Rouhani allies challenge curbs on reformists

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Wrangling with conservative rivals heats up as Iran President seeks control of Parliament

TEHERAN • Allies of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are challenging restrictions on top reformist politicians as wrangling with conservative rivals heats up ahead of elections next year.

The state-run Ettelaat newspaper ran a front-page editorial last week criticising as unlawful a ban on publishing the name and picture of prominent reformist and former president Mohammad Khatami. A day earlier, Mr Rouhani's brother Hossein Fereydoun had visited opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi, who is under house arrest and accused of sedition by hardliners.

Buoyed by Mr Rouhani's success in securing July's nuclear deal with world powers in the face of domestic resistance, a reformist camp largely silenced since 2009 is showing signs of renewed ambition.

Elections for Parliament and the assembly that will choose Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's successor could embolden Mr Rouhani, who is seeking to control a majority in the legislature.

ALL EYES ON ROUHANI'S RESPONSE

How Rouhani chooses to respond to the hardline pushback against his agenda, and the degree to which he is successful, will be a major indicator of political life in Iran for the remainder of his presidency.

MR ALEX VATANKA, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani 

Infighting "is reaching the highest and most sensitive" level since Mr Rouhani won a four-year term in 2013, said Mr Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "How Rouhani chooses to respond to the hardline pushback against his agenda, and the degree to which he is successful, will be a major indicator of political life in Iran for the remainder of his presidency."

While full implementation of the nuclear deal will end Iran's global isolation once sanctions are removed, Mr Rouhani needs to lure overseas investment and engineer an economic turnaround to raise living standards for hard-pressed Iranians. Winning control of Parliament would help, and could provide a platform to begin a debate over some of the stringent controls on everyday life. The last president to attempt that was Mr Khatami, who was in office from 1997 to 2005 and remains the most popular reformist in Iran.

Ettelaat had on Dec 5 reprinted an interview Mr Khatami gave Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper, in which he said only dialogue and "respect for the principles of democracy" would enable Iran to settle its internal disputes.

Hardliners, who forced Mr Khatami to the margins of politics under his conservative successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hit back. Judicial spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei said the paper's editor Mahmoud Doaei, a cleric with ties to Mr Khatami, has been summoned to the special court for clerics. The order barring media coverage of Mr Khatami "is still in place, in force, and whoever acts against it will be be pursued", he said.

The newspaper "had written about Mr Khatami before but with elections nearing, the hardliners took exception this time," said Mr Aliasghar Ramezanpour, who was a deputy culture minister during Mr Khatami's presidency.

Mr Karrubi, the opposition leader, was recovering from surgery when the President's brother came calling. He has been under house arrest, as has fellow opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, since 2011, accused of seeking to undermine the clerical regime by fuelling street protests against the disputed re-election of Mr Ahmadinejad 18 months earlier.

Mr Khatami had supported Mr Mousavi and Mr Karrubi when they challenged Mr Ahmadinejad in 2009, and he endorsed Mr Rouhani, whose campaign included pledges for greater civil liberties, in the 2013 elections.

Last week's events mark an attempt "to gingerly challenge some of the more draconian edicts", said Mr Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University in California. "There is an orchestrated polyphony" of voices, he said.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2015, with the headline 'Rouhani allies challenge curbs on reformists'. Print Edition | Subscribe