Spotlight on Political Currents: The Centrists
The centrists are among the Islamic Republic of Iran’s most important political currents. Their origins go back to the moderate-pragmatist politics of Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani who balanced between the left and right wings of Iran’s political spectrum from the center. Following the decade of revolution and war from 1979 to 1989, by the end of which Iranians had wearied of radical politics, the centrists emerged as the dominant force in Iranian politics from 1989 to 1997 under President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, with promises of technocratic governance, economic liberalisation, and a moderate foreign policy. By the mid-1990s however, reformists and conservatives had coalesced into two powerful blocs attacking centrists from both ends of the spectrum, drawing on the Iranian population’s disenchantment with centrist policies that did not deliver greater economic benefits or socio-political freedoms to the majority. While reformists pursued greater social and political freedoms and conservatives greater socio-economic justice from 1997 to 2005 and 2005 to 2013, respectively, centrists saw their position erode. By 2013, however, conditions became ripe for centrists to return to power.
Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani is seen by many as the founding figure of the centrist political current in Iran. He was an important player in opposition Shi’a clerical politics even before the Iranian Revolution of 1979. As an extremely adept political operator, he emerged as one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s main deputies following the establishment of the Islamic Republic, but did not neatly fall into the left-versus-right conflicts of the Islamic Republican Party that characterised Iranian politics in the 1980s. Manoeuvring between the left and right, Hashemi-Rafsanjani rose to the heights of Iranian politics as deputy commander-in-chief of the war effort, speaker of parliament, and eventually president. As president from 1989 to 1997, Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s technocratic governance departed from the radical politics of the 1980s through economic liberalisation in tune with the global orthodoxy of the 1990s and a moderate foreign policy that sought to mend fences with Arab Persian Gulf states and the West.
Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s presidency, sometimes dubbed as the “reconstruction era” to denote its mission of rebuilding the country from the ravages of revolution and war, came to be seen as the thermidorian moment of the Iranian Revolution. Politics would become “normalised” and the Islamic Republic gradually integrated into the new world order. To pursue these objectives Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the circle of technocrats and entrepreneurs around him formed a number of organisations. In the lead up to the 1996 Iranian Islamic Consultative Assembly (or parliamentary) elections, some of his cabinet ministers, deputies, and advisers formed the Executives of Construction of Iran party under figures like Ataollah Mohajerani, Mohammad-Ali Najafi, and Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi to contest the election and managed to build a faction in parliament. The party, drawing attacks from conservatives and reformists, went into decline, leading some centrists to form the Moderation and Development Party under Hassan Rouhani, which included moderate reformists and conservatives, to contest the 2000 parliamentary elections.
Decline of Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the rise of Hassan Rouhani
Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who was the first name on the Moderation and Development Party electoral list in the 2000 election, won barely enough votes to become the 30th or last place parliamentary representative in Tehran in part due to systematic attacks by reformists. This pyrrhic victory for the elder statesman of Iranian politics led him to resign. This was followed by a second-place finish in the 2005 presidential elections. During the presidencies of Mohammad Khatami and especially Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, centrists increasingly found themselves pushed to the margins of power by their political adversaries. Khatami and the reformists promised greater social and political freedoms, while Ahmadinejad and conservatives (or “principalists”) promised greater socio-economic justice, with both disdaining centrists’ moderate-pragmatist politics. Hashemi-Rafsanjani receded into the background of Iranian politics as head of the Expediency Discernment Council (EDC), while his acolytes like Rouhani retreated into entities like the EDC’s Center for Strategic Studies, to plot their return to power.
Although centrists supported mainly Mir-Hossein Mousavi and to a lesser extent Mehdi Karroubi for the 2009 presidential election, and Hashemi-Rafsanjani expressed veiled support for the Green Movement demonstrations that ensued, centrists largely avoided entanglement with both the movement’s regime challenge and conservatives’ crackdown. With reformists effectively eliminated from the Iranian political establishment and conservatives discredited by their economic mismanagement and corruption by 2013, the stage was set for a centrist return to power. When Hashemi-Rafsanjani was disqualified by the Council of Guardians from running for the 2013 presidential election, his replacement with Rouhani, a former Supreme National Security Council secretary and top nuclear negotiator, seemed to dim centrist prospects. However, his message of moderation, including promises of improving the economy, ending Iran’s diplomatic isolation, and greater socio-economic freedoms, won over a majority of voters.
In the coming 2016 Iranian parliamentary and Assembly of Experts election, Rouhani and the centrists face a paradox when it comes to advancing their agenda of economic growth and liberalisation, a more moderate foreign policy, and expanding social and political freedoms. On the one hand, they rely on good working relations with traditional conservatives to move their policies through the Islamic Republic’s conservative-dominated machinery. On the other hand, they rely on reformists’ voting base to take and hold on to elected centers of power and gain leverage over conservatives. Yet working with traditional conservatives means not pursuing a significant expansion of social and political freedoms, potentially alienating their voting base. Under these conditions, it appears that their future fortunes will depend on how well and how much longer they will be able to pursue their moderate-pragmatist politics that rely on maneuvering on these fault-lines in Iranian politics.