Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s 2013 presidential election by a landslide, in part, on promises to open up the country’s political system and relieve the suffocating political climate that has held since the disputed elections of 2009.
While Rouhani has takes great strides in the foreign policy arena and his administration appears to have at least staunched the economy’s decline, he has little success in restoring a measure of inclusiveness and even limited freedom to the political scene.
Hundreds of political activists, journalists, human rights attorneys and advocates remain incarcerated, nearly all on spurious charges. The house arrest of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi continues. The press has little meaningful freedom, even by Islamic Republic standards, and reformist political groups and parties remain outlawed and marginalized from political life.
Rouhani has sought to relax this restrictiveness, but his foes have used the powerful centers of power they control to block his efforts. Hardliners in the Majles have tried to block the President’s appointments, and stymied his political program by frequently summoning his ministers to the Majles and threatening them with impeachment. Other opponents have kept up a steady drum beat of criticism that is reported widely in hardline media.
To understand how effectively Rouhani’s foes have blocked his attempts at reform, it is useful to have a sense of how various centers of hardline power and associated political factions operate. This article takes a brief look at them and where they stand with regards to Rouhani’s presidency.
The House of the Supreme Leader
The most important center of power is the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, known in Iran as the beyt-e rahbari (the house of the leader), which is run by staff with a background in intelligence and security. The chief of staff is cleric Mohammad (Gholam-Hossein) Mohammadi Golpayegani, a former military judge and deputy minister of intelligence and father-in-law of Khamenei’s daughter Boshra. Khamenei’s chief of security is cleric Asghar (Sadegh) Mir Hejazi, a founder of the ministry of intelligence in the 1980s who coordinates everything with the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps [IRGC] and the intelligence forces. Khamenei’s chief personal aide and deputy chief of staff is Vahid Haghanian, known in Iran as ‘Agha Vahid,’ who is an IRGC officer in the Sarallah Base, IRGC’s large military barrack responsible for Tehran’s security.
But this is a House divided, and it contains three factions. One is led by Khamenei’s senior foreign policy adviser and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, a traditional conservative who has been very close to Khamenei for three decades. He was a candidate in last year’s presidential elections, and during nationally-televised debates among the candidates, fiercely attacked Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy and his chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a candidate himself, accusing them of being partly responsible for the failure of the nuclear negotiations with P5+1. Velayati has supported Rouhani’s attempt to reach an understanding with the West over Iran’s nuclear program.
The second faction is led by former Speaker of the Majles Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, who heads the Office of Inspection of the House, with authority to monitor every organ of the state controlled directly by Khamenei. A traditional conservative, Nategh Nouri is a relative moderate that has supported Rouhani, and has close relations with former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. He supports not only an opening with the West, but also relaxing the harsh security environment and repression at home.
The third faction is led by Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, the aforementioned trio of the hardline security men that run the abode, and a faction of the IRGC high command, including Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC chief, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, senior military adviser to Khamenei, Brigadier General Masoud Jazaeri, deputy chief of staff of the armed forces for cultural affair and propaganda, Brigadier General Mohammad Hosseinzadeh Hedjazi, the principal deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, and Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, commander of the Basij militia. This faction opposes any deviation from core hardline policies, both domestically and in the international arena.
The Military/Security Establishment
Contrary to the claims of many Western pundits, Iran’s military-intelligence establishment is not a unified or monolithic group. In recent years significant rifts have emerged in its ranks, primarily over the establishment’s inability to decisively wipe out the Green Movement, and the catastrophic plunge the economy has taken under an Ahmadinejad tenure that was supported by many military and intelligence figures.
One group is led by General Ali Jafari and consists of the aforementioned top IRGC commanders, the trio of the security/intelligence men in the House of the Leader, and Mehdi Taeb, the hardline cleric who is the head of the IRGC’s Ammar Strategic Center. The Center has close relations with Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the hardline cleric whose political group, Jebheh Paaydaari-ye Enghelaab-e Eslaami (JPEE) [Endurance Front of the Islamic Revolution] endorsed Jalili.
The second faction includes professional officers who have a reputation for being immune to corruption. In last year’s election this group supported Tehran’s Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, an IRGC retired Brigadier General. The most prominent of such officers is Major General Gassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force (IRGC’s special force that operates outside Iran), who supported Qalibaf in last year’s election. This was highly significant, as Soleimani, a most formidable IRGC officer and part of its strategic brain trust, is highly popular within the IRGC.
Then, there is a third faction of the IRGC officers, consisting of those who have become fabulously rich during the Ahmadinejad era and supported him. This group is currently silent.
Rouhani’s diplomatic effort does have its supporters in the military. Qalibaf has publicly supported the nuclear negotiations, as have Brigadier General Hossein Alaei who is respected even by the reformists; Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces who is very close to Khamenei, and Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Secretary-General of the Supreme National Security Council.
The Majles consists of three factions. One consists of the Endurance Front members who have been fierce critiques of the Rouhani administration and opposed the nuclear negotiations at every step; they number about 40 out of 290 members of the Majles. The second group, the rahravan-e velaayat [followers of the Supreme Leader], includes traditional conservatives such as Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, and has been relatively supportive of the Rouhani administration. The third faction, the osoolgaraayaan [principalists], is led by Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, father-in-law of Mojtaba Khamenei. They have been highly critical of Rouhani, voting against six of his nominees for the cabinet, and warning him against “deviating from the revolution’s path.” It remains to be seen whether Rouhani’s supporters can take control of the Majles in the next elections, to be held in March 2016.
The wholly politicized judiciary, led by hardline cleric Sadegh Larijani, has been charging that “nothing has changed” in the aftermath of Rouhani’s electoral victory by prosecuting more political activists and journalists. The number of executions, mostly common criminals, has increased very significantly since last year, provoking protests by Rouhani’s senior aides, although the President has not publicly commented on t the issue. The judiciary has also increased its pressure on cyberspace activists, as well as journalists, arresting and imprisoning several.
Thus, it should be clear that Rouhani must confront powerful conservative and hardline factions. He is not without support. After all, he won the presidency by a landslide, and is also supported by the reformists and other opposition groups inside Iran, as well as Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Nategh Nouri. He has courageously confronted Khamenei on several major cultural issues and, unlike the reformist Khatami who was timid and ambivalent about confronting his foes, Rouhani is determined to deliver on his promises.