Category Archives: Iran

Paola Rivetti – Iran again? Rouhani’s new challenges

This is a guest post by Paola Rivetti, Lecturer in International Relations at Dublin City University

On Friday 19th May, Iranians residing in the Islamic Republic and abroad confirmed Hassan Rouhani as the president of the Republic. The electoral campaign had been particularly contentious, and since the first TV debate among the candidates, tones had turned harsh. “Iran again” (Iran dobare) is the post-election slogan that Rouhani’s supporters had chosen. However, in office again Rouhani will need to deal with a number of new challenges that will require a new approach. In particular, he will need to navigate the fractures and divisions within the elite in order to make sure that Iran’s position in foreign politics is credible, as the government prepares to deal with significant challenges ranging from the Trump administration and the Syria file, to the fate of the nuclear agreement of 2015. In order to do this, Rouhani will need to reach out to his conservative rivals in the elite, but this will come with a price. What will the president sacrifice in order to maintain stability? And who will pay the price for it?


Iran has been a hybrid-type of presidential republic since 1989. The 1989 reform had the effect of giving a counter-power to the highest office in the Islamic Republic. While, constitutionally, the rahbar or Supreme Leader is more powerful than the president and may count on a religious and political legitimacy, the president has always acted as a competitor to the Leader. As Jason Rezaian wrote, no matters who the president is, “he’ll have a fight with the supreme leader” on the foreign politics, the economy or on issues related to the role of the judiciary in curbing dissent or shutting down the press that dares to criticise the elite in power. Since 1989, this contentious pattern has repeated itself, regardless of the ideological affinity of the Leader and the president.

During Rouhani’s first term in office (2013-2017), the fights between Rouhani and the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, mostly revolved around the 2015 nuclear agreement. Although it was reached thanks to the support of Khamenei (who has the last word in matters of foreign policy), the deal was criticised by Khamenei himself and other conservative voices for “selling Iran to the West”. This slogan referred to the conditions that Iran had to accept in exchange for going on with the nuclear programme. In particular, the continuation of sanctions and the limitation in missile activities and trade caused an angry reaction on the part of the conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards (the paramilitary apparatus, under the control of the Supreme Leader), who are heavily involved in such military activities.

Khamenei will continue to fight with Rouhani, who received 57.31% of the votes cast. Rouhani’s main rival, Ebrahim Reissi, gathered 38.29% of the preferences. Mostafa Mirsalim, a conservative former Minister of Culture, received 1.16% of the votes, and Hashemi-Taba, a reformist former vice-president, 0.52%. With a turnout of 70%, Rouhani received more than 23 and a half million votes, while Reissi less than 16 million.  Polls had to significantly delay the closing time in order to accommodate all voters who had waited long hours to cast their vote.

Ebrahim Reissi, Rouhani’s main contender, was the rahbar’s favourite candidate and a powerful man himself. He is a former general prosecutor in Iran’s judiciary, and he was involved in the mass executions of Leftists during the 1980s. He also is the guardian of the shrine of Imam Reza in the holy city of Mashhad, to which a powerful bonyad (or economic foundation) is related, called Astan-e Quds Razavi. This foundation is one of the most powerful charities in the Muslim world. Reissi was appointed to that role by the Supreme Leader himself. He is usually referred to as a hard-liner in foreign politics and, socially, a conservative. It is important to keep in mind that all candidates are, to a different extent, insiders and part of the establishment. In fact, they all have to receive permission to run in elections by the Guardian Council, which assesses the suitability of every candidate. Rouhani is not different, and he also has a long history of service to the regime in key positions. He was a parliamentary member, the deputy of the parliament’s spokesperson, and, crucially, he has been the secretary of the Supreme Council of National Security for 16 years, a position that partly explains his diplomatic successes. In fact, the supreme council has taken part in the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme since 2002, along with diplomats from Western countries and representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Rouhani was appointed to that post by the former president Hashemi Rasfanjani (1989-1997) and re-confirmed by Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). He however resigned the position when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president (2005-2013). In 2013, Rouhani campaigned presenting himself as the candidate of moderation, calling for a moderate politics in the international as well as in the domestic arenas.

Although all candidates are insiders, and have to be so, differences exist. First of all, the landscape of domestic politics in Iran is highly factionalised and divided, although two main trends can be identified: the conservatives, who have the backing of the Supreme Leader and the security apparatus, and the reformists, who have traditionally enjoyed the support of the semi-private sector, the moderates and the technocratic elite. These groups have however overlapped and crossed paths during the years. For example, the electoral list that backed Rouhani’s government in the parliamentary election in 2012, namely the “Omid” (hope) list, also included staunch conservatives. Ali Larijani, the conservative spokesperson of the parliament, and Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, another well-known conservative, have publicly declared their support for Rouhani and his moderate agenda.

The electoral campaigns that preceded the 2017 election included however elements of conflict and political contention. For instance, diverging economic visions were on display, and different economic recipes for boosting the economy were presented to the electorate. While the conservative candidates resorted to the promise of increasing economic subsidies, Rouhani denounced these promises as unattainable and remained faithful to his purpose of attracting direct foreign investments (DFIs) in Iran and continuing with privatization. The candidates’ approach to foreign politics also presents important differences, with Rouhani emphasising the need for further engagement with the West and Reissi mostly condemning Rouhani’s past policies as subservient to the West. The economic aspect is fundamental here: while Rouhani promotes the presence of foreign capital in the country, to be attracted thanks to a mix of diplomatic engagement and public efforts, Reissi opposes it because he represents the domestic constituencies that benefit from the absence of foreign capital and privatization.

