Rohani faces hardliners amid crackdown on reformists

Friday 13/11/2015
Iranian President Hassan Rohani (C) with parliament speaker Ali Larijani (L), and Judiciary Chief Sadeq Larijani (R) in Tehran, on October 3rd.

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.