by Farideh Farhi
Iran’s cabinet confirmation hearings this week were painful, but not for its new president Hassan Rouhani, despite the rejection of 3 out of his 18 ministerial nominees. They were painful for Iran’s hardliners, whose mismanagement of the country was spotlighted along with their weakening form of political speech.
A good number of Iran’s political class and punditry must have watched in awe as the people who have been framing and dominating public discourse in Iran — particularly in the last 4 years — adopted the role of the opposition. As they spoke, what has gone wrong with the Islamic Republic became more and more evident: the ideological governance, which is quite distinct from ideological rule, that frames the Islamic Republic as a system. The tension between the ideological framing of the Islamic Republic and the technocratic exigencies of a developmentalist welfare state has existed in the Islamic Republic from day one. But it was dramatically on display in these public hearings.
The undoing of Iran’s hardliners
In rhetorical confrontations between national-level figures and parochial-like local politicians, it’s not hard for the former to outshine the latter. But something else was going on here as well. The questioning of the center-reformist cabinet nominees by the parliament’s hardliners was consumed with the relationship of the nominees to the so-called sedition (fetneh) and had nothing to do with the nominees’ proposed ministerial plans and polices. In other words, the nominees’ qualifications were overshadowed by a focus on what they did during Iran’s 2009 post-election unrest. To boot, the questioning was carried out in a street-talk manner, which is completely out of place in a public forum broadcast on national television. One member of parliament even spoke about the “club” Iranian Lurs use to treat those who do not walk a straight line. He had to apologize for imputing a tendency towards violence to his own ethnic group.
The contrast between the MPs and Rouhani’s nominees — who maintained their dignity while responding to their opponents without transgressing acceptable political speech — was striking. After all, if post-election protests are identified as fetneh in official discourse, one would have a hard time achieving a ministerial post while admitting they supported them. But one can defend one’s record while stating allegiance to the Islamic Republic and its institutions, including the office of the Leader Ali Khamenei. And although some were better than others, Rouhani’s nominees defended themselves well and even engaged in a degree of pushback regarding why they acted more properly and humanely than MPs who showed no sympathy for Iranian protesters who were harmed or even killed.
Again, the contrast between the way Rouhani’s nominees’ spoke in defense of their policies and political outlook and the accusatory language of the MPs was striking. Of course, public displays of official denunciatory language aren’t new for the Iranian public. Indeed, it has been the dominant form political speech in the past few years. What made the broadcasted hearings fascinating was the gradual public realization that the folks who have led Iran into disaster are now sitting in judgment of the folks the electorate voted for. They were voted in precisely because they promised to run the country with managerial expertise and to loosen the grip of ideology over decision-making.
As the hearings proceeded — on the first day sedition-related words were reportedly used over 1,600 times — it became clear that “sedition” is the only ammunition the hardliners have. A prominent conservative MP even said out loud that hardliners have become “merchants of sedition” who are making a living from applying the label. But the confirmation of four of Rouhani’s key nominees who were accused of cavorting with seditionists was a disaster for the discourse of sedition. It’s obvious that the hardliners’ favorite mode of attack is becoming increasingly weak.
Ultimately, out of the many effective speeches given by the nominees, two stand out for me because of the unraveling of tensions that accompanied them.
Iran’s new foreign minister
Mohammad Javad Zarif’s speech literally quieted the cacophonous parliament hall. Zarif has spent most of his adult life in the United States as a student and later as a diplomat. This by itself makes him suspect. He did not serve in the Iran-Iraq War even though he was at age for military service at the time. Among other things, he was accused of being educated in the West, meeting with American diplomats and Iranian civil society activists who reside in the US and even suspiciously losing a briefcase that included important documents while he was there. In short, he was portrayed as a man who lost his soul in the West. What Zarif said was not as important as the way he broke apart that image.
