The latest poll from IranPoll, the Canadian outfit linked to Maryland University, is bad news for president Hassan Rouhani. Just under three quarters – 74% – of Iranians surveyed on 17-27 June say there has been no improvement in the economy as a result of last year’s nuclear agreement with world powers. With a presidential election looming next year, probably in June, Rouhani’s lead over possible challenger Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former ‘principle-ist’ (or fundamentalist) president, has narrowed to eight percentage points from 27 points in May 2015.
Economic growth in the Iranian year ending in March was far smaller than expected. A leading Iranian business journalist told me he thought it had been 0.9% at best. The government anticipates 3.9% growth in the current year. This improvement will come from a doubling of oil exports since sanctions eased in February, but it also reflects the government loosening monetary and fiscal discipline, stimulating economic activity at the risk of higher inflation.
But how widely will any benefits of growth be distributed? Back in March the state’s statistical centre reported poverty and inequality had increased in the previous 12 months.
And poorer Iranians are the target group for Rouhani’s principle-ist opponents. The recent ‘pay cheque scandal’ played into their hands to such an extent that many in Tehran believe principle-ists not only publicised the details of lucrative pay and bonuses enjoyed by leading executives but unearthed them in the first place.
The government’s sacking at the end of June of four bosses of state banks was unprecedented. It followed a cabinet meeting where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, told ministers that that “astronomical salaries” were “an attack on our values” and demanded the matter be “seriously followed up and the people informed of the results”.
Among those sacked was the head of Refah Bank, whose leaked pay cheque had revealed a monthly income in salary and bonuses of 240 million tomans [$78,000], far above the basic level for workers of 850,000 [$276] per month.
Principle-ists have been showing nostalgia not just for the egalitarianism of the 1979 Revolution and the noble sacrifices of the 1980-88 war with Iraq but for the landslide election victory won by Ahmadinejad in 2005 on the slogan of ‘putting the oil money on the sofreh’ (the dining mat used by poorer Iranians). Hence the value of exposing rewards enjoyed by technocrats often associated in the public mind with Rouhani and his ally, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Memories can be short. “While corruption always existed,” the business journalist told me, “it probably worsened under Ahmadinejad as he made an attempt to centralise power and reduced oversight of the government by the majles [parliament] and other bodies.” Ahmadinejad’s spending policies – including cheap loans – also left the banking sector with a massive burden of non-performing loans.
Khamenei has a sharp memory, however, and would be reluctant to see the return of Ahmadinejad, who in his second term, after 2009, challenged the leader’s authority several times. Ahmadinejad’s deputy, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was barred from the 2013 presidential poll by the watchdog Guardian Council, six of whose 12 members are appointed by Khamenei, and council might well also bar Ahmadinejad next year.
A possible alternative to Ahmadinejad might be Qassem Soleimani, commander of al-Quds brigade, the overseas arm of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), who has enjoyed a strong public profile since 2014, especially in organising the military campaign against Daesh, the so-called Islamic State group, in neighbouring Iraq.
But Saeid Golkar, lecturer at Northwestern University in the United States and senior fellow at Chicago Council on Global Affairs, believes the ‘pay cheque scandal’ may have indirectly revealed another potential ‘principle-ist’ contender in Parviz Fattah, head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee.
“There are strong [popular] feelings against what is seen as corruption,” Golkar told me. “That’s why Fattah put his pay cheque online, to show he was the people’s man and receiving a monthly net income of 7.34 million tomans [$2380], far less than many senior managers. Like Ahmadinejad, he has a simple life.”
Fattah also enjoys good links to the IRGC as former director of Bonyad Taavon Sepah, the IRGC charitable foundation, and as a former deputy head of Khatam-ol Anbia, the Guards’ construction arm. He has a ready-made constituency among the 5 million families supported by the Imam Khomeini committee.
Golkar points out that principle-ist publications are putting pictures of Fattah alongside those of Ebrahim Raeisi, whom Khamenei appointed in March as chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, the foundation that manages the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad.
“Recently, in Mashhad, in the shrine and in the seminary, they are calling Raeisi an ayatollah,” Golkar said. “Ayatollah Khamenei has been reshuffling the guard, also in late June appointing Major-General Mohammad Baghari [an IRGC stalwart] as head of the general military command instead of [Hassan] Firouzabadi. If you put these signs together, Ayatollah Khamenei is thinking seriously about the future.”
