‘Freedom Is Not a Western Good’: Inside Iran’s Reformists’ Battle for Change

For more than two decades, political activist Hossein Yazdi campaigned in Iran’s presidential election, determined to bring about change in the conservative theocratic state.

But 42-year-old Yazdi, who was born a few months before the revolution that established the Islamic Republic in 1979, has given up completely. This time, he won’t put up posters or knock on doors to explain the merits of his favorite candidate. So he won’t vote.

Like many younger activists, he has become disillusioned with politics, and the lineup of candidates for the June 18 elections has reinforced this sense of desperation. Leading Moderate Candidates blocked The two reformist candidates have not yet gained momentum. With President Hassan Rouhani about to step down after two terms, the frontrunner and Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi should win easily if turnout is low, according to analysts.

“The reform movement has reached a complete standstill and since the recent unrest we have realized that this system cannot be reformed,” Yazdi said in a video call from the city of Isfahan, referring to the Large-scale protests in 2019 Against the rise in fuel prices and the killing of hundreds of demonstrators.

The feeling of deflation began after then-US President Donald Trump in 2018 pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers and imposed harsh sanctions. A year ago, more than 70 percent of registered voters turned out amid hopes of Rouhani’s re-engagement with the West. But Trump’s move has weakened reformists and emboldened hardliners, who see it as evidence that Iran can never trust Western powers.

Hossein Yazdi has been politically active for more than two decades. He is not voting in this year’s elections © Hossein Yazdi

While a campaign on social media is urging people not to vote, many analysts expect the election to have one of the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history – a blow to a system whose legitimacy depends on a high electoral turnout. For many, refusing to vote is an important challenge act.

“We have to put civil resistance on our agenda by boycotting these elections, for example, to show our strength and tell the regime, ‘We don’t give you the legitimacy to speak to the world on our behalf when you don’t meet our minimum demands like free and fair elections,'” Yazdi said.

This election is a moment of reckoning for the reformists who first made gains in the 1980s in the wake of a deadly war with Iraq. The growing crackdown on dissent in the decade following the 1979 revolution left many disappointed and eager to press for reform to ensure the theocratic state’s survival.

The peak of the reform movement was the election of Muhammad Khatami as president in 1997. Reform achievements include easing the requirement for women to wear headscarves in public, as well as sometimes successful protests by workers and retirees to improve their rights. But since Khatami’s rule, hardliners have repeatedly halted attempts at reform and younger politicians doubt that elite conservatives in the Revolutionary Guards and the judiciary will allow more reform.

Analysts said that with Khatami warning of a threat to democracy, the authorities’ willingness to put up with a low turnout indicates that their focus is on expanding Iran’s regional influence and ballistic missile program, rather than winning the public’s trust.

Mehdi Mohammadian said that while previous generations of reformers helped establish a religious state with big business interests, this generation is different. The 44-year-old political activist has spent more than 10 years in prison for his alleged anti-regime activities. He was recently sentenced to five years in prison for organizing protests against Iran’s downing of a Ukrainian airliner last year.

“The second and third generations seek more structural changes and are less tied to the ideologies of the Islamic Republic,” Mahmoudian said.

Mahdi Mohammadian

Mehdi Mohammadian spent more than 10 years in prison for his alleged anti-regime activities © Mehdi Mahmoudan

Younger activists say there is no way to change the republic from within, but they want a peaceful push for a democracy.

“We have to take advantage of social movements,” Mahmoudian said. “We must find ways to convince people that freedom is not a luxury Western good, but rather their urgent need for better living conditions, better housing and more bread,” he said.

Iftikhar Barzegarian, a 39-year-old reformist in the conservative city of Mashhad, said that in the face of a “legitimacy crisis,” the republic’s rulers would have “no other choice but to pursue internal reforms” of domestic and foreign policy.

“The shift in the reform movement may not happen in these elections, but it will depend on the pursuit of democracy and a focus on social justice and freedom in the future,” he said.

Iftikhar Barzegarian

Iftikhar Barzegharian says Iran’s rulers face a “legitimacy crisis” © Iftikhar Barzegharian

For many reformists, the only candidate who truly represented them was Mustafa Tajzadeh. Tajzadeh, a former reformist deputy interior minister and political prisoner for seven years, has called for “normalization of relations” with the United States, among other things. But Tajzadeh was excluded by Iran’s hardline Guardian Council.

The young reformers have already paid a heavy price for their resistance. Many of them lost their jobs and spent time in prison. But the problem is our financial situation, with most of us struggling to make ends meet and relying on our families to survive. “Many activists remain anonymous to keep their jobs and not allow the regime to take their families hostage,” Mahmoudian said.

Mostafa Tajzadeh and his wife while registering for the Iranian presidential elections on May 14, 2021

Mostafa Tajzadeh and his wife while registering for the Iranian presidential elections on May 14. He was disqualified by the hard-line Guardian Council. © Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

For some, it is useful to take a long look, and see their fight in the context of Iran’s struggle, including the battle to overthrow the Shah’s dynasty that ruled the country until the revolution.

It has been 100 years since Iranians fought for democracy. “I learned about democracy from my father and my 17-year-old daughter taught it to me,” Yazdi said.

We are aware that this is a long and difficult battle but we have no other choice but to break the current impasse. The regime must choose between swallowing democracy or collapsing from within.”

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