As June Election Looms, Iran Reformists Eye The Presidency
The Association of Combatant Clerics, in which former President Mohammad Khatami remains influential, have been meeting in the past two weeks to decide the reformists’ strategy for the presidential elections of June 2020.
The meetings follow a statement on September 22 by Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi-Khoiniha, Secretary-General of the association, on his Telegram channel urging reformists to take part in the election “actively” despite concerns over the “authorized and unauthorized entities’ unfair use of influence in all stages of the elections.” Mousavi-Khoiniha was referring mainly to the Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog, which in February barred most reformist candidates and so helped produce a principlist majority in the current parliament.
Khoiniha said reformists needed to overcome fears of not being able to motivate voters. “They say a big segment of the citizens will not go to the ballots, due to being disillusioned by [engineered] elections … and as a result of the huge drop in their earnings and the unprecedented increase of prices. They say people who have lost their energy by these circumstances consider the elections a game of the people on top and will not participate.”
Reformist nominees did not pass the Guardian Council for the presidential elections of 2013 and 2017, and reformists therefore supported Hassan Rouhani, a centrist whose strategy of boosting Iran’s economy through the 2015 nuclear deal was undone by US president Donald Trump leaving the agreement and imposing draconian sanctions.
As a result, the reformist lost credibility among core supporters. In repeated protests since December 2017 people have chanted slogans against both reformists and hardliners. In the February parliamentary elections, the reformists’ High Council, a coordination body, did not issue a slate and left to their own devices any sympathizers qualified by the Guardian Council.
Reformist parties have not yet shown definite interest in rallying for the upcoming presidential election. Khatami has also appeared disillusioned, at least until recently. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a leading reformist strategist, in May 2019 said Khatami believed he could no longer motivate voters to participate in elections, not even with his famous phrase ‘I repeat.’
Khatami remains an intriguing figure in Iranian politics, despite being banned from state television in 2015. Last week Khatami’s image was shown in an entertainment program on state television, for the first time since 2015, among political figures of the past including former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – feeding speculation his ban may have been lifted. A video message from Khatami on the eve of parliamentary elections in February 2016, including the phrase ‘I repeat,’ helped secure the victory of a reformist-centrist slate of 30 in Tehran. A phrase he used in the video, ‘I repeat,’ rapidly became a slogan, even a rap, justifying tactical voting.
Finding a candidate who could unify and energize reformist parties and groups, and entice voters, would be crucial to deliver reformist participation in the presidential election, as some reformist media and politicians now urge. Several names have already been suggested but one stands out: Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Joe Biden’s projected victory in the United States presidential elections, with the potential revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, has provided impetus for reformists to consider Zarif – who has not so far expressed interest – as a desirable candidate.
Many reformists consider Zarif well-placed for future negotiations over the nuclear agreement with the Biden administration, while they believe Zarif’s track record as a foreign minister and negotiator endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would make eliminating him difficult for the Guardian Council.