Pragmatic path pays off for Iran’s Rohani
London - In February 2004, I sat in the office of Resalat in Tehran as the newspaper’s political editor explained that Iran’s pragmatic conservatives wanted “our own version of reform, based on religious democracy… a reasonably open economy… (and) good bilateral relations with all countries, including the US”.
Amir Mohebbian supported Hassan Rohani, at the time a likely candidate in the 2005 presidential election. As things turned out, Rohani was undermined by the failure of nuclear talks with the European Union, which he led as national security chief, and he did not run in 2005.
Instead, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won in a landslide and took Iran’s conservatives in a different, populist direction, exciting rather than calming Iranians and polarising international relations.
Twelve years on from that interview with Mohebbian, the February 26th elections to parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses the supreme leader, results show the strategy of pragmatic conservatives such as Rohani, elected in 2013, has worked.
As president, Rohani has carried the bulk of the political class behind the landmark July 14th, 2015, nuclear agreement with US-led world powers and he has consolidated that support electorally.
For while every election in Iran is a complex mix of regional, tribal and local factors, any binary divide in the 2016 polls was between supporters and opponents of the nuclear agreement. Analysts wedded to a battle between “reformists”’ and “hardliners” have tied themselves in knots.
Thirty seats require run-offs in April but the new parliament seems set to contain more supporters of the agreement than the last one, in which Speaker Ali Larijani worked hard to head off critics and carried a majority in favour of Rohani and the deal signed in Vienna.
Unsurprisingly, Larijani had the tacit support of Rohani in his parliamentary campaign in Qom, where his pedigree as the son and son-in-law of ayatollahs might have helped. Larijani also received public backing from Qassem Soleimani, head of al- Quds Force, the overseas arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), itself a testament of the general consensus in the elite behind the nuclear agreement.
Of course, even with a more supportive parliament, major challenges remain for Rohani. Reforms to stimulate the private sector as sanctions ease will require commitment and careful management, especially in dealing with an array of vested interests, including those who have benefited from the closed economy encouraged by international sanctions.
He will also need to offer something to the reformists, among them Mohammad Reza Aref, who polled so well in the Tehran parliamentary election.
Internationally, relations with the United States have improved, as witnessed by January’s telephone conversations between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry that led to the prompt release of ten US sailors arrested January 12th in Iranian territorial waters.
But Washington has also tightened the screw on Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese ally, with Congress unanimously passing a bill in December to sanction banks involved in Hezbollah financing, while the looming US presidential election raises the issue of further shifts in American policy towards Iran.
The Syria war remains at the centre of tensions with Saudi Arabia and January’s bombings near the Sayeda Zeinab shrine near Damascus will not weaken Iran’s resolve to resist Sunni militants, even at the cost of more Iranian lives. How far Tehran is prepared to compromise over the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad remains to be seen.
Lurking huge in Iranian politics is the succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. The strong showing of Rohani and his close ally, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in the Assembly of Experts election in Tehran, is a personal boost to the president and may indicate the new assembly will be different to the outgoing hard-line one.
This could be important, given the reasonable chance that the expanded 88-seat assembly will in its new eight-year term elect a successor to Khamenei, who is 76 and in 2014 underwent prostate surgery.
The Assembly of Experts is an opaque body — no minutes were taken in 1989 when it chose Khamenei to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — and the views of many delegates are obscure. The election of a new chairman to replace Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a hardliner, will be a vital clue as to where the succession may be heading.
Hossein Bastani, the BBC Persian Service analyst, in an article two years ago for Foreign Policy magazine, contrasted the approach of two seventh-century Shia leaders: Imam Hussein, who fought the doomed battle for justice at Karbala in 680AD, and his brother and predecessor as Shia leader, Imam Hassan, who preferred compromise with the dominant Sunni order.
Imam Hussein remains a dominant figure in Shia Islam, arguably the sect’s founding father. But Rohani has chosen the path of Hassan. Iran’s medium-term future will be shaped by how far that path remains open — at home and abroad — and by how well the president can manage to progress along it.