The perennial perception in the U.S. policy community that “reformist” equates to true moderation is belied by, for example, “reformist” Mohammad Khatami’s role as minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance early in the Iran-Iraq War, when he generated propaganda to recruit children to sacrifice themselves by crossing minefields ahead of military forces. An estimated forty thousand died. Despite worldwide condemnation of this practice, Khatami as recently as 2007 lauded the wartime role of youth in “the proud years of the Sacred Defense.” The use of child soldiers by Tehran has now apparently been revived by his “reformist” successor Hassan Rouhani.
For all the talk about reform and betterment of the people’s lot, in Iran today one finds no equivalent to glasnost or perestroika, no clerical Deng Xiaoping ready to strike a grand bargain freeing the people economically and socially in return for continued political subservience to the supreme leader.
The relevant fault line within Iran’s leadership, for many years now, has been a difference over how best to carry forward Khomeini’s Islamic republic, not how to end it. Differences in regime priorities manifested themselves in the recent parliamentary elections, and more factionalism and clashing rhetoric is predictable in the political arena. Still, as competition over priorities and tactics to preserve velayat-e faqih has become personal—and public—for both sides over the years, and some individuals have shifted alliances and rebranded themselves, the roster of leading players has remained strikingly consistent.
While many have moved seamlessly between so-called reformist and conservative patronage, the driving motive seems less to be ideology than competition for resources and leverage. Even such proven supporters of velayat-e faqih as the five Larijani brothers, who rose to positions of influence within the parliament, Guardian Council, judiciary, broadcasting (IRIB) and foreign ministry, are viewed with suspicion by Khamenei for this very reason.
Khamenei has survived by surrounding himself with a small and shrinking circle of trusted advisors, including his own son Mojtaba, who leads the Basij and oversees all his financial affairs operating beyond the reach of sanctions. Some have speculated that Mojtaba is being groomed to become his father’s successor, suggesting Khamenei’s misgivings about Khomeini’s own mechanism for leadership transition.
Ali Akbar Velayati, serving as his foreign-affairs advisor, once served under Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (the now-detained leader of the Green uprising) and Hashemi Rafsanjani. Yahya Safavi, former head of the IRGC, serves as his special advisor in regional affairs and has recently touted the “alliance” of Iran, Russia, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah. Mojtaba Zolnour also serves as his representative in the IRGC, and has recently claimed that even if Iran were to give up its nuclear program, it would not weaken “this country’s determination to destroy Israel.” Mohammad Salimi, formerly defense minister in the cabinet of Mir Hossein Mousavi, now serves as his commander of the Iranian Army.
As much as regime figures may jostle for primacy and influence over Iranian policy, all are charter members of an enterprise whose overriding mission is their collective survival in power. What recent trends reveal is that the supreme leader’s diminishing power is accompanied by, and likely further eroded by, the more open rivalries at play in Tehran.
How to Reform the Islamic Republic?
It may seem exhausting for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, having devoted so much effort to closing off Iran’s “pathways to the bomb,” to be expected now to address an array of additional concerns about Iran, from political disenfranchisement to human-rights abuses, suppression of women and minorities, destabilization of neighboring countries, and support for terrorism. The list is long, and Washington’s record of tempering Tehran’s malignant behavior offers little grounds for optimism.
What makes these concerns more pertinent today is not the closing off of Iran’s illicit pathways to the bomb under the JCPOA, but the opening up of a new pathway to the bomb courtesy of the JCPOA itself: the right granted to Iran to become an internationally recognized nuclear power when the agreement’s restraints expire. Secretary Kerry emphasizes how far into the future that time will be. Can the United States be certain that the regime in Tehran will have “reformed” by then? And—crucially—what changes from today’s Iran would constitute “reform”?
If one were to poll experts on how the United States should measure reform in Iran, a consensus would likely be elusive. Ending the loyalty screening and disqualification by the Guardian Council of candidates for office would be an obvious metric; yet it has been more than two decades since the percentage of registered candidates ultimately permitted to run for president has exceeded 2 percent. Even with Rafsanjani’s two electoral victories, in 1989 and 1993, more than 96 percent of registered candidates were disqualified in advance.
Certainly a sharp reduction, and preferably the end, of executions in Iran would herald reform; yet here again, one has to question the likelihood of meaningful change. The State Department’s 2015 annual human rights report, released in April 2016, cites a long list of human rights abuses in Iran, noting that “Impunity remained pervasive throughout all levels of the government and security forces.” President Rouhani, upon being elected in 2013, nominated as his justice minister Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, a man personally implicated in the 1988 extrajudicial executions of as many as thirty thousand jailed dissidents. This was a crime “of greater infamy,” according to British-Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, whose 2009 inquiry brought the full story to light, than the World War II Japanese death marches or the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.
While a serious debate is needed on U.S. policy toward this troublesome, and troubled, regime, there is one act that more than any other would signal to the West, Iran’s neighbors and above all its 79 million citizens that reform is at hand. Iran’s rulers need to face the inescapable truth that in their quest to be at once a religious caliphate and a sovereign country, they have failed in both roles.
By removing from the constitution the writ of divine power—velayat-e faqih—that has corrupted both politics and religion in Iran with immeasurable human costs, the clerics can focus on repairing their religious reputation and return the revolution to its rightful owners, the Iranian people. The world will reward Iran for a national effort to pursue reconciliation without recrimination, a social contract enabling freely elected leaders to reflect the goodness of a great people. In time, an Iran so reformed will recover, and assume a position of honor and responsibility among nations.
Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., a former U.S. defense and foreign policy official now serving as Chairman of the Stimson Center in Washington, has written and testified about the inaccuracies of narratives emanating from the regime in Iran. Dr. Ramesh Sepehrrad is a ranking executive for a major American technology company and a Scholar Practitioner at the George Mason University School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Her parents and sister were arrested by the fundamentalist regime in Iran during the 1980s for helping to publish pro-democracy literature; detained at the age of fourteen, her sister was kept in prison for two years.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Official website of Ali Khamenei