Since the election of Hassan Rouhani in June, critics have been quick to point out his failings. He has been attacked by Iran’s fierce hardliner media, forced to face difficult questions on state television and challenged in daily editorials. He has been cornered by parliamentarians and shunned by influential clerics. Above all, it is Rouhani’s policies on the nuclear issue that have led to his vilification.
A recent public event in Tehran highlights just how vocal and resourceful Rouhani’s enemies have become. The May 3rd conference, held in the former American embassy now controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, was well attended and full of anti-Rouhani rhetoric: posters denouncing the president and Foreign Minister Zarif adorned the walls of the conference hall, and guest speakers, among them former head of the Atomic Energy Organization Fereydoon Abassi, took the current leadership's nuclear policies to task.
A new generation of hardliners took part in the event, which was given the curious title “We Are Anxious”. Many of them were young supporters of the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability coalition, which was initially launched after the 2012 legislative election, but has since turned its attention to scrutinizing the work of the Rouhani administration.
Conference delegates and organizers issued the normal reverential speeches praising the policies and leadership of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. As long as he leads the Islamic Republic, they said, there is nothing to worry about, whether it be in the nuclear arena or on domestic issues. It is Khamenei and Khamenei alone who will decide on the nuclear program.
Will History Repeat Itself?
If this is true, what reason could there be for hardliners to be anxious?
Khamenei’s support for nuclear negotiations raises alarm bells for hardliners. Fundamentalist figures, including former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who advises Khamenei on international affairs, and speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani, have also backed negotiations—Velayati has even expressed support for Iran to engage in one-on-one discussions with each of the P5+1 countries.
Hardliners do all they can to stall negotiations, ensuring their views are regularly published and broadcast by accommodating media outlets, presented as the views of majority of Iranian citizens. At all costs, they avoid being seen as a collection of marginal and out-of-touch voices. Most of them know that the Rouhani administration pays scant attention to their criticism and is unlikely to change tack when it comes to the nuclear issue. They know, too, that Ayatollah Khamenei has the power to stop negotiations.
Many draw a parallel between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1988 acceptance of Resolution 598 and the current situation. In 1988, Khomeini approved the United Nation Security Council’s Resolution 598, ending the eight-year war with Iraq. Many of today’s hardliners claim that Hashemi Rafsanjani—who was at the time in control of the armed forces and chair of parliament--forced the decision on Khomeini. In September 2013, Revolutionary Guards Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said in a television statement that Khomeini had been against the resolution but that “certain” politicians compelled him to acquiesce.
Now hardliners, Jafari among them, believe something similar is happening, with Rouhani trying to force Khamenei to play a part in a final and comprehensive nuclear deal. During his televised statement, Jafari raised the 1988 conflict negotiations and then quickly turned to the present: “The viewpoint of the Exalted Leadership is at odds with some officials on certain questions,” he said, citing negotiations with the United States as one example.
"Climbing over the enemy’s ramparts"
But in setting forth their arguments, hardliners go back much further than the turmoil of 1988, using religious references to stake their claims.
On January 26th, hardliner publication Keyhan published an editorial by its managing editor, Hossein Shariatmadari. The journalist, who is close to Khamenei and reported to have ties to the Islamic Republic’s intelligence agencies, compared the nuclear situation to the Battle of Siffin, conjuring up a time when soldiers serving under the first Shi’a Imam were so badly deceived that they were unable to continue their battle against the enemy. The comparison paints a picture of modern-day Iranians wounded and disheartened by the failure of the current leadership. It’s also a call to action against Rouhani. It’s not the first time that Shariatmadari has used the paper to issue ominous threats: in 2009, he wrote that if reformist President Khatami ran for presidency again he ran the risk of being assassinated.
The Battle of Siffin metaphor is frequently used by hardliners. During his unsuccessful bid for presidency in 2013, Saeed Jalili, the nuclear negotiator under President Ahmadinejad, expressed similar fears about the Siffin scenario playing out again. One of his supporters interpreted his comments, including the implication that people needed to take action—or else. “Jalili is telling us that we have climbed over the enemy’s ramparts,” he said. “We just need a little time to finish the job.”
Khamenei himself has often used the same imagery to criticize politicians with whom he does not agree. Hardliners then reiterate these statements when accusing politicians of refusing to obey the Supreme Leader. For them, it naturally follows that these politicians are working against the Islamic Republic, trying to destablize any line of defense it has against its enemies.
Hardliners like to cast themselves in a particular role in the Battle of Siffin narrative: as the figure of Ammar, one of the Prophet Mohammad’s close companions. Ammar’s support for Imam Ali led to Ali’s eventual victory. Today, hardliners see themselves as serving Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and supporting him as he heads to victory.
What the Public Wants
When hardliner critics call for public outcry over nuclear negotiations, it sends a message to the outside world that there are a range of views on the nuclear issue. From Khamenei’s perspective, Western leaders may then be in a position to see how irrational some of their demands have been over the nuclear issue.
If Khamenei does decide to halt the negotiation process, these public displays of protest will make it easier for him to say he is acting with public opinion in mind. He has gone this route before. In 2004, he opposed negotiations, led by Hassan Rouhani, who was the head nuclear negotiator at the time. The process was derailed in Mohammad Khatami’s final year as president.
The geopolitical landscape has shifted over the last decade. Administrations have come and gone; the debate over the nuclear program has endured a range of twists and turns. But in all this time, hardliners have stuck to the same tactics: applying pressure behind closed doors, influencing decision-making through government agencies they have reasonable control over, staging protest rallies. When these strategies fail, they resort to public threats against their opponents. During Saturday’s “We are Anxious” discussions, one speaker warned that if the negotiating team failed to reach an agreement that meets with hardliner approval, they could face exile. Some of the country’s most determined and angry young people would make sure they were not welcome in Tehran.
Yet another delegate called on young supporters to rise up. And another, embracing the popular tactic of conjuring up historical parallels, said that if Navab Safavi, a famous Islamic fighter under the Shah, was alive today, he would respond to this call to action.
In the Islamic republic of Iran, calls for public outrage and overt criticism usually mean one of two things: hardliners may be well aware that decisions they disapprove of have already been reached behind closed doors, and so have launched a final attack in desperation. Or they could be trying to change the rules of the game, issuing their most direct challenge to Rouhani's leadership yet.
Hardliners may well be anxious about a replay of the Battle of Siffin or the humiliation of UN Resolution 598. Without a doubt, they would welcome reassurance from Ayatollah Khamenei. For them, it doesn’t matter that this validation from the Supreme Leader would produce a fresh set of new problems, spreading widespread political upheaval and panic over the economy throughout the rest of Iran’s population.