On Sunday, November 8, President Hassan Rouhani launched a sharp attack on hardline media outlets in Iran. “From the headlines of some newspapers,” he said, “You can learn who is going to be arrested tomorrow, what place is going to be shut down, and whose reputation is going to be destroyed.”
He implied that these media outlets are connected to security agencies responsible for a series of high-profile arrests.
Rouhani described hardline media outlets as “counter-revolutionary” and said that they destroy people’s hope and trust. Hardliners frequently use the label “counter-revolutionary” against reformists and Rouhani supporters, whom they consider opponents of the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Now Rouhani has turned the term back on them.
Rouhani’s verbal duel with hardliners shows that he has decided to personally shield his supporters. His main motive seems to be the recent arrests of reformist journalists.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and a former Guards commander who now supports Rouhani, has said the arrests are part of an attempt to “settle political accounts” following this year’s nuclear agreement with world powers.
The Guards believe that they can successfully oppose what they perceive as the political consequences of the agreement in Iranian politics.
Rouhani has said that some people are using the word “infiltration” to frame others.
The term “infiltration” was first used by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to warn Iranians that the West wants to infiltrate Iran and spread its influence under the cover of the nuclear deal.
Rouhani and Shamkhani have aimed their criticisms not at Khamenei, but specifically at the Revolutionary Guards. Rouhani has accused the military-economic institution of exploiting the words of the Supreme Leader to justify arrests.
The Revolutionary Guards are likely to continue to challenge Rouhani’s government ahead of parliamentary elections next March.
Rouhani’s administration hopes to motivate its supporters to defeat hardliners in the elections. Reformist figures and pro-Rouhani media could play a vital role in assisting Rouhani’s aims.
The Revolutionary Guards want to prevent such a scenario by pressuring reformists, often using security-related charges to damage their reputations and punish them.
“Domestic Hosts of the Infiltration Network”
Another reason for Rouhani’s sharp reaction might be the risk that some of his officials or political allies are in danger of being arrested.
Following the arrests of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-American information and communications technology expert, and Afarin Chitsaz, member of the editorial board of the official newspaper Iran, hardliner media have leveled accusations at a “high-level” government official for cooperating with Zakka, and at officials at the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance for having connections with Chitsaz.
On Sunday, the hardliner daily Kayhan put forth its most unequivocal accusation with the headline “Domestic Hosts of the Infiltration Network.”
The Kayhan article said that a high government official had taken on joint responsibility with Nizar Zakka to set up a “national intelligence network.”
The Kayhan article referred to Nasrollah Jahangard, Deputy Minister of Communications and the president of Iran’s Communications Technology Organization. Kayhan wrote that by “infiltrating” the Ministry of Communications, he has “stopped efforts to secure a native infrastructure” and has “sabotaged the work of the Supreme Cyberspace Council.”
The Supreme Leader ordered the establishment of the council, which is responsible for making high-level policies on internet security and restrictions on online activities.
Kayhan demanded that after arresting Zakka, the security establishment must not forget about the “domestic managers of infiltration.” In other words, it must arrest them.
Rouhani’s statement — that newspaper headlines contain clues as to who will face arrest next — is likely a reference to the Kayhan article.
Nezamoddin Mousavi, managing editor of the Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, reacted to Rouhani’s statement. He wrote that, contrary to Rouhani’s claims, hardliner media in Iran have no connections to the country’s security establishment. On the other hand, he said, the Crescent Oil Company does.
Mousavi’s comments refer to a gas contract between Iran and the United Arab Emirates-based company. Hardliners accuse Rouhani’s government of costing Iran $18 billion by processing the contract, and claim that some government officials who had links to the contract were guilty of financial corruption.
Revolutionary Guards intelligence agents arrested Crescent Oil’s director of strategic planning Siamak Namazi in mid-October. Mousavi said this arrest supports his claims.
The recent arrests — and the responses to them — clearly indicate the seriousness of the battle between the Rouhani administration and the Revolutionary Guards, a situation that promises to become more severe as next year’s parliamentary elections draw near.
It remains to be seen whether hardliners or Rouhani’s allies will incur the most damage.