Mohammad Ali Kadivar, “Alliances and Perception Profiles in the Iranian Reform Movement, 1997 to 2005.” American Sociological Review 78 (December 2013).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Mohammad Ali Kadivar (MAK): I actually grew up with the Iranian Reform Movement. The beginning of the movement in 1997 was also the start of my politicization. I was in high school during the first four years. I remember how excited we all were about the changes taking place in the country, such as Khatami’s election as president, and all the reformist presses that were publishing after 1997. There was a lot of hope for meaningful political change in the country. I remember I skipped some of my classes and went to some of the protest events that I talk about in the article. My father, who was active in the movement as an intellectual, was imprisoned during that period.
When the movement eventually failed in 2004-5, I began to think about the causes of this failure, as did many other participants and sympathizers. Later, as I followed my studies in the social sciences, I continued to wrestle with this question. My first attempt to answer it resulted in my master’s thesis in political science at the University of Tehran in 2007. During the regime-orchestrated anti-social-science campaign in 2009, that project was accused of being a part of the action plot behind the Green Movement protest.
I continued to wrestle with that question when I started my PhD studies at the University of North Carolina. This article is the final product of that project, which took many years to come to fruition. I address the question of failure through analyzing the disintegration of the political coalition that drove the reform movement. By examining different political perceptions that contributed to this disintegration, I tried to get at the major strategic divides in the Iranian oppositions. I believe these strategic divides are still relevant not just to the Iranian politics today, but also to other oppositions dealing with similar autocratic regimes.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
MAK: This article is in dialogue with sociological studies of social movements in general. These studies emphasize the role of state actions such as repression or concession in changing the behaviors of oppositional forces, such as in coalition making. In this article, I argue that opposition groups’ perceptions of the political context mediate between the government’s repression or concession and the changes in the opposition coalitions. In other words, how different opposition groups assess repression or concession by the government matters. Convergence or divergence of these perceptions then contributes to the formation and disintegration of alliances.
I identify three dimensions of these perceptions that help classify perceptions of different opposition groups: optimism or pessimism about the incumbent elite; optimism and pessimism about the established political institutions; and optimism or pessimism about the viability and success of contentious collective action. I think these three dimensions are also applicable to perceptions of opposition in cases other than Iran.
In addition to literature about state repression, social movements, and opposition politics, I also engage studies of the reform movement. I hope the detailed account of the evolutions of the perceptions of different reformist groups that I offer is also a contribution to the study of contemporary Iranian politics.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MAK: I am translating the article into Farsi, and hope that Iranians active in Iran’s democratic movement read this. As I explained elsewhere, as Rouhani started his tenure last year, many people compared the political situation to the conditions around Khatami’s presidency and the reform movement of 1997-2005. Several themes have also emerged in discussions around current political issues that are similar to political debates during the reform era. In that regard, I think my article both documents major political debates and positions taken by different reformist actors in the reform era with great detail, and also presents a framework to make sense of them.
I also hope that scholars studying oppositional forces in different political contexts, including electoral authoritarian or partially democratic countries (particularly in the Middle East), read this article. The dilemmas with which the Iranian opposition has been dealing are common for opposition groups in other political regimes with similar features. Such dilemmas also shape coalition politics in the opposition and eventually shape the chances of democratization in such regimes.
In this article, I have also been in dialogue with social scientists studying social movements in general. Social movement studies has been a productive and proliferating field over the last three decades. Most of the sociological studies of social movements, however, have focused on movements in North America and Western Europe, with very few studies of social movements in the Middle East (of course with some important exceptions about the Iranian Revolution). About a decade ago, a group of scholars started using insights about social movements to study political Islam as a form of activism. I was also trying to fill this gap in my project, not just by applying social movement theories to the case of Iran’s Reform Movement, but by making a theoretical contribution to the study of social movements as well. Right now I think the outbreak of large waves of protest in the region presents a great opportunity to scholars of social movements in the Middle East, again not only to apply such theories to the Arab Spring or Iran’s Green Movement, but also to reshape and refine our concepts and theories of social movements with this episode of contention.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MAK: Right now, I am working on a project about democratic movements beyond democratic transitions. I look at democratic movements that succeeded in bringing about a democratic transition and explore their effects on politics and civil society after the transition. This is a mixed method project, in which I use both statistical methods as well as case studies of historical and contemporary cases. I also investigate the impact of movements that politically failed but had important societal effects on the organization of civil society as well as the perceptions and identities of the opposition. In this project, I look at cases such as South Africa, Poland, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and Iran.
J: How do the 2009 Green Movement and the 2013 election of President Rouhani affect the alliance patterns of the reform movement, as well as the alliance between the reformists and the centrist administration of Rouhani?
