Iran’s Supreme Leadership Test: Reformist Lurch Puts Rouhani in Danger 1
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves as he stands next to a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after he registered for February's election of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses the supreme leader, at Interior Ministry in Tehran December 21, 2015. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1ZKHQ

Recent clashes with Iran’s Supreme Leader are putting President Hassan Rouhani’s second term in jeopardy, Marie Outters reports in the conclusion of her two-part focus on the politics of Tehran

Former President Mohammad Khatami was issued a warning after his 1997 landslide election victory:

“Heed first God, second the Supreme Leader and then the demands of the voters.”

The caution came from Ahmad Jannati.

One of Ayatollah Khamenei’s staunchest supporters, Jannati chairs the Guardian Council – the vetting body that disqualifies any election candidate it deems too reformist.

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Before the last parliamentary vote in 2013, it disqualified 99% of reformist candidates.

With increasingly public differences of opinion between Rouhani and Khamenei, rumors are circulating that Rouhani may be banned from running for a second term.

It would make him the first one-term president in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

Lost of Hope

Divergence in views between the President and Supreme Leader over issues from a new morality police force to English education in schools are nothing new.

Normally, however, they occur toward the end of the President’s second mandate.

President Khatami’s increasingly vocal dissent against the Ayatollah ultimately resulted in the reformist movement disintegrating amid the violent conservative crackdown and political maneuvers to ban their candidates.

Toward the end of Khatami’s tenure, one student representative angrily expressed her despair: “Mr. Khatami, your ultimate achievement was to destroy a tidal wave of hope.”

Soft War

With the Spring 2017 presidential election approaching, the hardliners will step up attempts to disrupt Rouhani’s agenda through a repeat of the tried-and-tested strategy that crushed the reform movement and ushered in the rise of the conservatives in the mid-2000s, culminating in victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Right-wing conservatives view Western culture as a tool in a soft war waged against the Islamic Republic. As far back as 1998, Khamenei urged a purge on the deviationist interpretations and the negative and destructive teachings of Western freedom.

While Rouhani’s hands are tied by a judiciary and regulatory institutions under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, the President does have considerably more leverage compared with Khatami during his tenure.

As far as institutional influence and political connections go, Rouhani enjoys the backing of key power brokers, including Hashemi Rafsanjani. The former President may have seen his authority wane somewhat since the late 1990s, but he remains an important kingmaker.


Yet Rouhani’s strength in enlisting the support of both Rafsanjani’s followers and the ever-popular Khatami, may ultimately become his weakness. He will need the full range of diplomatic skills to keep his wide-ranging coalition of backers together.

It’s a delicate balance to strike. If Rouhani veers too far from following in Khatami’s footsteps, he risks losing the backing of moderate conservatives, who are ready to support his economic policies and rule of law agenda. This set includes prominent politicians such as Ali Motahari, who remains a strict conservative on social issues.

Double-Edged Sword

Motahari represents a wider realignment toward the center of politics.

Partly, it’s the result of a realization on both sides – conservatives and reformists – that radical demands only lead to failure.

While hardliners won on the face of it by subduing the reformist movement to the margins, their violent tactics have only served to further alienate them from a growing part of the population. This was demonstrated by the defeat of hardline figures close to Khamenei in the February Assembly of Experts elections.

In this sense, keeping the moderate conservatives on side appears the more straight-forward task; the bigger danger for Rouhani is from Khatami’s supporters aligning behind someone more radical.

That end game will be determined by Ahmad Jannati – and by extension, Ayatollah Khamenei.

If the Guardian Council bans more reformist-minded candidates in the next election from running against Rouhani, it plays to the President’s favor as the centrist moderate leader.

But it’s a dangerous double-edged sword that also risks cutting out the newly radicalized Rouhani.

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