Rouhani’s close relationship with Khamenei was crucial to the acceptance of the nuclear agreement in the face of strong criticisms. But the lack of progress in easing sanctions, reinforced by the recent House of Representatives vote for legislation that would block sales by Boeing and Airbus aircraft to Iran, are reinforcing the principle-ists narrative that the US is endemically hostile.
While Khamanei has said Tehran won’t renege as long as Washington doesn’t, both those who accepted the deal as a positive step and those who did so reluctantly as a ‘poisoned chalice’ are losing enthusiasm. The political factions in Iran may be shifting again, making Rouhani vulnerable.
The president moved quickly after Khamenei’s intervention in the pay cheque scandal, but Golkar is not convinced the president understands the size of the challenge he faces: “His focus is on the middle class and big cities. Poorer people, and those in rural areas, are saying, ‘Why should I vote for Rouhani, he’s a technocrat? These people are getting 240 million tomans a month and I’m on just 850,000’.”
The populism of the Iranian principle-ists shows striking similarities with populism elsewhere. It is critical of bankers, often anti-intellectual, and pushes a notion of national control against an international, or even global, elite. Its idea of nation is not just nostalgic but hostile to diversity, and extols the values of supposed ‘simplicity’ against the wicked ways of the big city – praising the morality police acting against ‘bad hijab’ is a topical example.
Such politics is hardly new, nor peculiar to Iran. Philip Mansel, the British historian, has long drawn attention to the fragility of cosmopolitan cities, which he has again illustrated in his compelling recent book on Aleppo, “Syria’s great merchant city”, now largely reduced to rubble after centuries of diversity and success based on trade.
Mansel recently told me that the destruction of Aleppo resulted from “40 years of dictatorship”, international intrigue and “the conflicts devastating the entire Muslim world from Morocco to Malaya”. But he said it also had roots in increasing poverty in the countryside due in part to climate change and desertification.
Mansel argues a hostility to urban sophistication goes back to antiquity. “In the Old Testament, there were denunciations of Babylon,” he told me. “In French history it was the provincials devastating Paris in 1848 or 1871. More generally, poorer people dependent on agriculture have been jealous of the capital city although it had often benefited them. It happened in the Lebanese civil war, people from the mountains from poorer areas thinking they’d been snubbed by Beirut.”
Mansel believes the demise of Smyrna, Alexandria and partly Beirut as multicultural centres – which he charted in his 2010 book, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe in the Mediterranean – could be repeated elsewhere. “Look what’s happening to London now with Brexit. The great dynamic, energetic, cosmopolitan London of the last few years might change. There are parallels with [Donald] Trump – one’s always been told there are two Americas, the coast and the hinterland.”
The Iranian principle-ists’ use of social media is probably still less important than networks based on work, mosque and the Basij. But they are well aware of the Internet’s potential – IranPoll found 42.8% of Iranians go online at least once a week “to become informed about the news”, up from 33.6% in May 2015 – and their style of operation clear shows parallels with the Brexit campaign. As Dhruva Jaishankar of Brookings India recently wrote, social media “rather than creating connections with people who possess differing views and ideologies, tends to reinforce prejudices … greater information has, rather counterintuitively, contributed to a ‘post-fact’ information environment … populists are willing to cross the lines that mainstream parties have flirted with, becoming forces that the centre cannot hold.”
Such a perspective subverts common analysis of Iran and its politics.
“Categories of ‘reformist’ and ‘hardliner’ don’t work, this isn’t about democratisation,” says Golkar. “There are those who want to interact in foreign relations – Rouhani has spoken of the nuclear deal as a model for regional problems – and against them are ‘confrontationists’. They have different discourses on both the economy and international relations. The competition for the next presidential election and the next supreme leader will be between ‘interactionists’ and ‘confrontationists’.”
In the 2005 presidential election, Ahmadinejad not only promised to put oil revenue on the sofreh, he scorned the middle classes and intellectuals. After his election, better-off Tehranis made jokes about the president scorning his origins: there were problems with the quality of drinking water because Ahmadinejad had washed his socks in the reservoir.
Whereas his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, spoke in universities and international bodies of a “dialogue among civilisations”, Ahmadinejad made repeated provincial trips around Iran addressing huge crowds of people who felt neglected by central government. Those feelings of neglect are just as strong today – and president Rouhani has little time to address them.
Philip Mansel, Aleppo: the Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City, IB Tauris 2016. Gareth Smyth has reported from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. He was nominated in 2005 by the Financial Times as foreign correspondent of the year in the British Press Awards.
The Tehran Bureau is an independent media organisation, hosted by the Guardian. Contact us @tehranbureau
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