Although he has—so far—been backed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rouhani’s opponents have continued to criticize him from the sidelines, a reminder of how byzantine Iranian politics can be. Bearing this in mind, it would be a mistake to view the struggle for power in the country in simple black and white terms.
Rather, Rouhani’s opponents are themselves divided, coming together to pressure the Iranian president on his handling of nuclear talks with the United States and other world powers, and on the issue of civil liberties. What has united them is the fear that his success in one could spill over into the other, with potentially fatal results for the existing power structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Fighting on two fronts
The most prominent round of Rouhani's battle against his opponents was triggered by the arrest of six young Iranians who created a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” On May 21, Rouhani retweeted a comment he made last year: “#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.”
Within the broader struggle over civil liberties and the extent of the government’s control over Iranian society, so far the most prominent of Rouhani’s clashes with conservative opponents has been on the issue of Internet freedom. Due to fierce opposition from ultra-conservatives, Rouhani has so far failed to deliver on promises to lift the bans on Facebook and Twitter, despite having his own official Twitter account.
“We shouldn't interfere in people's lives, even out of compassion. Let them choose their own path to heaven,” Rouhani said at a conference in Tehran on May 24. “We can’t take people to heaven by force and with a whip.”
Comments like this represent something of a challenge to the status quo in Iran, as the government reserves the right to police public morality. A week later, Tehran’s ultra-conservative Friday prayer leader, Ahmad Khatami, said, “A respected official has said that people cannot be put on heaven's path by force . . . However, if this means that we should leave people to do whatever they want and leave people free in all moral, political and economic matters to break all limits set by God . . . this is not supported by anyone in the Islamic regime.
“We say the government is responsible for smoothing the road to heaven for its people.”
Another influential ultra-conservative, Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer imam of Mashhad, the second most populous city in Iran, responded to Rouhani’s statements by saying, “Forget the whip. We will stand with all our might in the way of those who prevent people from going to heaven.”
But Rouhani quickly sniped back. “Some people,” he said, “who have no idea what religion is, or what the afterlife is, are constantly worried about the people’s religion and afterlife.”
This prompted the toughest attack on Rouhani yet, from Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the flag-bearer of ultra-conservatism in Iran, who went so far as to question Rouhani’s—a fellow cleric’s—religious credentials. In response to Rouhani’s statements, he said on June 5 that “some individuals with official authority who wear a turban . . . portray [their critics] as people who do not know Islam and accuse them of being delusional.” Referring to the seminary school in the holy city of Qom, he added: “Where did you get your religion from, Feyziyyeh or England?”
The fight over moral and cultural issues may still not go anywhere. At this point, ever the moderate, Rouhani is not likely to go beyond rhetoric. He will not risk opening a new domestic front with the hardliners while he is occupied with the nuclear issue. Resolving the nuclear issue remains at the top of his agenda, given the need to lift economic sanctions and prevent the economy from spiraling downwards. If and when he succeeds in bringing the nuclear crisis to an end, he may then renew attempts to improve civil liberties.
Critics of Rouhani and his team’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with the P5+1—the six world powers currently negotiating with Iran over its disputed nuclear program—primarily take aim at the deal’s potential for a diplomatic opening with the United States. In reality, a nuclear deal in and of itself is not his opponents’ main concern. As it has since the Islamic Republic’s inception, the country’s relationship with the US lies at the heart of Iran’s factional infighting, so the outcome of the US–Iran negotiations on the nuclear issue might have a major political impact on Iran’s domestic balance of power.
On May 3, a group of hardliners, including members of parliament and prominent political figures belonging to the conservative camp, held a conference under the banner ‘We are Concerned.’ The conference, as described by its organizers, aimed to protect Iran’s national interests in the event of a nuclear deal. But beneath the surface, the participants were concerned about the direction of US–Iran relations if a nuclear deal should materialize.
To that end, a statement from Mehdi Mohammadi, former political editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper (and purportedly one of the key architects of Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy under the team led by former negotiator and hardliner Saeed Jalili) is noteworthy: “Iran, due to its revolutionary nature, is not a normal country . . . Americans have not recognized our revolution from day one . . . You [Rouhani’s administration] have accepted standardization [following international norms]. The American project is to standardize us. The biggest problem is that our friends who are in charge of affairs also believe that Iran should be standardized. From this point of view, the Geneva [interim] agreement is an agreement that has targeted the identity of the revolution and the nuclear issue is just a platform to achieve that goal.”
Three schools of thought on US–Iran relations
Within Iran, there are three schools of thought among conservatives when it comes to relations with the US. The first, represented by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds that the US wants to see “regime change” and overthrow the Islamic Republic because of the Iranian regime’s rejection of foreign domination. The US, he argues, will not abandon this policy until the Iranian nezam, its political system, is toppled and replaced by a puppet regime.
Followers of this school of thought feel profound mistrust towards the United States. Ayatollah Khamenei maintains that “whenever they [the Americans] have smiled at our officials, we realized that they have hidden a dagger behind them.” However, Ayatollah Khamenei has remarked that he is “not opposed” to direct talks with the US despite the fact that he is “not optimistic” about a successful outcome.
Advocates of this school of thought do not reject relations with the US altogether. They are willing to accept re-establishing relations, provided the system is not threatened by the US. Ayatollah Khamenei has stated: “We have never said that relations [with the US] will remain severed forever . . . Undoubtedly, the day relations with America improve will be beneficial for the Iranian nation. I will be the first one to approve of that.” He has made several similar statements. This suggests that he has not completely closed the door to possible relations with the US.
From a security perspective, Ayatollah Khamenei would accept peaceful relations with the Americans if he believed that the US would not interfere in Iranian affairs and would deal with Iran as an equal. However, there are several compelling reasons why he rejects normal diplomatic relations—for now.
