November 15, 2002 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 112

Reformist-Conservative Struggle in Iran Part II - The Conservative Response

November 15, 2002 | By A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 112
The Conservatives' Response: De-legitimization of the Reformists and Enhanced Repression

Reformists in Iran recently undertook a protest campaign which consisted of a statement issued by reformists warning of Iran's deteriorating political and social situation in addition to a statement signed by 151 Majlis members warning of the consequences of the conservatives' oppressive policy. In response, the conservatives launched a counter attack aimed at de-legitimizing the reformists both nationally and religiously and enhancing oppressive measures.

I. Accusing Reformists of Undermining the Iranian Regime in the Service of Iran's Enemies, Particularly the U.S.

Judiciary head Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi claimed that the reformists' statement serves the foreign media, and the enemies of the Islamic revolution and of the Iranian people: "Real freedom means that all legal institutions are supported in implementing the laws. If anyone objects to a [legal] decree, there are legal ways [of pursuing this objection]. Illegal moves at this sensitive juncture merely weaken the legal institutions and serve the interests of the hostile sworn enemy of the Islamic [world], that is, the criminal U.S." Shahroudi added that at a time when the U.S. brands Iran as a member of an "axis of evil," it is unpatriotic to create a confrontation between one branch of the government [the Majlis] and the other [the Judiciary], as such a move is "in favor of the enemies of the country." Shahroudi maintained that the U.S. is trying to sow discord among Iran's officials to implement its "vile plans" to undermine Iran's establishment and to divert public attention from the "actions of spies and the fifth column."[1]

On July 20, 2002, the Revolutionary Guards issued a statement warning reformist groups and accusing them of "sowing discord and paving the way for the U.S. military intervention." The statement aroused protest among the reformists, who complained that the Revolutionary Guards "overstepped their authority" by issuing a political statement and getting involved in friction among political sectors, which is out of bounds for military and paramilitary groups.[2]

Revolutionary Guards Deputy Commander General Hassan Hamidzadeh claimed that since "the Revolutionary Guards is not [just] a military force but rather the Islamic Revolution's force… founded in order to safeguard the Islamic Republic," its statement does not contradict the constitution, which bans military bodies [only] from political involvement. Hamidzadeh added: "Shouldn't the Revolutionary Guards issue a communiqué when they realize that the counterrevolutionaries are attempting to undermine the Islamic system?… [Besides,] 50 lines out of a total 84 lines of the Revolutionary Guards' statement are against America." "The Revolutionary Guards," Hamidzadeh noted, "must be the most politically aware institution of the country. The will of Imam [Khomeini] did not ban the participation of the Revolutionary Guards in political debates." [3]

Islamic Coalition Society Secretary General Habibollah Askaroladiconducted a [public] correspondence with Mohammad Reza Khatami, the brother of President Mohammad Khatami, and IIPF Secretary-General, following the latter's threat to resign. In one letter, Askaroladi attacked Reza Khatami for "being disloyal to the regime and its policy": "Do you think that now, when [the reformists] exercise control over the executive and legislative branches of the government, you should raise objections to the ruling establishment?… Can you, after the lapse of five years, explain what you mean by the reforms? Does your interpretation of the reform process match the ones put forth by the [Supreme] Leader ['Ali Khamenei]?"[4]

On another issue, Askaroladi further rebuked Reza Khatami for his behavior during the national demonstration organized by the regime against the U.S. following President Bush's July 2002 remarks in favor of the Iranian students. He condemned Khatami for not speaking out against Bush, which proves, according to him, Khatami's subversion against the regime: "How is it that you haven't objected to President Bush's hegemonic policies? Aren't we all obliged to object to the [American] threats? How come your party was silent during the [anti-U.S.] public rally held on July 19?"[5]

II. Accusing the Reformists of Disloyalty to Islam

Askaroladi hinted at Reza Khatami's alleged secret ambition to change the nature of the Islamic regime: "… Do you think the spirit of secularism, commonplace among some of your party members, complies with the logic of a religion-oriented political system as stipulated in the Iranian constitution?" Askaroladi said that it is unlikely that believers in Islam and "religious democracy" would withdraw from the system unless they act like the Khavarej [Khawarij, late 7th century converts to Islam who rebelled against their Arab rulers, including the Caliph Ali]."[6]

Escalating the Struggle

The two camps increasingly endorse extreme positions regarding each other, each using tactics that suit its power and abilities.

