Factional tensions, popular anxieties drive Iran towards the edge

Published in GSN, 22 February 2018

The war of words between the conservative principalists that surround Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani’s more pragmatic allies shows no sign of dying down, with the issues of public referendums and the wearing of the hijab among the latest bones of contention. At the same time, there is still clear potential for public demonstrations to destabilise the political scene. A substantial Gonabadi Dervish protest turned violent on 19 February, outside a police station in northern Tehran, where a member of the Sufi group was being held. More than 300 people were subsequently arrested and six people lost their lives, including three policemen, two Basij militiamen and one protestor. Coming so soon after a widespread and diverse series of demonstrations during December and January – including protests against corruption and the enforced wearing of the hijab (GSN 1,051/1) – the impression is building that the regime is struggling to balance its own needs with those of its people.

Reformists have tried to push changes which address at least some of the public’s grievances, but they have generally met with sustained opposition. Rouhani has called for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to reduce its myriad economic activities. A think tank close to the president, the Centre for Strategic Studies, published a report this month that said close to half of Iranians want to see the law changed so that the wearing of the hijab would be voluntary.

Arguably the most controversial recent proposal has been Rouhani’s attempt to draw a line under the protests by reaching out to the public more directly. In a speech on 11 February he said people should settle their differences through public referendums rather than “fights or slogans”. Since then, a string of influential conservative clerics have strongly criticised that idea. Interim Tehran Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said such plebiscites would embolden Iran’s enemies and should never be held. Mashhad’s Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda said the idea was tantamount to advocating a secular democracy. Another hardliner, Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani, said the people had voted in a referendum once in 1979 to approve the creation of the Islamic Republic and the government should focus on solving the country’s problems rather than seeking to hold more ballots.

The debate is muddied by two articles in the constitution that deal with referenda; these provide ammunition to both sides in the debate. Article 59 states that “in extremely important economic, political, social, and cultural matters, the functions of the legislature may be exercised through direct recourse to popular vote through a referendum.” Such moves require a two-thirds majority vote in parliament. However, Article 177 says that referenda can’t be used to change the constitution; for that to happen the Rahbar must first issue an order to the president to a make an amendment, which is then put to a referendum. Given hardliners’ attitude to the idea of any referendum, it seems unlikely Khamenei would instigate such a move.

Pressure on the government and the regime from a disaffected population seems unlikely to die down, in the face of economic pressures and social-political frustrations. The rial’s official exchange rate against the dollar has dropped by almost 13% since September; the fall has been closer to 40% on the open market. This has fuelled fears of a rebound in inflation, which would add to other longer-term problems, the most serious of which is the persistently high levels of unemployment, which the much vaunted Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal has done little to alleviate.

Hardliners appear to be ready and willing to crack down where they can. A number of environmentalists have been arrested in recent weeks on suspicion of spying. Respected Canadian-Iranian Professor Kavous Seyed-Emami died while being held in Tehran’s Evin prison, allegedly as a result of suicide. This has become a troublingly frequent occurrence among incarcerated political prisoners. Justifying the arrests, Khamenei’s senior military advisor Major General Hasan Firouzabadi was quoted as saying “in the context of hybrid warfare, every environmentalist and scientist active in agricultural studies or foreign tourist in Iran might be a spy”.

Jostling for power and influence between the regime’s two main strands is unlikely to dim any time soon, given the competition to be in the best place for when the Supreme Leader – who is old and ill – finally dies. “Mr Khamenei is doing so well that we have no concerns now,” first vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri told The Financial Times in an interview published on 19 February. But Jahangiri also indicated the level of competition between the two camps in a battle that he said was being waged without due regard for the health of the regime itself. “Opponents of the government have created an atmosphere to make people pessimistic about reforms without thinking that fuelling this dissent could upset the whole system,” he told the FT.