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Monday, March 27, 2017
Analysis by Farideh Farhi*
- As Iran nervously awaits the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Feb. 11 – the day that has traditionally drawn the largest public demonstrations – a subtle change in public discourse can be detected.
While hard-line forces in the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still resort to the narrative of “sedition” caused by the “foreign-inspired” leaders of the Green Movement, calls for calm and moderation in public pronouncements and action, as well as criticism of “extremism” on both sides of the political spectrum, are being voiced more frequently.
In the past two weeks, several live television debates were broadcast that, despite their relative lack of ideological diversity, nevertheless included conservative and reformist critics of Ahmadinejad’s policies and the harsh crackdown on the opposition since the June elections.
Iran’s judiciary has even moved against two hard-line publications which, on their covers, insisted on dividing Iran’s political elites into “Imam Khamenei’s Men” and “(former President Akbar) Hashemi Rafsanjani’s Men,” not only by ordering their closure but also by issuing warrants for the arrest of their publishers.
On Monday, moreover, the former head of the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), who currently holds a position in Ahmadinejad’s executive office, was found guilty of slander against Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani and Hashemi Rafsanjani, who currently chairs both the Council of Experts and Expediency Discernment Council and has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the post-election crackdown.
Whether these calls and moves are mere reflections of the calm before the storm, attempts at placating the critics before the worrisome Feb. 11 demonstrations, or harbingers of real change is yet to be seen.
From the opposition’s side, the most significant move came with the written statement issued Jan. 1 by the main opposition presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mussavi, in which the issue of Ahmadinejad’s rigged election was effectively set aside and his fortunes left to the future assessment of his competence by the Parliament and Judiciary.
His specific suggestions, such as release of political prisoners, lifting the bans on the press and redressing the grievances of those harmed by the crackdown, in order to return the country to normal conditions re-established Mussavi’s leadership of the Green Movement.
But they also opened the way for more moderate elements in the conservative camp to criticise the regime’s violent reaction to the protests, and, in the case of one prominent conservative critic, Ali Mottahari, to even go as far as to blame some hard-liners, including Ahmadinejad himself, for the continued turmoil in Iran and the leadership’s inability to oversee the development and prosperity of the country in a coherent fashion.
Monday’s statement by Mehdi Karrubi, the second and more outspoken opposition candidate, acknowledging Ahmadinejad as the “established” head of the government, can be seen in a similar light. According to Karrubi’s son, his statement should not be seen as a “retreat” but rather an attempt on the part of the opposition to move the country out of the “gridlock” that has paralysed virtually every arena of policy making, including Iran’s foreign relations.
By acknowledging Ahmadinejad as the head of the Iranian government – because Leader Ayatollah Khamenei confirmed his presidency and not because he is duly elected by the people – the opposition appears to be trying both to defuse a potentially explosive situation and to hold him responsible for some of the reckless policies he and other radicals intent on purging dissent are pursuing that are deemed as moving the Islamic Republic towards an “abyss”.
The power of this argument is expected to increase as the Parliament begins debating Ahmadinejad’s highly expansionist and yet vague budget for the country’s next fiscal year, which begins on Mar. 21.
This budget, which was introduced after a 45-day delay, is likely to be met with unease even among some of the government’s conservative backers, who have already objected to the government’s proposed Fifth Five-Year Economic Plan as more a collection of “desires and wishes” than a realistic policy document about the economic future of the country.
Mussavi and Karrubi are not appealing for an immediate deal but are opening the way for Khamenei, along with other conservatives, to reevaluate the policies pursued in the past seven months in terms of the costs they have incurred in Iran’s international standing, its economic situation and prospects, and Khamenei’s own domestic position.
In other words, they are placing the ball in Khamenei’s court, as former president Mohammad Khatami reportedly has in an unconfirmed recent private letter to Khamenei. On Sunday, Hashemi Rafsanjani insisted that only the leader can move the country beyond the present impasse so that it can tackle the ever-deepening economic and international problems with which it is confronted.
In responding to this challenge, Khamenei, along with many conservative critics of Ahmadinejad, are faced with a dilemma. To be sure, they cannot be happy with the way the turn of events – including the latest tragic loss of lives during the Ashura protests – has redirected the focus of popular criticism away from Ahmadinejad and towards Khamenei for his failure to perform his singularly most important duty as the Islamic Republic’s “Supreme Guide” – to restore calm to the country in a way that is deemed fair by various political players.
Moreover, the fact that much of the popular anger towards Khamenei has been encouraged by his own radical supporters, as well as the more hard-line forces behind Ahmadinejad, who have insisted that the violence and crackdown were justified because the protesters’ real “project” was to depose Khamenei, has ironically served to weaken his position.
But this unhappiness with the way radical forces have colluded in undermining Khamenei’s legitimacy, as well as public confidence in his wisdom and effectiveness, is countered by the numerous cleavages that exist among conservative ranks and the lack of a coherent leadership that can step forward in a serious and determined fashion to resolve the crisis.
Hence, unlike the opposition, which has so far been led more or less effectively by Mussavi and Karrubi’s insistent demands for a change in direction within the confines of the Islamic Republic, the conservative side of the political spectrum is divided between those who see the need for compromise but are too hesitant to take concrete steps to achieve it, and the radicals who still think that the problem can be ignored and effectively controlled through force.
Given the fact that the latter group is more strident and draws energy from a tradition of paranoid post-revolutionary politics, its voice continues to be louder. Hence, the growing recent pressure on Khamenei (even from conservatives) to take charge and leash the radicals whose political fortunes depend on maintaining a high degree of social and political polarisation.
The hope is thus to convince Khamenei and his supporters that the danger they and Iran face from unresolved and ever increasing polarisation is greater than that from the reformist opposition, whose main leaders not only remain loyal to the Islamic Republic but also implicitly promise that their followers will not demand wholesale changes in the power structure so long as there is a general change of direction away from authoritarianism and force.
This is, of course, an ambitious promise for such an unsettled political environment. But the bet being made is that the majority of Iran’s political leaders, as well as the larger society, share the view that the continuing impasse is harmful to their long-term interests and to the country and that even partial or gradual addressing of grievances is sufficient to contain the growing discontent, at least for now.
*Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate of the Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.