Khamenei’s backing of Rouhani divides Iran’s conservatives
Since the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced his total rejection of the calls to question President Hassan Rouhani and dismiss his government, unmistakable divisions have become apparent in the conservative movement. A significant percentage of this movement complied with the wishes of the supreme leader by toning down their criticism of the government. Others have continued their criticisms, paying no heed to Khamenei’s directives on the issue.
It seems that the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Iranian Parliament), which Khamenei defines as revolutionary, is still not fully complying with the supreme leader, especially when it comes to his demand that the Rouhani government should complete its tenure in office in order to maintain Iran’s stability and security at this delicate juncture in the country’s history.
The conservatives’ discontent was reflected in a tweet posted by Mojtaba Zonnour, the chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, in which he attacked Rouhani, highlighting the divisions within the conservatives over how best to respond to the supreme leader’s position and directives. Unlike previous occasions, Zonnour last week adopted a noticeably harsher tone in addressing Rouhani. He said: “The overwhelming majority of the Iranian people today will not be satisfied with less than your dismissal and punishment.”
Zonnour continued this extreme position by calling on Khamenei, the highest authority in the Iranian regime, to order the execution of Rouhani, not once but 1,000 times, in order to satisfy the Iranian people, as he put it. Zonnour’s tweet followed remarks by the president that were construed as expressing a desire to engage in negotiations with the US on the contentious issues between the two countries, especially the nuclear deal, from which Washington withdrew in 2018.
On the opposing side within the conservative bloc, another group of hard-liners who once spearheaded the movement calling for a tough stance toward the government now seems more compliant with the supreme leader’s directives.
Moreover, this group has now started to echo Khamenei’s concerns and promote the justifications he cited for keeping the current government in office. Hossein Shariatmadari, who is close to Khamenei and is the editor in chief of the Kayhan newspaper, has alleged that the US and its allies are engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the security and stability of Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. This conspiracy, he claims, aims to end the tenures of the heads of government in the three targeted countries, with the primary objective being to leave them without any leadership, as has already happened in Lebanon and Iraq.
Most of the calls to question and dismiss Rouhani came from fundamentalist and radical figures. Meanwhile, Shariatmadari has addressed the reformist movement, with some of its key figures recently calling for Rouhani to be questioned, while other reformists have called on the president to resign.
On previous occasions, Khamenei explained his reasons for rejecting the calls to dismiss Rouhani. Overall, his reasons are related to his concerns that ousting the government could undermine Iran’s stability and security and spread chaos in the country. Hence, Shariatmadari’s claim of a conspiracy targeting Iran and other countries to establish “headless governments” may be supported by Khamenei. This is plausible given Khamenei’s deep-rooted conspiracy theorist worldview, especially since he considers the US to be Iran’s arch-foe.
The supreme leader is concerned that ousting the government could undermine the country’s stability and security.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Shariatmadari’s Kayhan newspaper usually reflects the regime’s official position and that of Khamenei. In addition, it seems that the conspiracy theory has been discussed within the regime’s corridors of power and institutions, including the government. This is highlighted by the comments of Iranian Culture Minister Abbas Salehi, who used the phrase “no government across the region” — a term resembling the “headless government” theory. He also warned that insulting any of the three branches of power in Iran is a prelude to implementing a plot of this nature in the country.
The indications from the supreme leader and some groups within the conservative movement defending the government can be summed up in the following four points.
President Rouhani’s inclination and submission to the policies of the conservative hard-liners, especially during his second presidential term, have significantly contributed to reducing the tensions between him and the conservatives and paved the way for rapprochement between Rouhani and the supreme leader.
The differences that emerged between Rouhani and a number of prominent figures within the reformist movement, which were so serious that some reformists called on the president to resign, have played a substantial role in pushing some conservatives to join the ranks of those defending the government and backing its continuation in office. The conservatives are seeking to influence the popular base of the reformist movement ahead of the next presidential election, which is set to be held in the next few months.
Upholding the government and ensuring it will complete its full term could help to ensure its loyalty to the supreme leader throughout the remainder of its term.
And the supreme leader is concerned that the ousting of the government could trigger security unrest and perhaps lead the Iranian electorate not to participate in the presidential election.
In summary, despite the stinging criticism leveled at the government by the two wings of the regime — the conservatives and the reformists — in recent times, it seems that the shift in the position of the radicals in the government’s favor, supporting its continuation in office and alleging the existence of an external conspiracy to oust it, have prevented these criticisms from harming the government. This means that Rouhani is likely to be able to complete his second presidential term without facing the danger of being questioned or dismissed.
To support this scenario, amid Iran’s ongoing coronavirus disease crisis and growing poverty levels, the supreme leader on Saturday slammed the insults directed at Rouhani. Khamenei was quick to step in as Rouhani faced growing attacks and insults, with conservatives such as the Parliament Speaker Mohammed Bagheri Ghalibaf exploiting the tough situation Rouhani is facing to position themselves for the presidency or a weightier position within the Iranian regime.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami