After removing leftist and nationalist rivals after the 1979 revolution, Iranian Islamists split into radical left and conservative right. Then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini struck a balance between the two until his death in 1989 unleashed a vicious rivalry for power. Rafsanjani seized the opportunity and first teamed up with the conservative right against the radical left. But in 1997, he shifted allegiances and partnered with the left against the right.
The first alliance helped Khamenei’s transition from a weak president to a weak supreme leader and Rafsanjani from a powerful speaker of the Majles to a powerful president, both thanks to the recent constitutional amendment. The balance of power between the two figures, however, reversed and they fell apart in the mid-90s over various domestic and foreign policy issues culminating in Khamenei blocking Rafsanjani to change the constitution to become a third-term president. To Khamenei’s dismay, Rafsanjani then threw his political machinery behind the radical left, now calling themselves “reformists.” This helped Mohammad Khatami secure the presidency in 1997.
In the following two decades, however, both left and right ensured Rafsanjani paid a price for his treacherous alliance formations. Taking advantage of the limited liberal climate, the radical wing of the reformist camp accused him of masterminding the killings of dissidents and pushed him out of the parliamentary race in 2000.
With Rafsanjani out of the picture, Khamenei could easily oust the divided reformists. Soon after it was the radical wing of the conservatives, led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and blessed by Khamenei, that went after Rafsanjani. It defeated him in the 2005 presidential race.
Ahmadinejad’s controversial reelection in 2009 and the bloody Green Movement brought Iran’s political actors into a deadlock. The conservative establishment had the hard power but suffered from lack of legitimacy, while the reformists had popular support with little access to the state. Taking advantage of the deep fissures within each camp, Rafsanjani gradually re-emerged by bringing the “moderate” side of each faction onboard. But that required ideological concessions.
The reformists downgraded their democratic and human rights priorities, while the moderate conservatives moved away from their anti-American and overtly Islamist rhetoric. Both inched closer to Rafsanjani’s economic development and pragmatic foreign policy models.
Former President Khatami, who ran on a civil society platform in 1997, had to appeal to his supporters this time to vote for a united “List of Hope” that included merciless judges of military and revolutionary tribunals. In a letter from prison, a political activist described her pain in casting her votes for Khatami’s lists. Yet, millions such as her responded to Khatami’s call and delivered a historic victory, particularly in Tehran.
Reformists have adamantly remained unified behind Rouhani and Rafsanjani by lowering their demands. The fact that even a moderate conservative such as Ali Larijani, speaker of the Majles, ended up on their list and enjoyed their popular support demonstrates how much both sides have moved toward the center.
Perhaps the best indication of the durability of this alliance is that the very same reformists, who spearheaded the campaign against Rafsanjani and Khamenei in the late 90s, have called for absolute restraint from any antagonizing behavior this time around.
The supreme leader has found himself in a position to either continue backing the losing ultra-conservatives or slowly shifting to the center as well. The second option can make him a less powerful leader in a more powerful regime. He may not be happy to lose this personal battle to Rafsanjani; nevertheless, the net result can still be positive for him. While this, together with the strong element of uncertainty, fit the classic democratic transition model, it could also be seen as a typical authoritarian strategy.
The Islamic Republic owes much of its existence and survival to the shrewd use of “moderates.” It was Khomeini’s alliance with the nationalist leader Mehdi Bazargan that projected a democratic vision for the upcoming revolution and helped delink the shah from the United States and Iran’s Imperial Army. Bazargan, who became the first prime minister subsequent to the revolution, was also the first moderate casualty after Khomeini turned anti-American in order to outbid his communist nemesis.
But the regime began to generate its own moderates in the coming three decades. Each time, these emerging factions clashed with the conservative establishment, while projecting a new face and hope, and thus helping resolve the regime’s international or internal crises. By now, the regime has lost so many layers to the moderate camp that one wonders which group of Khomeini’s disciples represents the real Islamic Republic.
On the one side, there is Khamenei and on the other, all of his presidents — except Ahmadinejad, a radioactive figure disowned by all parties. The fault-line similarly cuts through key institutions such as the IRGC and now reportedly even the Guardian Council. The recent elections have released centripetal forces to mend this internal fissure. Khamenei and his conservative but key minority constituency may have no choice but to come on board. Or so Rafsanjani thinks.
Similarly, the Iranian electorate sees no option but to vote for the candidates it has, not the candidates it wishes it had. But even more surprising is the regime’s open acknowledgement of this. A few days before the election, Rouhani compared voting to shopping. “Sometimes you don’t find the ideal clothes for your children at a store. Nevertheless, you buy the clothes that are not your ideal just to prevent your child from catching a cold,” Rouhani said.
Although he implied that this was by default, it could also be seen as by design. Yet the popular response, particularly in Tehran, was shocking to all sides. The winners of Tehran’s 30 seats in the Majles were the 30 candidates on the list that Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani backed. Similarly, the same coalition in Tehran won 15 of the 16 seats in the Assembly of Experts. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council, the body that disqualified the vast majority of the reformists, barely won the 16th seat. Behind him, defeated, was the current head of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi.
In order to manage a restless young population, Rafsanjani and Rouhani now realize that they must prepare for a major act. They need to dilute the Islamist core of the regime, release it from the self-inflicted anti-American trap and set it on a nationalist path directed toward the West. They could sell these liberalizing measures to the citizens as a bridge toward democracy, while framing them for the conservative establishment as an authoritarian delaying tactic. Their success might be productive for many important domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Building a democracy is not one of them — unless it becomes an unintended consequence.
Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an assistant professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is also a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.