Iran: Reformists in Distress

Kasra Noori is a worried man. The 38-year-old Iranian journalist is anxious about what will happen to his country after next week's parliamentary elections. But he also has more personal concerns. With military and judicial hardliners shutting down reformist newspapers on charges ranging from promoting decadence to endangering national security, Noori has lost eight jobs in the last 10 years. Now he frets over how he can provide for his wife and three-year-old daughter. "I've been seriously looking for an alternative source of income," says Noori. "You simply can't make a living as a journalist in Iran."

Noori hoped that politics might offer one of those alternatives. "I thought in a hardliners-dominated parliament we should have a strong reformist contingent in order to express people's concerns about [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's disastrous economic and international policies," Noori says. But when he tried to register last year as a moderate candidate for the March 14 ballot, he found his path blocked by the Council of Guardians of the Revolution. The conservative group of clerics and lawyers, which supervises Iran's elections, was on a mission to exclude almost any reformist who dared to register as a candidate.

A few days after Noori submitted his name, the inspectors from Council of Guardians' Supervision Committees started asking about him around his neighborhood. "They went to my local grocer and asked him about my personal life," says Noori. "They asked him questions like if I look at women lustfully, if I go to the local mosque to pray, if my wife dresses modestly, what I buy from the grocer. Questions that had nothing to do with my qualifications as a candidate." Still, Noori considers himself relatively fortunate that the questions were so mild. In some cases the inspectors have asked candidates if they have had illegitimate relationships with women and whether they were addicted to drugs. There are no reports that conservative candidates have come under similar scrutiny. Indeed, in some cases the inspectors are conservative candidates themselves.

Like most disqualified moderates, Noori was expelled on three main charges: lack of real commitment to the teachings of Islam; lack of belief in velayate faghih, Iran's system of governance, in which a religious scholar is the supreme leader of the country; and "notoriety," a catchall phrase that is essentially meaningless. A devout Muslim from a religious family in Tehran, Noori objected to all charges. "As far as I know I'm a good Muslim, and it seems that I'm also enjoying a relatively good reputation in public," he says. Noori challenged the claims and was finally cleared of being "notorious," but he was still disqualified on the basis of the first two charges.

Many moderates see the conservatives' pre-election witch hunt as tantamount to a military coup. According to reformist activists, the Revolutionary Guard forcibly mobilized its members, including the paramilitary youth group Basij, to vote for Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election. They fear similar tactics in this upcoming poll as well. "The Guards are the main supporters of the hardliners," says Saeid Shariati, the spokesman for the largest reformist party, the Participation Front. "The Council of Guardians as a group didn't qualify and disqualify the candidates. It was a group of five or six Guards, military and intelligence commanders, who decided the filtering of the candidates."

Undeniably, Iran's high inflation and unemployment rates have cost Ahmadinejad some support among his conservative backers. Still, he has retained some genuine grass-roots backing. Take Masoomeh Ramezani, a single mother of five in Lalain, a village three hours south of capital. She lives in a different world from intellectuals and journalists like Kasra Noori. Widowed when her children were young, she supported her family by working as a cleaner in the nearby town of Saveh. Last year, after Ahmadinejad passed a new law increasing payouts for single mothers, Ramezani received the equivalent of a $9,000 loan. "God bless Mr. Ahmadinejad. May he live a hundred years," says Ramezani with tears in her eyes. "He rescued me. The other people in Tehran only talk and talk, but they don't care about us poor people in the villages. But Mr. Ahmadinejad, may God protect him, works for us." Who is she going to vote for in the parliamentary elections? "Whoever supports Mr. Ahmadinejad."

That kind of support all but ensures there will be a conservative victory in the parliamentary vote. Indeed, the reformists acknowledge Ahmadinejad's popularity in villages and small towns but say that he is winning it at the long-term expense of the nation. "He is running the country like a charity by spreading the easily earned oil money across the country without thinking about the disastrous economic consequences it may have," says Noori. "The only reason why Ahmadinejad has managed to survive is the revenue from selling oil at $103 per barrel. If the price of oil comes down, the country will be engulfed in chaos and mayhem." Reformists like Noori believe that it will take some sort of economic disaster or foreign military threat, most probably from the United States or Israel, to alert the hardliners running the Iranian government—especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—to the dangers of Ahmadinejad's populist extremism.

That's unlikely to happen anytime soon. So for now the moderates are pursuing a two-tier approach. They want to have some presence in the parliament in order to keep their political presence alive. "If we didn't take part in the elections, the hardliners would have totally dominated the parliament, closed our offices, and that would be the end of us as reformist activists," says Shariati. Surviving, even with the tiny number of seats they're expected to win, will also allow the reformists to prepare themselves for the presidential elections in June 2009. But first the reformists have to deal with divisions within their ranks. The likely reformist candidates for the presidency are former president Mohammad Khatami and former speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karrubi—perhaps the only contenders with enough stature to prevent the Council of Guardians from disqualifying them from the race. The factions, however, have presented different lists of parliamentary candidates and display little inclination to mend fences. In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK this week, Karrubi called Khatami a weak politician and said his allies were extremists "who questioned the Islamic component of the Islamic Republic." In turn, Khatami's allies say that Karrubi is a pretender and not a real reformist.

Noori, for his part, is spending the time ahead of Election Day working as the unpaid editor of the reformists' Web site. He operates out of an old building full of like-minded disqualified candidates who jokingly call themselves "the notorious." They try to keep their minds off their imminent defeat by putting on brave faces for young volunteers who have had enough of Ahmadinejad. But privately the reformists acknowledge that even their best-case scenario predicts a mere 40 out of 290 seats in the Iranian parliament. As little as that, they hope, would at least keep their cause alive—at least until the next vote comes around.

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