The Islamic Republic may appear to be solid, but, in the run-up to the country’s presidential election on May 19, various fault lines have been exposed, revealing divisions and tensions among some of its most powerful and influential figures. In one of the most prominent examples, Iran's judiciary has clashed with members of President Rouhani administration over the recent arrests of journalists and administrators for the online messaging service Telegram.
On April 12, the Iranian judiciary implicitly threatened Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi over his call for the Telegram channel administrators to be released. Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei told reporters that the minister was not authorized to determine the guilt or innocence of individuals. He also called into question Alavi’s conduct, stating that it was inappropriate for the intelligence minister to comment or express an opinion on what he described as a “special case.”
In the last month, Iran has seen a wave of arrests of journalists and Telegram channel administrators, all of whom are generally regarded to be pro-Rouhani and/or reformist. This has led to protests and an outcry from pro-Rouhani figures, and to five members of parliament claiming the arrests were politically motivated. Initially, it was not known what security agency was responsible for the arrests, and since theoretically the intelligence ministry is responsible for handling national security-related cases, the protests were directed toward the intelligence minister. Parliament’s Deputy Speaker Ali Motahari criticized him and demanded that he be called in for questioning. Motahari warned that if the ministry could not thoroughly explain the motives behind the recent arrests, he would summon the intelligence minister for questioning, or even ask parliament to begin the process of impeaching him.
On April 5, following a cabinet meeting, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi told the press that the government had not supported the arrests of the online administrators. Then, on April 10, President Hassan Rouhani echoed this, telling reporters the government had “tried its hardest” to keep the Telegram channels running, and warned that blocking one social networking site could lead to the banning of others.
Revolutionary Guards, Interference and the Election
After the initial confusion, it appears now that the arrests were conducted by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, an official bailiff for the Iranian judiciary. By law the Iranian military cannot interfere or take sides in elections, but recent developments suggest that the Guards, with the tacit consent of the judiciary, are trying to help boost the chances of Ebrahim Raeesi, the hardliners’ preferred candidate. General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards, and General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Republic expeditionary Qods Force fighting in Syria, have held well-publicized meetings with Raeesi, and the Revolutionary Guards have become involved in joint projects with the topmost religious endowment in Iran, which is run by Raeesi. One such project is the Benevolence Foundation, which plans to distribute food to poor villagers and help young men financially so they can afford to marry.
In explaining the recent arrests, Ejei told reporters that some of the arrested Telegram admins were arrested on national security-related charges but some of them have also been charged with publishing “obscene” material in violation of public morality. “His Excellency the President, who is knowledgeable in law, must know that the right authority to decide whether somebody is guilty or not is not the minister of intelligence,” he said, adding that he had once held the position of intelligence minister and had had no right to exercise such authority during his tenure.
On April 13, in response to Ejei’s insinuation, the intelligence minister repeated that he did not believe those arrested were guilty and therefore he could not have called for their arrest [Persian link].
Responding to Ejei’s remarks, the office of government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht said Ejei must have been “tired” and under pressure when he spoke out about the matter.