June 26, 2016

Iran’s hardliners boosted by let-down over nuclear deal

Ahmad Jannati (L) the head of Iran’s new Assembly of Experts, attends the Assembly meeting in Tehran, on May 24th.

London - Nearly six months after the lifting of draconian international sanctions against Iran, there is a sense inside the country that little has changed.

True, oil exports have risen from 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) to more than 2 million bpd but plans for billions of dollars in trade and investment are on hold because Washington is restricting access to the dollar and continues to sanc­tion about 200 Iranian entities and individuals for links to terrorism or abuse of human rights.

Critics of the July 14th, 2015, nu­clear agreement are regrouping. Despite their disappointing show­ing in February’s elections for par­liament and the Experts’ Assembly, the body that chooses the supreme leader, principlists were encour­aged in May by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati’s election as assembly chair­man and now look for a candidate to beat incumbent Hassan Rohani in the presidential election expected in June 2017.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, presi­dent from 2005-13, has caught the public eye in recent months with speeches contrasting the sacrifices of the 1980-88 war against Iraq with inequality and selfishness today. Websites supporting him have put forward statistics illustrating the “successes” of his presidency com­pared to Rohani’s record on matters such as paving rural roads.

Ahmadinejad remains popular with many Iranians — an August 2015 poll gave him a 67% approval rating — but his prospects are ham­pered by memories of the battles during his second term with Su­preme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khame­nei and other senior clerics.

There is a good chance the watch­dog Council of Guardians, of which Jannati is chairman, would bar Ah­madinejad from the presidential election, as it did his first vice-pres­ident, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, in 2013.

“I don’t think Ayatollah Khame­nei will let Ahmadinejad come back, unless Rohani has made the situation very unhappy for him,” said Saeid Golkar, consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and lecturer at Northwestern University in the United States.

“There is a possibility but they have other candidates in their mind. In social media, they’re talk­ing about someone from the Rev­olutionary Guards, like Qassem Soleimani, who’s very popular. They’ve made him into a superstar. He’s loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei,” Golkar said.

Soleimani, commander of al- Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), emerged into the glare of publicity in 2014 with pictures of him organising resist­ance to the Islamic State (ISIS), in Iraq and Syria. By 2015, the once-furtive Soleimani was profiled in the Iranian media and has often appeared as a fatherly figure at the funerals of officers killed in Iraq.

Where Soleimani figures in Iran’s factional mosaic, however, is far from clear. In February’s parlia­mentary election, he endorsed Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker running in the holy city of Qom.

A consummate insider, Larijani skilfully managed opposition to the nuclear agreement within parlia­ment and, if he remains as speaker, may well support Rohani’s plans for economic reform. This suggests that, while Soleimani as president might do more to protect IRGC in­terests, including its business em­pire, he might not be poles apart from Rohani as chief executive.

So far, Rohani looks favoured to win a second term. As president he has delivered the nuclear deal while maintaining good relations with parliament. He has presided over an economic recovery, with the International Monetary Fund projecting 4% growth in 2016 after the economy shrank the year Ah­madinejad left office.

Expectations, however, are high and this is where Rohani may be vulnerable. On a visit to Washing­ton in April, Central Bank of Iran Governor Valiollah Seif said Tehran received “almost nothing” in sanc­tions relief, while Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned the agreement could falter.

According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran has been able to access $3 billion of the $100 billion in frozen assets freed by the nuclear deal.

Matters were hardly helped by a US Supreme Court decision in April that could allow the transfer of $2 billion of Iran’s frozen assets to families of US servicemen killed in Lebanon in 1983 by militants al­legedly linked to Iran.

While Khamenei publicly sup­ported the nuclear deal, he has recently accused the United States of “obstruction and treachery” in blocking Iran’s trade.

Some principlists in Iran have argued that Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party nominee for November’s US presi­dential election, shows America’s true face: arrogant, bombastic and, as shown by his plan to bar Mus­lims from the United States, big­oted.

Trump has openly criticised the nuclear agreement but even Hillary Clinton, the Democratic contender, is unlikely to be as keen on engaging Iran as current US President Barack Obama has been.

All of which encourages critics of the deal in Iran.

The Rohani government is look­ing to a revived private sector to boost the economy and improve job prospects and living standards but, in a sign things are not going as well as had been hoped, the gov­ernment recently allocated $4.6 billion to help small and medium-sized enterprises.

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