The bridled expectations of Iran’s reformists
Fifteen years ago, on September 21, 2000, Iran’s president appealed to the UN General Assembly for a “dialogue between civilisations”. Mohammad Khatami was at his peak, three years before the Bush administration ignored Iran’s faxed appeal for a “grand bargain”.
After Khatami’s re-election in 2001, his administration faltered in the face of conservative opposition to his reforms and as millions of Iranians facing economic problems lost patience with demands for social freedom from the middle classes. After two terms Khatami was ineligible for the 2005 presidential election, which was won by the fundamentalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a slogan of “putting the oil money on the sofreh” (the mat on which poorer Iranians sit to dine).
It is tempting today to see Khatami as vindicated by July’s nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers. And while the former president has spent his time mainly working quietly in his foundations (including the Foundation for Dialogue among Cultures and Civilisations), he helped elect Hassan Rohani as president in 2013 by persuading Mohammad Reza Aref, first vice-president 2001-05, to withdraw in Rohani’s favour.
Rohani’s cabinet has many faces from the Khatami era. Bijan Namdar Zanganeh has returned as oil minister; Mohammad Javad Zarif, foreign minister, was UN ambassador in the later years of Khatami’s presidency; and Masoumeh Ebtekar, one of Khatami’s vice-presidents, is Rohani’s vice-president responsible for the environment.
This has encouraged reformists to expect renewal of the Khatami agenda of liberalisation and clipping the powers of unelected bodies and organisations.
But many analysts are cautious. “Rohani has made clear he wants some changes in political and cultural arenas but in Iran everything is contested and nothing happens quickly,” said Farideh Farhi, of the University of Hawaii.
“Give and take is part of the Iranian political system as much as in the US, UK or other contested polities. The nuclear agreement has strengthened his hand but has not removed other forces who think differently about how Iran should be run and which domestic policies to pursue.”
The February 2016 parliamentary elections should strengthen the president’s hand. “The general expectation is indeed for a more supportive parliament, one that’s not so shaped by a hard-line minority that has managed to challenge the government well beyond the power their numbers would suggest,” said Farhi. “Many of these loud hardliners are from Tehran and both the reformist and centrist strategy is to ensure they don’t come back.”
The reformists, most of whose candidates are likely to be barred from the election by the watchdog Guardian Council, have trimmed their expectations. Mohammad- Reza Khatami, younger brother of the former president and ex-general secretary of the suspended reformist party Mosharekat, recently urged patience. “Young activists, young people, parties, journalists, have more chance to do everything that they want (since Rohani became president),” he said. “The red lines are still there, but some… have been pushed back… With the passing of time, we’re optimistic that many things will be changed.”
A comprehensive “dialogue between civilisations” is no more likely than rapid liberalisation.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, has made clear the July 14th nuclear agreement does not necessarily mean wider rapprochement with the United States. Suspicion of the West is ingrained not just among fundamentalists. Resistance to Western cultural influence is important to many clerics and is inculcated throughout education and networks such as the Basij militia.
Further, Rohani is a pragmatist who realises that governing successfully requires maintaining a broad consensus within the political class, including the clerics.
“Even if Rohani has a more supportive parliament, we shouldn’t expect fundamental changes,” a Tehran-based Iranian journalist said. “Don’t forget he’s been the representative of Ayatollah Khamenei in the Supreme Council for National Security for 16 years and is a conservative figure, rather than a reformist one, as many Khatami-oriented and Khatami-loving people claim.” The journalist insisted Rohani would focus on the economy. “He will work to remove economic obstacles in the way of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These include sanctions but it could also include opposition figures, students or whoever. In a nutshell, he’ll clean the country of the pollution of the Ahmadinejad years and give it back to his supreme leader.”
Rohani’s “dialogue between civilisations” may concentrate, then, on attracting foreign investment capital.
While ministers talk of 50-50 partnerships with overseas companies, it would be hard for Tehran to raise domestically, for example, half the $200 billion envisaged for investment in oil and gas.
A shortage of domestic funds — especially private-sector funds — means that in the eight years since Khamenei ruled in favour of privatising most state-owned industries, offerings have mostly transferred shares to quasi-state bodies or pension funds. Khatami envisaged a dialogue with diplomats, intellectuals and professors. Rohani may seek rather a dialogue with business leaders, energy majors and banks.