptomatic of the security-intelligence elite's inability to irretrievably break with the core ideological premises of the Islamic revolution. Indeed as the conservative forces of the regime escalated their assaults on the vestiges of the reform movement, the elite displayed a unique and bizarre tolerance for the injustices inflicted upon them. As one after another of the prominent reform personalities were attacked or jailed on trumped-up charges, the elite exercised remarkable self-restraint in order not to "destabilize" the Islamic Republic. Hajjarians's own reaction to an attempt on his life which left him partially paralyzed is particularly instructive. He refrained from public displays of bitterness and declared that he had "forgiven" the would-be assassins.[14] Other reform personalities, such as Interior minister Abdollah Nouri and former chief prosecutor Moussavi Khoiniha displayed common traits as they were handed down stiff sentences. They all put up a spirited defense of their ideas and all displayed an unflinching loyalty to the Islamic revolution.

The muzzling of the reform movement, which entered a new intensive phase in August 2000 with the intervention of Ayatollah Khamenei to end a parliamentary debate over press reforms, has seemingly undermined the prospects for fundamental change in the Islamic Republic. However it would be a mistake to underestimate the elite's achievements over the past six years. Through its innovative press assault and relentless attempts to undermine the non-elected institutions and metaphysical concoctions of the regime, the elite sustained the Khatami presidency. Indeed it has been President Khatami's inability to seize opportunities provided by the elite that has contributed to the present sorry state of the reform movement. Khatami proved to be overly patient and displayed excessive compromising proclivities. Nevertheless the elite has shown that there is ample scope within the Islamic Republic for dissent and it provided the more literary and informed sections of the population with the theoretical and practical tools to rationally criticize the regime. In a country with a long history of patrimonial autocracy, marked by a seemingly irremediable gulf between the people and their political elites and distorted development of civic institutions, this can be construed as a major achievement.

However, the reformist elite has also strengthened the Islamic Republic by undermining "illoyal" - and especially armed - opposition. It was Hajjarian who coined the famous Khatamist slogan: "our aim is to turn enemies of the system into critics and critics into supporters." It would be a mistake to interpret small-scale demonstrations demanding more radical reforms as indications of "illoyal" opposition or "third force." Most "radical" demonstrations are organized by student groups that are affiliated with two main organizations, the OFU and the Islamic Society of Students and Graduates (ISSG), both of which are linked to the security-intelligence elite.[15] In the absence of alternative platforms of reform, the Iranian public is unlikely to irremediably break with this elite. This does not mean that the prospect for rapid, violent change in Iran has been forever forestalled, but the likelihood of its occurrence in the future is low.

Many conservative strategists recognize the service rendered to the Islamic Republic by the reformist elite in channeling the public's disenchantment away from radical solutions to an evolutionary activism that operates within the confines of the Islamic Republic's constitution. As a result, fears that the rightwing backlash currently underway will morph into an assault on the reformist movement as a whole are exaggerated.

The reform movement is currently enduring a difficult phase. It has to operate in an environment marked by ever bolder assaults by the conservatives and increasing public disaffection with the political process. Indeed, the conservative assault is encouraged in part by the increasing disillusionment of the public with the reformers and their failure to deliver on some of their key promises. The recent national municipal elections, in which the reformers suffered a resounding defeat, is a good indication of the alienation felt by the pro-reform public (the vast majority of whom did not vote in the elections). Innovative moves are needed to re-engage the public with the political system. The IIPF, for example, is preparing to nominate a non-clerical candidate for the 2005 presidential elections. Rather than seeking to satisfy the Council of Guardians, it is hoping to put forth a candidate that will cut through public apathy and invigorate the reform movement.


