September 8, 2015 | The Arab Weekly
Rohani Under Fire as Iran Power Struggle Sharpens
Iranian President Hassan Rohani won the war, so to speak, but risks losing the peace. He managed to reach an international diplomatic solution in the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme but he’s under severe political pressure in Tehran.
That pressure increases by the day as the Islamic Republic prepares for the February 25, 2016, elections to the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Iran’s 290-seat parliament; and the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member body of clerics that will decide who is to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader.
With the June 14th Vienna agreement secured and crippling economic sanctions on Iran to be lifted in exchange for curtailing its nuclear project, Khamenei no longer needs Rohani, who oversaw more than two years of thorny negotiations with the United States and world powers and has thus outlived his usefulness to the supreme leader.
Rohani naturally sees things differently and is fighting back. This has forced Khamenei to give Rohani’s political enemies, in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a free hand to attack the president.
This raises a more fundamental issue as the outcome will greatly influence Iran’s future: Should the IRGC be forbidden to participate in politics or should it act as a political party?
The latest chapter of this struggle began when Rohani, attending a cabinet meeting on August 19th, warned the watchdog Council of Guardians against politicised vetting of candidates for the parliamentary elections.
“The honourable Guardian Council is a supervisory body and not an executive body,” Rohani said. “All are equal in the eyes of the government… and we do not have executive bodies that can approve candidates of a certain faction while disqualifying another.”
His comments clearly reflected his concerns about the Guardian Council disqualifying parliamentary candidates who support him.
The next day, Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, told Fars news agency he condemned “statements that weaken the Guardian Council… Such statements weaken the effective pillars of the revolution such as the Guardian Council and harm solidarity.”
Jafari did not make a direct reference to the president but his target was not lost on Rohani supporters, who rushed to the president’s defence.
Parliament member Ali Motahari published an open letter in which he reminded Jafari of the political testament of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, in which the armed forces were prohibited from intervening in politics.
“Intervention of the Guards in the realm of politics and elections is not in the interest of the state, the armed forces or the Islamic Revolution since it will lead to factionalism within the Guards,” Motahari concluded.
His response provoked a new round of attacks from the IRGC, the most powerful military force in Iran and which has amassed vast economic holdings.
Abdollah Ganji, chief editor of Javan, an unofficial IRGC mouthpiece, hit back at Motahari, adding another dimension to the dispute. “Attacking the Guards, the Guardian Council, the judiciary, the Intelligence Ministry, the law enforcement forces and the like is… a carbon copy of the [Western] plots to overthrow the Soviet Union.”
Ganji concluded that the IRGC is not a “classical military” formation and had a different mission than the regular army, whose primary mission is safeguarding Iran’s territorial integrity. The IRGC was created by Khomeini in 1980 to be the ideologically pure protectors of the Islamic revolution.
By August 25th, it was clear Rohani was losing the debate. Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, head of the judiciary, called the president’s speech “suitable for commoners” and “the words of someone unfamiliar with the law” — a particularly offensive stab at Rohani, who is a highly qualified lawyer.
Mohammad-Hossein Moqimi, the deputy Interior minister, also pulled no punches. “One must block the path of the traitors and the counter-revolutionaries in the election,” he said.
“This is the legal duty of the Guardian Council.”
Rohani, unlike president Mohammad Khatami, his reformist predecessor, has a combative character and will fight to the bitter end to secure the candidacy of his supporters in the parliamentary polling.
So will his mentor, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who, in spite of his son Mehdi being jailed in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for embezzlement, is waging a political war against Khamenei and has announced his candidacy for the Assembly of Experts.
Rohani is also backed by Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the late ayatollah, who recently declared he “would not shy away from public responsibility” if he is needed “to serve the people and the revolution”.
The intensifying struggle for power in Iran signals uneasy times for a regime at odds with itself, the Iranian electorate and the entire region. Remarkably, the negotiated solution to Iran’s nuclear programme has simply fuelled the factionalism and the struggle for power as the country stumbles towards a new era.
Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @Alfoneh