The Nuclear Front Between Iran’s Moderates and Conservatives

Hassan Rohani and Ali Khamenei aim to sign an agreement with the P5+1 powers and pave the way for progress on socioeconomic issues.

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File photo: Iranian president Hassan Rohani waves to supporters as his motorcade leaves Tehran's Mehrabad Airport upon his arrival from New York, on September 28, 2013.Credit: AP

More than one common denominator unites Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian President Hassan Rohani. Each has committed to improve the economy, provide affordable housing, protect civil rights and of course defend the homeland.

But this job is a bit more complicated in Iran than in Israel, where the supreme leader can dodge socioeconomic demands by focusing on defense. Netanyahu loves to portray Iran as the country of the ayatollahs, but as in Israel there are ayatollahs - and there are ayatollahs.

Last week, Rohani visited the city of Qom, a Shi’ite religious center and home to a huge number of theologians. The most important are members of the Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers; their political opinions greatly influence decision-making. This is partly due to the scholars’ ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of demonstrators when needed, or to cast aspersions on the positions of political leaders, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Religious institutions in Qom play a crucial role during election season — decisions over which candidate to support and which to rule out are made with the help of religious scholars. While in Qom, Rohani tried to convince religious experts to support the talks with the world powers on Iran’s nuclear program and back an agreement.

Not all the scholars back the process, and they say so publicly. Rohani, with diplomatic finesse, told them he appreciates their views and supports their independence. In other words: Don’t interfere with government business.

The Iranian president too is a senior religious scholar, having earned the title Hujjat al-Islam, two spots under the top rank, but he has been taken to task by religious leaders. One of the more radical, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, is considered a mentor of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mesbah Yazdi once sarcastically asked Rohani whether he got his religious training in Iran or in England. Mesbah Yazdi’s ire had been sparked by Rohani’s statement that people can't be led to Paradise by force.

In any case, a nuclear agreement will determine Rohani’s political future, not to mention the standing of the conservatives and radicals. Another major test comes in February: a parliamentary election that will be a vote on Rohani’s handling of the economy.

In the absence of a nuclear agreement, Iran will return to the starting point. Further Western sanctions are possible. The euphoria, now fading, that greeted the interim nuclear deal of November 2013 could die out completely, which would play into the conservatives' hands.

Therefore, despite Khamenei’s directive against criticizing the Iranian negotiating team, Rohani’s opponents will use every opportunity to cast doubt on his efforts to “maintain the country’s essential interests.” Those factions fear that a nuclear agreement would greatly strengthen the reformist and liberal movements and erode the conservatives' power.

The conservatives have already taken action to prove that even if an agreement is signed, they won’t give up their cultural and political influence. The judiciary, which isn’t subordinate to the president, has directed the media not to publish the name or picture of former President Mohammad Khatami. He is considered Rohani’s spiritual mentor and a fellow reformist, despite his total failure to improve Iran's human-rights profile.

In the summer of 2017, a year after the parliamentary election, there will be a presidential election in which Rohani is expected to run again. Ahmadinejad apparently intends to join the race. On a Facebook page he recently created, he can be seen signaling victory. There are also pictures from his February trip to Turkey where he is seen talking with Turkish President Abdullah Gul as if Ahmadinejad were still president.

Ahmadinejad ended his term in an atmosphere of failure, following almost irreparable sparring with Khamenei. It didn’t help that the economic damage he had caused became apparent. Support for Ahmadinejad remains unclear, but his heightened public profile is certainly shaking up politics.

As in Israel, in Iran a nuclear agreement also touches on economic and political issues, including human rights, reforms and religion. As a result, it’s in Rohani and Khamenei’s interest to sign a nuclear agreement quickly and pave the way for action on the civilian front.

That doesn’t mean the two leaders will agree to concessions that can’t be sold to the Iranian people and the conservatives. In two weeks we'll know whether pragmatic politics has overcome pressure from the radicals.