“Has the Islamic Revolution in Iran Ended?” I asked in an article marking the 30th anniversary of the revolution. The answer clearly implied was that it had not. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a child of the revolution, and his hardliner supporters were a throwback to its populist inception. In his first term, his populist measures, championing the urban poor and holding cabinet meetings in small towns, had been popular, and so was his assertive nuclear policy. But his second term was marred by growing corruption and gross mismanagement of the economy. His successor, Hassan Rouhani, promised to reverse Ahmadinejad’s policies and discontinued his revolutionary rhetoric. Furthermore, he wasted no time in embarking on vigorous nuclear negotiations with the United States with the full backing of the Supreme Jurist and Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. As he approaches the end of his first year in office in the 35th anniversary of the revolution, we can affirm that the Islamic revolution in Iran has indeed come to an end.
While assigning nuclear negotiations to his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, President Rouhani’s own energy is spent on the domestic front to repair an economy devastated by eight years of Ahmadinejad’s gross mismanagement. He has replaced Ahmadinejad’s incompetent thugs with a well-qualified and technocratically oriented cabinet and competent administrators, and has embarked on an ambitious program of economic development, healthcare and environmental protection. It is too soon to assess the success or failure of his reform program. What can nevertheless be said is that he has made little headway with rampant inflation. On the other hand, small business seems to thrive, and the middle class in the private sector is prospering. Istanbul was flooded with Iranian tourist shoppers during the Nowruz vacations late in March, as was Antalya, and Turkish Airlines and Iran Air had direct flights not only to Tehran but also to other Iranian cities such as Isfahan and Kermanshah. In the early days of June, I found the newly opened complex of extensive large restaurants opposite the new luxury Grand Hotel at the northern gates of Shiraz packed with the affluent bourgeoisie.
Rouhani is not content with hoping for the badly needed stimulus from the removal of international sanctions that would result from a nuclear deal, but is vigorously cultivating economic ties with the Gulf Emirates, including Kuwait, whose ruler he entertained in Tehran in early June before leaving on an official visit to Turkey, where he signed ten deals aiming to double the trade between the two countries to 30 billion US dollars in 2015.
On the environmental front, too, Rouhani is busy undoing his predecessor’s damage. Tehran’s air pollution, widely blamed by victims with respiratory illness on the low-octane “Ahmadinejad gasoline,” has visibly declined with the introduction of high-octane gasoline and other restrictions. Last but not least, Rouhani has launched his national health insurance program and ordered state hospitals, which predominate the health sector, to limit patients’ co-payments for all medical expenses to 10 percent. Supreme Leader Khamenei has chimed in support by ordering the same hospitals to make delivering a baby gratis. Rouhani has taken his healthcare measures without fanfare because, so it is said, he is not sure how to pay for it. But it is no secret, anyway, that he wants to pay for it by phasing out the monthly state “support” (yaraneh), which Ahmadinejad offered in lieu of a wide range of old subsidies and is paid to over 74 million registered citizens.
Rouhani’s reforms were not launched in a political vacuum, but within a constrictive political framework. The strongest factor in Rouhani’s favor is the Supreme Leader’s support. Ayatollah Khamenei has backed all his domestic policies. Unlike the earlier reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who acted more like the leader of the loyal opposition than head of the executive, Rouhani has carried the Supreme Leader along with him. In his speech to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Imam Khomeini’s death on June 4, Khamenei fully appropriated the discourse of the dissident clerics of the turn of the century: He combined Khatami’s idea of “religious democracy,” mardomsalari-ye dini with Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s radical reinterpretation, during his 2005 presidential campaign, of velayat-e faqih, the rule by a supreme jurist, not as a divine mandate to rule but as popular acclamation (bay’at) of the indirectly elected Leader, giving an elaborate description of the regime instituted by Imam Khomeini as a religious democracy where all high offices of the state, including his own, are either directly or indirectly elective, and derive their legitimacy from the will of the people as expressed in elections.
Rouhani needs more than the Supreme Leader’s backing, however. Khamenei is not getting younger, and he has health problems. With the aged President of the Assembly of Experts gravely ill, an influential member of the exclusively clerical Assembly and former intelligence and security minister, Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, suggested that it should proceed to elect Khamenei’s successor now, thus highlighting the clerical elite’s concern with the future of velayat-e faqih after Khamenei.
Of greater immediate concern, however, are Rouhani’s relations with the Revolutionary Guards and security forces. The unceremonious killing of a billionaire businessman detained on corruption charges by security forces in May was indicative of the tacit division of power between the president on the one side and the Revolutionary Guards and security forces on the other. Nevertheless, tension is simmering beneath the surface.
Rouhani seems to have halted the expansion of the economic empire of the Revolutionary Guards, and their Commander, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, has expressed his hostility to the new administration publicly. The corpulent Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Hassan Firuzabadi, has countered by expressing his support for the president, but this may be of little consolation. The recent absence from the political scene of General Qassem Suleimani, Commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, was difficult to interpret, but the desperate crisis in Iraq forced the Iranian government to dispatch him to Baghdad, and it acted fully prepared to take advantage of the move to talk to the United States.
Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the hardline opposition to Rouhani is restive. The hardliners are uncertain whether to renew Khamenei’s old campaign against Western “cultural invasion,” or to count on his so far unabated anti-Americanism by attacking Rouhani for selling out to the Great Satan.
In short, after a year in power, Rouhani’s program of economic development, environmental clean-up and health care is proceeding smoothly and quietly. But given its political context, could this be calm before the storm? Much depends on whether or not there is a deal with the US by July 20. The likelihood of such a deal has unexpectedly increased by the common interest of Iran and the United States in stopping the collapse of Iraq.