Also in terms of domestic politics, positions were different and the tone and the language used by the candidates varied as the campaign went on. Values such as national sovereignty and independence were emphasised by Reissi and his supporters, while Rouhani and his supporters focused attention on different issues. Beyond the economy, which was present topic in the electoral campaigns of all candidates, issues such as civil rights and the freedom of political prisoners also featured prominently in Rouhani’s campaign. An example is this video, in which the actress Baran Kosari addresses the audience during a rally in favour of Rouhani naming political prisoners, such as Bahareh Hedayat and her husband, and victims of violence such as Sohrab Arabi, a 19 year-old young man who died during the repression of the 2009 protest movement. This movement, known as the “green movement”, emerged in opposition to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2009. Another video shows Rouhani’s supporters celebrating his victory and chanting the slogan “Atena Daemi must be freed”. Daemi, a young woman, was incarcerated in 2014 for “insulting the Leader”, and is now on hunger strike. Rouhani resonated these calls for freedom, civil and political rights as he also did during his 2013 electoral campaign. According to the journalist Borzou Daraghi, Rouhani seemed to run “against the system he helped create” after the 1979 revolution. However, as Suzanne Maloney underlined, it is very unlikely that Rouhani’s strong criticisms of the system and its record in respecting human rights will be translated into actual policies. In a sense, Rouhani may have tried to play the card of the outsider, along with people such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, although in a very different context.

Seeds of a new system?

During the electoral race, two candidates, Eshaq Jahangiri and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, resigned in favour of the two main contenders, respectively Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Reissi.

Jahangiri is Rouhani’s former vice-president, while Ghalibarf is the current mayor of Tehran. The two candidatures had a different meaning. While it is common for weaker candidates to stand in order to create momentum for the election and later resign in favour of stronger candidates, as was with the case of Jahagiri, Ghalibaf’s candidacy did not serve that purpose. In fact, it was a real candidacy, at least it was until four days before election day.

The mayor of Tehran has run for the presidency three times now, with little success. However, he has been re-elected by Tehran’s city council twice as mayor, and his mandates (2005-2017) focused on developing Tehran’s civil infrastructures, from building an efficient metro network to rebuilding the road system. The mayor also developed the construction sector to an unprecedented level, according to some, making Tehran a city where living has become almost unbearable. In particular, he has been accused of not doing enough to solve the problem of pollution and other issues deriving from over-population and poor traffic management. However, he demonstrated that he was able to bring huge investments to the capital. It is not surprising, then, that his electorate is also composed of technocratic, wealthy people who benefitted from his work as the mayor of the capital and who may be in favour of integrating Iran in the free market international system.

Ghalibaf’s decision to drop out the presidential race, as Farzan Sabet comments, represented an attempt to unify the conservative vote behind Reissi. The conservative bloc in the parliament and in the institutions of the Islamic Republic has been, over the past years, increasingly factionalised. Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the 2009 crisis and the very violent repression that repressed the “green movement” created multiple fractures within the conservative bloc. Ghalibaf’s decision was then intended to unite the conservatives and make them vote for Reissi with one single voice.

However, it is likely that part of Ghalibaf’s electorate diverted their vote in favour of Rouhani, who has worked in the past years to reach out and consolidate support among the semi-private sector, regardless of possibly different ideological orientations. It is no coincidence that during the first weeks of the electoral campaign, reformists and Rouhani’s supporters called for a “national dialogue” with “moderate conservatives” – a proposal the Supreme Leader labelled as impractical. The attempted goal was to isolate the hard-liners and reinforce the moderates in both the conservative and the reformist camp, to make support for Rouhani stronger and cross-factional.

Rouhani’s re-election, then, strengthens his position vis-à-vis Supreme Leader Khamenei. The rivalry between the two is feeding another debate that has recently haunted the Islamic Republic, namely the possibility of a constitutional reform. Politicians and opinion-makers have suggested that there are too many competing centres of power in the country, making governance arrangements and decision-making somehow dysfunctional. After favouring a type of presidential system over a parliamentary one, the same policy-makers are now suggesting that eliminating the president and establishing a parliamentary system would solve this problem. Here, executive power, in fact, would entirely rely in the hands of the leader and the legislative function would be in the only hands of the parliament. This proposal is supported by Rouhani. It is likely that Rouhani thinks of himself as the next Leader, considering that the incumbent one is old and, according to rumours, seriously ill. The proposal is backed by Khamenei too, who sees only benefits for his position, should the presidency be eliminated. The proposal would also have the benefit of eliminating potentially de-stabilising moments in the politics of the Islamic Republic, such as presidential elections. These elections mobilise Iranian society, empowers it and therefore create opportunities for major disruptions and protests, such as the 2009 “green movement”.

Rouhani’s challenges

Rouhani will need to square a circle, starting with Iran’s foreign policy. US aversion toward Iran (confirmed during Trump’s state visit to Saudi Arabia on May 20th) is not new to the Iranian establishment, but it may now manifest itself differently in the context of the regional, Syrian crisis. As the US and Russia seem to have grown closer on the Syria file, it remains to be seen how this will impact on Iran. In particular, the consequence of this will impact on Iran’s traditional anti-Israel policy in Syria. Not only have Russia and Israel already collaborated in military activities in Syria and have a flourishing weapons trade, but US rapprochement with Russia may strengthen the Moscow-Tel Aviv axis, with an effect on the Moscow-Tehran one.

Despite unfavourable circumstances, Rouhani’s election may re-unite the conservative front. This could happen if Rouhani’s rent distribution fails or if Rouhani’s international policies create major discontent. The question of foreign investments is crucial here. Iran is still a long way from being able to significantly increase the quantity of foreign investments because of a number of factors, among which is the fact that Iran has been under sanctions for decades and has therefore developed a quasi self-sufficient financial system. However, should FDI significantly increase and should Rouhani’s administration fail to distribute rents efficiently, Rouhani may face a significant challenge from powerful sectors of the establishment. Khamenei has made no mystery of the discontent that is mounting, and has invited Rouhani to look for investment within the borders of Iran.

This may jeopardise not only Iran’s international economic policies, but also Iran’s foreign policy. Should discontent with the nuclear deal reach higher levels, it may become difficult for Rouhani’s administration to advance the deal with hostile governments, such as Trump’s, in a consistent and credible way.

