The divisions within the Iranian establishment have deepened and become more evident than they had been because of the current uprising raging across Iran. These divisions seem to exist even among the Iranian clergy. Reformists condemn the government’s violent response while conservatives demand that protestors be “harshly punished” and “sentenced to death.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly called on the political forces to refrain from actions that could risk Iran’s unity and integrity. In the past, Khamenei warned that “bipolarity is detrimental to the country,” adding that the “enemies are waiting to take advantage of any polarity or conflict” among Iran’s political forces.
However, the recent developments in the country have once again revealed the depth of the great political multi-polarity within the Iranian establishment. In a commentary in the reformist Etemad newspaper, former government spokesman and long-time member of Iran’s intelligence community, Ali Rabiei, warned that Iran may face “bloody confrontations,” as the country’s uprising has been raging on for almost two months. He further stressed that there is a growing “pressure” from Iranian ultraconservatives “to disrupt the role of intermediary groups,” and monopolize power. Rabiei also stated: “The political participation of various political groups and parties was extremely limited in two consecutive elections. As a result, the ballot box lost its function of creating mediators, who played as go-betweens among various generations and their demands.”
The political conflict between the reformist and conservative factions shaped Iranian politics for almost two decades. However, the current conflicts are also within the conservative faction that rules the country, facing the regime with a threatening internal infight.
Ultraconservatives Vs. Neoconservatives
Contradictory and often inflammatory remarks from regime insiders illustrate the growing disunity within the Iranian establishment.
In an interview with the state-sponsored media outlet, Ettela’at, commenting on the fact that at least 50 percent of Iranian women do not observe the regime-imposed dress code, Khamenei’s senior aide Ali Larijani stated: “When a behavior is so widely prevalent in the society it is wrong to involve the police in a bid to curb that behavior.” He then added that “dialogue” is necessary with protesters. Meanwhile, Ebrahim Rezaei, a member of the National Security Committee, told Mehr News Agency: “One should definitely not appease those who have taken up weapons or behave violently against the system and the nation or are related to foreign security services, because soft treatment of these people and rioters is a betrayal of the country’s security and the nation.”
Hence, it is possible to notice that, inside the conservative camp, there are two main currents of how to approach the protests. In fact, since the 2005 elections and the end of Iran’s reformist era (1997-2005), Iranian conservatives have been divided into two groups: extremist hardliners (ultraconservatives/traditional conservatives) and neoconservatives (neocons). Khamenei supports both sides, but, undoubtedly, he tends to prefer the hardliners over the neocons.
Ultraconservatives are Iran’s most right-wing party – they can be defined as “far-right.” They have a political party called Jebha-ye paydari-e enqelab-e eslami (“Front of Islamic Revolution Stability” aka the Paydari party). The party’s members are predominantly veterans of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War and their worldview is thus shaped by their wartime experience. They are extremely anti-West, anti-Saudi Arabia, and anti-Israel. Basically, the IRGC and Khamenei’s inner circle belong to this faction.
The Front’s spiritual leader used to be Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who died in 2021. Since his death, current President Ebrahim Raisi and Saeed Jalili (who is nicknamed the “living martyr,” after losing the lower portion of his right leg fighting in the Iran-Iraq War) are the behind-the-scenes leaders of this front. They reject any calls for reform and insist on a strict observance of shari’a. For example, they established the Morality Police in 2005 to strictly enforce the regime’s dress code.
On the other hand, the “neoconservatives” can be defined as “centrist-rightists.” They have adopted some “reformist” ideas, such as the necessity of changes in the government regulations but without making major structural changes. Neocons started as a movement in 2005, as a “third way” between Iran’s reformist and traditionalist conservatives (i.e., ultraconservatives).
The rivalry between the neoconservatives and ultraconservatives (also pejoratively called “super-revolutionaries”) in Iran has been apparent in the Assembly of Experts, City Council, and Parliament (Majlis) elections since the mid-2000s, but it has become more obvious and intense during the current political unrest. In fact, neocons have been accusing the ultraconservatives in the Ebrahim Raisi government of incompetence and inability to solve the current crisis.
The Neocons’ Plans For A “New Governance”
Neoconservatives are led by Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Iran’s Parliament Speaker and former IRGC commander, who recently accused ultraconservatives of “opening their mouth and saying anything and doing anything without calculating the consequences of their behavior.” London-based media outlet Iran International mentioned that Ghalibaf’s inner circle has also said that ultraconservatives are stoking the ongoing protests in the country with “their hardline positions and behavior that have annoyed Iranians from all walks of life.”
It is worth noting that Ghalibaf recently stated that he promoted the idea of establishing a “new governance” and bring about reforms, based on new plans that would initiate “innovative” and “great” changes in all levels of the government. However, he then added: “I hope security will be completely restored in the country soon, so that legitimate and necessary changes would begin to establish a new governance in economic, social and political areas within the framework of the Islamic Republic.” The fact that Ghalibaf considers postponing these reforms until “security is completely restored” (i.e., the protests are ended) may indicate (as reformists stressed) that there is no real will to implement a “new governance.”
