The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why haven’t reformists joined the protests sweeping Iran?

Anti-riot Iranian police prevent university students from joining other protesters over Iran’s weak economy on Dec. 30  in Tehran, in this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran. (AP)
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A widespread wave of protests has swept Iran over the past week. Originating mainly in the provinces, these events have been leaderless, similar in ways to the Arab Spring uprisings. Iranian reformists are a group that could have provided leadership but have so far decided to stay out of the action. Some have attributed reformists’ reluctance to their fear of Iran turning into Syria, their past support for Hassan Rouhani’s government or the incompatibility of reportedly aggressive tactics with peaceful reformist methods.

However, my research suggests this decision is actually rooted in the reformist strategic thinking formed during late 1990s.

Why would these protests need leaders?

Leaderlessness might be a blessing for such movements in the short-term, as the movement does not present any clear target for the regime to repress. In the long run, leaderlessness creates problems, undermining the movements’ capacity for strategizing and leaving them without agents to negotiate with authorities or articulate demands.

Iranian reformists provided such leadership and direction in 2009, when hundreds of thousands protested the fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2009 movement featured massive protests in Tehran, but for the most part did not spread to provinces or effectively engage the working class. Activists and scholars highlighted both the middle-class and Tehrani background of the Green Movement as a defining feature, as well as an explanation for its decline.

The current protest wave offers an opportunity to bridge the gaps between Tehran and the provinces, and between the lower- and middle-classes, but this has not materialized.

How the reformists are distancing themselves from this protest wave

Reformists have drawn clear lines between themselves and the protesters.

Hamid Reza Jalayipour, a prominent reformist strategist, said such protests could destroy Iran and transform it into Afghanistan. He recognized protesters’ demands should be met, but said “we should tell our people, that our country’s problems cannot be resolved through streets.”

Mostafa Tajzadeh, another leading reformist, imprisoned for several years after 2009, said it is reformists’ duty to prevent clashes and not let Iran to turn into Syria.

Another prominent reformist leader, Abbas Abdi, called the protests uncalculated and irrational.

Online, reformist users have used #BelieveinReforms (#باوراصلاحات) to share their definition of reformism and explain why they distance themselves from the protest wave.

One user wrote no country has ever achieved democracy through the streets. Similarly, others wrote that the protest wave would only lead to further repression, even describing the protests as blind riots.

Why haven’t reformists sided with the protesters?

While these sentiments are all telling, pessimism about street protests dates back to the formation of the reform movement in Iran. In the late 1990s, reformists were a faction of the regime that tried to democratize the Islamic Republic from within. The rise of reformists within the executive and legislative branches after 1997 paralleled the massive mobilization of intellectuals, students, women and middle class with demands about democratization, social liberties and the rule of law.

As I have argued elsewhere, the dominant strategic thinking within the reform movement was initially pessimistic about the viability and consequences of protest. Grievances were so deep, they feared, that mass mobilization could stir up emotions, spawning radicalism and providing hard-liners with an excuse for repression, possibly leading to civil war.

Each time conservatives cracked down on reformist activists and blocked their initiatives within the state, the reformist leadership and intelligentsia called on the supporters to be calm. For example, when a prominent reformist leader was arrested, a reformist newspaper wrote that the arrest “might be a plan to agitate emotions, and we should not give any opportunity for repression. Thus, at this time, any [protest] gathering will serve the interests of authoritarians.”

One leading reformist organization even coined the term “active tranquility” for this strategy, which calls reformists to keep pushing for their demands but avoid confrontation, with a view to gain the trust of hard-liners. Reformists also saw the ballot box as the main pathway to peacefully push for political change and incompatible with mass mobilization.

So why did reformists engage in mobilization during the 2009 Green Movement?

The post-election uprising of 2009 occurred as a continuation of people’s street presence during the campaign. After the results were announced on June 12, a Friday night, angry Tehranis started protesting the following Saturday and Sunday without any invitation by the reformist leaders.

The reformist leaders asked the Interior Ministry for a permit to hold a demonstration on the following Monday, but their request was denied. The main opposition candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, went to the location of the protests that day, not to demand mobilization but because they were afraid people were unaware that no permit was issued and that they were involved in an illegal demonstration. They found people did not care about the Interior Ministry’s refusal. Millions showed up to the biggest demonstration in Iran since the 1979 revolution, setting in motion a protest wave in support of the reformist leaders, regardless whether they approved.

The dynamics for the Green Movement uprising had been set in motion from the 2009 election campaign, with reformist leaders mostly following the rank and file rather than them leading the protest. The sense of solidarity created during that movement perhaps made some reformists more receptive toward mass mobilization, but the protests’ eventual decline and the government’s subsequent crackdown strengthened others’ belief that contentious collective action may not be the proper method for political change in Iran.

The current protest wave in Iran has already shaken the political landscape of the regime and society. Some younger activists in the mid and lower reformist ranks have suggested channeling this wave to make their own demands through street demonstrations organized by reformist parties. However, the reformists’ response remains distant. If they are not able to overcome their fear of street protest, this could damage their credentials in the longer run as the main agent of democratic change within the country.

Mohammad Ali Kadivar is a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Follow him @MAliKadivar