Rouhani may also enrage the part of his electorate that backed his candidacy not only to avoid a four-year term of socially conservative policies and tension in the realm of international politics, but also to advance political and civil rights, to free the political prisoners of the “green movement” and to improve the rights of workers. This is not a small part of Rouhani’s electorate. During Rouhani’s first term, respect for human rights did not improve. The nuclear deal and Iran’s integration in the free market economy came at the cost of stabilising the country, namely repressing all potential sources of instability. The further weakening of workers’ rights and the silence on the abuses of the judicial system and the security forces on individuals critical of the regime, have been a characteristic of Rouhani’s mandate. The images and videos coming from Iran of the people who retook to the streets upon the electoral result chanting slogans demanding freedom and justice, suggest that this may turn into a serious challenge – should the government fail to address demands for rights and social justice.

Paola Rivetti – The Politics of Iran’s Parliamentary Election

This is guest post by Paola Rivetti, Lecturer in Politics in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

On February 26th, Iranians went to polls to elect the tenth consultative assembly or Majles. As in several constituencies the candidates failed to obtain at least 25% of the votes, a second electoral round took place on April 29th. The Majles exerts legislative power in Iran, but its legislative functions are supervised by the Guardians’ Council, which, if any of the laws approved by the parliament is considered to be not Islamic enough, sends it back to the assembly for revision. Although its power is limited by the Guardians, the parliament has a crucial political role as it can facilitate the government or significantly reduce its executive power by impeaching ministers or blocking governmental proposed laws and policies. As Rouhani administration’s achievement in reaching a nuclear deal has been controversial in the country, with some political factions celebrating the deal while others fiercely criticised it as a bad deal, the latest parliamentary elections have a crucial role in revealing the people’s and political elite’s feelings about the direction that the Islamic Republic has been taking in the past few years. Despite the overall electoral result seems to confirm a landslide victory for Rouhani’s supporters, a closer look may reveal a slightly different reality.

The final composition of the current Majles, which contains 290 seats and will start its mandate on May 28th, is as follows. The List of Hope, which is supportive of Rouhani’s administration, obtained 121 seats. The Great Coalition, which reunites the conservative forces, obtained 83 seats. The People’s Voice Coalition, which is headed by Ali Motahari and is composed of moderate conservatives, namely those who have been very critical of other conservatives during Ahmadinejad’s government and the latest Majles but do not support Rouhani’s government, obtained 11 seats. Finally, independents got 65 seats. The remaining seats are divided between the representatives of the religious minorities and the candidates who were supported by both the List of Hope and the Great conservative Coalition. There also is a relevant gender aspect to this electoral result, as 17 women have been elected as MPs (the highest number ever) and they all are supportive of the government. The youngest is Seyedeh Fatemeh Hosseini, who campaigned denouncing female unemployment. As reported by Narges Bajoghli, Hosseini also spoke against the securitisation of education policies and university campuses since 2009, and focused much of her electoral promises on getting better employment conditions for the younger generation.

Despite several observers reporting an explosion of joy and relief amongst Iranians when the nuclear deal was reached last July, data from the parliamentary elections are less clear in suggesting a widespread support for the government. This is particularly relevant, as Rouhani’s administration and the future Majles will need to take positions, formulate or halt policies on the crucial issues that (will) follow the lifting of economic sanctions.

As argued by Arang Keshavarzian, the 2015 nuclear deal can be considered as a new social pact between the population and the regime. After the revolution, the process of legitimacy-seeking on the part of the newly established regime revolved very much around the instrumental legalisation of economic situations that were previously considered to be unlawful. Later, the war against Iraq further strengthened the regime and its legitimacy. The 2015 nuclear deal can be considered as a re-assertion of that old social pact, through which the regime confirms its capability of providing for the people.

However, despite the fact that candidates linked to the list supporting Rouhani’s administration won the majority of the seats in the parliament, Rouhani’s opponents also received significant support. In particular, this is true for independent candidates who will play a fundamental role in directing the government’s policies in the future. As noted by Ali Vaez and Fulvio Scaglione, the second electoral turn that took place in April has confirmed their political relevance. Ali Vaez points out that, although this is not a new phenomenon, independent MPs’ behaviour is difficult to predict. Independents could form their own parliamentary group, align with the two main blocs (the List of Hope and the Great conservative Coalition) heating up the confrontation over policies, or they could vote with no predictable patterns making the policy-making process more difficult for the government. According to Vaez, if such situation had to take place, most probably independent MPs would throw their weight behind the pro-Rouhani moderates/reformists on economic policies while siding with the anti-Rouhani conservatives on socio-political matters.

This prediction is strengthened by the fact that the ‘new social pact’ symbolised by the nuclear deal has received fierce criticism on the part of several political factions and personalities, who accused Rouhani and his administration of ‘selling out’ Iran and his nuclear programme in exchange for very little advantage. In particular, while economic benefit will pay off only in the future, the newly-elected Majles will be called on to vote on the economic direction of the next economic plans and budget laws elaborated by the government. While Rouhani’s administration favours the integration of Iran in the neo-liberal global market, the conservative are more cautious as they fear for the loss of the economic benefits that domestic actors (such as the pasdaran and the bonyads) have been able to enjoy thanks to partial economic isolation, as well as the penetration of anti-revolutionary influence from abroad. It follows that it can be expected that the debate around the next budget law will be very heated. Likewise, all issues linked to the 2015 nuclear deal will also be at the centre of a lively debate. In fact, the 2015 deal also poses limitations on the possession of some weapons, such as missiles, that military forces, whether the regular army or the pasdaran, can enjoy. It follows that all issues linked to military expenses will be at the core of contentious debates, adding to already extant contention around Rouhani’s preference for the regular army to the pasdaran.

Despite having a reasonably sympathetic Majles on his side reflecting a new, neo-liberal and pragmatic hegemony being established in Iran, Rouhani and his government may still face significant opposition. Much of the outcome of such a process will depend on the government’s ability to deliver the economic benefits promised by the deal, and to distribute them equally and without creating further discontent within both the elite and the population.

