Political Debate Heats Up in Iran

by Ali Reza Eshraghi

A popular joke was bouncing around in South Africa in the early 1990s. Given the country’s overwhelming challenges, people have two options, a practical one and a miraculous one. The practical option is for everyone to get down on their knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and solve the problems. The miraculous option is that people and politicians talk with each other and work things out.

Today, this joke applies to both Iran and America—despite their many differences. Both countries suffer from a pathology of overwhelmingly polarized, adversarial, and acrimonious politics in which reaching consensus has become a vice rather than a virtue. In both countries, presidents who proclaimed themselves as fixers were elected. The US chose Donald J. Trump and his “art of the deal,” though it turned out that his method heavily relied on bluffing and bullying. In May 2017, Iran re-elected Hasan Rouhani, whose mantra and mandate has been deal-making and negotiation since his first term.

In late 2015, Rouhani succeeded in negotiating a nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the US and five other world powers, and immediately afterwards stressed his hope to use the same method to achieve a national deal – or what he called a “domestic JCPOA.” Now where does Rouhani stand? His American counterpart and the Republican Party are desperately looking for a pretext to scrap the nuclear deal and are openly talking about regime change in Iran. He also has to face Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has a hammer in hand and treats every issue like a nail. Rouhani’s domestic rivals are getting bolder and harsher to undermine his authority at every passing opportunity, as if they had not just recently lost both presidential and city council elections.

Add to this mix Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has been creating new challenges for Rouhani since spring.

The Role of Khamenei

On May 7, less than two weeks before Election Day and during the most crucial days of campaigning, Khamenei accused the Rouhani administration of quietly implementing UNESCO’s non-binding Education 2030 Framework for Action. Without putting his finger on a specific issue, he dismissed the entire document as being un-Islamic. His move was peculiar because Iran’s Supreme Leader customarily refrains from public engagement with candidates during election season. Unprecedented, however, was also Rouhani directly responding to Khamenei that he had been influenced by “fake reports.” And here started a heated and lengthy public debate. As typical in Iran, a non-issue suddenly became an issue exhausting the energy of all political players.

On June 8, a month after his initial remarks, Khamenei struck back by saying, “No! Our reports are reliable.” This time, however, he cunningly replaced his Islamic frame with national sovereignty: “Let’s say, there is nothing that is blatantly against Islam in this document […] what I’m saying is that the country’s educational program should not be decided by outsiders.”

In Iran, it is usually said that the Supreme Leader has fasl-ul-khitab, or the final say, in all matters of dispute. But Khamenei’s remarks are increasingly becoming a starting point for public debate in which, unlike in the past, he is forced to participate. In another example, about a month ago, the Leader, who enjoys using military metaphors, stated in a meeting with his student supporters to “fire at will” whenever they “feel that there is something wrong” with government bodies. Rouhani’s frightened supporters perceived these ambiguous remarks as an indication that Khamenei was giving radicals the green light to disrupt the government.

Again, the Leader’s remarks sparked another debate between different political factions, forcing Khamenei to explain that he did not mean to encourage “anarchy,” and that “revolutionary forces must uphold law and order in the country more than ever before.”

Khamenei’s behavior has been as puzzling and erratic in the private discussion forums of politicians. As always, reliable information about the Supreme Leader is incredibly scarce and speculation is rife. Highly circulated rumors have a tendency to become facts, and right now popular belief attributes Khamenei’s behavior to his illness, his advanced age, or his frustration over the uncertain and complex circumstances surrounding his succession. Even when Khamenei makes a relatively amenable remark, such as asking the head of the judiciary to support and promote “the people’s legitimate freedoms,” it is lost in the commotion, and reformists make no effort to appropriate or invest in it.

The Role of Rouhani

Just like Khamenei, the increasingly contentious rhetoric of Rouhani that started in the midst of his presidential campaign has caught many of his supporters off guard. He proactively picks fights and criticizes Revolutionary Guard commanders for trying to “run the country’s economy” like a government but “with rifles.” His remarks were so hard to stomach that the infamously hardline Kayhan Daily, instead of attacking—its usual course of action—tried to diffuse the situation by writing in its editorial: “We all know that in reality neither the government wants to weaken the IRGC, nor does the IRGC want to weaken the government.”

Even prominent reformist pundits and politicians like Abbas Abdi, Saeed Hajjarian, and former Tehran Mayor Gholam Hossein Karbaschi have advised the president against verbal confrontation with officials from other branches of the regime. But it takes two to tango, and there is no indication that even if Rouhani settles down, his hardline rivals would follow.

