Middle East


Prominent Conservatives Support Reform

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani delivers a sermon at Tehran University during a weekly Friday prayer session. (Photo: Hassan Ammar / AFP-Getty Images)

In a most contradictory fashion, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hard-line government has unexpectedly revived the support for reforms in Iran, both domestically and internationally.

Inside the country's political arena the extravagant self-reliance of Ahmadinejad's extremist approach toward cultural and political issues, followed by widespread international condemnation, has resulted in a dramatic retreat by many prominent political figures in the Islamic Republic from their previous conservative positions to more flexible ones.

It is a change in stance that many regard as a schism in the conservative core of power, giving rise to the formation of a totally new group of reformist-leaning conservatives. The split was most significantly demonstrated by Ahmadinejad's recent failure to get his allies elected to the City Council.

Ex-president (1989-97) and current head of the powerful Expediency Discernment Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, could be singled out as the most iconic political figure to definitively take a step back from Ahmadinejad's policies.

Rafsanjani is considered as one of the most influential architects of the Islamic Republic's political system, and is a long-time ally of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

A conservative figure throughout his presidency, Rafsanjani's tough approach toward social and political freedom once spawned the reformist movement led by Mohammad Khatami.

Now, after almost a decade out of office, Rafsanjani — who lost the 2005 presidential election to Ahmadinejad — has repeatedly voiced his concerns over the government's "mishandling" of essential policies such as the nuclear case, as well as its "inappropriate" approach toward cultural and social issues. It is a political stance that favors the reformists' agenda, which ironically had once been initiated against his own policies as president.

After the recent approval of the sanction-imposing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737 against Iran's nuclear program, and in the aftermath of the underestimation of the issue's importance by the Iranian government, Rafsanjani was the first key political figure to acknowledge the danger that the resolution posed to Iran.

Some other conservative figures exhibiting a more flexible approach are Tehran's mayor Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, lawmaker Emad Afroogh, and Mohammad Hashemi Rafsanjani — Akbar's brother, and a mid-ranking politician in Tehran's core of power.

The tendency to adopt a semi-reformist approach in the conservative ranks has paralleled concerns among the minority reformist Khatami supporters. According to many observers, a coalition between the two traditional rivals against the hard-line government is probable.

Although the formation of such coalition would inevitably confine the reformist expectations to some extent, its stability will be guaranteed due to the three decades-long influence, and the traditional established role of the conservatives in major policies.

Reformists Under the Spotlight

Apart from the shift of policy among many conservative figures, Ahmadinejad's hard-line approach has also resulted in a major comeback by the heretofore-silenced reformists to the political arena.

Political observers, as well as the majority of the Iranian people who had labeled Khatami's reformist approach "weak" and "futile," have now found the opportunity to compare the political, social, and most important of all, the economic outcomes of the two governments.

What many view as Ahamdinejad's "poor" handling of the economy has resulted in significant price increases, which has cast a shadow on the trust of the common people who voted for the economic promises of the then mayor of Tehran.

On the other hand, the outspoken, tough policies of Ahmadinejad's international agenda have profoundly boosted the more flexible stance of his predecessor, and his reformist supporters, in the eyes of Western countries.

Khatami was welcomed to the United States in September 2006 as the highest-ranking Iranian politician to visit the country on an unofficial trip in almost three decades.

Amid some protests to the organized trip, President Bush stated that he wanted to hear a different Iranian view than that of Ahmadinejad's. Khatami, due to his political technocrat-based history, was the best choice to fulfill that wish. He sounded a conciliatory tone, arguing that the two countries must stop trading threats and restart a dialogue; emphasized that the Holocaust is a historical fact which no one could deny; and acknowledged that a two-state solution was the best way out for Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The successful United States tour was followed by a trip to Britain, where the visit by a high-ranking Iranian cleric was the first of its kind since the 1979 revolution.

Some reports indicated that the Bush administration made secret overtures to the former Iranian president during his visit to the United States in an attempt to establish a back channel as part of a strategy to isolate Ahmadinejad by utilizing Khatami as a conduit to the Iranian people. Both sides denied the reports.

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