So, remember the whole “Happy” video mess in Iran a couple of weeks ago? Well, all the folks who were involved in shooting the video are out of custody now, but the controversy seems to have opened some festering sores in the relationship between Hassan Rouhani and Iran’s conservative religious establishment.
Rouhani has, quietly, made internet freedom and an overall loosening of restrictions on how people live their lives part of his presidential program from the beginning. I say “quietly,” because for the most part he’s kept himself confined to the nuclear negotiation/sanctions relief portfolio that was the big reason why he won (and, really, why he was allowed to run in) last year’s election. Perhaps sensing that it was a bad idea to pick a fight with Iranian hard-liners who could ultimately scuttle a nuclear deal just to spite him, or perhaps hoping to avoid the fate of reformer President Mohammad Khatami, who moved too fast for the religious establishment and paid a hefty political price for it, Rouhani has made general pronouncements about opening up Iranian society but had yet to really push back against the conservatives. He’s done nothing, at least not publicly, about the continued house arrest of three of the leaders of 2009’s Green Revolution, for example, even though Mir Hossein Mousavi, whose presidential candidacy was the locus of the protests, and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, are both facing considerable health challenges. Executions in Iran are actually on the rise since Rouhani took office, and Reporters without Borders has been “disappointed” in his record on freedom of information issues. So this hasn’t been a presidency that has taken a lot of risks in the name of reform. Or so the story goes.
Well, don’t look now, but Rouhani is currently pushing back against the conservatives. The video brouhaha seems to have been the catalyst for a May 24th speech in which Rouhani said “Let people relax. Let people be mentally healthy. Do not interfere so much in the people’s lives, even for sympathy. Let people choose their own path to heaven. We cannot send people to heaven by force or the lash.” The “by…the lash” part really resonated, since one of the most popular punishments for violations of Islamic law in Iran is, yes, public lashing. But this goes beyond even the challenge to the Iranian legal system and gets into a fundamental divergence between Rouhani and the clerics on the issue of whether or not the Iranian state should be directly interfering in people’s day-to-day lives on questions of religion.
The reaction from Iranian conservatives was swift; Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a senior cleric who was appointed substitute Friday Prayer leader in Tehran in 2005 and who may be a candidate to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader, all but accused Rouhani of blasphemy, suggesting that his remarks were a rejection of the Islamic requirements to command good and forbid evil, which are two of the ten Ancillaries of the Faith that form the basis of Imami Shiʿism. In his sermon on the Friday following Rouhani’s comments, Khatami said that “it is a religious state’s responsibility to prepare the path to heaven” and “[w]e do not want to take people to heaven by force, but neither should we pave the way to hell by making [such] statements.” The Friday Prayer leader in the holy city of Mashhad, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, similarly condemned Rouhani’s remarks.
Another cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who actually heads his own archconservative faction in Iran’s Assembly of Experts (the elected body that supervises the actions of the Supreme Leader and selects a new Supreme Leader if the current one is no longer able to stay in office), also came down hard on Rouhani. Mesbah Yazdi, who once admonished Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s critics that “[w]hen a president is endorsed by the [supreme leader], obeying the president is like obeying God,” apparently forgot his own advice and mockingly questioned Rouhani’s religious qualifications, asking if he’d received his religious training in Qom or in England. Oh, snap?
Rouhani, somewhat surprisingly in my opinion, actually struck back at these guys, who are really heavy-hitters in the Iranian establishment. In a May 31 speech, he really kind of unloaded, saying that his conservative critics “have no work, no profession, they are with delusions. They are incessantly worried about people’s religion and the afterlife. They know neither what religion is nor the afterlife, but they’re always worried.” Sheesh. He remembered laughingly the days when he was a student (at Qom, thank you very much), and the great threat to religion of the time, according to Iranian religious scholars, was…everybody getting private showers in their homes and no longer using the public baths. Which, OK, that’s pretty weird. Rouhani’s culture minister, Ali Jannati, got into the act yesterday, comparing religious conservatives’ fears of the internet and satellite communications to their past discomfort with the idea of, um, fax machines. Which, point taken, but fax machines do suck.
There’s a lot of stuff going on here, and I don’t know if it’s good or bad. Opening Iranian society in general clearly seems to be Rouhani’s passion, but so far he’s mostly channeled it into the nuclear talks as a way to remove external impediments to Iran’s engagement with the rest of the world. His willingness to actually mix it up a little with some of Iran’s most senior conservative religious leaders suggests that he’s starting to pivot away from that narrow portfolio and stake out some new territory for his presidency. Does that mean he thinks the nuclear talks are going so well that he’s laying the groundwork to pivot off of a successful agreement and use his political capital on domestic reforms? Or does it mean he thinks the talks are floundering and he realizes that he’s going to need to muster some political capital among his young, urban base (which are the folks who support opening the society up) in order to remain relevant? Your guess is as good as mine.
Make no mistake; this debate is really serious business. What Rouhani is talking about, if taken to its logical conclusion, would represent a major reworking of the Islamic Republic into a society where people have considerably more latitude to live their lives as they see fit. In that sense, the fact that Khamenei has remained quiet on this dispute so far is interesting; he may see that the political winds in Iran are shifting in the direction of a more open society and that Rouhani is his best hope to manage that process gradually and avoid another revolution, or he may just be giving Rouhani enough rope to hang himself. Time will tell, though the fact that Khamenei is leaning on conservative media outlets for being too critical of Rouhani’s government suggests the former.