Moderate members of the Conservative/Principlist camp, like Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani who is currently Rouhani’s strategic ally, are also worried about this situation. In a recent public meeting, Larijani asked Gholam Hossein Mohseni Eje’i, the deputy chief of the judiciary, to privately resolve his problem with the government, and to “Refrain from fueling tensions, [because] the people need peace.” Two former Principlist lawmakers, Alireza Zakani and Ahmad Tavakoli, have also voiced their concern about continued fiery feuds and have even proposed that their camp declares “unilateral ceasefire” so that the Rouhani administration can implement its agenda. However, within 72 hours of this proposal, Zakani himself used his official Telegram channel to attack Iran’s new South Pars gas deal with Total, calling it a “huge betrayal of national interests.”

The Role of Confrontation

The quarrelsome culture of politics is nothing new in Iran. Since 1997—and reformist Mohammad Khatami’s presidency—society has witnessed fervent public debates and fierce argumentation between the two rival political camps. But today, this confrontation has different symptoms.

First, it has become ubiquitous. Unlike in the past, almost every public policy, persona, and even fact is grounds for contention. Second, it has become more direct and blatant. For centuries, Iran’s rhetorical culture has relied on figures of speech such as allusions and innuendos to make confrontations indirect and subtle. But now, adversaries do not shy away from openly criticizing and lambasting one another. Lastly, if in the past it was the rank and file who feuded while leaders and generals watched from a distance, now the heads directly challenge one another. They even use their social media accounts to respond to one another to the point that Ali Motahari, the outspoken Tehran lawmaker, mockingly said that it would be “better to talk face-to-face.”

The majority of Iranian pundits and politicians from both sides of the aisle argue, at least publicly, that this amount of contentious debate is not healthy for the country. Regardless, it is a safe bet to assume that Iranians will continue to watch this political reality show where different parties and factions engage in the war of words while talking about the necessity of maintaining “unity” and “solidarity.” This also comes at a time when the country is at a “critical juncture,” as Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former president and the spiritual leader of the reformists, put it, in reference to threats by the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, and the increasingly hawkish United States.

The fact that political actors continue their engagement in verbal contention does not necessarily indicate a sign of internal weakness or an inability to recognize looming external threats. On the contrary, it could suggest that Iran’s political system has gained enough maturity and capacity to handle such disputation while closely monitoring perils from abroad. After all, the US is dealing with the same symptoms of impasse and cantankerous politics, but no one is predicting imminent collapse.

There is no natural and innate sequence, no prewritten script of how rhetorical conflicts evolve or are dissolved. Rather, it depends on the actual balance of power, the decisions and judgment calls elites make, and the political opportunity structure (the discursive, “institutional and cultural access points that actors can seize upon to attempt to bring their claims into the political forum,” as Ferree et al have explained).

In certain instances, very controversial policies have eventually been implemented, such as designing a new model for Iran Petroleum Contracts (IPC) and the ensuing energy deal with the French Total. On other occasions, the war of words has escalated to physical assaults, like the March 2000 assassination attempt on influential reformist strategist Saeed Hajjarian followed by the massive crackdown on the reformist press in May. Under other circumstances, the situation devolved into a full-fledged confrontation, such as the rise and suppression of the Green Movement after the disputed 2009 presidential election. This traumatic event has been etched into Iranian public memory.

Perhaps the only point of consensus among Iran’s political players and the public since the presidential election was the IRGC’s missile blitz in retaliation for the Islamic State attacks in Tehran. But the very day after, Rouhani’s government and the Revolutionary Guard (and by proxy, Iran’s Supreme Leader) squabbled for about 10 days over who deserved credit for the decision. Finally, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, intervened and said, “Both sides are right, but neither is telling the whole story.” This example underscores the elasticity of Iranian politics: ready to come to agreement when needed, and to resume contention the very next day.

Photo: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani (Wikimedia Commons)

Ali Reza Eshraghi

Ali Reza Eshraghi is the Iran Projects Director 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. He was a senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies. During his more than 15-year career in journalism, he has published hundreds of articles and op-ed pieces in various Persian, Arabic and English media including the New York Times, CNN and Al Jazeera. Eshraghi is an alumnus of the Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution. Formerly, he was a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and The Institute of International Studies (IIS). He was also a research fellow at the Religion, Politics and Globalization Program at UC Berkeley. Eshraghi studied Political Science and Islamic Studies at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran.