Personal Reflections on Iran’s Reform Movement Failures
It was the day after the presidential election second round last summer, June 25 2005, Ahmadi Neghad, the unknown mayor of Tehran was the president of Iran. I was sitting down looking at my monitor asking myself why it happened. I saw the new mail icon popped up; there was an email from a friend in Tehran. Said Shariati; a war veteran who was an active reformer, his email was about the election results. Something went through me. I started to type an angry email about why reform movement failed; all were lost. After many lines I stopped. Did I have the right to tell him? After all they were there, and I was not. I deleted everything. Today I want people like him to know how much they are appreciated. They were brave soldiers a leaderless army, it was not their fault. It is our duty and our right to look into last eight years to understand, to analyze and to plan. There will be another day.
Many may argue reforms have been successful one way or other, but success like victory has a clear definition. And the success of reform never was, is and will be defined as the success of those who have opposed it bitterly, violently and in some cases cowardly. It is fall of 2005; reform is over all but a memory.
Why did reform movement fail? The answer to this question varies dramatically. But there is some common consensus among my esteemed compatriots Iranians. A wide range of elites, reform activists and politicians blame Iranian people in different words. Mr. Tajzadeh, the former energetic deputy of ministry of interior, told a reported in last July that Iranian people are not citizens of Switzerland so one should not expect much. I asked the same question from a 36 years old female physician in Tehran and she exploded: “These people do not deserve even Ahmadi Neghad, he is too much for them and their level of culture.” Iranian people voted for Ahmadi Neghad at least 17 million of them did so, the others voted for him with their silence.
There are more facts. Iranian people voted for President Khatami in two presidential elections overwhelmingly, two out of every three Iranians who had voted, chose him. When in 1997 Khatami took office everybody was hopeful. In the streets of Tehran strangers would congratulate each other, it was a strange discovery for me to see my compatriots could be truly happy. Constitutionally may be he as the president of Islamic Republic did not have much power and was second to the Supreme Leader, but Khatami could have summoned such a muscle in the streets of Tehran that was more than what Supreme Leader or any other conservative factions could have managed. When he came to office, everybody felt something great was about to begin. Iranian people did not stop at supporting reformists then and there, they voted in the first municipal and the sixth Majlis (Iran’s Parliament) elections overwhelmingly in favor of reformists. Many in reformist circles had hoped by winning the majority in Parliament the road would be open for permanent changes, some even were saying: “The real reforms will begin when we are in Majlis.” It was a promise they made, a promise they did not honor. The second presidential election was a success, the support this time was overwhelmingly from all social layers, Iranian people voted for him no matter where they were, in a remote village or in Paris. Many emailed, called, send short messages and begged others to vote. Many did, it was another victory, the last one.
Along the roads many had been left behind. Members of Tehran Police and Ansar e Hezbollah attacked University of Tehran dormitories; they trashed building, broke the doors and threw students out of the windows. From the popular figures able men such as Karbaschi the mayor of Tehran and Abdullah Noori the minister of interior were imprisoned. Several newspapers were shut down in 2000; dozens of journalists lost their jobs. Meanwhile people witnessed how the council of Tehran was dysfunctional because of petty fights among its reformer members, they did not see any support for students, and one of the attackers was punished for stealing a shaving machine and nothing else. The assassin who shut Hajjarian one of the reform’s strategist went free unpunished. Reformist administration and reformist parliament watched all of these doing nothing, just protesting from time to time, calling on masses to continue their support. When Guardian Council disqualified several reformists in 2004, reformists already had lost their national support. Guardian Council did not expect a fight; its task was as easy as cutting down dead branches of a tree. Many mocked their protest, because they had been conveniently silent when others lost their jobs and faced imprisonments.
The truth is Iranian elite mindset is a paradoxical one. On one-hand they want people intelligent enough, brave enough and selfless enough to suffer and to sacrifice for their cause, keeping them in power and in their cozy offices and well-paid positions. On the other hand the same politicians and elites consider them as uneducated, primitive and insensitive masses; that must be lead and guided. One cannot be intelligent enough to see the long run benefits of a democratic movement and insensitive enough to follow submissively at the same time. Iranian people have sacrificed so much in their struggle for a better country. They died in the battlefields of Iran-Iraq war and they perished in prisons. Some have chosen immigration and some have become isolated souls in their own homeland. They still suffer from poverty, discrimination and inequality. And yet despite everything, bad traditions and social injustice they try to have dignity wherever they can, in their homes, in their workplaces, in their schools and in their deathbeds. It was not their fault that reform failed.
Reform failed because reformists, reformist administration and reformist parliament let people down. It failed because President Khatami simply did not want to assume the leadership of reform movement did not want to trust people and did not want to call upon them. At the same time his administration tolerated conservatives’ rebelliousness, Guards’ intervention in politic and economic affairs and hardliners ignorance of law and rules of the game. Reformist officials follow the suite, they did not have a plan, they did not design one and they did not follow even one united strategy. They put no less than 3 candidates for presidency. A minister, a vice president and Majlis speaker all from different reformist groups compete for one seat. The conservative did not need to divide and conquer! The opposing camp was already divided.
For Iranian elite to blame Iranian people for reform failure is not an act of ignorance and arrogance, it is an act of cowardice and treason. The elite are supposed to know, to plan, to design policies to find issues and to offer solutions. They are supposed to lead, and leadership is an art, a skill. And it is not definitely sitting down silently and witnessing events folding without interrupting them.
Reform movement failed for many reasons foremost it failed because Iranian elite failed to lead, failed to find issues they could have addressed and failed to give people a sense of accomplishment. No it was not Iranian people, it was not their fault.