Armenia and post-sanctions Iran. Opportunities and constraints

The beginning of 2016 will be probably remembered for the lifting of international sanctions on Iran. This event has changed long-consolidated equilibria not only in the Middle East but also in the South Caucasian region. While oil-rich Azerbaijan has good reasons to fear the return of Teheran on the global energy market, apparently Armenia has only to gain from that. Even if the two bordering (and internationally isolated) countries have always somehow interacted, Yerevan knew that too much enthusiasm in this regard would have not only enraged the Russians, but also severely compromised its relations with the western word.  Departing from that, the recent international rehabilitation of Iran provides an interesting opportunity to Armenia, allowing it to have a normal relationship with another bordering country (in addition to Georgia). Currently, talks between the two countries are ongoing. Among other things, the possibility of Iranian gas transit through Armenia is being discussed. In spite of all these potential gains, the Armenian presidential office is remarkably silent on the issue. Remarkably President Sarkisian, who at the beginning of March found the time to congratulate the “Young land defender members”, did not make any public declarations about future forms of cooperation with Iran. Similarly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has actively worked to make talks happen, has not advertised these efforts loudly. This low profile can be put down to the fear of enraging Russia. However, even if this factor is absolutely crucial, it would be incorrect to explain the whole dynamic in light of the interaction with the Kremlin. Conversely, a deeper understanding can be gained first by looking at the relation of Yerevan with the West and second by looking at the domestic dimension.

Further cooperation with Iran would undoubtedly benefit Armenia. First, it would be a golden opportunity for Yerevan to break its “dual dependency” on Russia, as energy provider, and on Georgia, as a main transit route.  As result of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan have been closed. This has led to a pattern of asymmetric relations with Russia. Second, better relations with Iran would indirectly advantage Armenia vis-à-vis Azerbaijan, which in turn has been experiencing some lingering tensions with the Shi’ite giant.  More specifically, even if both Baku and Teheran are Shi’ite energy-rich countries, cooperation is hampered not only by different ideas about the role of religion in public, life but also by the presence of a large Azeri minority (around 20 million people) in Iran. In spite of that, they have found some understanding, as exemplified by their decision to complete a railway link by the end of 2016. However, this project does not mean that Mr Rohani has ruled out the Armenian option. Remarkably, in February Armenian public TV announced that Iranian specialists would soon visit the country and assess the feasibility of a railway connection. In brief Armenia, over-dependent on Russia and structurally isolated from the rest of the region, seems on the paper a less-attractive partner than Azerbaijan. However, the tensions between Teheran and Baku may work in favour of Yerevan by promoting its inclusion in Iran’s long-term plans.

Despite all the aforementioned benefits, Iranian-Armenian cooperation is not obstacle-free. First, the Armenian potential for international actions is severely restricted by its pervasive ties with Russia. Looking specifically at energy and economic factors, two elements emerge: the role of Gazprom and the membership in the Eurasian Union. First, the Russian state-owned Gazprom gas company is in control of the whole Armenian gas market. More precisely in 2014 Gazprom, which was already the majority stakeholder in the Armenian gas company, bought the remaining shares and become its sole owner[1]. Additionally, in January 2015 Armenia joined the Russian-led Eurasian Union. Due to its membership, Yerevan is barred from setting its own custom duties and, consequently, restraints are placed on its free-trade policy. All these elements are indicative not only of the Kremlin’s influence over Armenian external relations but also its interest in keeping the “smaller brother” firmly in its orbit.

As already hinted, understanding the Russian factor is necessary but not sufficient to explain the Armenian-Iranian relationship. Remarkably, the willingness to keep good ties with the United States and the European Union is another important factor in the equation. When sanctions were in place there was a tacit understanding that the West, first and foremost the US, would not have tolerated blatant violations of the international embargo. Henceforth, interactions with Teheran had to been qualitatively discreet and quantitatively limited. Even if the lifting of the sanction regimes changes this state of things, the situation is still too fluid to allow excessive public expressions of enthusiasm. The same applies to Brussels. In a recent interview the EU representative for external affairs, Federica Mogherini, when asked if Yerevan could act as the “new Hong-Kong” and connect the EU to Iran, answered that Brussels, fully aware of the potential benefits, is closely observing the situation[2]. In a nutshell, given the “in-progress” nature of this geo-political shift, Armenia seems to consider it prudent to interact discretely with Teheran rather than to voice premature enthusiasm.

The final constraint to the enhancement of the Iranian vector has domestic rather than international origins. From a series of expert interviews in summer 2015, some concerns about making deals with Iran[3] emerged. Generally speaking, the Iranians were described as difficult partners to come to terms with. This view is not restricted only to the indigenous cultural elite, but is also shared by the population at large. Remarkably, from a Caucasus Barometer survey it emerges that only 52% of Armenians approve of doing business with Iranians[4]. This approval rating is significantly lower than the case of doing business with Russians, Americans, Europeans and Georgians. This analysis of grassroots perceptions suggests that deals with Iran, even if objectively convenient, may encounter a lukewarm domestic reaction. That might explain why Armenian political actors, first and foremost the president, are not eager to advertise the recent developments with Iran too much. In sum, while international considerations are important for understanding Armenia’s cautious approach to Iran, domestic implications should be further investigated.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825


[1] Even before, the contractual strength of Russia over Armenia successfully prevented any real energy diversification.

[2] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit (2016), “EU foreign policy chief interviewed on relations with Armenia”, February 29 (Retried through LexisNexis).

[3] All conducted by the author in Yerevan, in English, as part of the fieldwork related to her PHD thesis.

[4]  46% disapprove and 2% do not know.