Many in the US have heard him publicly speak in English, which he is very good at, but neither the MPs nor the Iranian public had heard him give a speech in Persian. And they had never seen him recite so many Qoranic verses! But Zarif’s speech on Tuesday seamlessly combined expertise and religious rhetoric. In a rather blunt way, he also pushed backed against the accusations that were hurled against him. He reminded the MPs that the previous government had forced him into retirement at the age of 47 and even made teaching difficult for him but that he had not left the country in more than 6 years even for teaching opportunities that had arisen elsewhere. His body language, voice and speech-content confirmed that he was as much of a stakeholder in the Islamic Republic as those who were judging him and that he had every right to be the foreign minister of a president whose promises of a foreign policy involving both expertise and moderation aided his election. Zarif also made clear that the power of Iran’s foreign policy rests on the electorate’s popular confidence in their government at home. As I already mentioned, Zarif’s performance was so stunning that it quieted the Majles chamber — the only time this happened during the hearings.
A noteworthy loss
Another important speech was given by Mohammad Ali Najafi, Rouhani’s nominee for the Ministry of Education. Again, the contrast between his speech and demeanor and the accusations leveled against him was something to behold. His pushback was also telling. Najafi was accused of meeting the families of protestors who died in 2009, to which he essentially responded with: I went to see the aggrieved families in my capacity as a member of the Tehran City Council, which would have been unnecessary if you guys had done your job of at least comforting them.
Although Najafi failed to receive the required number of votes for confirmation, the yay votes outnumbered the nays and a one-vote switch would have made him the cabinet minister. This situates him as an important advisor or a candidate for other posts if he desires them.
Beyond this, Najafi’s near confirmation turned into an argument for some Tehrani voters. Had they not mostly abstained in the 2012 parliamentary election and, ignoring reformist disqualifications and disarray, voted for a moderate conservative slate — which did exist — Najafi would have been the education minister today. The leader of that moderate conservative slate — Ali Mottahari — was the only one who made it into Parliament in 2012 and was a key organizer of votes for the Rouhani cabinet. One more deputy from that slate — which was possible with more participation — would have made a small but important difference in the scheme of things. Of course, yesterday that difference didn’t appear as small to the many teachers who were hoping for Najafi’s successful appointment.
Several blunt exchanges involving the intelligence and judiciary ministries should also be listened to by anyone trying to understand the tensions and polarizations of today’s Iran. The focal point of these tensions is based on issues related to human and civil rights, dignity and the operation of Iran’s surveillance state.
In his closing speech, Rouhani laid out his argument for how to leave behind or at least lessen the deep rifts that resulted from the 2009 election. He argued for an acknowledgment that both sides had made mistakes. He did this by mentioning two words in one sentence: Kahrizak and orduskeshi. He said both were mistakes, giving them equivalency.
Kahrizak is the prison in which many of Iran’s 2009 protesters were abused and several were killed. Ordukeshi is the word used by the Leader to negatively describe the 2009 protests. Instead of acknowledging the constitutionally protected right to peaceful protests, the term frames the events as something the losers of the election illegitimately did by turning the electoral competition into street confrontations. Rouhani surely knows that this is a highly offensive term to many people who voted for him particularly in the city of Tehran, in which protests lasted much longer than the rest of the country.
By saying that mistakes were made in both Kahrizad Prison and by ordukeshi, Rouhani’s message seemed clear: rightly or wrongly, neither side can play the game of political righteousness. Stop asking each other for apologies, which will not be forthcoming from either side; learn to live with this reality. Let’s just move on based on the premise that the time for the continuation of the purge game is over because it is a dangerous game to play when the country is in dire need of civil interactions in the face of external pressures. This was not moral posturing; it was a plea for all to search for their pragmatic side.
These words can only be taken as serious advice if there is some movement on the front of reintegrating those who were purged because of the events of 2009, which will be a challenge for Rouhani. The ministerial confirmation of several former advisors to Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is still under house arrest, is a step in that direction. But it is not enough even if public tolerance for gradualism and moderation — and taking things slowly — seems relatively high at the moment.
Photo Credit: Amir Kholousi