Stefan Wermuth / Reuters A woman shows the ink stain on her finger, to prove that she has voted, outside the Iranian consulate in central London, June 14, 2013.

The Death of Iran's Islamic Left

How the Elections Hurt the Reformers

Democracy in the Islamic Republic is a peculiar institution: it is designed to reinforce the legitimacy of the theocracy. Various vetting bodies, all ultimately controlled by the clergy, routinely nullify parliamentary legislation. The Majlis, Iran's parliament, has long been a mere echo chamber for the ruling elite, an escape valve for regime-loyal dissent.

The curiousness of Iran's theocratically managed democracy is amplified by elections (like the ones just held) and the Iranian press, which reports on the campaigns and the differences among the political elite as if they were the left-right contests seen in the West. President Hassan Rouhani and his supporters styled themselves as hope-and-change candidates. By instinct, the Western press used the same vocabulary. In truth, the elections of 2016 did signal change, but not the kind the Western press had in mind. Rather, they spelled the end of Iran's once-vivacious reform movement and the death of the "Islamic Left," which has produced nearly all of Iran’s reformers.


In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, an eclectic group of Iranian politicians and religious scholars undertook an imaginative re-examination of the role of the people in Islamic government. The essential basis of their ideology was that the interpretation of holy scripture must adjust to changing human conditions. For them, the elected institutions were more important sources of authority than appointed offices with mandates from heaven. These reformists, who were all loyal to the Islamic revolution, were convinced that compulsory imposition of religious strictures and a disdain for democracy would inexorably erode both the faith and the other foundations of the state. Unlike the hardliners, the reformers had ample confidence in the ability of the populace to sustain a country that was religious in character yet democratic in practice.

A demonstrator protests against the Iranian election in Washington, June 21, 2009.

A demonstrator protests against the Iranian election in Washington, June 21, 2009.

The movement has had its moments of success: in the 1990s, it captured both the presidency and parliament. The Islamic Republic’s security services, tightly aligned with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, once Rouhani's mentor,

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