Iran’s Supreme Leadership Test: Is Rouhani at Last Becoming the Reformist the West Thinks He Is? 1
In this Monday, June 17, 2013 photo, Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani places his hand on his heart as a sign of respect after speaking at a news conference, in Tehran, Iran. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

When Tehran’s police chief announced the deployment of seven thousand  morality officers to monitor people’s behaviour and dress a couple of months ago, President Hassan Rouhani appeared incensed.

You can’t just “wake up one morning and decide to secretly monitor people’s behavior,” said the President. “People’s freedom cannot be restricted, other than by law.”

Then Ayatollah Khamenei weighed in. If you believe ‘provocative behavior’ needs to be punished, the Iranian Supreme Leader told an assembly of police forces, then pay no attention to the criticism.

That same week in May, Khamenei visited a group of teachers. Their promotion of the English language in school was unhealthy, he scolded.

Rouhani disagreed. Mastering the English language is the very skill that spurred economic growth and development of the IT sector in India, Rouhani retorted. It was a thinly veiled reference to the Supreme Leader’s own push for Iran to develop from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based scientific powerhouse – or “resistance economy.”

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List of Hope

Such clashes between Rouhani and the Supreme Leader are new.

While Rouhani is often labeled a reformist in the Western press, locally he’s referred to as eetedalgara – a moderate. In Iran, there’s a world of difference.

The reformist movement was crushed by the harsh crackdown of 2009. The mood of intolerance diluted political opposition to more centrist – or moderate – views.

Despite his reputation abroad, few Iranians would have mistaken Rouhani for a reformist. When popular protests followed the contested re-election of hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, Rouhani condemned the demonstrations. He remained ominously silent about the subsequent crackdown – in contrast to the criticism from former presidents, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.

And yet, it was thanks to their support that Rouhani was later to win the 2013 election. Following the mass disqualification of reformist candidates, the movement allied with moderates and even some conservatives in the pro-Rouhani “List of Hope” coalition.

Breaking a media ban, Khatami released a video on YouTube a few days before the election, calling on voters to support the List of Hope in order to prevent the victory of another hardliner – Saeed Jalili. That message was one of the key factors behind Rouhani’s landslide.

It’s The Election, Stupid

So what has brought on Rouhani’s sudden fit of boldness?

What else? Elections.

Rouhani has less than a year to convince the reformist voters he won from Khatami’s camp that he’s worthy of their support again.

But beyond political expediency, there’s also an economic logic. While most Iranians are yet to see their lives improve as a result of the nuclear deal to remove sanctions, there at least is direction for the economy and the prospect of massive future investment inflows. That gives Rouhani some space to turn his focus to social issues.

This, again, marks a shift. Rouhani is switching from the type of economy-led policies of Rafsanjani’s era, toward a Khatami-style agenda of social and political reform. And of course, that’s no bad thing for winning back Khatami’s flock either.

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Rouhani’s belated insistence on the rule of law is reminiscent of Khatami’s clashes with Khamenei more than a decade ago. The interesting difference is in the response from hardliners.

Unlike 1998, when a speech by Khamenei sparked physical assaults on Khatami’s ministers by conservative militants – the latest clashes have remained non-violent.

One reason might be the instability on Iran’s borders and potential threats within its territory. Even the hardliners are conscious of the need for a more appeased domestic situation.

Still, the threat of a backlash is ever-present. Conservatives loyal to the Supreme Leader control of the judiciary and security apparatus, as well as influential unelected institutions. Right-wing religious radicals continue to flout the law to showcase their resounding power.

Witness the latest spike in last-minute concert cancellations following pressure on musicians, and the arrests of Iran’s underground fashion models.

As the Spring 2017 election draws nearer, the hardliners will step up pressure once again for Rouhani to moderate.

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