By Mahmoud Hakamian
On Thursday, Al Monitor published an article that put forward the claim that the so-called reformist movement in mainstream Iranian politics is “on its deathbed” in the midst of increased pressure from the US following President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. Although the article did not attribute the collapse of the Iranian political faction to such outside factors, it did suggest that the recent and forthcoming re-impositions of US sanctions were exacerbating national crisis for which the Reform movement has failed to provide meaningful solutions.
The article goes on to highlight the past several months of anti-government protests as evidence of the people’s low esteem for mainstream reformist positions. It also suggests that those protests and the popular sentiments behind them are indicative of a significant shift in public awareness and the public discourse. Whereas the recommendations of traditional reformist leaders like former President Mohammad Khatami and current President Hassan Rouhani might once have been praised for expressing criticism of hardline political adversaries, today they are widely rejected as inadequate and overly conciliatory.
Al Monitor’s account of this shift is generally in keeping with the observations that have been made by dissident groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran during these months of protest, which began with a nationwide uprising in late December and early January. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the domestic unrest is indicative of a broader embrace of the coalition’s main constituent group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), which has reportedly been playing a leading role in organizing and promoting demonstrations all across the Islamic Republic. The PMOI (MEK) has even been given credit for these activities by Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in spite of a longstanding policy of downplaying the strength and social reach of the Resistance movement.
The NCRI has also claimed, throughout the life of its political activism and especially in the wake of Rouhani’s 2013 election, that there is no genuine difference between the hardline and reformist factions that are represented in the tightly controlled theocratic government. Al Monitor now suggests that this perception is more widely shared than in the past, partly because of reformist politicians’ continued insistence upon engaging with hardline authorities rather than defying them, and partly because of increasingly prevalent examples of reformist officials participating in the endemic corruption that some observers might have previously associated primarily or exclusively with hardliners.
Furthermore, the article concludes by noting that even if mainstream reformist positions were not ignored by the public at large, they could very well be ignored by hardline authorities, who maintain the lion’s share of power in the Islamic Republic and is evidently fixated on reasserting that power in the face of the current crisis. In other words, Al Monitor says, quoting Iranian activist Hassan Asadi Zeydabadi, the ruling establishment “still prioritizes factional interests over national interests.”
This point was underlined by Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in an article that detailed Supreme Leader Khamenei’s latest attacks on the reformist faction and the administration of President Rouhani.
Khamenei has taken to blaming Rouhani for the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal, with all its attendant economic and social consequences. But he has also sought to downplay those consequences, publicly promoting his notions of a sanctions-breaking “resistance economy” and displaying either confidence or bravado in the midst of domestic unrest, which he blames on the influence of foreign “enemies.”
That supposed confidence and defiance of such enemies has certainly been emulated in recent days by Khamenei’s subordinates in the political, religious, military, and paramilitary establishments. For instance, Mehr News Agency reported on Friday that the provision prayer leader for the city of Tehran had called renewed attention to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War – a point of national pride for hardliners – in order to describe the roots of Iran’s “climb to the political, scientific, economic and military summit.” Mullah Mohammad Hassan Aboutorabifard also joined Khamenei in downplaying the economic crisis, saying for instance, that the Islamic Republic carries less debt than some of its neighbors and has access to untapped source of wealth.
Such commentary also seems to serve the purpose of suggesting that the reformist faction and its pragmatic efforts to engage with foreign adversaries are largely responsible for the nation’s failure thus far to tap those sources of wealth. Indeed, Khamenei said in a televised speech last week, “Most economic experts and many officials agree that all these problems are not caused by sanctions but rather stem from domestic matters, management style, and executive policy planning.”
According to Mehdi Khalaji, these and similar remarks will not only contribute to the political strife between two factions that are almost equally unpopular among the Iranian people, but will also promote a further shift toward martial law, giving “hardline military elements even more room to interfere with the civilian government’s affairs.” It is a conclusion that was seemingly repeated in even starker terms by Saudi columnist Mohammad al Shaikh in an article published by Al Arabiya.
As he sees it, a military coup by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps may be the only means of preventing the theocratic system from either collapsing under the weight of popular unrest or else conceding to reforms that would start the country on the path toward dissolution of that system. But in the near term, Tehran authorities are recognizably attempting to stave off both outcomes by simultaneously cracking down on domestic dissent and reasserting their hardline identity via state-controlled media and international affairs.
The regime’s effort to make its fundamentalist, anti-Western credentials known on the international stage may help to explain why the Al Qaeda terrorist group is experiencing a resurgence as the Islamic State group collapses in Iraq and Syria. According to a recent UN report quoted by Fox News, that resurgence has taken place with specific help from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has long been credited with harboring Al Qaeda operatives and providing them with a stable base of operations.
Although Al Qaeda and Iran represent two different sects of Islamic extremism, both have reportedly shown themselves as willing to put such differences behind in the interest of coordinating efforts against their mutual enemies in the West. Accordingly, the UN report identifies two high-ranking Al Qaeda officials, Saif al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, as currently residing in Iran and utilizing that situation in order to project the authority of the terrorist group’s leader Aiman al-Zawahiri, particularly into areas of Iranian influence in Syria.
The report of ongoing collaboration between Iran and Al Qaeda comes in the immediate aftermath of multiple reports of statements and actions by Iranian military officials and the IRGC which similarly underscored the regime’s commitment to anti-Western belligerence. For instance, at the beginning of August the IRGC test-fire a ballistic missile for the first time in over a year, as part of naval exercises that had been moved up to roughly coincided with the re-imposition of US sanctions that had been suspended under the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, the IRGC’s presence continued to be felt domestically amidst raids on domestic protests and Iranian activist communities more generally, although multiple reports indicate that protesters in certain cities effectively pushed back against the repressive efforts of Iranian security forces. Still, persons arrested during such demonstrations face the threat of long prison sentences or even the death penalty, and examples continue to accumulate of these threats being extended to other groups that supposedly pose a threat to the regime’s identity, even if they are not directly connected to the protest movement.
One News Now provided one example when it reported upon the sentencing of all 12 members of a Christian “house church” to one year in prison. At roughly the same time, a well-known Christian priest was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The report notes that the mass arrests showed some sign of being connected to Iran’s hardline foreign policy, insofar as the church members were convicted on the unusual charge of “inclination to the land of Christianity,” a possible reference to Israel at a time of escalating tensions between the Islamic Republic and the Jewish state.
Voice of America News provided another example of religious persecution and repression of domestic dissent when it reported that two editors for a news outlet affiliated with the Sufi group known as Gonabadi dervishes had been subjected to harsh sentences for their journalistic work. One, Reza Entesari, was given seven years in prison and 74 lashes, and the other, Mostafa Abdi, received a staggering 26 years in prison and 148 lashes.
The article quoted a writer and member of the Sufi order, Alireza Roshan, as saying, “There is no reason for them to have been given such heavy sentences other than the fact that the Iranian government is trying to apply pressure on us to shut down Majzooban Noor, which is the central news source of the Dervishes.” And this seemingly speaks to the ongoing hardline efforts to consolidate control over Iranian media and public discourse in general, to the exclusion of both mainstream reformist sources and sources that are more inclined toward questioning the core identity of the Iranian regime.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran also highlighted the continuation of those efforts on Friday when it pointed out that Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, the prosecutor general for the Iranian judiciary, had declared that unblocking Twitter in the country would be a “crime.” Montazeri thus rejected the recommendations of certain reformist officials, even as more and more hardliners join the social network in order to reach an international audience with their vision for the regime’s defiance of both foreign and domestic pressures.