Pragmatic path pays off for Iran’s Rohani

Friday 04/03/2016
Iranian women stand in line at a polling station during the parliamentary and Experts Assembly elections in Qom, Iran, on February 26th.

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.