Rafsanjani, who passed away in January, also had the distinction of being widely described as a figurehead for the reformist movement, owing to the way he was perceived by the West when he held the presidency, and bolstered by his late-in-life criticism of the Islamic Republic’s leadership. However, this characterization has been disputed by some reformists and especially by dissident movements like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and its parent organization the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
These critics tend to regard Rafsanjani as an established regime insider who advanced the interests of the clerical leadership throughout his career and whose promotion of pragmatic politicians like Rouhani masked the absence of genuine reform efforts coming from within the regime. These sorts of criticisms have certainly been extended to Rouhani himself, who campaigned for the presidency in 2013 on a platform that promised the release of political prisoners, reengagement with the international community, and a general turning away from the hardline policies of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
With the exception of international outreach specifically in the form of nuclear negotiations that concluded in June 2015, none of these promises have noticeably materialized. In fact, groups like the PMOI and the NCRI are keen to emphasize such indicators as the uptick in executions that produced a more than two-decade high of approximately 1,000 hangings in the year 2015 alone.
With Rouhani’s bid for reelection just around the corner, however, his administration is apparently making a renewed effort to portray itself as the safeguard of citizens’ rights, including the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest or repression of free speech. Toward that end, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi spoke to reporters on April 5 to criticize a recent wave of arrests carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and targeting administrators of the Telegram instant messaging app, among others.
But as the article points out, this criticism came only after a group of reformist politicians specifically called attention to the Telegram arrests and brought the crackdown further into the public awareness. What’s more, previous criticisms of the arrests have also pointed out that they were being carried out not only by the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC, but also by the Ministry of Intelligence itself. Whereas the latter is controlled by the Rouhani administration, the former is controlled by the office of the Supreme Leader, and the two have arguably been competing to each assert their own claim to enforcement of the regime’s hardline social and religious identity.
According to the NCRI and similar critics of the clerical regime as a whole, there has been no serious internal challenge to this hardline identity since the 1980s, when then-heir to the supreme leadership Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was ousted from the regime following his criticism of such actions as the massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
Montazeri’s legacy was remembered last week in an interview with his son Ahmad Montazeri, who was arrested last year and given a sentence of 21 years in prison for releasing an audio recording of his father’s criticism. Although that sentence has since been reduced and suspended, Ahmad Montazeri himself says that he has agreed to avoid the publication of new files. However, the prosecution did not prevent him from speaking critically about the nature of the regime in his IranWire interview, accusing the regime’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini of setting a pattern of emphasizing the “interests of the regime” while ignoring Montazeri’s calls for “compassion and forgiveness” to be guiding principles of the revolution.
Two other IranWire articles recently highlighted the ways in which the resulting obsession with the interests of the clerical regime has effectively encouraged authorities to defy the country’s own laws and guidelines. One report details the experiences shared in common by many people targeted for arrest on the basis of their journalists or political activities, and it emphasizes the fact that the law calls for due process, warrants, communication, and human prison conditions, all of which are routinely withheld.
The other report highlights recent criticisms by the prominent reformist lawmaker Ali Motahari regarding what he described as the “lawless” state media. It notes that this media violates the policies of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance with impunity, thereby demonstrating both the lack of both power and interest within the existing presidential administration for the confrontation of hardline trends.
The removal of restrictions on media and free speech were among the progressive promises offered by Rouhani in his first bid for the presidency, but there has been no noticeable change in the regime’s restrictions on information, and thus there is little confidence that the situation will change if Rouhani succeeds in holding off the hardline challenge.