How far will Iran's hardliners go to stop Rouhani?

President Rouhani trounced Iran's hardliners in last year's election. Sidelined by progress in nuclear talks, they are now turning to intimidation.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami leads thousands of Iranian believers assembled for Friday prayers on the Tehran University campus in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2013. Friday prayers have been a conservative institution since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, and these days showcase anti-Israel and 'Death to America' chants, while also speaking against 'enemies' involved in the 2009 post-election unrest.

Nearly eight months after President Hassan Rouhani's surprise election victory, in which the centrist cleric trounced influential conservative candidates, Iran's hardliners are behaving as if they never lost. 

Shadowy vigilantes on motorcycles have menaced the family home of a pro-Rouhani filmmaker, and reform-minded journalists are showing up on target lists. Hard-line Friday prayer leaders warn darkly that seditionists "have become ambitious" with Mr. Rouhani in power, and the motorcade of the president himself was hit with eggs and a shoe after Rouhani placed a historic phone call to President Barack Obama. 

“It’s not a full-fledged war, but they are trying to start one,” says an Iranian journalist who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “They are very small circles, but they are closely knit and they operate while enjoying impunity."

Hardliners are resisting pressure to fall into line, though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei months ago ordered all power centers to support Rouhani, and has backed the nuclear negotiations while keeping up a steady stream of anti-US rhetoric. 

Today, hours before technical talks on the interim nuclear deal resumed, Mr. Khamenei said that Iran would “negotiate with this Satan [the US] in order to ward off its evil and resolve the issue,” according to state-run PressTV. 

“Today we [moderate/reformists] are in government – this is the reality. The necessity of change is recognized,” says Saeed Laylaz, a reformist analyst and economist who has done prison time since the 2009 vote, often referred to as the 2009 "sedition" by hardliners.

“Radicalism is not a strong movement in the country,” says Mr. Laylaz. “Every time they have enough capacity to govern the system and economy without the people, they do it. [Now after the Rouhani win] they have no other choice but to shut up.” 

But keeping quiet has rarely been a hard-line trait. In the late 1990s, vigilante groups such as Ansar-e Hezbollah launched attacks against students, newspapers, and reformist political groups they saw as “dangerous.” Combined with other pressure and a string of killings by a rogue cell of intelligence operatives in 1999, those actions neutered the overwhelmingly popular, reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami. 

Rouhani has been close to the centers of power since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, and is seen as trusted by Khamenei as well as having the moderate and reformist camps. He declared that his victory meant an "end to extremism" in Iran. Yet supporters fret that the new president, upon whom they have pinned hopes of easing Iran's years of isolation and ideological rule, is struggling to counter the hard-line pushback.

“I used to be optimistic, but now I am less so; the resistance against Rouhani’s agenda is so great,” says the Iranian journalist who could not be named. “The people voted for him, but he doesn’t hold all the levers of power.”

A check on reformers

While Khamenei is assumed to control Iran's hardliners, in practice he allows them some leeway as a check on reformists or moderates. As a result, he can't always influence or contain every action.

“Ansar is so 1990s,” says an analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “These guys don’t call themselves anything, they just show up and put a bullet in your head, more rogue than not. [Khamenei] isn’t as tightly in control over everything as most people think.”

The hardliners are motivated by the belief that they are the last chance to reverse what they believe to be a catastrophic undermining of Iran’s Islamic ideology. They are fighting on two fronts: At home against a more inclusive political scene; and abroad against any compromise on the nuclear program and other issues.

That view has been reflected from the Tehran Friday prayer pulpit, where Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a renowned hardliner, warned angrily in December that Rouhani’s election had given new life to a dangerous clique of regime opponents. 

“There is a feeling that some seditionists are revived and have become ambitious,” thundered Mr. Khatami, his eyes bulging as his voice rose, his hand on the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle. Rouhani’s government included “accomplices” to the 2009 sedition who are “insolent and feel that now the situation is to their advantage," he said. 

Khatami proclaimed that anyone who doubted the term “sedition” should remember that Khamenei himself used it 200 times since 2009. He listed crimes as diverse as turning Tehran into a “battleground,” and “intimate relations with foreigners [which] are still vivid in the nation’s memory.” He said “millions” of Iranians shared his views, and were “vigilant.”

A list of reform-leaning journalists has circulated, suggesting that they should be targeted as “sedition provokers.” Ansar-e Hezbollah has railed against Iranian films popular in the West. And some two dozen militants on motorcycles sprayed graffiti and menaced the family home of a pro-Rouhani filmmaker, after memos in hard-line circles stated that his work must be “stopped" – the kind of acts that in the past led to death threats and violence.

Upon his election, Rouhani vowed to “desecuritize” the political environment and promised “constructive engagement” with the West. 

“We need to strike the right balance between idealism and realism. There are those who want to close the gateways to this country,” Rouhani told university students in December. He has promised to free political prisoners, and some students chanted for the release of former 2009 presidential candidates and Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, under house arrest for some 1,000 days.

“This government is committed to all its promises, but we need internal consensus,” said Rouhani.

But hard-line moves appear aimed at reining in some of those ambitions, as they successfully did a decade ago. The Iranian journalist explains that their “interest lies in levels of tension” – and they have plenty of resources to pour into it. 

“People speak of the ‘Deep State’ in Turkey. I think we have one of our own here,” adds the journalist. “And like the Republicans and Tea Party in the US, whoever talks tough, they can steal the agenda. They are not leaving the stage; they think they are still in charge.”

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