Paris-based political analyst Morteza Kazemian and Berlin-based political journalist Ehsan Mehrabi have discussed the most significant events of the past Iranian year, which ended on March 20, with Radio Farda’s Farin Asemi on the Viewpoint program this week.
The Iranian year 1396, which started on March 21, 2017, began with the presidential election in May and ended with widespread street protests in December and January.
Asemi opened the debate by asking Kazemian about the significance of the May 2017 presidential election.
Iran’s Presidential Election, a Choice Between Moderation and Extremism?
Kazemian began the discussion saying, “The election left its mark on the whole year." After the initial stage of the campaign, it turned out to be a choice between a realtive moderate, Hassan Rouhani and a hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.
“Voters had to choose between Rouhani’s reformist economic policies and relatively open-minded foreign policy, and a Raisi-led administration made up of radical elements” he said.
According to Kazemian, there were serious concerns about Raisi’s involvement in the mass executions of 1988 in Iranian prisons. At the same time, “both Rouhani and Raisi were reportedly among the candidates to succeed Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader. One man’s election as president could significantly reduce the other man’s chance of succession.”
Evaluating Rouhani’s performance so far, Kazemian said: “What Rouhani promised during his campaign and what he did later were two different things. While people expected some meaningful changes, his choices for the cabinet, and the cabinet’s output did not satisfy even his own supporters.”
Kazemian went on that in the post-JCPOA period, Rouhani failed to attract foreign investment; and President Trump’s arrival into the scene limited Rouhani’s maneuvers. More limitations were imposed on him by hardliners around Khamenei and the IRGC’s intelligence organization.” Thus, there was increasing disappointment; and support for Rouhani shrank. The dissatisfaction later manifested itself during the unrest” in December-January, Kazemian said.
Implications of Protests
Mehrabi said: “These protests and the ones against compulsory hijab were the most eye-catching events of the year. First the government and hardliners around Khamenei somehow welcomed the protests as they thought they were against the Rouhani administration and the result of economic dissatisfaction. But as protests spread, they attributed them to foreign countries and the diaspora-based opposition.”
“The Rouhani administration showed conflicting reactions. Rouhani first attacked the protests and predicted they would be sorted out quickly. But later some of his officials said protests were not limited to economic issues, and that there is serious dissatisfaction about social restrictions” and heavy-handed security measures in the country.
Mehrabi observed that “Iranian reformists first saw the protests as a kind of coup against the Rouhani administration. But the course of events later prompted them to admit the protests were legitimate.”
“However, Iran’s rulers do not appear to have taken any lesson from the events. Security forces have been reinforced to suppress future protests,” Mehrabi said.
Meanwhile, Kazemian opined that the protests were so significant that Iranian political developments could be divided into two periods before and after the unrest.
Peaceful Protests Compulsory Hijab, Paying a Price for Civil Rights
Kazemian said that peaceful protest against compulsory hijab was a key event. “The girls of Revolution Street” protested against what has been imposed on them as a social norm and paid for it by going to jail and making it known that they do not regret standing up for their human and civil rights.
According to Kazemian, one of the most important things about anti-hijab demonstrations was Khamenei’s reaction. “He tried to belittle the movement by saying that those girls were deceived or paid by foreigners, but even such a reaction added to the significance of the protest, making it one of the most important social movements in present day Iran.”
Deaths in Custody
Asked to comment on the deaths in custody during recent months, Morteza Kazemian said: “Obviously, these events have taken place as a result of terrible violence against inmates and sometimes because of extreme psychological pressures exerted on them in jail. Those who died in jail were not only those who had taken part in the January unrest. Kavous Seyed Emami, the environmental activist also fell victim to such a behavior by interrogators.
Accusations made against detainees were often outlandish. For instance, “General Hassan Firouzabadi, an adviser to Khamenei said that the environmentalists were monitoring IRGC’s missile sites and testing lizards for traces of radioactivity!” Kazemian remarked.
Tehran Mayor Resigns Under Pressure
Ehsan Mehrabi commented on the Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ali Najafi’s resignation at the end of the year, saying that “Najafi wishes to attract support from the public, Tehran City Council, President Rouhani and the reformist camp and in parliament.”
Mehrabi added: “The main pressure comes from the Judiciary and Khamenei’s close aides. They want to prevent the disclosure of financial corruption that overwhelmed Tehran Municipality under former mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.”
Ahmadinejad, A Thorn in Khamenei’s Side
Kazemian described Ahmadinejad as” one of the stars of the past year for his unprecedented criticism of the establishment, particularly the Judiciary and the IRGC Intelligence Organization and targeting Khamenei’s men without any hesitation.”
According to Kazemian, it was quite meaningful that Ahmadinejad, a member of the regime’s expediency council voiced these criticisms. “He also leveled some justifiable accusations against the conservative-led judiciary system.”
Kazemian observed, “It appears that Ahmadinejad challenged the focal point of power in Iran, which is Khamenei’s inner circle. It is understandable that Khamenei has a very hard feeling towards all this as he was Ahmadinejad’s sole supporter while everyone else in the power structure in Iran was against him.”
Summing Up, Preparation for Post-Khamenei Iran
At the end of the debate, Kazemian observed that the same crises that have paralyzed the government have also been affecting civil society, the Rouhani administration and the entire country.
He added: It was a different year full of other events such as opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi’s outspoken letter to Khamenei in which he said “Khamenei is responsible for all the problems of the country” and accused him of” rigging elections and putting opposition leaders under house arrest.”
Mehrabi said, “The year was marked by discussions about succession and life after Khamenei. Candidates for the post of Supreme Leader fiercely fought each other in an all-encompassing smear campaign.”
“Apart from that, yet another important issue in the past year was the idea of a referendum to bring about political and economic reforms. Both Rouhani and the opposition brought up the discussion, but Khamenei and his hardline supporters harshly attacked those who had put forward the idea,” Mehrabi concluded.