First, the Iranian leadership has repeatedly expressed its deep mistrust towards the notion of restoring normal diplomatic relations with the US.. This sense of mistrust has roots in two things. First, as the Iranian sociologist Ahmad Ashraf maintains, is the Iranian reliance on conspiracy theories as a basic mode of understanding politics. Second is the specific historical experience of American involvement in the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. According to the documents seized from the US embassy after it was occupied in the wake of the revolution, officials based in the embassy sought to build links with members of Iran’s new government and army. Ayatollah Khamenei contends that full diplomatic relations with the US “would provide the possibility for Americans to infiltrate Iran and would pave the way for their intelligence and spy agents.”
Second, he claims that the US deliberately promotes liberal values (Iran’s Supreme Leader calls it tahajome farhangi, or “cultural aggression”) among young Iranians, weakening their religious beliefs and thus undermining the influence of the Islamic system. For instance, many Iranian security officials and the Supreme Leader fear that numerous Persian-language television stations based abroad, especially those located in the United States, are sponsored by the US government and are primarily intended as a means of cultural aggression towards Iranian society.
It is true that many young people around the world, including young Iranian urbanites, find American culture attractive and are influenced by it. The Iranian leadership fears that normal relations between its government and the US would facilitate cultural exchange, resulting in the Westernization of Iran and the weakening of the ideological foundation of Iran’s system.
Essentially, this school of thought welcomes better and non-hostile relations with the US, but not normal diplomatic relations—at least not in the foreseeable future. Its members believe that close relations with the US would significantly threaten the Islamic system’s survival.
A second group of Iranian conservatives argue that reconciliation between the Islamic system and the West, led by the United States, is not possible. Its proponents assert that the two sides’ values are inherently irreconcilable. This school of thought favors barring negotiation with the United States altogether because it undermines Iran’s position at the vanguard in the war against “global arrogance.”
Hossein Shariatmadari, chief editor of the daily Kayhan and an unwavering supporter of this school of thought, argues that Iran’s resistance to the US has made it a role model for all freedom fighters in the Islamic world. “America’s intention is to break this model apart by talking to Iran,” he has said. “They want to give the impression to the movements in the Islamic world that the Islamic Republic of Iran, your strategic and ideological ally . . . finally had no choice other than to sit beside America and talk to America.”
Supporters of both this and the first camp share a common concern: that one of the potential outcomes of restored relations with the US is the reshaping of Iranian society. They fear the rise of technocrats thanks to trade and commercial exchanges, as well as the results of Iranian citizens visiting America and vice versa. Underlying this is the belief that technocrats by nature have a tendency toward Western values rather than Islamic norms, and may ultimately challenge the Iranian Islamic system’s authority and demand a share of power.
This view took hold in the government in the first year after the victory of the revolution. During the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the provisional government was shaped by technocrats, and challenged the authority of both the revolutionaries and the clergy. Those technocrats sought normal relations with the US. Their Cabinet fell after the American embassy in Tehran was seized by radical Muslim students. The impetus for the students’ actions was partly the fact that the liberal prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, and his foreign minister, Ebrahim Yazdi, had met in Algeria with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, without first seeking authorization from the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The third school of thought, represented by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, agrees with the other two currents that the US is hostile toward Iran. However, what separates these people from the other groups is that they believe it is possible to alter the US government’s perspective through pragmatic engagement: during Iran’s most recent election campaign, Rouhani said in an interview that “we should have started the policy of defusing tension with the United States 10 years ago. Now, we are in the stage of hostilities . . . We must first diminish the hostilities back to tension and then try to defuse it.”
Rafsanjani has expressed similar sentiments. In an interview, he once said: “I wrote a letter to Imam [Khomeini] in the last years of his life. I even didn’t type it. As I preferred no one read my letter, I gave it to Imam personally. I discussed about seven issues in the letter and I told him it was better to resolve those issues while he was alive, otherwise those issues might become a barrier against the country’s development in the future. [I said] that if you don’t help us remove them, it would be difficult to remove them after you [die] . . . one of those issues was relations with America. I wrote that the style that we have adopted now, not to talk or have any relations with America, is not sustainable.”
In the 25 years since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the first school of thought, represented by Ayatollah Khamenei, and the third one, advocated by Rafsanjani, have oscillated between cooperation with the US and rejection of it, while the second camp has relentlessly sought to sabotage US–Iran relations.
Changing the balance of power
Tehran and Washington have both expressed concerns about the consequences of failing to reach a final and comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issue. If this comes to pass, the US will most likely impose even more onerous sanctions on Iran. Inevitably, the hardliners will capitalize on this failure while the best that Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, can hope for is to be relegated to the sidelines of power, because resolving the nuclear crisis, removing sanctions, and saving the economy from its downward spiral were at the top of their agenda. In the most pessimistic scenario, failing to reach final agreement on the nuclear issue could lead to Rouhani’s downfall.
If Rouhani and his team succeed in bringing the nuclear deadlock to a satisfactory end, resulting in the easing or removal of sanctions, they will gain the upper hand domestically. Zarif has remarked: “If we [i.e. Iran and the United States] resolve the nuclear issue, it would pave the way for the resolution of other issues.” The reason, according to Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran and a former research fellow at Harvard University, is that “lifting sanctions as a result of reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal would remove the sense of threat from the United States in Iran’s regional strategy. This could then culminate in Iranian–US cooperation in resolving regional issues as a win–win situation.”
Aside from the nuclear issue, the next most pressing issue on which the two governments may come together is the spread of jihadists across the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, which threatens the security interests of both countries. If that happens, the question of whether warmer ties and closer cooperation with the US will reshape Iran’s domestic politics in favor of moderates like Rouhani will become much more pressing. Hardliners seem to be convinced that the answer is yes.