Iran’s “reformist” Rouhani faces hardliner backlash at home

February 7, 2014

As Iran this week received $550 million from eased sanctions in return for curbing its nuclear program, it is evident that resistance is stiffening among hardliners in Tehran to rapprochement with the international community.

At its core, this apprehension appears to be fear that any restrictions on Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons or slackening of its defensive posture against the outside world will bring down the Islamic regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which has ruled the country since 1979.

The target of the hardliners, who may include Khamenei himself, is President Hassan Rouhani, who won managed elections last year and who is usually described as a reformist.

It was initiatives by Rouhani in the first months of his tenure, including a ground-breaking telephone conversation with United States President Barack Obama, which led to a framework agreement in November on Iran’s nuclear development program.

That track is being pursued with Tehran by officials from the so-called Five Plus One group made up of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council –Russia, the U.S., China, France and the United Kingdom – plus Germany.

Progress so far has been highly tentative. Iran has curbed for six months its program to enrich uranium, with its potential to make the essential ingredient of a nuclear weapon. In return, this week $550 million, from $4.2 billion in seized Iranian oil revenues, was paid to Tehran’s central bank.

But as talks on more substantive issues approach, there are clear efforts in Iran to undermine the credibility of Rouhani and to warn the country’s reformist movement that the regime’s capacity for repression will remain unassailable.

Most damaging to Rouhani’s reputation is apparently accurate information that there has been a dramatic upsurge in executions since he became President last August.

According to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, and the organization’s expert on executions, Christof Heyns, “at least 40 persons have been hanged in the first two weeks of January.” Amnesty International has produced similar figures; it says 33 people were executed in Iran in a single week in January.

The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center says that in the first six months of Rouhani’s administration 399 people – just over 66 a month on average – have been executed. This compares to an average of 47 a month in the previous 31 months.

According to the UN reports, many of the people executed last year, including 29 women, were political prisoners sentenced to death for crimes of “Moharabeh,” a usefully imprecise phrase in a brutal theocracy meaning “enmity against God.”

Others have died for “threatening national security,” and many have been hanged on drug-related charges.

In almost all cases, say the UN officials, the alleged offences do not meet international standards for “most serious crimes,” and there are serious doubts whether the trials followed acceptable due process.

President Rouhani has lived in the heart of the Byzantine Iranian regime from its start, and it is easy to point to times in his history when he appears to have been as much an agent of repression as anyone else. Sceptics about the prospects of achieving a real and verifiable agreement with Tehran to dismantle its nuclear program, especially in the U.S. and Israel, are labelling Rouhani a butcher who is not to be trusted.

However, political machinations in Tehran are never straightforward. Sometimes they are as opaque and indecipherable to those involved as they are to outsiders.

One truth is undeniable, though, and that is that Ayatollah Khamenei is, indeed, the Supreme Leader and nothing happens without his approval.

Khamenei ultimately controls the nuclear development program, foreign policy, and the internal judiciary. There is evidence that the head of the Iranian judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, is an anti-reformist at odds with Rouhani and is pushing the execution of political dissidents in order to undermine the President’s image in the West.

This may well reflect Ayatollah Khamenei’s reservations about seeking improved relations with the international community in return for limits on Iran’s nuclear development program. Khamenei has undoubtedly given Rouhani permission to open discussions with the Five Plus One group, but there is little reason to hope the Supreme Leader will agree to settlement that seriously limits his nuclear ambitions.

There are two main reasons for saying that.

One is that from everything Khamenei has said over the years it is evident he is convinced that Washington is intent on regime change in Iran. He has noted in several speeches that regimes of which Washington disapproved, such as the white apartheid government in South Africa, the military junta in Argentina and Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, were soon ousted after they gave up their nuclear programs.

The second is that although Khamenei is all-powerful, retaining that power depends on careful management of the turbulent factions that make up Tehran’s ruling class.

Khamenei cannot afford to alienate the ideological hardliners and those who have profited from Iran’s isolation, which includes the families of several of the senior religious figures on the Supreme Leader’s Guardians Council.

As always happens, international sanctions have created highly profitable networks to evade trade barriers. Many of these are in the hands of senior members of the regime and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the heart of the regime’s security, which is answerable to Khamenei alone.

The tainting of Rouhani’s name in the last few days is a reminder to all, and the Preisdent in particular, that no nuclear agreement will be made that Khamenei and the Guard Corps fear might threaten their positions.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014