MAK: I think one important effect of the Green Movement was that it undermined the pessimism that a lot of reformist groups and politicians shared. During the years of the Reform era (1997-2005), many reformist groups were reluctant to resort to tactics of mass mobilization, but the protests of 2009 changed this perception. This is due to the sense of solidarity that these protests created, as well as the high degree of maturity and pragmatism that protestors showed in different stages of the demonstrations. Overall, collective action has great capacity for alliance building. During the days of the Green Movement, we observed strong solidarity among both the reformists and the Iranian opposition beyond the reform movement. As the repression mounted and the movement declined, this situation changed and we observed that older strategic divisions appeared in the movement. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejhad’s victory in 2005—because of reformist fragmentations—and heavy crackdowns after 2009 convinced many Iranian activists and seekers of democratic change of the importance of solidarity and alliance building. This helped reformists to unite behind Rouhani in the 2013 presidential race and to convince their other candidate, Aref, to resign.
Right now, reformists continue to support Rouhani’s policies. The pace of change has not been satisfactory for many democratic activists who voted for Rouhani. However, they understand that the current administration faces serious resistance from hardliners who are in control of the judiciary, parliament, and armed forces in Iran, backed by Iran’s Supreme Leader. Accordingly, reformist leaders still support Rouhani, while they also insist on their democratic demands for further political reform, particularly the release of political prisoners and the leader of the Green Movement, who is under house custody. This, for example, could be seen in the message that ex-president Khatami sent for Nowrouz, asking for real political reform in the regime.
For the alliance between Rouhani and reformists to hold, reformists need to remain realistic about their assessment of the situation, the limited power of Rouhani’s administration, and the capacities of hardliners to take back very limited openings that have occurred over the last year. Besides, reformists should use this opportunity to revive their social networks and become stronger in grass-roots activities. Rather than seeing Rouhani as someone who will bring about all their demands, reformists should mostly see his government as an opportunity to expand their activities in civil society. Reformists’ negligence about grass-roots collective action, in my opinion, was a major reason for their political failure in the last fifteen years. This is a weakness that has been discussed by both reformists themselves and their critics, and now is a better time to implement the lessons they have learned from their past failure. I should admit, though, that the political scene is still not very safe, so engaging in civic activism is still very risky. The degree of risk, however, has decreased since the time of Ahmadinejhad.
Rouhani also needs to recognize that without reformist support he would not have won the 2013 election. To keep that support, he needs to deliver on his promises of political reform, and I think his administration has moved in that direction. For example, hardliners in the parliament now are angry about the reforms in the Ministry of Sciences and are trying to impeach the Minister of Sciences. Rouhani himself has also taken the offensive in his speeches against the hard-liners’ assaults and criticisms. Such firm rhetorical stances are important for the coalition, because it shows his supporters that he is determined and is not going to easily give up in the face of the conservative resistance against political reforms. Rouhani needs the reformists in both the 2016 parliamentary and the 2017 presidential elections.
Excerpt from “Alliances and Perception Profiles in the Iranian Reform Movement, 1997-2005”
The catalyst for the Reform Movement was Mohammad Khatami’s presidential campaign in 1997 and his unexpected landslide victory. Khatami won seventy percent of the vote despite the establishment’s support for his rival. Khatami’s campaign resonated with the rising demands of the middle class, youth, and women, who turned out to vote in record numbers. His candidacy was backed by a coalition of eighteen groups that later formally created an umbrella organization called the May 23 Front (Jebhe-ye Dovvom-e Khordad), May 23 being the day of the 1997 election. The Assembly, the Mojahedin, and the Unity Office—all of which grew out of the regime’s left wing in the 1980s—were important members of this Front, and their cooperation around Khatami’s candidacy prevented splits among the reformists. The Assembly and the Mojahedin provided funds and campaign expertise, and the student movement provided grassroots campaigners around the country—resource sharing that fits the definition of a coalition in social movement studies. In 1998, when the Participation Party was founded, it joined the May 23 coalition. These groups all agreed on the reformist goals of promoting the rule of law, holding officeholders accountable, and strengthening civil society (Ansari 2006; Arjomand 2009; Bayat 2007; Mashayekhi 2001). Even the student movement, which was more rebellious than other coalition members, adopted these reformist goals:
Since the Islamic student movement believes that democratic relations should rule over the country and people should determine their destiny, it continues to sup- port Mr. Khatami’s administration. The important issue now in the student movement is the emphasis on the rule of law. (Jahan-e Eslam, 2 January 1999)
This alliance held together for the next three years, despite assaults by conservatives and tensions within the coalition. The alliance campaigned for overlapping lists of candidates in the 1998 municipal election and 1999 parliamentary election. For a summary of key events in the Reform Movement and each group’s strategy at each juncture, see Table S1 in the online supplement.