Iran – Former vice-president Baghaei arrested

In this photo taken on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010, then Vice President Hamid Baghaei, second right, and then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visit the National Museum in Tehran, Iran. Iranian authorities on Monday, June 8, 2015, arrested Baghaei, who served under Ahmadinejad, in the second such detention of a senior official from the hard-line former leader’s administration, the official IRNA news agency reported. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

On June 8th, the former vice-president in charge of executive affairs, Hamid Baghaei, was detained for questioning on undisclosed charges, but it is believed that he is suspected to be linked to an embezzlement scandal the Iranian judiciary system has been investigating since last year. This is part of a nation-wide effort to punish and prevent money laundering and corruption promoted by Hassan Rouhani’s government. Since when he was elected as president in June 2013, Rouhani has been one of the staunchest critics of the previous administration, led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), accused of facilitating and being involved in a number of corruption scandals.

Judiciary spokesperson, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ajai, declared to Fars News Agency that ‘former vice-president Hamid Baghaei had a charge sheet issued against him by the judiciary and the prosecutor summoned him today for questioning’, but no further detail was added. Baghaei’s arrest is the second during this year. In fact, in January the former vice-president Mohammad Reza Rahimi was condemned to 5-year imprisonment and to pay a fine of nearly 10 billion rials, corresponding to 300,000 Euro, in connection with money laundering and an embezzlement scheme worth billions of dollars. Although Mohseni-Ajai did not specify the charges against Baghaei, it is believed that the two arrests are linked, therefore outlining a broader scenario where the very final objective might be the one of putting the former president Ahmadinejad under pressure.

Despite facing fierce opposition from the Supreme Leader, the current administration, the parliament and the security apparatus, Ahmadinejad seems to be willing to come back on the national political scene. Former vice-president Rahimi, a friend to Ahmadinejad, apparently wrote a letter to him after his arrest. The letter was later leaked and it linked Ahmadinejad to the corruption scandal. In May 2014, Iran executed billionaire businessman Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, accused of being at the heart of a state bank scam worth 2.6 billion dollars that started in 2007. Although Ahmadinejad denies any involvement, many believe that during his administration corruption was rife throughout those that controlled the country’s economy. Khosravi’s case was the largest fraud case since the 1979 Revolution.

As vice president, Rahimi faced allegations that he was the head of the ‘Fatemi Street Ring’, a group of government appointees and associates that during Ahmadinejad’s governments engaged in a number of embezzlements and bribe takings. Journalists and MPs have accused Rahimi of blackmailing the board of the National State Insurance Company with reports on the company engaging in financial impropriety, thus forcing the directors to sign off millions of dollars into accounts Rahimi controlled. Because Rahimi was appointed as vice president after Ahmadinejad got re-elected as president in 2009, it is speculated that he had a crucial role in help securing funding to sustain the president’s ascent.

On Sunday, president Hassan Rouhani called for the establishment of a ‘completely secure banking system’ to prevent money laundering as part of his administration’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign. Rouhani also stated that Parliament ‘is expected to speed up passing the money laundering bill.’ Rouhani held a cabinet session on June 7 to promote government transparency, stating that ‘A completely secure banking system for official and legal activities …[that] is extremely insecure for illegal activities must be established so that no one can abuse the banking system for money laundering’. The president urged officials to utilize legal measures to strengthen financial transparency and said that the ‘government and judiciary have to cooperate in this regard and the Parliament is also expected to speed up passing the money laundering bill.’

Currently, in Iran all top political figures are supporting efforts for increasing transparency, communicating to the private sector that the new government is cleaning up the scene to attract more genuinely private investments. Gholam Hossein Shafei, president of the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Mining, has presented his road map for fighting corruption. His guidelines include: ‘political and structural reforms; serious reforms in management concepts; genuine privatization; growing role for nongovernmental organizations and civil society; growing space for independent media to supervise business and government activities; and the promotion of codes of conduct in the private and public sectors.’

The Supreme Leader seems to have given free hand to Rouhani’s efforts, considering that he effectively control Iran’s judiciary system. He is believed to have played a crucial role in making Rahimi’s arrest to happen, and it is likely that he had a similar relevance also in Baghaei’s current detention. It is no coincidence, in fact, he repeatedly called for transparency. Iran is indeed in the middle of a 20-year plan to decentralise and privatise its economy. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly warned officials against using the transition program as a chance to enrich themselves.

Siavush Randjbar-Daemi – The Presidency in the Islamic Republic of Iran

This is guest post by Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, Lecturer in Iranian History at the University of Manchester

Siavush Randjbar-Daemi

Since its inception during the turbulent constitution-writing process of 1979, the presidential institution has been one of the pivotal elements of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s congested state structure. Initially designed along the lines of the French Fifth Republic model, the Iranian implementation eventually became the only non-ceremonial presidency in the world which was not bestowed with the title of highest authority of the land, inferior as it has formally become to the Supreme Leadership position. Nevertheless, the presidency has retained an important and essential role throughout the Islamic Republic’s existence. Presidential elections have, since 1980, featured as key junctions in the relationship between state and society and have featured as important litmus tests for assessing the popularity of the various inner-regime factions and as a springboard for comebacks after a period on the fringes of political life. In lay and academic parlance alike, the current Iranian state system’s political history is periodised according to the various presidents’ mandates. As the most prominent figure who engages with the domestic and foreign media and travels abroad, the president is also a visible and much-scrutinised figure and is at times persistently cast under the spotlight of world media, as was the case with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad between 2005 and 2013.

Ever since the election of the first president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, in January 1980, successive heads of the executive branch have had to come to terms with a continuous and recurrent quest to uphold their institutional authority and seek to augment their influence within their branch of reference and beyond. Bani-Sadr’s attempts to exercise control over the cabinet were hampered by the vague and unprecedented constitutional prescriptions which governed the relationship between the prime minister and the president, and better the latter and unique figures such as the Supreme Leader. As Bani-Sadr’s confrontation with the clerical supporters of the founding father, Ayatollah Khomeini, came to a head in the summer of 1981, the Parliament hurriedly passed several bills stripping the president of important powers, such as that of nominating top economic officials. When he finally assumed office following Bani-Sadr’s impeachment in June 1981 and a period of instability which followed, the first president to conclude a full term in office, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, found himself in an institution whose authority had been eroded by the previous struggle and by the rising fortunes of the ambitious prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. During his re-election campaign in 1985, Khamenei complained bitterly about his lack of authority and pledged to shore up the powers of his institution soon after re-election. Similarly to Bani-Sadr, he frequently quoted article 113 of the constitution, which stated that the president was the highest authority of the land after the Supreme Leader and broadly attributed to the same the role of supervising the correct implementation of the constitution.

