WASHINGTON - Iran’s political elite remains split over the country’s future, and analysts predict the divisions are likely to get more abrasive as reformers and conservatives maneuver before February parliamentary elections.
The polls are seen as a crucial test of reformist President Hassan Rouhani’s authority and likely will impact his hopes of re-election in 2017.
The reformist president and his supporters, who have talked of a new era of greater openness following the landmark nuclear deal struck among Iran, the United States and five other world powers in July, are jockeying for the upper hand with ultraconservatives.
The October test firing of a ballistic missile is viewed by Iran watchers as part of the power struggle. A U.N. panel says Iran violated a U.N. Security Council resolution by testing the medium-range Emad rocket. A second test was performed on November 21.
A crackdown on civil liberties by the country’s security institutions is also being seen as part of the jockeying.
Civil liberties crackdown
In recent weeks, ultraconservatives forced the abrupt cancellation of concerts in Tehran and other big cities, and they blocked the newly revived Tehran symphony orchestra from performing because of the participation of female musicians.
Journalists, poets and cartoonists have also been targeted recently, activists say.
Last month, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American was convicted in a secret trial on espionage charges.
Judicial authorities announced Tuesday the managing editor of Iran’s moderate Ettelaat newspaper will face prosecution for defying a ban on reporting about Mohammad Khatami, a former reformist president seen by hardliners as a “seditionist leader.”
The judiciary announced in June that Iran’s media should refrain from reporting on those deemed seditionists, a move criticized by Rouhani.
Ettelaat’s managing editor, Mahmoud Doaei, has called on the Iranian president to intervene and, in a combative front-page editorial, argued the country’s constitution prohibits censorship. “This demand is based on taste, not laws, and Ettelaat daily won’t accept it,” Doaei wrote.
But it isn’t clear that Rouhani can do much to stop the prosecution or reign in the country’s security institutions.
Some analysts argue the civil liberties crackdown is part of a backlash by hardliners determined to punish Rouhani for July’s historic nuclear deal and a calculated strategy to undermine the reformist camp led by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani before February's elections for Iran’s Majlis (parliament) and Assembly of Experts.
“The power struggle between the pragmatic camp, which Rafsanjani leads, and the ideological camp, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has intensified,” say Yigal Carmon and Ayelet Savyon of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute.
Confrontation between reformers and hardliners has sharpened since Rafsanjani announced he will run for re-election to the Assembly of Experts, an 86-strong body of Islamic theologians that’s popularly elected and is responsible for appointing the supreme leader. With the Assembly elected every eight years, the body chosen in February may well have to select a successor for Khamenei, who is 76-years-old, although currently in good health.
Rafsanjani has not only irked ultraconservatives by talking openly about the need for the Assembly to start thinking about a Khamenei successor, but also by talking up the role of the assembly, saying recently it should do more to supervise the supreme leader and state institutions.
His remarks prompted a sharp retort from the head of the country’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, who criticized “baseless talk about the Assembly of Experts supervising the supreme leader.” The assembly has never seriously questioned the actions of either of the two supreme leaders who have led Iran since the 1979 revolution.
US at rivalry's core
Analysts Carmon, a former Israeli intelligence officer, and Savyon say the rivalry between the camps centers on two main areas: the implementation of the nuclear deal and Iran's relations with the West as whole.
Khamenei has maintained a drumbeat of harsh anti-Western rhetoric since a warning in September about the menace of foreign infiltration. The warning contrasts with the pragmatism he displayed before July’s nuclear deal.
A member of the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, Ahmad Bakhshayesh, said in an interview with the Fars news agency that Khamenei’s warning was “addressed mainly to elements of the regime wishing to create ties with the U.S.”
He added: “In our country there are two lines of thought: One is resistance to the [U.S.] arrogance, championed by the Leader; and the second is ties with the U.S. like with any other country without fear of infiltration, which is championed by Rafsanjani and President Rohani.”
Lawrence Franklin, a former Iran desk officer at the Pentagon during the administration of George W. Bush, argues Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps is likely “attempting to goad the West into additional punitive action against the Islamic Republic” with its ballistic missile test launches in a bid to “strengthen hardline opposition to the nuclear deal.”
But he fears “if the United States does nothing but issue condemnatory rhetoric, it will be interpreted by the regime as additional confirmation the United States desires a nuclear agreement at virtually any cost.”