Nevertheless, Ghalibaf’s call for reforms found several supporters among conservatives. Mohammad Saeed Ahadian, a conservative journalist related by marriage to Ayatollah Khamenei, stressed in the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency that the recent situation has shown the necessity of urgent reforms in the country. He remarked that Ghalibaf’s proposal for “new governance” is based on Khamenei’s orders. Furthermore, on November 10, Ahadian tweeted that Ghalibaf’s reform plan was welcomed by the country’s ruling elites. However, he said that the existing vagueness of some points of the plan brought the “super-revolutionaries” to find an excuse to “destroy” the proposal for reforms, as “they did it before” in the past.
Iran International reported that Ghalibaf’s camp believes that, after the protests end, the regime will not collapse, but rather the neocons will take over the ultraconservatives. “Neocons insist that once the country leaves behind the current wave of nationwide protests, everything will be ready for unseating the Paydari Party,” wrote Iran International, adding that the neocons want to change all the ministers that are believed were imposed by Saeed Jalili, Ghalibaf’s political adversary, in the Raisi government.
Critical Voices In Qom
On November 9, in order to rally the regime supporters around ultraconservatives, Kayhan newspaper, which is funded by Iran’s Supreme Leader, stated: “One of the dreams and hopes of this movement is that in the future after the Islamic Republic is toppled, homosexuality will be legalized and spread in Iran, the day after the downfall of the Islamic Republic will be nothing less than hell.”
However, some clerics have raised their critical voices against the ultraconservatives even in Qom, Iran’s religious capital. For instance, on November 13, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Ayazi, a prominent Iranian cleric in the city, blamed the ultraconservatives for taking harsh stances against the protestors and stressed that “objection is a human right.” He then added: “In autocratic systems, they stigmatize and denounce their opponents as irreligious, and then use this stigma as an excuse to deal harshly with their opponents.”
Given the rising criticism against ultraconservatives, some Iranian activists in social media suggested that Ghalibaf’s statement about implementing legitimate changes, if the situation calms down, is a “clear message” for the people: the elite has “accepted defeat and is retreating,” by offering reforms. In fact, the pro-reform newspaper Etemad suggested that this is a golden opportunity for the neocons that can use the protests to attack the ultraconservatives for Iran’s problems and take over.
Reformists Call For Referendum And “Self-Reforming” System
Aside from conservatives and neocons, the Islamic republic’s political elite comprises also of reformists, which represent the “left wing” of the Iranian politics. They are known to be “pragmatists,” they want to improve Iran’s regional and international relations and ease restrictions inside the country. Nevertheless, both reformists and conservatives support the Islamic Republic’s system of government.
Historically, reformists were led by former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. The Supreme Leader Khamenei managed to purge the government of reformists first in 2005 with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, followed by the brutal crackdown on reformists after the 2009 green movement. It is also worth noting that Rafsanjani’s daughter Fatima always claimed that her father did not die of a natural death, as the official report stated in 2017. Most recently, Rafsanjani’s other daughter Faezeh was arrested in Tehran for “inciting” the ongoing riots.
Finally in 2021, Khamenei himself removed all the reformist and even moderate conservative candidates for presidency to ensure the success of the current ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi, in the election of that year. The reformists are now led by former associates of Khatami and Rafsanjani.
On November 9, as ultraconservatives keep supporting harsh crackdown on protests, Iran’s Reform Front, which was founded in March 2021 by Khatami’s associates and is formed by parties from Iran’s reformist camp, issued a statement calling for a referendum and the immediate end of violence against protesters.
The statement stressed: “The protests are the outcome of many years of denial of the people’s problems [by the government] and refusal to recognize them, as well as being the product of accrued and unsolved issues, such as humiliation and suppression of the people. Unfortunately, despite 50 days having already passed [since the beginning of the protests], there are still no signs of an effective, realistic solutions by the ruling institutions for the current protests and the widespread social unrest.”
The statement then accused the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC Intelligence Organization of not understanding that what they consider to be “the solution” to the current crisis is instead “the problem itself” and the “root cause” of the crisis.
The statement warned: “Collapse and subversion threaten the regimes that either maintain their stubborn positions against society’s demands, like the Gaddafi regime, or showed flexibility and initiated changes when it was too late, like the Pahlavi regime.” Therefore, Iran’s Reform Front suggested starting “endogenous changes and reforms,” in order to meet the “people’s demands.” “[This is] the best and at the same time the least expensive way to overcome the crisis and prevent the country’s descent into the abyss,” the statement assessed. 
Most importantly, the Reform Front’s statement proposed the organization of a referendum in the country, to bring “immediate, courageous, and innovative changes” and open an “effective dialogue on a national scale.”
The statement recommended: “This first action is even possible by relying on the democratic approach of the current Constitution and by implementing it in full, including… Article 59 on the organization of a referendum.” It then added: “However, in order to create fundamental reforms and in order to completely solve the problems related to the incorrect processes in the country, it seems that an effective measure is to solve the ambiguities, flaws, and contradictions of the existing Constitution, in a peaceful atmosphere, during a legal process and based on the collective wisdom and national will of all Iranians.”
