American exceptionalism gives way to Iran’s Islamic govt

Against the backdrop of major political developments, the Friday Prayer meetings in Tehran invariably provide signposts. Last week’s decision by the Guardian Council to disqualify several hundred so-called ‘reformist’ candidates in the forthcoming elections to the Majlis (parliament) inevitably became one such occasion.

Ayatollah Seyed Ahmad Khatami

Ayatollah Seyed Ahmad Khatami

It turned out that Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami was nominated to deliver the address at the meeting yesterday. The choice was intriguing, since Khatami, a senior member of the Assembly of Experts, enjoys impeccable credentials as a ‘conservative’ figure in the religious establishment.

Khatami has a political legacy, too, worth recalling. In the turbulent period following the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president in 2009, Khatami had denounced the protests that ensued and had called the protestors as rioters who were at war with God (mohareb), which of course is a capital crime under Islamic law. He had described Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi who led the protests as “leaders of sedition.”

It was to be expected that Ayatollah Khatami would come down heavily on President Hassan Rouhani, who last week openly criticized the Guardian Council for the mass disqualification of ‘reformist’ candidates and said that the Majlis (parliament) is “the house of the nation, not the house of one faction”.

Rouhani was quoted asking rhetorically, “If only one faction is present in the vote, and the other is not, then why are we holding elections? Let’s allow the house of the nation to truly reflect our nation and belong to all people”.

He was objecting to the Guardian Council’s disqualification of almost 60% of the candidates contesting the election to the Majlis.

He has tasked Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri to discuss with the Guardian Council its controversial decision. (A ‘reformist’ politician alleged that only 30 out of 3,000 reformist candidates have been qualified by the Guardian Council as eligible to run for the parliamentary election.)

On the face of it, Rouhani is tilting at the windmills, since the Guardian Council is a hugely powerful body of the religious establishment, which is answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is invested with immense reserve powers to vet candidates including the presidency and the Assembly of Experts (which elects the Supreme Leader), judge the compatibility of legislations with the criteria of Islam and the constitution – in sum, acting as the custodian and watchdog of the system of Velayat-e faqih (Islamic Government) itself.

The western media promptly estimated that a schism has appeared within the highest echelons of the Iranian regime. Certain remarks at a meeting in Tehran on Wednesday by Khamenei also have been (mis)interpreted to mean that the supreme leader and the president could be at loggerheads. The supreme leader had said,

  • Even those who oppose the Islamic Republic should take part in the election… (But) this does not mean that opponents of the Islamic Republic should be elected to parliament… Only those who believe in the Islamic Republic and its values should be allowed to enter parliament. Even in America, which claims it is the land of freedom – and some people naively accept that – during the Cold War those with slightest socialist leaning would have been marginalized.

The point is, Iran forbids any citizen from holding elected public office who does not place faith in the system of Velayat-e faqih. The fact is that although Rouhani may be popular today in the western opinion as ‘pro-reformist’, his candidacy in the presidential election in 2014 too had met with the approval of the Guardian Council because it judged that he did believe in the Iranian system of Islamic Governance.

At any rate, it came as a pleasant surprise that at the Friday Prayer meeting in Tehran yesterday, Khatami also apparently called on the Guardian Council to review its decision on disqualification of candidates. He said,

  • Endorse the qualification of those (candidates) who were previously disqualified, but on grounds that were subsequently found to be baseless. And, also, do not reassess the (lack of) competence of those candidates who were disqualified already once in the past. Stick to the law this time, relying on God; do not fear (unfair) criticism.

Suffice it to say, the caricature of the forthcoming Iranian elections as a turf war between the ‘reformists’ and ‘conservatives’ (or, worse still, the assumption that the ‘reformists’ are per se also ‘westernists’) can create misperceptions about the ebb and flow of Iranian politics and can only lead to future misunderstanding and disillusion.

The Obama administration has done brilliantly well so far by steering clear of the forthcoming elections in Iran. It is a perfect study in contrast, compared with the partisan approach Washington took in 2009 by unilaterally assuming the mentorship of the ‘Green movement’ in Iranian politics.

The most recent media statements (at Davos) by the US Secretary of State John Kerry probably reflected the new thinking. Kerry mentioned Rouhani and Khamenei in the same breath as both prioritizing Iran’s development agenda over the country’s militarization in the national policies at present.

Indeed, President Barack Obama has taken pains to understand Iran and appreciate the complexities of the country and its politics. Obama said in his remarks on the so-called Implementation Day a week ago that the engagement with Iran will be on the basis of “mutual interests”. It is a wise approach not to inject American exceptionalism into the US-Iran engagement – at least, not at the present tender stage.

The old sensitivities, lurking just below the surface, surged during yesterday’s Friday Prayer meeting when among other things, Khatami touched on the imposition of sanctions by Washington following Iran’s ballistic missile test.

He said, “If we think that the US has done us a favour by the (nuclear) agreement, it would be like we are beautifying the enemy. While signing the agreement, Obama also signed new sanctions against Iran. This means that the US is the same Great Satan that it was over thirty years ago.”

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