[1] See Jahangir Amouzegar, "Iran's Crumbling Revolution," Foreign Affairs Vol. 82, No. 1, Januray/February 2003.
[2] Behzad Nabavi, who had started his political career in the Communist Tudeh Party and later converted to political Islam, had been a chief ideologue and troubleshooter of the Islamic Republic from the beginning. He had also played a crucial role in the negotiations to free the American embassy hostages in 1980-1981. Mohtashami-Pour had been an Interior Minister for four years and was widely regarded as playing a crucial role in the formation of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in his capacity as Iran's ambassador to Syria in the early 1980s.
[3] Ganji has consistently denied any affiliation with the intelligence organs of the IRGC. In an article published in the reformist daily Aftab-e-Emrooz on February 16, 2000, Ganji claimed that he worked in the Political-Ideological Directorate" of the IRGC, but this department is intimately linked with IRGC intelligence. Ganji's assertions also appeared in the reformist dailies Fath and Sobhe Emrooz on the following day.
[4] Hamid-Reza Jalaipour joined the IRGC immediately after its official formation in May 1979. Later that year, he was dispatched to Kurdistan to assist in the quelling of a Kurdish separatist insurgency. He was made governor of Naqadeh for 18 months. Afterwards, he was made the governor of Mahabad for 4 years and then served as a political deputy to the provincial governor for 4 years. During this entire period he was organizationally affiliated to the IRGC. Iranian Kurdistan, because of its special political and security climate, was the only province in the country where IRGC personnel were involved in administrative and political affairs.
[5] Mohsen Armin was attached to the IRGC's General Command in the Lebanon from 1983-1989. After the 1997 election of Mohammed Khatami, he became editor in chief of Asr-e-Ma weekly.
[6] Mahdavi went on to form the reformist daily Gozaresh-e-Ruz after the 1997 election. The paper was closed down in April 2000 as part of the wider crackdown against the reformist press.
[7] The Forum of Militant Clergy represents clerics affiliated with the left-wing factions of the Islamic Republic. Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pour (a former Interior Minister and widely recognized as one of the founders of Lebanese Hezbollah) is a leading member of the organization. The FMC has a right wing counterpart in the form of the Jame'eye Rohaneeyate Mobarez (Society of Militant Clergy). The SMC represents the more traditional Bazaar-oriented clerical establishment. Many prominent clerics of the Islamic Republic are either members of the SMC or affiliated to it.
[8] The OMIR was formed in March 1979 by a collection of small Islamic groups. The original founders of OMIR went on to forge the IRGC in May 1979 and many OMIR members subsequently joined the IRGC. It has, ever since, maintained intimate links with the Revolutionary Guards. These links are primarily personal rather than organisational. Behzad Nabavi assumed leadership over the OMIR in 1980. Amongst the left wing forces of the Islamic Republic, the OMIR has been the most vociferous exponent of championing the "Republican" aspect of the regime at the expense of its "Islamic" component. Hashem Aghajari, who was recently handed a death sentence, is a senior leader of OMIR.
[9] Rabi'i's intelligence career has been subject to widespread speculation and misreporting. There have been claims that he headed the IRGC's Intelligence Directorate in the years 1981-1987. Rabi'i became the editor of the Kar-o-Karegar daily after the 1997 elections. Soon afterwards, Khatami appointed him executive secretary for the Supreme National Security Council. Currently he is Khatami's senior advisor on intelligence and security issues.
[10] The fate of the daily Jame'e is particularly instructive. After its closure in June 1998, it quickly reappeared as Tus. After that license was revoked, the paper reemerged as Neshat. After its closure, Neshat appropriated the dormant license of Akhbar and resumed publication as Akhbar-e-Eghtesad. Other Neshat personnel were employed by Asr-e-Azadegan, which after its closure was succeeded by the weekly Goonagoon. Until its forced closure, this weekly employed staff from Tus, Neshat and Asr-e-Azadegan. Later on, former Jame'e staff and editorialists set up the Aftab-e-Emrooz, which was itself closed down in April 2000.
[11] The VEVAK had conceded that the head of its Internal Security Directorate, the US-educated Saeed Emami, had masterminded the murders. Ganji opines that the orders for the killings must have originated from more senior positions. He directly implicates former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian in the murders. He also identifies clergymen such as Ruhollah Hosseinian, Mohseni Ege'ey and Mesbah-e-Yazdi, who had had links with the Intelligence networks that had planned and executed the killings. Most controversially of all, Ganji asserts that extra-judicial killings in the Islamic Republic started with the Presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ganji claims that dozens of dissident activists and writers were murdered by rogue VEVAK elements during the period from 1990-1998.
[12] A famous article by Ganji, entitled "Aleejenab Sorkhpoosh" (Eminence Rouge), which appeared in Sobhe Emrooz on 19 January 2000 was particularly devastating. In this article, Ganji critically assesses Rafsanjani's role in a series of issues including the eight war with Iraq, the serial murders case and the wider abuses committed by the intelligence services.
[13] Ganji was tried on charges of attempting to subvert the Islamic Republic by attending a controversial conference in Berlin in April 2000. He was sentenced to ten years in jail to be followed by five years in internal exile.
[14] The assailants were a group of young men with loose connections to the Basij (the paramilitary wing of the IRGC). There is no evidence that the assassination was part of a wider conspiracy. Indeed, it seems that it was a clumsy plan concocted by a group of over-zealous youngsters. Any serious discussion of a "conspiracy" in this matter must grapple with an obvious fact: if certain forces in the security services had been out to kill Hajjarian, they would have surely succeeded.
[15] The full name of the OSU is Daftare Tahkeeme Vahdate Hozeh va Daneshgah (The office for fostering unity between the University and the Seminary). It was created in 1979 as a mechanism to engender dialogue between the universities and the religious seminaries. The organisation became highly active in the 1980s after the reopening of the universities after a 2-year closure and was a powerful tool in the hands of the organizers of the "cultural revolution." By the late 1980s, it had matured into a student representative body and was asserting its independence from the cultural and higher education institutions of the Islamic Republic. Its most prominent leaders have been Heshmatollah Tabarzdi and Ali Afshari. Tabarzadi split from the OFU in 1990 and set up the ISGC. In its early years, the ISSG gravitated towards the Islamic right. However it returned to the fold of the OFU in the mid 1990s."


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