Dr. Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Associate Editor of the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.
Rouhani’s presence in the corridors of state power for three decades has served him well. He knows on which issues he might press without hazardous repercussions, and which ones yield little by way of tangible dividends. To that end, the Rouhani administration has adopted the slogan of e‘tedal, or moderation. The term tondrow (radical), meanwhile, is applied derisively to describe the government’s critics, who now find themselves in a minority and out of step with the country’s prevailing mood.
Rouhani's allies among the Executives of Reconstruction Party, their sympathizers, and the E‘tedal faction, which formed in the Majlis following Rouhani’s victory, are now making a concerted effort to capture the middle ground and persuade as large a swath of the political elite as possible to support the government’s chosen path. So far, the focus on the nuclear issue, sanctions relief, and the poor shape of the economy has managed to secure a coalition between regime “centrists”—encompassing more conservative Reformists and what used to be known as the “modern right” associated with former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—and the “moderate Principalists,” among them Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani and centrist elements within the Society of Combatant Clergy.
Undoubtedly many, if not most, voters were first and foremost preoccupied with making their daily lives more tolerable. But the reformist backing of Rouhani, embodied in former President Mohammad Khatami’s vocal support and presidential candidate Mohammad-Reza Aref’s less-than-enthused stepping aside, was crucial in galvanizing Rouhani’s electoral base of support. Despite never being associated with the Islamic left or a “reformist” organization, Rouhani did call for the rule of law and respect for people’s privacy, yet he made little real effort to ensure the execution of his government’s much feted “citizen’s rights charter.”
The reformists themselves pragmatically realize they have few alternatives, and so their support for the government is ongoing. Nevertheless, Rouhani has been careful not to press on the truly sensitive issues, such as the Guardian Council’s “approbatory supervision” (nezarat-e estesvabi) of the election process and the Assembly of Experts’ supervision of the Supreme Leader.
Moreover, Supreme Leader Khamenei has ignored requests to either release or put on trial the leaders of the Green Movement—Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard—after an over three year house arrest. He is also reportedly hostile toward former President Khatami for perceived disloyalty. These attitudes convey a basic unwillingness to permit Rouhani and his allies to reintegrate those who once dared to challenge (often mildly) him and the office he occupies.
Attempts are now underway to institutionalize the political marginalization of reformist figures, as a new and prospective Majlis bill on political parties illustrates. In the stated law, any individual who has either been convicted of “activities against state security” or was a member of a dissolved party will be prohibited from either joining or establishing a political party. The immediate targets of this bill appear to be two reformist organizations that the Interior Ministry barred in 2009. The first is the Islamic Iran Participation Front, whose first chairman was Khatami’s younger brother. The second is the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, a stalwart leftist group whose members include Behzad Nabavi, Feizollah Arabsorkhi, and Mostafa Tajzadeh; all three were imprisoned following the 2009 unrest and state crackdown. These considerations indicate that conservative politicians are trying to preempt the reformists from reestablishing a viable political platform that could reignite and unite their support base.
While there has been a tangible shift and loosening of the political atmosphere (particularly for “insider” forces), arrests and detentions continue. Much like conservative retrenchment after the Tehran Spring of 1997-1999, the institutionally entrenched and unaccountable conservative establishment will push back if it feels its privileges are under threat.
Should Iran reach a durable solution to the nuclear impasse—which has received cautious support from the Supreme Leader’s office—this will undoubtedly secure Rouhani’s place in history. It will likewise strengthen the president’s hand against his critics. Yet it could also mean that the office of the Supreme Leader loses much of its incentive to restrain those who have been openly belligerent toward the president and his administration’s agenda.
However, if interfactional cohesion among Rouhani's allies can be maintained in the run up to the 2016 parliamentary elections, the conservative Endurance Front and even the Principalist Faction, headed by Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, could find their political stake in the legislature precipitously decline. This may occur even as the reformists, especially the more radically inclined among their number, continue to face the threat of “legalized” political and civic marginalization by the deep state.
Overall, the so-called E‘tedalis (in a broad sense) will continue to cautiously eschew the issues they know the Supreme Leader’s office, supervisory institutions, and security forces are sensitive to. They will instead quietly concern themselves with issues that advance their vision of Iranian prosperity and have broader support within the political elite, such as strengthening the private sector and improving relations with powerful Western states. Their ultimate goal is arguably to create a Shia Singapore in the Persian Gulf. But how they will manage the almost inevitable judicial and deep state pushback is yet to be seen.