Azar Mansouri, the general secretary of the reformist Union of Islamic Iran People Party, Iran’s main reformist party led by Khatami’s former aides, also said in a tweet that the “lack of political legitimacy [of the government] is the most obvious threat to the country’s national security.”
It is worth noting that, at the end of September, a few days after the spread of the protests all around the country, the Union of Islamic Iran People Party called on the Iranian government to “prepare the legal elements necessary for the repeal of the law on the mandatory hijab.”
Most recently, Khatami himself stated: “Overthrowing [the regime] is not possible or desirable. However, the continuation of the current situation is widening the grounds of a social collapse that could happen at any moment. Hence, the least expensive and most beneficial solution is the ‘self-reforming’ system [i.e., to promote social, political, and economic reforms without dismantling the Islamic republic].”
Ultraconservatives Vs. Reformists
The IRGC daily newspaper Javan strongly criticized the Reform Front for its statement. In an article, Javan called the Reform Front an “opportunistic” political movement trying to take advantage of the situation for its own interests. It then accused it of “changing the nature” of the “riots,” describing them as simple “protests.” Javan criticized the political movement for accusing the government of being the source of the uprising in the country while ignoring the “foreign origin” of the revolt.
During the past two months, Khamenei himself has made it clear that he wants the protesters to be punished severely, insisting that the uprising is supported by foreign services.
As reported by Iran International, the Islamic Republic’s Army Ground Forces Commander, Kiumars Heydari, has recently threatened harsher responses to the protesters, that he defined as “flies,” if Khamenei orders it.
Neoconservatives May Establish An Alliance With Reformists
There are currently three factions within Iranian ruling elite with different agendas and proposing different policies to overcome the current crisis. Even though the three of them want to keep alive the Islamic Republic regime, the current protests are showing strong divisions inside the political elite: reformists call for structural changes in the system to grant people greater freedom through holding a referendum; ultraconservatives insist on suppressing the uprising and retaining the status quo; and neoconservatives seek reforms without making structural changes.
This polarization between neoconservatives and ultraconservatives at the heart of the ruling establishment, with only a small reformist faction, renders Iranian politics potentially explosive, especially if a rift within the conservative faction leads to a power struggle, with neoconservatives moving toward establishing an alliance with reformists.
However, political divisions within the current ruling elites may not threaten the regime, as Khamenei and his inner circle control the government, unless the political infighting leads to military infighting. The IRGC under Khamenei, which is considered Iran’s “deep state,” continue to play a zero-sum game, as it considers that to compromise with the protesters would be a sign of weakness that will be exploited by “the enemy.” It is also unlikely that the Raisi government would embark upon a radical reform plan that would structurally alter the system.
Even if conservatives move toward greater openness, entrenched conservative clerics would attempt to repress dissident views and impose Shia shari’a law upon Iranians, as long as they remain powerful militarily or politically. Furthermore, Khamenei has to continue to support his devout ultraconservatives, particularly the IRGC, if he wants to keep retaining his authoritative position and the regime’s ideological heritage. Yet, discontent among the factions will continue to grow, making the political situation in the country more unstable.
International media and public statements by Iranian officials fail to see that the protests in Iran are not only about Iran’s hijab law. The protests will continue even if this law is abolished; the protesters have made it clear that they aim at overthrowing the regime. In particular, ethnic minorities are fighting for the ethnic and human rights of which they have been deprived for over a century.
The protesters believe that the Iranian regime cannot be fixed, therefore they want nothing less than regime change. This is made clear by the slogans of the uprising: “Reformist, hardliner, it is over!” “Death to the whole apparatus of power, death to the Islamic Republic,” and “we don’t want referendums, we want regime change!”
Hence, the people – not the government, and not the political factions – will probably have the last say in Iran this time. Protesters have so far refused to back down despite facing a brutal crackdown. It may take months or years, but the protesters will likely continue to fight until they overthrow the Islamic Republic regime.
Himdad Mustafa is a Kurdish scholar and expert on Kurdish and Iranian affairs.
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Etemadnewspaper-ir.translate.goog/fa/main/detail/193142/%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B6%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D8%AE%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D9%86%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%AC%D9%87-%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%84%E2%80%8C%D9%87%D8%A7-%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%83%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA?_x_tr_sl=fa&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=iw&_x_tr_pto=wapp, November 10, 2022.
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 It is worth noting that, while reformists showed their readiness to support the repeal of the law on mandatory hijab, ultraconservatives are not inclined to give up. Ultraconservative cleric Mojtaba Zolnouri, a member of the Iranian parliament from Qom, urged the authorities to enforce hijab strictly and said: “Women who do not cover their hair should be sentenced to 74 lashes… A notice served by the morality police will not be enough for women who take off their hijab.” Iranintl.com/en/202210189009, October 18, 2022.
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