Iran’s reformists are painfully aware of their growing irrelevance in the country. The reformist camp never recovered from the 2013 presidential election, when it withdrew to ensure that the moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, won the presidential bid. It now wants to part ways with Rouhani to win the next presidential race in June 2021.
The reformists seem preoccupied with how best to separate themselves from Rouhani’s failed record as president. Reformist figures are debating whether or not to accept some responsibility for Rouhani’s failures. However, they are unequivocal that Rouhani failed to defend freedom, promote transparency, and was unsuccessful in overturning the house arrest imposed on several leaders of the Green Movement such as Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hussein Mousavi.
Sadegh Kharrazi, the reformist leader of Neday-e-Iranian (Voice of Iranians), has said that his camp should seek forgiveness for supporting the “leased” president of Iran. His sharp remark was intended to remind the reformist camp of its painful decision to support Rouhani and urged it not to support any moderate candidate in the next presidential election.
However, Rouhani’s advisors call Kharrazi a dishonest man who is merely seeking to build his own popular base by making controversial remarks. Kharrazi accuses Rouhani’s government of “ and prudence and hope” of failing the Iranian people, and shielding Rouhani from external criticism.
For the next presidential race, Kharrazi and like-minded reformists have even set up a new body to promote reformist candidates. But the body was not named, pointing to the internal battles facing the reformists if they were to regroup.
The body was eventually named the “Consensus Institution” but a younger generation of reformists said they were excluded from it. To signal inclusiveness, it was renamed the “Iranian Reformist Front.” The body is made up of 46 official reformist members, and it will help reformist candidates to contest the presidency.
The reformists are aware that they lack policies to provide them with impetus in the elections. They have an unclear foreign policy agenda, particularly when it comes to solving sensitive issues such as Iran’s relations with the United States. Instead, they tend to follow existing foreign policy attitudes, including the point of view that the Biden administration offers an opportunity for Iran if it opens diplomatic channels but presents a threat if it insists on containing Iran.
Mohammad Reza Aref, who led the Omid Party (Hope faction) in the last Parliament, is the only reformist figure who has attempted to articulate a foreign policy agenda. However, there is not much new in what he has said; he supports engagement with the world. Similarly, according to the women’s caucus of the reformist camp, Iran is simply better off if its next president commits to promoting peace and engaging in dialogue with the world.
Another problem facing the reformists is that their support base has shrunk to just 10 percent of Iran’s voting population. Several moderate figures could end up joining hands with the reformist camp in the next presidential elections in the form of a loose alliance. They are all linked to President Rouhani’s moderate camp, including Mohsen Hashemi (son of former late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), Eshaq Jahangiri (Rouhani’s vice president), and Mohammad Javad Zarif (Iran’s foreign minister).
The moderates insist that they will not withdraw their candidates, thus forcing the reformists to back them. To win over reformist voters, moderate figures even met up with the leader of the Green Movement Mehdi Karroubi, and argued that their experience in government was critical to guaranteeing Iran’s future democracy.
Aref is urging reformists to unite to win votes. To reach voters, the reformists will have to adopt five tactics to stand out from the moderate camp. These include criticizing President Rouhani for the failure of his government, branding him a conservative and a cunning man who drew close to the reformists to win the presidential elections. In addition, they must argue that Rouhani is an arrogant man who dismisses reforms and is worthy of reformist contempt.
If the reformists want to have an outside chance of winning the next presidential elections, they need a strong candidate as well as a clear strategy. So far, they have neither. In addition, their chances are minimal as they have no presence or are underrepresented in key Iranian institutions and bodies. These realities make a reformist victory in the next presidential race extremely dim.