By Ali Safavi

Autumn of 2000

“Reformers” and “conservatives” have gained broad acceptance outside Iran as correct terms to describe the two feuding factions within the ruling clerical establishment in Iran. They are misnomers, however, and lend more confusion and enigma to a situation that is already mind-boggling enough without added semantic complexities. These terms, and others in the same gamut such as “moderates” and “hardliners,” may make Iran’s political landscape more tangible or recognizable to outsiders, but they grossly oversimplify – and consequently misrepresent – the alchemy of mullahs’ sleazy political world, where factional loyalties move more quickly than the shifting sand.

It is ironic, for instance, that ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, once hailed in the West as an enclave of moderation and sanity in Khomeini’s dark world of fundamentalist folly, is now being described by his past spin doctors as “an opportunistic thug.” (The Washington Post, May 7, 2000) The fundamental flaw in such labels is that they are based on the assumption that politics under the ruling clerics in Iran is much the same as that in the West. Nothing could be further from the truth. A “conservative” anywhere on the political map in the West adheres to generally known political and economic bearings, while “liberals” or “reformers” have their own recognizable agenda, too. In clergy-ruled Iran, however, there are no well-established political parties, no clear party agenda, no declared party policies on issues facing the nation; in short, no distinguishing “features”, but only loose alliances and transient positions. Take the Majlis elections in February and the run-off contests in May, for example.

Veteran “Iran watchers” had a tough time trying to identify how many seats were won by the “reformers” and how many by the “conservatives.” Le Monde’s correspondent noted in a report from Tehran: “Political opportunism being the ordre de jour, particularly at election times, it will still take considerable time to be able to know the exact number of genuine reformers among the 290 members of Iran’s new parliament, assuming that many other ambiguities will be clarified one day.” (Le Monde, May 9) The London Independent’s correspondent made a similar observation when he noted that “executioners” have become “reformers” under Khatami’ banner. Ironically, the situation was no clearer to the factions themselves. After the second round of the election in May, the spokesmen for the Khatami camp and the rival faction came up with grossly different tallies as to who won how many seats. Dubious factional politics aside, such discrepancies to a large extent reflect the arbitrary nature of political affiliations in the mullahs’ regime. Mir-Taher Moussavi, the elected candidate in the city of Karaj, for example, was on the pro-Khatami ticket, but everyone in the city knew that

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