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Western myths about Iran ‘hard-liners’ vs. ‘moderates’

With Iran’s presidential election approaching, media are flooded with headlines suggesting that Iran is going to be the only country in the world where hard-liners will not score a victory in the polls. Many depict this as a good news for Iranian citizens, the region and world because “moderates” will be winning the election.

From my perspective, this completely misleads the public about the complexities and nuances of Iran’s politics.

Some who have studied Iran for decades are cognizant about what the terms “moderate” and “hard-line” really mean in reference to politicians. But the public might interpret the definition of these terms the same way that they apply in the Western world. Many people reading this analysis might think that a “moderate” politician in Iran’s political spectrum means someone who advocates for peace, human rights, social justice, respecting the international law and so on.

Let us break down a few of the myths perpetuated by some media outlets and politicians regarding the actual meaning of the terms “moderates” and “hard-liners.”

Four predominant myths

Myth No. 1: Iran’s moderates are subversive and rebel against the ruling political establishment, and they desire to change the political structure of the Islamic Republic.

The truth is that Iran’s moderates are a critical part of the political establishment. Many of them, including the current President Hassan Rouhani, were robust supporters or founding fathers of the Islamic Republic’s Shiite theocracy. These “moderates,” such as the late former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were once called “hard-liners.”

In addition, it is crucial to point out that to be a politician in Iran, your loyalty to the core pillars of the political establishment should be firmly proven. Vilayat-e Faqih is the core pillar of Shiite political thought expounded by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and forces a guardianship-based political system on the people, and requires that a Shiite religious figure be the leader of the nation.

Furthermore, to work for the government, run for public office, or to be a politician, one needs to endorse the basic rules of obeying the supreme leader and the mission of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as other military forces, to spread Iran’s revolutionary and religious doctrine both inside the country and beyond Iran’s borders.

If at any point someone even slightly shows signs of questioning, challenging or disobeying these rules, and if his or her loyalty to the Islamic Republic is doubted, he or she would be disqualified from running for office or working for the government.

Myth No. 2: The concepts of Iran’s “hard-liners” and “moderates” originate from Iran.

These concepts were first coined in the West, then ossified and expanded throughout various means including the media. I frequently listen to Iranian leaders’ speeches in the Persian language and read Iran’s state-owned Persian-language newspapers; these concepts are rarely used by Iranian officials or media outlets. In Iran’s political affairs what matters is that politicians prove their loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his military institutions.

This is due to the fact that the moment you lose the blessing of the supreme leader, your political life ends right there.

Tehran has gained a considerable amount of geopolitical and economic leverage by reinforcing the concepts used in the West to characterize its political establishment.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

These concepts were spread during the time that some Western politicians and Iran lobby groups needed to sell the nuclear deal to the public and their constituents. They created another category opposing the “hard-liners” and depicted a rosy image of Iran’s new “moderates.”

Some Western media outlets were also lulled into this narrative and reinforced it.

This is not to say that Iran did not seize the opportunity to play the West with their game of “hard-liners” versus “moderates.” This narrative was too good for the Iranian leaders to let go. In fact, Iran gained a considerable amount of geopolitical, financial, economic and strategic leverage by making a tactical shift, reinforcing the “moderate” versus “hard-line” phenomenon, in order to further trick the Western public and politicians.

Myth No. 3: Iran moderates pursue different foreign policies to that of the hard-liners.

Iran’s supreme leader and the senior cadre of IRGC hold the final say when it comes to Iran’s foreign policy. They also have significant control over Iran’s economic, financial, and political sectors. For example, at the end of the presidential term of the so-called “moderate” Hassan Rouhani, Iran has not altered its policies toward Syria, in supporting President Bashar Assad, along with Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and other nations’ domestic affairs. In fact, it has intensified its expansionist policies through its military and additional revenues.

Since 1979 Iran has not altered the cornerstone of its foreign policy and revolutionary principles regardless of who was president.

Myth No. 4: Iran’s moderates differ from hard-liners when it comes to domestic policies and human rights.

In fact, whenever a “moderate” government has been in power, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities (including Sunni, Arabs, and Kurds) have been more forcefully oppressed. There were more people executed under the presidency of “moderate” Rouhani than other presidencies. Under Rouhani’s rule, Iran ranked top in the world per capita with regards to executing people. Evidence shows that freedom of speech, press, and assembly have been further restricted.

The concepts used in the West to characterize and describe Iran’s political establishment are extremely misleading and they are employed out of context.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.