‘Death to England’ cries underline high stakes as Iran votes
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AnalysisThe 'moderates' are not opponents of the regime. They differ only in their opinion of the best way to ensure its survival

‘Death to England’ cries underline high stakes as Iran votes

Iranian conservatives leapt on a BBC Farsi report to claim outside intervention in Friday’s elections, as two camps with two very different visions for regime compete fiercely for public support

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

An Iranian woman walks past electoral posters of parliamentary election candidates on a sidewalk in downtown Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
An Iranian woman walks past electoral posters of parliamentary election candidates on a sidewalk in downtown Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had a hard time holding back on Wednesday. Concerned about the ferment in the country’s media outlets and on social media as Friday’s elections drew closer, and perhaps also worried about the hope glimmering among many that the results would bring about significant change, Khamenei stated clearly what the “desirable” direction was.

In one of his many posts on Twitter, Khamenei warned of a conspiracy of Western elements against Iran whose purpose was to influence the results of Friday’s election for parliament and the Assembly of Experts (the group of 88 Islamic theologians charged with electing and removing Iran’s supreme leader and supervising his work).

Although the 76-year-old Khamenei named no specific candidates, it was obvious that he was referring to his fear that the camp of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his ally, incumbent president Hassan Rouhani — both of whom are considered more moderate members of Iran’s governing echelon — would grow stronger.

Tensions between Iran’s conservatives and its relative moderates and reformers (if any remain after Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were removed from office in 2009) are nothing new. Still, they seem to have taken on a more personal dimension this time, added to the ideological differences between the camps.

An Iranian girl holds a poster with a portrait of President Hassan Rouhani (L), Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during celebrations in Tehran's Azadi Square (Freedom Square) to mark the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11, 2016. (AFP / ATTA KENARE)
An Iranian girl holds a poster with a portrait of President Hassan Rouhani (L), Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during celebrations in Tehran’s Azadi Square (Freedom Square) to mark the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11, 2016. (AFP / ATTA KENARE)

The conclusion of the nuclear deal between Iran and the West unquestionably bolstered the stature of the moderates, led by Rafsanjani and Rouhani, in Iranian public opinion and in the government echelons. Rouhani promised during his presidential campaign approximately two and a half years ago that he would improve Iran’s economic situation, and it appears that the lifting of the West’s sanctions on Teheran could indeed lead to such change (which, it should be emphasized, has not yet been felt). Yet Rouhani is also seen as the favorite candidate of the West, and especially of the White House, despite his pedigree as a “son of the revolution” and his devotion to its institutions.

Khamenei, who is no longer young, to put it mildly, knows that if Rouhani and Rafsanjani can increase their influence in the Majlis, or parliament, and even more so among the Assembly of Experts, they and their camp will determine the identity of his successor. The conservative Khamenei and his close associates in the Majlis, the Assembly of Experts and in the defense establishment also fear that a victory of the “moderates” would give the green light to more comprehensive social ferment, such as the kind that took place in 2009, and to the weakening of the conservative camp. While a true Arab Spring-style revolution does not seem to be on the horizon, even significant change from within could lead to a different Iran — an Iran the conservative camp is eager to prevent.

Khamenei and his people in the conservative camp are not the only ones who realize the importance of this election. Teheran seemed particularly turbulent and festive as election day approached. Posters of candidates for the Assembly of Experts and the Majlis filled the capital’s streets: on trees, notice boards, homes and everywhere else. Volunteers from both camps moved among the stopped traffic at jammed intersections, handing out fliers bearing the photos and names of the candidates. Young people and passersby who were interviewed by Western media outlets such as CNN said they hoped a victory of the moderate camp would better their economic situation.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, center, and then top nuclear negotiator (now president) Hassan Rouhani, in Tehran, March, 9, 2006. (photo credit: AP Photo)
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, center, and then top nuclear negotiator (now president) Hassan Rouhani, in Tehran, March, 9, 2006. (photo credit: AP Photo)

On the other side, supporters of the conservative camp held an emotional rally in a Tehran theater on Wednesday. The rally’s central message was participants’ opposition to a campaign that has circulated on Iranian social media entitled “No to these five,” which demands that people vote for moderates in order to bring about the removal from the Assembly of Experts of five ayatollahs who are considered leaders of Iran’s conservative camp.

The audience at the rally shouted “Death to America” and “Death to England,” and insisted that “England is trying to interfere in the elections.”

It is unclear who started the “No to these five” campaign. Spokesmen for the conservative camp say that the government of “England” — in other words, Britain — was behind it, together with opponents of the regime, in an effort to remove the conservative camp’s entire top echelon from the Assembly of Experts.

The competition in the assembly focuses on two main camps. The first is the moderate one led by Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran and the chairman of the assembly. Rafsanjani compiled a list of 16 candidates from among his close associates in an effort to strengthen his camp. President Rouhani and Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi are on that list.

The conservative camp is led by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a radical cleric who is also the secretary of the Guardian Council (which disqualified numerous “unworthy” candidates). His list includes some of Iran’s most extreme clerics, such as Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi (the prominent leader of the Steadfast Front, an extremely radical conservative group) and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the acting chairman of the Assembly of Experts, together with several other high-ranking officials.

