Ebrahim Raisi, President-elect of Iran
Ebrahim Raisi, President-elect of Iran Image Credit: Jose L. Barros/Gulf News

The cliché about the so-called reformists in Iran always reminded me of the 19th French poet, Charles Baudelaire’s eternal line: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” In Iran, it is quite the opposite. The greatest trick the Iran reformists ever pulled was convincing the world they existed.

The victory of the hard-line chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi in Friday’s presidential election has finally put to rest the argument that there is a strong reform movement in Iran that can actually challenge the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The election results may have hit the last nail in the coffin of whatever moderate tendencies in the regime, known in the west as the reformist camp. Today, Iran’s different wings of powers are explicitly controlled by one camp, the hardliners, and by one man, the Supreme Leader.

In 1997, a moderate cleric, Mohammed Khatami was elected president. He was elected again in 2001. His election was hailed in Iran and the west as a victory for the ‘reform movement’. He was elected by the majority of Iranians, nearly 70 per cent of the vote.

He promised to transform the Islamic Republic into a fully democratic state, ease the political, social and religious restrictions, modernise the economy and improve relations with the neighbours and the outside world and attract foreign investments.

More on Iran elections

The election of the Khatami, a charismatic cleric fluent in Arabic, signalled then the beginning of what was going to be referred to as the reform movement in Iran. He raised the expectations of all concerned. During his two terms, he visited dozens of countries. He even visited the Vatican twice - in March 1999 and April 2005, his last international trip as president.

In comparison, his predecessor, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani travelled just seven times during his presidency. Iranians hoped that Khatami’s presidency would lead to substantial changes. But as many had suspected, the election of Khatami was simply a variation of the same theocratic rule that has dominated Iran since 1979.

His election was necessary for the regime. It was meant to show that it was evolving; to say it wasn’t a rigid system. However, after eight years in the presidency, Khatami was not able to fulfil any of his promises. The power of the presidency was too limited to introduce any change.

The real centre of power is the Supreme Leader. Even the limited responsibilities of the president, such as nominating cabinet members and proposing the budget, are greatly influenced by the Supreme Leader.

Today, 24 years after the election of Khatami, the same supreme leader and his vast network of powerful entities, such as the Revolutionary Guards, continues to rule undisputed. Khatami and other ‘reformists’ who were elected after him in the parliament and the presidency, particularly the outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, are too weak to confront the absolute rule of the supreme leader and the many unelected bodies that report to him.

Disenchanted with the regime

There has never been any attempt to tackle the shortcomings of the constitution to empower the people and the officials they elect.

The ‘reformists’ have been too afraid to stand up for what they claim to believe in - a republican system that is in sync with today’s world economically and politically, at peace with its neighbourhood and attractive to the youth who represent the majority of the population today but disenchanted with a regime which is not only oblivious to their aspirations and potential but has managed to crush violently every attempt by them to demand a better Iran. Those ‘reformists’ stood passively while popular protests were crushed violently year after year.

Rouhani, who won the presidency on a ‘reformists’ ticket in 2013, leaves the office and Iran in a worse shape than it was eight years ago. The current economic crisis is the perhaps the worst since the revolution. The Iranians have seen much better days even during the long war with Iraq in the 1980s.

The US sanctions, imposed by former president Donald Trump, after he exited the nuclear deal in 2017 and implemented his ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran, led to the decline of oil exports from 2.8 million barrels per day in 2018 to as low as an estimated 200,000 bpd in some months of 2020.

The currency, the rial, has thus lost 70 per cent in value since 2018. Inflation is at record 50 per cent and poverty at record high. Relations with neighbouring countries are at their lowest due to the hostile foreign policy and Tehran’s interference in several Arab states such as Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Iran’s foreign policy

Despite having moderate presidents as the face of the regime internationally, those belligerent policies are actually decided by the Supreme Leader and his Revolutionary Guards. In a leaked conversation with an Iranian think tank, which was published a couple of months ago, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he had “zero” say in Iran’s foreign policy.

All important foreign policy decisions are made by the military, especially the Guards, he said, confirming what most analyst and Iran- watchers have been saying for years.

Rouhani and his ‘reformists’ allies are either too weak or too complicit to demand that the elected president and his team make those decisions. The moderate camp existed because Khamenei allowed it to exist, not because of their strength or popular appeal.

The reform idea is of course appealing; the majority of Iranians look for real reforms. But the people who claim to represent those ideas are not. There have been no reforms-minded politicians in Iran. The moderates who managed to win important posts failed to stand up for those ideas.

The Iranian people no longer believe in them. They no longer differentiate between Rouhani and Khamenei. At best they are two sides of the same coin. Khatami, Rouhani, and other so-called moderates have been all along loyal soldiers of the regime they claim to oppose.

This is a main reason why the moderate camp seems to fade away. A genuine reform movement never existed. The supreme leader fully realises that. Thus, he gave up on the idea of bringing another so-called reformist to the presidency. He decided that it was time to accelerate his ‘pure society’ project.

The engineering of Friday’s election in favour of Raisi, is only paving the way for the Guards and other conservative entities, tightly run by the supreme leader, to exert full control of the regime