Why Iran looks set to lighten up under Rohani

President-elect Rohani has been getting pushback from hardliners for his moderate stands. But he has backing in powerful corners. 

Hojjat Sepahvand/Office of the President-elect/AP
Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks in a conference in Tehran, Iran, on Saturday. Though he has come under criticism from hardliners for his moderate tone, Mr. Rohani appears to have the support of Iran's power players – in particular, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rohani is saying all the right things to the 50.71 percent of Iranians who voted for change in mid-June elections: He promised again today to ease censorship and social and Internet restrictions, and to restore “mutual trust” between the people and clergy.

“A strong government does not mean a government that interferes and intervenes in all affairs [and] that limits the lives of the people,” Mr. Rohani told fellow clerics in Tehran.

Rohani said it was “not possible” to attract Iran’s young society with “harsh views,” nor with state television that broadcasts a panda birth in China but ignores protests by unpaid workers. The speech comes after Rohani also vowed to correct the “imbalanced” application of Iran’s Constitution in an interview with a youth magazine.

“The freedom and rights of people have been ignored but those of the rulers have been emphasized,” Rohani told the weekly, Chelcheragh. “Restricting [people’s right] to criticize will only stifle and lead to inefficiency.”

But even as the centrist politician seeks to reassure moderates in Iran, what of the conservative “principlist” and hardline factions that were defeated by Rohani’s shock first-round win?

Still stunned by the defeat of their own five candidates, they are licking their wounds, and warning that Rohani’s new cabinet should not include “seditious” members of the opposition 2009 Green Movement, which would invite chaos and a violent response.

There has been a swift reaction to these warnings, however, evidence that Iran’s post-election debate is signaling a new moderation from both the left and the right. Indeed, while Rohani speaks of civil liberties and “more transparency” in nuclear talks, he also has clear public support from the most powerful in the regime: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard.

“Iranian state and society has no place for radicalism now,” says a political analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “The atmosphere in Iran today is more than an alliance, it is kind of accepting a coexistence with each other,” she says. “As for radicals, I believe that the leadership is willing to control them, not only [Khamenei] but principlists [conservatives] who support Rohani are not going to allow radicals to do whatever they like.”

(For more insight on Rohani, read Scott Peterson's report on the president-elect and what it means to be a centrist in Iran.)

The vigilante tool

Small but persuasive in their use of violence, hardline vigilante groups such as Ansar-e Hezbollah were deployed frequently in the 1990s and early 2000s to signal their dissent to reformists during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Wielding clubs and chains, they broke up political meetings and student protests during the Khatami era. Years later, in 2009 they were sent out again – alongside Basij militia and other security forces – to crush post-election street protests.

In a bid to avoid a renewal of such violence, even as Rohani promises an end to the “securitized atmosphere” and less-tight social strictures, other moderate voices are also making themselves heard.

In one explicit warning to Allah Karam, the leader of Ansar-e Hezbollah, the Alef news website of prominent conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli wrote: “We should hope that the sword which has come out of its scabbard [will] return back in, so that a country finally seeing some happiness wouldn’t fall into chaos.”

The Alef warning stated: “Surely those friends [Ansar-e Hezbollah] that always displayed loyalty to the Leader … should show loyalty today as well and prevent Iran from becoming a country where politics are determined in the streets.”

Rohani’s victory was greeted with euphoric scenes in the streets, a waving of ribbons and flags of the purple color chosen by his campaign. The symbolism was similar to the “green” campaign of 2009 that saw millions of Iranians take to the streets in protest over election fraud, and two Green Movement presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, placed under house arrest.

All eyes on the cabinet picks

Rohani has promised to seek their release sometime after he is inaugurated on Aug. 3. But the decisions he makes now about the political breadth of his cabinet are likely to determine the scale of the challenge of reining in the most radical elements on both sides.

Rohani’s victory “was a phenomenon,” says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a sociologist at Tehran University and adviser to former president Khatami, in a telephone interview.

“The mainstream of reformists became happy, moderate conservatives became happy, many in the middle class became happy, and even villagers became happy,” says Mr. Jalaiepour, a former US hostage-taker during the 1979 Islamic revolution, and later an editor of reformist newspapers that were shut down.

“The level of rationality of the Iranian people was very high during this election,” says Jalaiepour, noting that “this election was clean” compared with 2009, and that the hardline reaction “is not clear yet.”

“One of the important factors is that Ayatollah Khamenei didn’t tell to any hardliner to ‘do something,’ ” adds Jalaiepour. “This decision of Ayatollah Khamenei was very important, and for this reason hardliners couldn’t manipulate everything. But we should stay, and wait…. It is hopeful for the future, but needs more time.”

Warning against 'well-known reformist figures'

The hardline Kayhan newspaper – whose editor is an official representative of Khamenei – this week warned Rohani not to bring into his cabinet “well-known reformist figures,” if they have not publicly denounced what it called the “American-Israeli plotted sedition” of 2009. Kayhan also criticized Rohani for thanking Khatami for his campaign endorsement, saying it “exacerbates concerns that Dr. Rohani might neglect the danger that the leaders and agents of the [2009] sedition could pose for his administration.”

Yet Kayhan has also backed Rohani, and those warnings are likely just part of the post-election debate about Rohani’s win, and the political balance he aims to achieve with a cabinet that is “beyond factions.”

“I think these people want to warn Mr. Rohani not to get close to extreme reformists, but I see no reason for it, because he wouldn’t do such a thing,” says Amir Mohebian, a conservative editor and analyst, in one interview published this week.

“The principlists should avoid self-deception and accept defeat responsibly and realistically and enter a phase of harsh self-criticism … to understand what has stopped them,” said Mr. Mohebian, an editor of Resalat newspaper, in another interview. “If they do not … they will lose the future…. [B]laming others will not solve their problem.”

Time to reflect?

Tehran University political scientist Sadiq Zibakalam also had a direct message for the leader of Ansar-e Hezbollah, when he examined the election results.

“It is better for Mr. Allah Karam and his like-minded [hardliners] to reach a conclusion about the past and the present and ask why their candidate and his ideas have received 4 million votes while their opponent has won 18 million votes,” Mr. Zibakalam was quoted as saying on the Fararu.com website. “Unfortunately … they have not understood that people voted for moderation, rationality and collective wisdom and denounced Allah Karam’s threats to make chaos.”

For many Iranians, the sense of positive change brought by the election result is palpable, for now.

“The last four years [under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad], we were living in a closed atmosphere,” says Khatami adviser Jalaiepour. “There is a new atmosphere. These days if you go to a shop, or to a university, the atmosphere has been changed, compared to one month ago. This is very important.”

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