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As Protests Continue, Where Will Iran's Reform Movement Lead?

New America Media, Commentary, Mohammed A. Salih Posted: Jun 19, 2009

WASHINGTON -- As hundreds of thousands of people march in the streets of Tehran and other major Iranian cities following the official election results, an important question hangs in the air: What will become of Irans reform movement?

Reformist candidates Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi were widely credited with generating a semi-revolutionary zeal among Iranian voters during the elections. The green color of Moussavis campaign brought a revolutionary symbol to reformists renewed powerful presence on Irans domestic scene. For many it was reminiscent of the color-coded revolutions of the past few years in countries like Georgia and the Ukraine as well as Irans popular revolution 30 years ago against Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. This did not go unnoticed: Forces loyal to the powerful Revolutionary Guards and the current establishment in the Islamic Republic accused reformist candidates of attempting to stage a colored revolution.

Reformists campaigned on a platform of easing restrictions on social, cultural and political life in Iran. They also have a softer stance toward the outside world, particularly when it comes to the countrys nuclear program. Moussavi recently told Time magazine that he believes the weaponization of Irans nuclear program is negotiable with the West.

But, ecstatic with the large crowds that showed up on the streets to support them, reformists prematurely considered themselves victorious. Moussavi declared himself the winner hours before polls closed in the country last Friday. Then came the official results that changed the whole story. Reformists, who had already begun celebrating their newfound power, found themselves dethroned kings. Hours after the official results were announced, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei put his seal on them. The leadership of the reformist movement could not digest any of this. Neither could its base.

The election results pitted old fellow revolutionaries against each other in an unprecedented power struggle in the history of the Islamic Republic. Shocked and disappointed, reformists faced a fait accompli that presented a serious threat and a potential opportunity. The threat was the severe rejection by the Principalist (as conservatives like to call themselves) establishment to reformists presence in the top echelons of power in Iran. The opportunity came in the form of harnessing massive popular support in order to take back the power they had lost four years ago to President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Reformist politicians have enjoyed considerable support over the past 12 years, especially during the eight years of Mohammed Khatamis presidency (1997 to 2005). But their failure to stand up to the conservative establishment in the face of a widespread crackdown on their supporters has brought them extensive criticism. Although Khatami ran on a platform of reform, while was in power, students were jailed, reformist newspapers were shut down and prominent reformists were detained. To the disappointment of the millions of people who voted for him, Khatami hardly took a stand against these actions.

Now the challenge facing the reformists is how they are going to handle the aftermath of the elections. They have vowed not to accept the results. The popular base appears to have taken reformist leaders at their word and is pushing them not to compromise. Protestors in Tehran are chanting slogans like, We write Moussavi, they read Ahmedinejad, testaments to their uncompromising public stance.

This makes the job of reformist leaders even harder. If they do not want to lose their credibility with the public, they have to appear strong in their opposition to the conservative camp. But how far would they want to take this current political battle? In fact, the reformist base does not want its leaders to back down from what they see as their legitimate right to govern the country. Iranian voters have already shown reformists that they are not blindly loyal to them. Many believe Ahmedinejad became president four years ago because a large number of disillusioned reformist supporters did not show up to the polls.

Reformist leaders are being forced to make some tough decisions, ones that require paying a heavy price. Any failure on their part to support their base in calling for a complete recount of votes, or annulling the current election results, would project an image of weakness to the conservatives. For reformist leaders, backing down from their current demands now would signal the end of their political careers.

But carrying on with those demands risks a more serious confrontation with the conservative wing of the Republic. A large-scale clash between the two sides could bring the Islamic Republic to the brink of a real crisis. Reformist leaders are not likely to want that, since they have been part of the Republic for decades: They have worked to bring changes to it, not to bring it down. But conservatives are not likely to annul election results, since that would cost them the governments executive branch as well as a humiliating acknowledgement of fraud and defeat.

The current escalation of tensions among rival groups in Iran will make it hard for them to return to a pre-election status, when the rifts were not as deep. Lines have been crossed during these elections like never before in the history of the Islamic Republic. It will be interesting to watch how the old revolutions selfless sons will now deal with one another in their quest for power. Will they accommodate each other, which would give some power to reformists, or will they choose to take the battle to its end? Iran is now a story unfolding.

Related Articles:

Unrest in Iran Inspires Pro-Democracy Activists in the Arab World

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