Iran: Today’s Moderates are Yesterday’s Conservatives

In 1979, when a party of Iranian radicals stormed the American embassy in Tehran, their most prominent public face was a clear-spoken student nicknamed “Mary” by the world media. Today, Masoumeh Ebtekar is a fairly conventional politician: currently serving as Vice President for Women and Family Affairs and twice Vice President for the Environment, her career is particularly significant in that she, like many of her fellow students who took hostages at the embassy, is now a reformist. Unlike them, she has managed to avoid being imprisoned or silenced for her beliefs and has maintained her active role in national politics despite being openly affiliated with the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a reformist party that has been banned since 2009.

President Hassan Rouhani has, in fact, brought a substantial number of Iranian reformists like Ebtekar into his cabinet, defying fears that he would prove to be another hardliner. In the wake of the somewhat erratic Ahmadinejad administration, Rouhani can at least be counted on to act in a calm and rational manner.

He might be a centrist, at least when compared to the slate of leaders currently active in Iran. He certainly did not start out that way.

During Rouhani’s early career in government, he took stances generally classified as “pragmatic conservative” and occupied an unexciting spot in Iran’s broadly defined political right wing. Since the Revolution, most high offices in Iran have required the confirmation of the Supreme Leader. This, of course, was never a problem for Rouhani. In 2002, during his legislative career, he was close enough to the Supreme Leader to be described by outside observers as “Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative” on the Iranian National Security Council.

What happened to change everything? The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a truly unique politician who blended culturally conservative values with a streak of rabid populism in order to overturn the reformist Khatami presidency and send shockwaves through the right-wing establishment.

It is easy to make fun of Ahmadinejad. Perhaps one can mock his sincere insistence that Iranians are not homosexual, or gasp at his support for a conference to “review” the historicity of the Holocaust. This was a man so cartoonishly villainous that when he tried a return to politics last year, Khamenei himself shot it down. Yet it would be inaccurate to presume him an agent of pure malice; sometimes, he seemed merely dedicated to violating political taboo, as when in 2006 he offended every cleric at once by scandalously proposing that women be allowed to attend men’s football games.

Despite standing at the forefront of a mostly-conservative movement that has driven Rouhani and other clerics towards the political center, where they have thrown their lot in with reformists, Ahmadinejad was obviously not a traditional right-wing politician. If anything, he seems to have represented a sort of alternative, potentially dangerous political current.

Rouhani means to draw his country together again in his final term in office -- and he faces an uphill climb, given the extent to which Ahmadinejad’s influence has disturbed civil affairs and trashed Iran’s foreign reputation. There might be better men for the task, but at this point they are either under house arrest or deceased. In any case, Rouhani’s future actions, if successful, will be remembered as a textbook example of how to remedy the long-term effects of a dangerously unstable populist demagogue.