I. The Reformists: Threatening Resignation

Reza Khatami threatened, "If the conservatives don't pay attention to the demands of the public, we [the reformists] will resign [from the Majlis]."[7]

The conservative daily Resalat claimed that the threat to quit is a publicity tool used by radical reformists trying to maintain their grip on the reformist camp. Resalat noted that while the slogan of "national unity" demonstrates the flexibility of a religious-oriented democratic system, the reformist slogan of "quitting the government" proves very limited tolerance. The paper added that the strategy of fostering national unity should become so predominant that those who propose quitting will feel isolated. [8] Resalat editor Morteza Nabavi claimed that the resignation threat was aimed at pressuring President Khatami.[9]

In an article titled "Ignoring the Constitution," Resalat maintained that there is a link between the reformists' threat to resign and their demands for a referendum, [while] ignoring the constitution. He concluded that those supporting the idea of a referendum are essentially seeking to resign. [10]

Reza Khatami criticized Askaroladi's statement: "If you think that the proponents of reform have no public support, why are you worried about their quitting? If they are the enemy's fifth column, as your friends have mentioned on several occasions, why do you insist that they should not quit? Why should you think that if they quit they have sided with the U.S.?… What kind of logic is it that you consider individuals elected by millions of people [i.e. Majlis members, including Reza Khatami himself who won the majority of Tehran votes in the last Majlis elections], and those who called for reconsidering Iran's policy towards the U.S. - advocates of America, [while] those whom the [Iranian] society has rejected on several occasions [meaning the conservatives] seem to you to be the true supporters of the Islamic Revolution?" [11]

II. The Conservatives: Threatening to Declare a State of Emergency

Iranian newspapers discussed extensively the possibility that the conservatives would declare a state of emergency ostensibly because of the fear of a possible U.S. attack on Iran – which would allow them to strengthen their control without much criticism.

The reformist daily Tose'e expanded on this subject, claiming that "the attempts by anti-reform elements" to force officials to declare a state of emergency by depicting the situation in Iran as critical is "one of the most dangerous threats to the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic… They [the conservatives] fail to realize that a state of emergency will impose undue restrictions on political parties, the press and public freedoms, and will give the Bush administration an excuse to bring up charges against the Islamic Republic [such as human rights violations]."[12]

In an editorial, the reformist paper Iran Daily claimed that "a small minority among the conservatives… spares no effort to eliminate their rivals and uses rigid ways. Radical conservatives have tried hard to push a strange theory advocating a state of emergency as the last and necessary resort under the pretext of increased American military presence in our neighborhood. It seems their main goal is to get rid of the reformists and disrupt their agenda… [They] are trying to regain their lost power base." [13]

[1] Resalat, August 6, 2002.

[2] Aftab-e Yazd; Resalat, August 1, 2002.

[3] Iran Daily, August 21, 2002.

[4] Iran, Hayat-e No Kayhan, August 11, 2002.

[5] The reformist paper Tose'e responded to these allegations as follows: "They [the conservatives] have all along aimed to drive reformist figures into the corner and bring the process of amelioration to a complete halt. To this end, they have taken advantage of every single word uttered by U.S. President Bush on developments in Iran to accuse reformists of serving American interests." Tose'e, cited in Iran Daily, August 25, 2002.

[6] Mohammad Reza Khatami responded in kind: "We consider it to be contradictory to Islamic principles to accuse a particular political group of cooperating with the enemies [the U.S.]." He continued: "If you do not believe in revisionist policies and in government interaction with the public… I do not think that our comments would be useful for you…" Iran Daily, August 3, 2002. The reformist daily Mardomsalari ("Democracy") also accused the conservatives of taking a stand in contradiction to Islam and wishing to create a society in which blind obedience to the regime was required. Mardomsalari, cited in Iran Daily, September 11, 2002.

[7] Iran, July 28, 2002.

[8] Resalat, August 22, 2002.

[9] Resalat, August 18, 2002.

[10] Resalat, September 10, 2002.

[11] Iran Daily, August 3, 2002.

[12] Tose'e, cited in Iran Daily, August 25, 2002.

[13] Iran Daily, August 26, 2002.

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