by Ali Reza Eshraghi
Following the phone conversation between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, the atmosphere in Iran has taken a happier turn while remaining surprisingly calm. Contrary to predictions made over the past week and during Rouhani’s trip to the UN, it appears the Iranian president has little problem in dealing with Iranian hardliners on his diplomatic approach with the USA. What exactly is happening here?
Upon arriving at Mehrabad airport in Tehran, a huge crowd of the president’s supporters welcomed him by slaughtering a sheep — a religious and cultural ritual of thanking god for the safe and successful return of travellers. They chanted, “Rouhani, Rouhani; thank you! thank you!” But, a few miles further down the road, a group of young hardliners known as Basijis or Hezbollahis stopped his car by chanting “Down with USA.” They accused Rouhani of crossing the regime’s redlines by negotiating with America and threw shoes and eggs at him.
In Iranian news media this unpleasant incident was reported only as a gathering of a hundred young protestors, an indicator that hardliners have lost their political influence in Iran for now. Only a few individual radical bloggers and hardline websites such as Rajanews, which is affiliated to the Paidari (Perseverance) Front and backed former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili’s presidential bid criticized Rouhani for talking to Obama.
Unsurprisingly, Hossein Shariatmadari, the managing editor of the hardline Kayhan, described Rouhani’s action as “bad and evil.” Kayhan wrote that Rouhani hasn’t gained anything from the US “except a bunch of empty promises and an old Persian artifact which was stolen” — referring to the 2,700 year-old silver drinking cup which was returned to Iran last week.
Many Iranian political analysts consider Shariatmadari the mouthpiece of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One of my colleagues, for example, sarcastically calls him the Supreme Leader’s Thomas Friedman.
But Kayhan was the only newspaper that criticized Rouhani on its front page while other Iranian dailies, even Javan — affiliated to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and Resalat run by orthodox principlists — were mute.
Shariatmadari would probably be very happy to be known as the Supreme Leader’s voice to the public, but he is not alone. Khamenei has different mouthpieces with different functions and neither one represents his views precisely and completely.
For example, the former speaker of the Majlis, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, whose daughter is married to the Supreme Leader’s son and ran against Rouhani in June’s presidential election, called Rouhani’s speech at the UN General Assembly smart and didn’t criticize his phone conversation with Obama, saying instead that “it can create an atmosphere for Iran to become more active in the international arena.”
To interpret the systematic reaction to Rouhani’s diplomacy with the US one should refer to the Friday prayer sermons across Iran, which were delivered only a few hours prior to the phone call. It is the Supreme Leader who directly appoints Friday prayer leaders and the political part of their sermons are dictated by an institution called the “Friday Prayer Leaders’ Policymaking Council,” also directly supervised by Khamenei. All Friday prayer leaders have unanimously praised the positions declared by the president during his New York trip.
The Friday prayer leader in the city of Mashahd, Ayatollah Ali Alamolhoda — known as a diehard hardliner — considered Rouhani’s words an example of “heroic leniency,” (an expression coined by the Supreme Leader). In legitimizing Rouhani’s actions Alamolhoda explained, “This administration has been successful in balancing its two responsibilities of safeguarding the honor of Islam [read the Iranian regime] and safeguarding the interests of Muslims [read the Iranian nation].”
Yet, one must not be surprised to hear “Down with USA” still being chanted at the same venue in which the lmams of the Friday prayer expressed their support for Rouhani. This paradox simply shows that contrary to what Iran experts say, the phone call will not suddenly end Iran’s domestic propaganda against America.
A considerable number of Iranian members of parliament, which is currently dominated by Principlist lawmakers, have supported Rouhani. This includes Mohammad Hossein Farhangi, a member of the Presiding Board who described the phone conversation “in line with national goals and interests and [in line with] the values of the Islamic revolution.” On the other hand, the powerful lawmaker Ahmad Tavakkoli warned that one should not become irrationally overexcited about this incident because “overexcitement is not in the interest of the Iranian nation and will reduce the bargaining power of Iranian authorities.”
The same goes for the Revolutionary Guards. Their commander, Major General Mohammad Ali Ja’fari, and the commander of the Qods Force (the international branch of the IRGC,) Qasem Soleimani, both have supported Rouhani’s diplomacy. On Saturday, the Sobh-e Sadeq weekly, which belongs to the IRGC, published its latest edition one day after the headline-making phone call. It had a very positive tone with regards to Rouhani’s behavior and described Rouhani’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post as “useful.” It also stressed that the IRGC will cooperate with Rouhani’s administration.
The IRGC’s positive reaction might force many analysts who believe the political and economic interests of the IRGC are against reducing tensions with the US to reconsider their positions. One must not forget that IRGC commanders have a behavior similar to the current Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, who — despite initially warning against the dangers of US intervention in Syria — ultimately defended Obama’s strike proposal during a Senate hearing earlier this month.
Interestingly, both Iranians and Americans are asking the same question about the Rouhani-Obama phone conversation: who requested it? The Iranian side says the US was the one to initiate the call while the American side argues the opposite. This highlights the fundamental kinship between the two old adversaries in their mode of politicking.
The debate also extends to another issue that some Americans, such as Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, believe: without sanctions, none of this would have happened. On the other hand, Iranians like Ahmad Tavakkoli believe it was Iran’s resistance against international pressure that has forced the US to enter talks with Iran.
Such debate seems ceaseless. But as of today it appears that Obama will have a more difficult time in convincing Congress to accept talks with Iran than Rouhani will in convincing Iranian hardliners. In a letter written in the the late 1980s to Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — who was Rouhani’s boss at the time — called for an end to the taboo of talks with the US. “Treading this pass will be difficult after you[r demise],” he wrote.
Now, twenty-four years after Khomeini’s death, Iranian politicians are smoothly treading this pass. It is wrong to think that Iran’s current Supreme Leader has suddenly made this decision. Just a year ago, around this time, Khamenei’s official website published commentary by Ayatollah Haeri Shirazi — the Supreme Leader’s former representative in the city of Shiraz — tacitly implying that supporters of the Supreme Leader must not be surprised by his decision for peace: “This is a test for the nation [to determine their] submission to the Leader.”
Except for a few figures who autonomously criticized Rouhani for his phone call with Obama, in the lower levels of Khamenei’s constituency all other supporters have taken to their social media networks to discuss the right or wrongfulness of this incident. Usually these discussions end with the justification that for the time being, they must remain silent and wait for the Supreme Leader’s explanation. As one famous Hezbollahi ring leader writes, “the most important things is following the “order of our master [Khamenei] whatever it may be.”
– Ali Reza Eshraghi was a senior editor at several of Iran’s reformist dailies. He is the Iran Project Manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
– Photo Credit: Roohollah Vahdati/ISNA
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