By 1989, the repeated crises caused by the growing factional divide and the unwillingness of both Mousavi and Khamenei to backtrack compelled Khomeini to single out “concentration of leadership” within the executive branch as a main goal of the 20-man council for the revision of the constitution he set up a few weeks before his death in 1989.

After the passing away of the irreplaceable founding father, the Council progressively came to be supportive of the view espoused by the main arbiter of the time, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Khamenei, who pressed for a more powerful president on the grounds that ceremonial ones were a “waste of resources”. Mousavi, who unsuccessfully campaigned to retain the prime ministership on the grounds that the lack of parliamentary scrutiny over the president could be conducive to the emergence of “dictatorship” was defeated and forced into the political wilderness for two decades. The new president now took over the powers of the prime minister and became the sole titular of the executive branch, being therefore endowed with considerable political clout at the dawn of post-Khomeini Iran.

Despite his often fractious ties with the Parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani succeeded in exercising his authority over the executive branch during his tenure in office (1989-1997).

The elections of 1997 suddenly revealed the importance assigned by society to the presidency, as a very high turnout delivered a stunning victory for Mohammad Khatami, a mild-mannered cleric who was the spearhead for a movement, later dubbed Eslahat, which sought to bring the left-leaning factions back from the fringes of political life, where they were confined since 1992. After being repeatedly hemmed in by both his supporters’ ambitions and the conservative opposition’s resolve to stymie the drive towards Eslahat, Khatami sought to redress the lack of power of the presidency in the last two years of his second mandate (2003-2005) by creating a body tasked with assisting him in the implementation of article 113 and accruing to himself the right to reprimand other institutions which deemed to be in contravention with the constitution. The move floundered, however, as Khatami, a somewhat idealist figure with little penchant for subverting the state order, backed down when the Guardian Council deemed his initiative illegal.

The rise to power of the arch-radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad initially coincided with the termination of all initiatives linked to the Eslahat period, such as Khatami’s body for the upholding of article 113. As he fell pray, after his highly controversial 2009 re-election, to the same combination of factional infighting and encroachments on his institutional authority that befell on his predecessors, Ahmadinejad quixotically sought to revive Khatami’s body, but was once again rebuffed by the Guardian Council. Mindful of these unsuccessful initiatives, the current president, Hassan Rowhani – who has risen to power through a lively and unexpected electoral process in 2013 that was quickly dubbed as a “new 1997” by his supporters – has hitherto steered clear of making direct recourse to article 113 but has sought instead to seek new methods for fostering his own quest for authority and blunting political opposition to himself, such as that of seeking a referendum on his administration’s main policy decisions, such as the nuclear negotiations with the West. While such instruments are entirely out of the prerogatives of the president, Rowhani’s eagerness to explore such avenues indicates his attempt to find new solutions to a recurring challenge faced by successive Iranian presidents since 1980: that of stamping their authority and their mandate in a political system which is still in a largely experimental phase and in which the boundaries of the powers and duties of each institution have yet to find a durable and final shape.

Siavush Randjbar-Daemi joined Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Manchester in September 2012 and is currently Lecturer in Iranian History. His PhD thesis, which studies the institution of the presidency in the Islamic Republic of Iran, has been completed under the supervision of Professor Vanessa Martin at Royal Holloway, University of London. Prior to coming to Manchester, Siavush has taught Middle Eastern and Iranian history at Royal Holloway and at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Starting from September 2015, he will offer the ony specialist course on the Iranian Revolution of 1979 in the UK.

Iran – Conservative Parliament rejects President-nominated Minister of Science


Yesterday, October 29, the Iranian parliament has rejected the President Rouhani-nominated new Minister of Science and Education, Mahmoud Nili Ahmadabadi, after Reza Faraji-Dana was removed from the same post by the parliament in August.

This is the latest chapter in an on-going battle between the majority conservative factions in parliament and the moderate president Hassan Rouhani. The stakes on high because the deadline for the definitive nuclear deal with the 5 + 1 is approaching and Iranian conservatives do not seem ready to accept that it will be their moderate, reformist enemy who will be remembered as the President who put an end to sanctions and to the decades-long cold war against the United States.

The latest blow to Rouhani came yesterday morning when after almost three hours of debate Nili-Ahmadabadi lost the investiture vote with 160 votes against his nomination and 79 in favour. Nili-Ahmadabadi was nominated by Rouhani last month and was introduced to parliament on October 22. The conservative opponents of Rouhani have accused him of proposing candidates who are friendly to the West or who back ‘sedition’ against the ruling establishment, reviving anti-Green Movement rhetoric.

During the discussion in parliament, MPs questioned Nili-Ahmadabadi over his stance in 2009 during the mass protests against the re-election of President Ahmadinejad. He admitted that he did sign a letter with fellow academics condemning attacks on student protesters inside university campuses. However, he said that ‘none of my colleagues nor I have crossed the red lines set by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. You will not find a single one of us who overstepped those limits’ and added that ‘all my colleagues believe in the system (of the Islamic republic) and acted within the framework of it’.

AFP reports a Western diplomat in Tehran saying that the post of science minister is so sensitive because Iranian universities were ‘very politically active and difficult to manage.’ The same source also reports the declaration of Ahmad Shirazi, a university professor, who criticised the use of the word ‘sedition’ by conservative and principalist MPs. ‘This question of sedition has become a stick by which fundamentalists and conservatives impose their will,’ he declared. Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a conservative MP, declared that the responsibility for the current stalemate falls on the shoulders of the government, which is unable to find a suitable candidate who needs to be able and willing to control university campuses and prevent disorders.

