Rohani faces hardliners amid crackdown on reformists
London - In 2003-05, when Iran was in talks with the European Union over its nuclear programme, many conservatives feared an agreement would boost the popularity of reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Some seem to fear the same today over Hassan Rohani, even though most reformists have been excluded from Iranian mainstream politics since the unrest that erupted after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
While he is no reformist, Rohani’s political sense is that the Islamic Republic can compromise at home and abroad without undermining its viability or sacrificing its interests. He says that unnecessary inflexibility — whether over the nuclear programme or civil liberties — will make the system too brittle.
Hence he has publicly objected to a wave of detentions of journalists and others, mocking principle-ist news outlets that “even tell their audience who is going to be arrested tomorrow”.
Rohani suspects that senior elements in the judiciary and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are preparing to link “subversives” to those close to him and has argued that legitimate concerns over “infiltration”, a word used in September by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei should not be used for factional gain.
“We have to fight in a serious and real way any type of foreign infiltration and a few should not toy with the word,” he said on November 4th. “If the supreme leader presents a word, we should understand it correctly… and not allow a few individuals to take advantage of it in pursuit of their personal, group or partisan interests.”
It would not be the first instance of Rohani being targeted. In 2007, Hossein Mousavian, who had a leading role in nuclear talks during 2003- 05 when Rohani was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, was arrested and accused of espionage before being cleared by the judiciary.
Whether the current wave of arrests reflects the strength, or the weakness, of Rohani’s opponents is a moot point. Iranian politics is in a delicate period leading up to February 2016 elections for both parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the supreme leader.
Factional struggles have intensified since the July 14th nuclear agreement with world powers and opponents of the agreement are far from down. They know Khamenei wants their continuing support and were encouraged by his warning to reformists and others not to “exploit” the deal as well as his continuing stress on the dangers posed by the United States.
But they also sense that the agreement has widespread public support. Indeed, the dominance of the nuclear question puts the principle-ists on the back foot. This seems likely to remain the case by February, when there will be a wide alliance supporting both the agreement and Rohani, possibly stretching from conservatives such as Ali Larijani, parliamentary speaker, to some reformists.
The nuclear issue makes it hard for the principle-ists to win a debate on the economy. True, there is public disappointment there has been no sudden improvement since the deal and both Rohani and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have suggested that — with global oil prices remaining low — the economy may contract slightly in the current Iranian year. But the medium-term outlook is rosier, with the IMF forecasting 5% growth, with crippling sanctions eased, in both 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Principle-ists may have a blunter electoral weapon in the watchdog Guardian Council, which vets candidates both for parliament and the Assembly of Experts. The council will surely block most reformists, including any from the recently formed Islamic Iranian National Alliance party and certainly anyone associated with the Green Movement.
But how far the council goes in barring others remains to be seen. The election for the Assembly of Experts is particularly important, given the reasonable chance it will in its next eight-year term pick the successor to Khamenei, who is 76 and in 2014 underwent prostate surgery.
Rohani is a member of the assembly, as is former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who topped the poll in Tehran in the election in 2005. It is tempting to think such pragmatists will do well in February, giving them a strong hand in the succession.
In 2013 the Guardian Council barred Rafsanjani from the presidential election on grounds of age, which could hardly be a factor for the Assembly of Experts, whose chairman Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi is, at 84, three years older than Rafsanjani.
It might give Khamenei satisfaction to see his long-time rival blocked from any part in the succession but barring Rafsanjani would be a serious political risk. Neither would it be simply a matter for the Guardian Council, as there are precedents for Khamenei to overrule it.
These are not easy decisions. Any escalation in tension between the competing factions makes it more difficult for Khamenei to remain aloof from the cut and thrust. Already 26 years in office, he will want a smooth succession and a successor who commands support across the political class.