The idea of reformists in the Islamic Republic is a myth perpetuated by the country’s so-called independent media. These outlets, closely aligned with the early camp of self-identified reformists, now act as mouthpieces for sweet promises and phantom change. There has been no genuine reform under the current establishment.
In preparing for elections in June, those who now call themselves reformists and their mouthpieces are spinning their mythic narrative once again, perpetuating the idea that a real political opposition exists within the Islamic Republic and that fundamental reform is possible. And this time they are taking advantage of new social media like Clubhouse, where they frequently host rooms and insert themselves into conversations about the future of the country.
Iran’s reformists continue to fail in their mission because they have always played by rules that were set by their adversaries and meant to neuter them—from the very beginning. By contrast, the hardliners win because they have taken a page out of the rulebook of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Khomeini wanted to be the only one to set the rules, which he sought to define even before returning to Iran in 1979. Observers might recall that, during the Revolution, the Shah’s last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, and even some of the Ayatollah’s own political allies attempted unsuccessfully to get Khomeini to enter negotiations about reforms within the monarchy and a return to a legitimate constitutional system. But Khomeini was unwilling to engage.
For Khomeini, the merit of ideas was irrelevant. What mattered were the rules. His political aloofness was part of a modus operandi that aimed to create a framework that ultimately excluded anyone and anything that might undermine his authority.
Khomeini rose to power as the new Islamic Republic’s supreme leader and thus set the framework. His successors—today’s hardliners—carried this even further, by acting not only as the arbiters of which ideas and narratives could be discussed in the public sphere, but also as the ones empowered to adjust those rules. Instead of going through a fixed and transparent process for the changing of laws, however, the regime continues to rely on fluidly defined terms such as “expediency” and “red lines.” This approach maintains the status quo while projecting the illusion of change. Through these machinations, they’ve conditioned the populous to refrain from acting in ways that could disrupt the regime’s absolute hold on power. Maslahat-e nezam, a phrase coined by the Islamic Republic—it translates as all that is in the interest of the regime—is one such “red line,” acting as an invisible hand that keeps the reformists in check and undermines their position. Disagreeing with the regime is therefore akin to disrupting the essence of the divinely ordained Islamic state, a transgression in turn akin to blasphemy. And so the “red lines” keep changing in response to every move made by the reformists.
It is for this reason that the reformists were doomed to fail from the start. They never seemed able to grasp the system’s inherent limitations on pushing for change or making a dent in the status quo. It did not matter that the reformists were better versed on issues that mattered, or that they presented their ideas articulately and with more empathy and relevance to the Iranian people. All that mattered was he who set the rules wins the game. And this is how the hardliners remain in power.
The fluidity with which the red lines are drawn is a survival tactic. Peaceful protests are allowed under the constitution, but often met with live rounds of ammunition as with the working-class uprising of November 2019. The frequent and seemingly inexplicable pivot by the regime to set hejab and modesty rules when it finds itself in the midst of a power crisis is another case in point. It is here, in this space of duplicity and confusion, that the ruling apparatus continues to win in the game of setting the narrative and redrawing the red lines as a distraction from the real issues at hand.
Over time, some reformist “victories” have given Iranians an illusion of change. But inevitably, before long, old red lines are restored—revealing those “victories” to be mere vanities—and new red lines are introduced, changing the political and social terrain yet again.
Under the rule of the ayatollahs, the use of terms such as mellat—the Persian word for “nation”—and “democracy” was deemed taboo and treacherous. These have been replaced by terms such as ommat (from the Arabic word ummah, defined in this context as the Muslim nation). Such was the regime’s attempt to dislodge Iran’s national identity from its history and redefine the Islamic Republic as part of the greater Muslim world. In the same spirit, the regime once condemned Cyrus the Great, the ultimate symbol of pre-Islamic Persian identity, as a wicked king deserving of complete erasure from Iran’s memory.
But as a whole generation of Iranians grew alienated from the Revolution, Ahmadinejad resurrected the Persian king, this time as a symbol of Iranian nationalism, literally adorning a model with its emblems and ideology. Employing an actor, Ahmadinejad resurrected King Cyrus and draped him with a keffiyeh, the ultimate pro-regime symbol. At another point in time, the regime lionized Hossein Ali Montazeri—a grand ayatollah who was once designated to be Khomeini’s successor—only to abruptly reverse course and condemn Montazeri as a traitor who defied the concept of “the guardianship of the Islamic jurist” (rule by the supreme leader), no matter that he was the one who wrote most widely on the subject. He was put under house arrest until his death.
The regime initially condemned the pursuit of nuclear energy as an example of the Shah’s waste and extravagance. Then, realizing it helped hardline negotiating, the regime began to champion nuclear enrichment as an inalienable right of the citizens of the Islamic Republic. The regime did so without bridging the cognitive dissonance between its opposing positions, a blatant hypocrisy they feel no obligation to explain.
Reformist critics within the Islamic Republic seem to believe that they can genuinely reform this system if they continue to play by the rules and people show up to vote. That faith has been belied time and time again. And even when Iranians boycott the elections, they’re taking part in an act defined by the Islamic establishment. Would it have made any difference to Khomeini if Iranians were voting for members of the Shah’s parliament or defying the monarchical system by staying home?
Journalists inside the country who have championed those who imagine themselves reformists may not be able to think or work outside this framework. But journalists in exile or hailing from abroad do not have to constrain themselves within this framework when they seek to illuminate Iranian politics. Yet they invariably do. Nothing will change until this thinking does, and until then the story will almost certainly remain the same.