For his part, president Rouhani reacted to the accusations of the MPs by recalling that universities need a peaceful atmosphere to be able to promote themselves as centres of science and research. He said that the ministry has a specific importance, adding ‘we want universities to be aware of political issues but not borrow their slogans from politicians.’

Iran – Intraelite conflicts keep Rouhani’s government in check


The moderate president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has again come under attack from conservative political groups, in stark contrast to the beginning of his mandate more than one year ago. Conflicting positions over nuclear negotiations with the West, over the Internet-freedom and, more recently, the impeachment of Reza Faraji-Dana, Rouhani’s reformist Minister of Science, Research and Technology, seem to signal that Rouhani’s conservative rivals are gaining momentum.

Within the institutional system of the Islamic Republic, the President is a crucial office, but it is the Supreme Leader, namely Ali Khamenei, who enjoys massive power and extensive control over the policy-making process and pivotal institutions, such as the judiciary system, the media, security forces and, notably, the Sepah-e Pasdaran or Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) (all potential proxies to deploy in the Leader vs President opposition). Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic indeed, successive oppositions between these two offices have brought about numerous institutional crisis and stalemates, which experts have operationalised into the notions of ‘suspended equilibrium’ and ‘dual sovereignty.’

Currently, the Supreme Leader can not only count on his constitutional extensive power, but also on the conservative-led majority in the Parliament, which is very vocal in its opposition to Rouhani’s policies inspired by diplomatic and cultural easiness.

In June and July, after conflicts between Rouhani and the IRGC Commander Major General Ali Jafari, the conservative factions attacked Rouhani’s government-led diplomatic efforts in the context of the nuclear negotiations, with the purpose of condemning Rouhani’s rapprochement with the West, which they consider as dangerous for the revolutionary nature of the Islamic Republic. ‘Negotiations on behalf of the system of the Islamic Republic must follow the path of Islamic ideals,’ declared Karimi-Ghadoosi, an hardline MP, while accusing the incumbent Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, of ‘selling out Iranian interests.’ Fears of ‘cultural invasion’ on the part of the West, should conflicts with the US and the EU be resolved, seem to be the most pressing concern for conservatives, in particular after the boosting of regional turmoil during the summer which have secured Iran’s safety in the region. According to Payam Mohseni indeed, conservatives in Iran are ‘very confident about their rising power and regional standing, and there was no sense of urgency or need to compromise and resolve the nuclear standoff.  They believed to have gained much from the regional turmoil in Syria and recently in Iraq with the rise of ISIS.  Most elites also discussed the sanctions as an opportunity and divine gift for economic development and self-sufficiency – a threat that could be handled and overcome. The main difference between moderates and hardliners was that the latter were more skeptical of the utility of nuclear negotiations and the benefit of cooperating with the United States on regional matters.’

In addition to the nuclear program, conflicts between the moderates and the conservatives have also emerged over cultural freedom. A well-known case is the one of the Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, who declared that Iranian authorities should introduce measures that would prevent access to the ‘negative, un-Islamic features’ of high-speed Internet and 3G services, whose licenses have just been awarded to three mobile broadband companies, in order to prevent the spread of corruption. Rouhani responded by urging clerics not to oppose the Internet and not to ‘cut off’ Iran from the rest of the world. Noting that the internet is vital to the younger generation, he said: ‘If we do not move towards the new generation of mobile today and resist it, we will have to do it tomorrow. If not, the day after tomorrow.’ This is just the last chapter of an older struggle between the conservative establishment and the government over Internet freedom.

Along with conflicts over Internet freedom and nuclear negotiations, the President is also facing the conservative-led Parliament’s attacks over his government. After conflicts over cabinet appointments, on August 20th the Parliament successfully impeached the Minister of Science, Research and Technology Faraji-Dana. With this move, the most conservative elements in Parliament have had a significant political impact. Faraji-Dana was particularly popular among academics thanks to his efforts for de-securitising and revitalising Iran’s universities, in accord with Rouhani’s stance on academic freedom. Moreover, Faraji-Dana brought back to universities the so-called ‘starred’ students and professors, namely those who were expelled because of their political views expressed during and after the highly-contested 2009 presidential election. The Minister’s impeachment was criticised by relevant political personalities backing Rouhani’s administration. The factional conflict is however ongoing as the first vice-president declared that the government’s investigation over the handling of student scholarships will continue despite the Minister’s impeachment, in a bid of unveiling the politically motivated management of grants in favour of conservative students and to the detriment of reformist ones during Ahmadinejad’s mandates.

Despite the relevance of the ongoing struggle between the moderate administration and the conservative establishment, this is ‘politics as usual’ in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, neither impeachments of moderate ministers nor attacks on moderate presidents are breaking-news in the country. Not only is the conflict between moderate reformists and conservative not a novelty, but also the fact those factional groups are proxies of the President and the Supreme Leader does not constitute any surprise. Indeed the contraposition between Khamenei and Rouhani mirrors previous President vs Leader contrappositions, and therefore is in continuity with the political and historical trajectory since 1979.

Iran – President Rouhani’s struggle against the conservatives


The President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has recently come under attack from conservative political groups for his moderate style in both cultural politics and nuclear negotiations. The president has however fiercely reacted to such attacks, increasing the level of intra-elite conflict. Rouhani became president of Iran in June 2013, when he was elected thanks to a platform of moderation in international politics and limited domestic reforms. He has been regarded as able to win the support from both conservatives, who dominated Iran’s politics in the last decade, and reformists who, after the 2009 crisis, have been sidelined. As the negotiation over the nuclear issue unfolds, however, fractures and conflicts are coming to the surface.

