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Iran’s Reformists Abandon Either Elections or Reform

Rouhani ascended to office on promises of a new opening with the West, as well as the encouragement of trends toward a freer and more open Iranian society. Nearly three years later, his administration has followed through on securing an agreement with the West that trades modest concessions on the Iranian nuclear program for the end to nuclear-related economic sanctions. But during that same period, Rouhani has been criticized by human rights groups and progressive Iranian activists for his apparent failure to make any progress on issues unrelated to the nuclear deal.

While the former fact may seem to justify the Western policy of rapprochement, the latter lends credence to the recent outpouring of criticism. Two such pieces of criticism appeared on Monday in the National Interest and the American Thinker. Both explicitly rejected the notion of moderation within the regime.

The first, by Iran policy scholar Saeid Golkar, emphasized that the Rouhani administration’s outreach to the West serves to improve the country’s global image in absence of any serious compromise on the regime’s hardline domestic and international policies. The other, by Professor Mansour Kashfi, lamented that the Western powers have been unwilling to give meaningful support to Iranian opposition movements that do not believe a democratic future is accessible through any faction of the existing regime.

Naturally, there has been some disagreement about this in Western media during the run-up to the elections for the Iranian parliament and Assembly of Experts. The New York Times gave some voice to both sides of the issue on Monday when it reported that certain so  called reformist figures, chief among them Mohammad Reza Aref, have formed a coalition with the Rouhani faction and have thrown their weight behind some supposedly pragmatist-conservative candidates in hopes of minimizing the power of hardliners and gradually becoming part of the establishment so as to change it from within.

The Times article notes that other reformists have rebelled against this emerging campaign strategy on the grounds that it involves almost complete abdication of actual reformist goals and principles. After all, this is essentially the only way that a candidate can pass the vetting process of the hardline Guardian Council and actually stand for election. So while the Times suggests that optimistic reformists are setting “careful goals for the coming vote,” the surrounding context still highlights the lack of real alternatives in Iranian elections.

According to previous reports, it is for this reason that a number of young, progressive Iranians have expressed an interest in sitting out the election, even as figures like Aref and Rouhani urge a high turnout. Groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which are opposed to the ruling system altogether, regard efforts to drive up voter participation as a tactic to give the illusion of legitimacy for the hardline regime.