Spotlight on Political Currents: The Reformists

The reformists are among the Islamic Republic of Iran’s most important political currents. They burst onto the political stage in 1997 with Mohammad Khatami’s landslide presidential election victory and 2000 parliamentary election sweep, were pushed out of Iran’s elected centres of power by 2005, and found themselves completely outside of mainstream politics following their leadership of the Green Movement demonstrations in 2009. Although their popularity is thought to have facilitated Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 presidential election win, their systematic disqualification from national elections by the Council of Guardians and continued suppression by security forces is likely to mean they will not form a powerful bloc in this year’s Islamic Consultative Assembly (or parliamentary) elections.


The reformist current originated from the radical leftist Islamist current that supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s leadership of the Islamic Revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Four of the main leftist current groups and their key figures during Iran’s decade of revolution and war from 1979 to 1989 are seen as laying the foundation for reformism in the 1990s. The first was the Islamic Republican Party’s (IRP) leftist faction, which dominated parliament and was led by then Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 1980s. The second was the Assembly of Combatant Clerics, which split from the rightist Society of Combatant Clergy before the 1988 parliamentary elections and constituted the clerical wing of the leftist current in the 1980s and reformists today. Its key figures included Mohammad Khatami, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha, Hassan Saanei, and Sadegh Khalkhali, among others.

Next was the Mujahedeen of the Islamic Revolution Organisation, a militant group which supported the Ayatollah Khomeini and the IRP’s ascent to power. Its key figures include Saeed Hajjarian, Behzadi Navabi, Mohsen Armin, Mostafa Tajzadeh, and Morteza Ghadiyani. Finally, the Students of the Line of the Imam, who were behind the seizure of the United States’ embassy in Tehran in 1979, formed the militant youth wing of the leftist current in universities. Its key figures included Massoumeh Ebtekar, Mohsen Mirdamadi, Habibollah Bitaraf, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, Abbas Abdi, and Mohammad-Reza Khatami, among others. The politically authoritarian, socially conservative, economically statist, and radically anti-imperialist current managed Iran’s war economy and dominated much of political life in Iran during the 1980s with the nearly unwavering backing of Ayatollah Khomeini. But with the latter’s death in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which had furnished them with a statist and anti-imperialist model, as well as ascension of rightists like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the basis of their power collapsed and they found themselves in the political wilderness.

Mohammad Khatami and the Rise of Reformism

This kicked off a process of reflection which resulted in their transformation during the 1990s. These former leftists now called for reform of the Islamic Republic in line with changes taking shape globally. They forsook authoritarianism, social conservatism, statism, and anti-imperialism, instead advocating democracy, social freedom, economic liberalisation, and engagement with the West. Their promise of reforming the Islamic Republic proved extremely popular, especially with university students and women. This resulted in their 1997 presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami winning over 70 percent of the popular vote and reformist factions forming a legislative majority following the 2000 parliamentary elections. Khatami and his allies in the newly founded Islamic Iran Participation Front set about trying to fulfil their promises by loosening media restrictions, reducing state intervention in society, continuing Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s liberalisation, and engaging the West in a “dialogue of civilizations”.

Yet even before the reformist project had gotten fully underway, opposition and obstacles emerged. The closure of the reformist Salaam newspaper triggered the 18 Tir student protests in summer 1999, which was followed by a crackdown and letter by 24 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders implicitly threatening action if Khatami did not regain control of the situation. Elements of the rightist current of the 1980s, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khemenei, joined with new forces, exemplified by the IRGC, in a reaction to what they saw as the reformists threat to the Islamic Republic. This new conservative, or as it has become known “principalist”, current moved to block the expansion of social and political freedoms. Guardian Council mass disqualification of reformist candidates in the 2004 parliamentary election, including of sitting parliamentarians, saw them lose their foothold in the legislature. In the face of growing conservative mobilisation, reformist disunity, and social apathy towards reformists for their inability to significantly advance reforms, the current lost the 2005 presidential election. They were once again back in the political wilderness.

The Green Movement and Hassan Rouhani

By the time of the 2009 presidential election, reformists had managed to regain some of their unity under candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, in part as a result of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s divisive governance. But when Ahmadinejad was quickly declared the winner of the June vote, the reformists alleged fraud and joined their social base on the streets of Iran. This precipitated a harsh response from Iranian conservatives, and the subsequent crackdown against reformists saw Mousavi and Karroubi placed under house arrest, many of their figures and activists imprisoned, exiled, or retired from politics within Iran. The 2012 parliamentary election saw the reformist presence diminished even further due to Guardian Council mass disqualification and many reformists’ boycott of the vote. But by the 2013 presidential election, with Ahmadinejad and conservatives divided, a deepening of the Islamic Republic’s economic crisis through mismanagement and sanctions, and the crackdown on reformists having relented somewhat, reformists consented to throwing their electoral weight behind centrist current figure Hassan Rouhani who won.

The latter’s victory in 2013 has seen the reformist currents gradual rehabilitation in the Islamic Republic, and they have thrown their weight behind new groups such as the Union of Islamic Iran People Party, and to a lesser extent the Second Generation of Reformists (NEDA), to compete in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Despite a strategy of mass registering candidates to have a strong presence in the elections, however, the Guardian Council’s ax is likely to keep them at bay or at least significantly limit their presence in the next parliament.