Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s re-elected President, was always known as a centrist until last month’s presidential election. During his unorthodox election campaign, he crossed several red lines drawn by the conservative establishment and thereby appeared as a total reformist. There are clear signs that the conservatives, led by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are making an orchestrated effort to paralyse Rouhani and his administration. Such a move would prevent Rouhani and his team from scoring any success on economic and social fronts. Conservatives’ aim is to prepare to defeat the reformist candidate in the next presidential election. As will be detailed later, they succeeded in the past.
In one of his most shocking statements during his campaign, while targeting his conservative rival Ebrahim Raisi, Rouhani called the report card of the judiciary and the whole establishment dominated by the conservatives into question. Raisi made his career in Iran’s judiciary, where he held key posts in one of the conservatives’ main strongholds. Raisi is accused of involvement in the execution of thousands of political dissidents in the 1980s. On May 8, Rouhani said, “[In the upcoming election] the people of Iran will once again announce that they don’t accept those who only knew of the executions and imprisonments for 38 years [since the inception of the Islamic republic].”
On June 4, Khamenei said in a fiery speech: “Recently, some of the speakers and podium owners attacked the [executions in the] ‘80s, the decade which was decisive in shaping the fate of Iran and Iranians.” He added: “The place of martyr and executioner should not change. In the ‘80s, the Iranian nation was oppressed, the terrorists and their backers and powers that had created them and constantly boasted them, they oppressed the people of Iran.”
At the same time, the headquarters of the Raisi campaign (although the election was over five days before that) leaked news regarding a “private meeting” between Khamenei and Raisi after the latter had lost the election. The statement read: “The meeting was private and the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution expressed his gratitude for the efforts and the participation of Hojatoleslam (an honorific title meaning proof of Islam) Raisi in the presidential elections.” This despite Khamenei not congratulating Rouhani — which he had done in 2013, when Rouhani was elected to his first term — in his open letter to Rouhani after his re-election.
During his campaign, Rouhani told his supporters that he would do his best to end the house arrest of leading reformist figures. Former presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hussain Mousavi and Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, have all been confined to their homes in Tehran since February 2011.
Two weeks after Rouhani’s re-election, the ultra-conservative judiciary chief, Sadeq Larijani, publicly remarked: “We warn those in the media and individuals who are exerting pressure by repeatedly raising this matter [of the house arrest] to stop or else the judiciary will firmly put a stop to it ... One of the candidates in the election told his supporters that he has come to end the house arrests. Who are you to end it?”
Crippling the administration
The assaults on Rouhani have not stopped despite the election’s conclusion. It appears that Iran is still living in an election environment. From the judiciary, to the Revolutionary Guards, to the leaders of Friday prayers in Iran’s large cities and the media controlled by the conservatives, there is an organised effort to cripple Rouhani and his administration. The situation is reminiscent of the scenario that the conservatives wrote and performed during the presidency of reformist former president Mohammad Khatami, which led to the reformists’ failure and the emergence of the radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.
The early years of the presidency of Khatami (1997-2005) gave rise to an unprecedented explosion of newspapers, political liberalisation and expansion of the freedom of press. In 2000, liberals and supporters of Khatami took control of parliament from conservatives for the first time since the 1979 Revolution. Reformists thus gained control over the executive and legislative branches of the government. However, the police forces, judiciary, and military-security apparatus remained under conservative control.
The conservatives launched attacks on the reformists. By court orders, numerous newspapers were closed down and several prominent reformist journalists were arrested. A Guardian report from Tehran in August 2000, titled ‘Iranian reformers losing battle’, read: “Hardliners in the judiciary have closed almost two dozen newspapers and journals. Nearly all the country’s prominent reformist journalists have been imprisoned, prompting the Paris-based Reporters sans Frontieres to declare last week that Iran is the world’s largest prison for journalists.”
At the heart of the system
The cleric Abdullah Nouri, Khatami’s confidante and vice-president, was found guilty of 15 counts, including activities against the system, and sentenced to five years in prison.
It would be intriguing to watch how this battle between Rouhani, who depends on 24 million votes behind him, and the powerful conservatives will evolve, given that two factors differentiate Rouhani from Khatami.
First, Khatami was an outsider when he won the 1997 elections. Rouhani, however, has been at the heart of the system, given his 16-year service at one of the highest security positions in Iran (he was the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2005).
Second, Rouhani, unlike Khatami, who was a mellow-tempered scholar, is a combative old-guard revolutionary. Two years before the revolution, the 29-year old Rouhani for the first time used the title “Imam” in public, for Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, who then lived in exile. In the last four years, Rouhani has proven that he does not shy away from confrontation with his conservative opponents.
Cyrus Namjoo Moghadam is a freelance writer.