Almost all major reformist organizations shared a single perception profile in appraising their political context, what I call the political-negotiation model. This view of Iranian politics and political culture suggested that reform should be pursued gradually through cultivation of values of tolerance and dialogue. Negotiation was the best strategy for democratization, in this view, because it would teach Iranians how to engage in democratic compromise. In addition, the strategy of negotiation was based on a fundamental optimism toward the elite of the Islamic Republic. Khatami and most other reformists believed they could persuade conservative opponents of reform to accede to democratization. “We believe there is a rational faculty at the upper level of the regime that has always rescued the country at the edge of the precipice,” wrote the official newspaper of Khatami’s administration (Iran, 28 April 2000). Khatami’s allies in the clerical reformist party agreed. “The best way to engage the enemies of civil society is to give them this opportunity to rethink and to let them read- just,” one affiliated newspaper suggested. “We should show them in practice that transition to democracy presents greater opportunities than threats” (Hayat-e No, 1 June 2000).
In addition to this optimistic view that elite opponents of reform would be convinced through dialogue, reformists also believed that institutions of the Islamic Republic were capable of reforming the regime from within (Asr-e Ma, December 1999/January 2000). As a journalist affiliated with the lay reformist parties put it, the political institutions of the Islamic Republic were not “dead-ends.” Indeed, he continued, “there is no way to change the world than to act within legal institutions” (Neshat, 13 July 1999).
In keeping with this emphasis on working within the system, supporters of political negotiation were reluctant to encourage contentious collective action. Grievances were so deep, they feared, that mass mobilization would stir up emotions, spawning radicalism and providing hardliners with an excuse for repression, possibly leading to civil war. In addition, these reformists felt, the Reform Movement lacked the organizational capacity to keep public demonstrations under control. A newspaper affiliated with the lay reformist parties wrote, for instance, that “in a mass gathering extremists always take the position of leaders and lead the crowd, people who shout the most radical slogans and agitate feelings and emotions. That’s what mass psychology tells us” (Sobh-e Emruz, 27 July 1999). Commentators drew analogies from Iran’s recent history to show how radicalism had damaged democratic movements in the past (Bayan, 4 January 2000; Neshat, 14 July 1999). Iran’s hardliners stoked such fears by sending agents provocateurs to chant radical slogans at reformist rallies and attacking reformist gatherings with militias and thugs.
The political-negotiation model was shared at this stage by the Clerical Reformist party, the Lay Reformist parties, and the student movement, which cooperated under the banner of the May 23 Front. This perception profile was rooted in these groups’ political activities in the two decades before the advent of the Reform Movement. The Clerical Reformist and Lay Reformist parties of the reform era were allies of the conservatives before and during the 1979 revolution, but they split with the conservatives in the intense factional politics of the 1980s. They managed to gain the upper hand in the executive branch and parliament by the late 1980s, but were marginalized by the conservative Guardian Council in the early 1990s. Their optimism about the democratic potential of the regime’s leaders and institutions reflected two decades of negotiating with regime insiders, some of whom were long-time friends and relatives of leading reformists. In addition, as regime insiders themselves in the 1980s, they had witnessed the regime’s capacity to repress open protest, and such experiences made them cautious about using contentious methods (interview with Behzad Nabavi in Aftab, August/September 2002). Virtually all protesters who had adopted more radical methods were dead, in exile, or silenced.
The nationalist opposition was the one set of reform organizations that did not share this view of political opportunities. Its perception profile, which I call the political-activist model, was not optimistic about persuading the conservative elite of the Islamic Republic to accept democratization, and it stressed the possibility and necessity of contentious collective action to confront the regime. Nationalist groups encouraged Khatami to adopt the political style of Mohammad Mossadeq, the democratically elected prime minister who mobilized mass support for nationalization of the oil industry in 1950, forcing his better-placed opponents within Iran’s political institutions to accept his programs (Iran Liberation Movement, statement #1369, 19 May 1999). Nationalist groups participated in the 1979 revolution, alongside other movements, but were shoved aside within a year and thus had little experience of negotiation with conservative elites. As a result, they had less confidence in their ability to sway incumbent elites than did other reformists. At the same time, the nationalist opposition shared the political-negotiation view that Iran’s political institutions offered opportunities for democratization. Accordingly, nationalist groups participated in the 1997 presidential election, despite the fact that their candidates were not allowed to run. The Liberation Movement urged its followers to cast blank ballots, and the Religious-Nationalist Activists implicitly endorsed Khatami (Kashi 2000). Nonetheless, nationalist groups did not act in an alliance with the other three reformist groups. The alliance in this period was only between groups that shared the political-negotiation model.
[Excerpted from Mohammad Ali Kadivar, “Alliances and Perception Profiles in the Iranian Reform Movement, 1997-2005,” American Sociological Review, 78(6): 1073–75 (December 2013), by permission of the author. Copyright © 2014 by American Sociological Association. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this issue, click here.]