Iran's former judiciary chief Mohammad Yazdi attends a session of the Assembly of Experts in the capital Tehran on March 10, 2015, before being appointed as the new head of the Assembly. (Photo credit: AFP/BEHROUZ MEHRI)
Iran’s former judiciary chief Mohammad Yazdi attends a session of the Assembly of Experts in the capital Tehran on March 10, 2015, before being appointed as the new head of the Assembly. (Photo credit: AFP/BEHROUZ MEHRI)

Why the allegation of “English” intervention? The BBC’s Farsi service, as well as several opponents of the regime, had reported that a victory for Rafsanjani’s list would lead to the removal of these three high-ranking conservative ayatollahs and two others — Ahmad Hatami, the leading preacher in Teheran’s mosques on Fridays, and Ahmad Alamolhoda, his counterpart in Mashhad. Five in all. These reports led to a counter-campaign claiming that the British government was attempting, through the BBC, to influence the election results, and therefore that supporters of the moderate camp were actually English agents.

While the elections for the Majlis, which has 290 delegates, are not quite as stormy, they are still important to both sides, and mainly to Rouhani. If the conservative camp grows stronger, the Majlis will try to restrict the actions of the government and its relatively moderate president. If the moderates should win, we may see more openness to the West — to a certain extent.

This may be the place to emphasize that the moderates, even those who are considered reformers in Iran, are not opponents of the regime. On the contrary. They are all part of the “revolutionary” establishment and are loyal to it. They differ only in their opinion of the best way to ensure the regime’s survival.

Iranians stand outside a meeting of Iran's main conservative parties, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, on February 23, 2016 at Motahari mosque in Tehran. (AFP / ATTA KENARE)
Iranians stand outside a meeting of Iran’s main conservative parties, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, on February 23, 2016 at Motahari mosque in Tehran. (AFP / ATTA KENARE)

These elections may clarify whether the White House’s gamble on the nuclear deal succeeded. Officials in Washington have said that the lifting of sanctions from Iran could lead to greater openness toward the West and political change within the country. The strengthening of the moderate camp at the expense of the conservative one could be the proof President Barack Obama needs to claim his controversial policy toward Iran was a good one.

Then again, a failure by the Rafsanjani-Rouhani camp would be proof that those who opposed the deal were correct: that lifting the sanctions would lead to the strengthening of the conservatives’ standing and the removal of their rivals.

The system of voting plays into the hands of those who claim that the nuclear deal will strengthen the conservative camp. It is hard to call what is happening Friday in Iran completely free elections. The Guardian Council, whose job it is to filter out candidates in these elections, disqualified thousands of candidates in recent weeks, including Hassan Khomeini, one of the prominent leaders of the “moderates” and a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the revolution. They disqualified all the women who wished to run for the Assembly of Experts. Of 12,000 candidates for the Majlis, approximately 55 percent were disqualified. Of 801 people who wished to run for the Assembly of Experts, only 166 were approved.

Who will the successor be?

Who, then, will succeed Khamenei when the time comes? Dr. Raz Zimet, an expert on Iran at Tel Aviv University and a member of the Can Think forum, notes the names of two members of the moderate conservative camp: Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judicial authority (and the brother of Ali, the head of the Majlis), and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, his predecessor in the judicial authority. The radical conservative camp also hopes to push one of its own top clerics into the supreme leader post: Mesbah-Yazdi, Abbas Vaez-Tabasi or Ahmad Hatami (the preacher from Teheran). The Revolutionary Guards, to be sure, favor the radical conservative camp.

Meanwhile, Iran is busy with other matters. Quite a few European companies are trying to invest in the country and, of course, to make a profit. But the money has not yet come. Washington’s attitude toward Teheran is cautious: while it tried to get the agreement implemented and the sanctions lifted, it is still looking carefully at Iran’s efforts to expand its involvement in the region. Iran is currently invested in building up the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and is active in Syria (of course); in Iraq, where the Iranians are leading the war of the Shiite militias from behind; in Yemen; and in Gaza and the West Bank.

Iranian ambassador to Lebanon Mohammad FatahAli promises funds for Palestinian terrorists, February 24, 2016 (Memri screenshot)
Iranian ambassador to Lebanon Mohammad FatahAli promises funds for Palestinian terrorists, February 24, 2016 (Memri screenshot)

Just this week, Iran’s ambassador to Beirut promised that his country would assist the families of Palestinian terrorists killed in the act of attacking Israelis and those whose homes are to be demolished. It is not certain whether these promises can be kept in light of the restrictions on transferring “terrorism-supporting funds.” The promise was also made by a figure who is not particularly high-ranking in Iran.

Why should that Shiite Iranian diplomat bother to make such a promise, providing an incentive to Sunni Palestinian youth to perpetrate terror attacks in which most of them may be killed? From his standpoint, if more young Sunnis are killed, also further eroding relations between Israel and the Palestinians and between the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian population, so much the better.

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