After the initial and general support the President enjoyed, the government started to be criticised in April, when hardliners voiced ‘deep concern’ that Rouhani may be willing to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions. At the beginning of May, this ‘concern’ gave rise to a broader initiative organised by conservative members of the Parliament and other prominent conservative political figures, who discussed together in a conference titled ‘We are worried’ the reasons why they believe Iran signed a bad deal. The president reacted to these attacks by ironically suggesting that conservatives might be in favor of the continuation of sanctions. Another attack on Rouhani took place during those days, when a documentary about his life was released. The documentary, according to commentators, contained some controversial information and was believed to be aimed at harming Rouhani’s credibility. Produced by a media company believed to operate under the IRGC, which is at odds with Rouhani over economic and cultural policies, the documentary highlighted once again the bitter conflicts that characterise Iranian domestic politics. More recently, further discord was caused by a declaration made by Rouhani during a public speech, when he stated that force should not be used to promote religion or to ‘take people to heaven.’ Conservatives and hardliners responded by accusing the President of overlooking religious values and, thus, the very nature of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani’s declaration followed two events that attracted international attention, namely the arrest of the director and performers of a video posted to YouTube featuring the song ‘Happy’ and criticism of the actress Leila Khatami, who publicly kissed the president of the Cannes Festival. Rouhani questioned the arrests and the riticism against Khatami, but his most forceful reaction was during a speech delivered on May 31st when he mocked his critics and declared that ‘a religious government is a very good thing, but a governmental religion, I don’t know.’

As the atmosphere in Iran is heating up, yesterday a video was leaked online, where the commander of the IRCG said that the return of the reformists during the 2009 presidential elections was a ‘red line’ for the organisation. Many believe this to be the evidence that electoral fraud took place in 2009. Its release will have relevant consequences for the troubled relationship between the government and its conservative counterparts, and might trigger the Supreme Leader, who so far has maintained a relatively lower profile, to enter the disputes.

Iran – Domestic reactions to the nuclear deal to boost presidential power?

The president of the Islamic Republic, Hassan Rouhani, returned to Tehran with an interim nuclear deal, sealed by an agreement with some of Iran’s historic enemies. The deal, which had been reached in Geneva on the 24th November, was signed by Iran, the United States, France, Germany, Great Britain, China and Russia. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, supported the negotiating team in Geneva, and, therefore, domestic forces were also  incredibly supportive. Aside from the debate about the legacy of the Green Movement in Rouhani’s cabinet, bitter factional competition and conflict over foreign policy, which characterised both the conservative Ahmadinejad and the reformist Khatami’s presidential terms, seems to be a memory of the past.

The Geneva deal, however, is a provisional six months agreement with various measures that have to be implemented: the curbing of the nuclear activity on the part of Tehran, a partial relief of trade and financial sanctions on the part of the Western governments and, of course, the Western recognition of the Iranian right to enrich uranium, probably the most important outcome of the whole process. The deal however is not a definitive one, and both parties can step back from it. In particular, it entails a significant reduction of Iran’s nuclear activities, an aspect that might trigger major criticism of the President, thus weakening his position. In fact, observers were waiting for hardliner and conservative reactions to the deal in order to measure the strength of the presidential office.

Thus it was not much of a surprise that the deal and Rouhani’s government was criticised by the hardline journalist Hossein Shariatmadari, who emphasised the limited lifting of sanctions by the West and denounced the strict limitation of enrichment activities Iran has to repect in return. However, a broader analysis of reactions on the part of conservative politicians shows that the support for the deal is in place and crosses the ideological line dividing radical hardline, conservative and pragmatist factions.

The Supreme Leader has the upper hand in foreign policy, and support for Rouhani’s administration is heavily influenced by the support that Khamenei himself gave to negotiations. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that such few critical voices have been raised, and this might signal an increase in the relevance of the executive, which may be helped by the harmony that so far is characterising the relationship between the Supreme Leader and the President.

Iran – President under pressure over cabinet appointments

Hasan Rouhani

The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is having a hard time appointing his cabinet. On November 6th, 150 members of the Parliament (Majles) asked him to monitor the actions and decisions undertaken by Reza Faraji Dana, the Minister of Science, Research and Technology. The move against Faraji Dana is motivated by concerns over two of his appointees, the senior advisor Jafar Tofiqi and the deputy minister Mili Monfared, that Parliament members suspect of being involved in the 2009 electoral protests. This request follows the Parliament’s veto on October 27th of one of three proposed ministers, Reza Salehi Amiri, following the allegation that he was connected to some of the members of the 2009 Green Movement.

Since his election as President of the Republic last June, Hassan Rouhani has been struggling to form the cabinet, which needs to obtain a vote of confidence on the part of the Parliament to become operative. The popularly elected president indeed serves as Prime Minister too (the office was suppressed by the 1989 Constitutional reform), and therefore has the duty to nominate the ministers and defend his choice in front of the Parliament.

Despite being highly supportive of the President on issues related to nuclear negotiations and foreign policy, the Parliament is closely watching Rouhani’s moves when it comes to culture, education and freedom of speech. In particular, the Ministry of Science is a crucial position for all policies related to higher education. The Minister not only appoints the Chancellors of Iranian universities all over the country, he also has a significant influence when it comes to deciding university curricula and, crucially, the weight of humanities in them. This is a particularly sensitive policy area in Iran, and conflicts over higher education characterised for president Ahmadinejad’s presidential terms, for he was accused of carrying out a ‘cultural revolution’ and a ‘forced Islamization’ of campuses, social sciences and the humanities, well before and after the electoral crisis in 2009. In stark contrast to such an attitude, Rouhani recently called for ‘de-securitising’ higher education, thus increasing the concerns of the Parliament whose majority is composed of conservative groups and ‘hard-liners’. Rouhani’s moderate political orientation and his closeness to some of the political personalities connected to the Green Movement (nicknamed ‘the sedition’ by hard-liners and conservatives) have indeed been debated and, to some extent, criticised by the Parliament. The Assembly has often ‘warned’ the President not to appoint ‘seditionists’ as Ministers, and the recent conflict over Faraji Dana is a further evidence of the relevance of this debate in the country.

Although the Parliament is fully aligned with the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s support for Rouhani in foreign policy, this might not be the case for domestic and cultural policies, as the members of the legislative assembly have warned Rouhani not to disrupt the trust among the state’s bodies with inappropriate appointments.