Hard-lin­ers have wind at their backs as Trump pre­pares to be­come U.S. pres­i­dent

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - ANAL­Y­SIS By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA: The death of former pres­i­dent Ali Ak­bar Hashemi Raf­san­jani de­prives Iran’s re­form­ers of a pow­er­ful ally, boost­ing anti-Western hard-lin­ers be­fore a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion which will de­ter­mine how open Tehran is to the world.

The loss of Raf­san­jani’s skills as a fac­tional power bro­ker also means ri­val­ries in Iran’s un­wieldy dual sys­tem of re­li­gious and re­pub­li­can rule could grow unchecked, test­ing the sta­bil­ity of the sys­tem.

His death Sun­day height­ens con­cerns for re­form­ers at a time when morale is ris­ing among hard-lin­ers be­cause of Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion as U.S. pres­i­dent. They be­lieve Trump will adopt tough poli­cies hos­tile to Iran and that this will un­der­mine re­form­ers’ at­tempts to build bridges with Wash­ing­ton.

“Raf­san­jani was a key equi­li­brat­ing power in Iran’s com­plex po­lit­i­cal sys­tem,” said a se­nior Ira­nian of­fi­cial who de­clined to be iden­ti­fied be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the mat­ter. “His ab­sence as a coun­ter­weight against hard-lin­ers could harm the mod­er­ates and the es­tab­lish­ment al­to­gether,” the of­fi­cial said by tele­phone.

Raf­san­jani, a prag­ma­tist who fa­vored lib­eral po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic poli­cies, died of a heart at­tack aged 82. He was buried Tues­day.

Raf­san­jani was a com­pan­ion of the Is­lamic Repub­lic’s late founder Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini, and one of the pil­lars of the 1979 Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion. Fol­low­ing Khome­ini’s death, he played a role in the se­lec­tion of Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, Iran’s most pow­er­ful fig­ure.

His death re­moves an im­por­tant ally be­hind the scenes of fel­low prag­ma­tist Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, who is ex­pected to seek re­elec­tion in May.

Rouhani’s elec­tion win in 2013 and his suc­cess in end­ing the more than decade­long nu­clear dis­pute with the West have weak­ened the hard-lin­ers.

If the hard-lin­ers re­gain the pres­i­dency, they would be ex­pected to tighten re­stric­tions on so­cial and po­lit­i­cal free­doms. A close aide said Raf­san­jani had “al­ways acted as a go-be­tween when­ever po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing in­ten­si­fied and could harm the Is­lamic Repub­lic.”

“No one has his po­lit­i­cal and rev­o­lu­tion­ary cre­den­tials to replace him ... his death has cre­ated a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal vac­uum in Iran,” Tehran­based po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Saeed Ley­laz said by tele­phone.

This could en­able Khamenei to tighten his grip on the gov­ern­ing hi­er­ar­chy. Although Khamenei is sus­pi­cious of the West, he tries to stay above pol­i­tics by bal­anc­ing the in­ter­ests of his hard-line al­lies and their po­lit­i­cal ri­vals.

As Supreme Leader, Khamenei in­her­ited pow­ers that in­clude com­mand over the armed forces and the abil­ity to ap­point many se­nior fig­ures, in­clud­ing the heads of the ju­di­ciary, se­cu­rity agen­cies and state ra­dio and tele­vi­sion.

“The leader will be ex­tra care­ful to avoid any in­volve­ment in po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing . ... But he will give his full sup­port to en­force­ment of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy,” a former of­fi­cial who is close to Rouhani said by tele­phone.

Un­der Iran’s sys­tem of “ve­lay­ate faqih,” or rule by a re­li­gious ju­rist, the supreme leader has vast power and should stay above the day-to­day po­lit­i­cal fray.

Vo­cal on both do­mes­tic and for­eign pol­icy ini­tia­tives, Raf­san­jani called for open poli­cies at home and abroad and sup­ported the mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion that dis­puted the re­sult of 2009 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion which Khamenei had val­i­dated.

“His over 50 years of friend­ship with the leader gave him a unique po­si­tion to ex­press his ideas and pro­cure equi­lib­rium when po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing in­ten­si­fied . ... His loss is a blow to the mod­er­ate camp,” said his aide. “His ab­sence will rad­i­cal­ize the at­mos­phere.”

Raf­san­jani, with a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer span­ning over half a cen­tury, held most of the top po­si­tions in Iran’s po­lit­i­cal struc­ture in­clud­ing par­lia­men­tary speaker, armed forces com­man­der and pres­i­dent from 1989 to 1997.

Most an­a­lysts say Raf­san­jani’s death is a po­lit­i­cal blow to the prag­ma­tist-mod­er­ate coali­tion, as he was the lead­ing force be­hind Rouhani’s elec­tion win.

“This will weaken Rouhani, who has also failed to de­liver his other prom­ises like boost­ing the econ­omy,” said Jamshid Pa­jouyan, a pro­fes­sor at Iran’s Al­lameh Ta­batabai Univer­sity.

Gary G. Sick, an Amer­i­can aca­demic and Mid­dle East af­fairs an­a­lyst, said the out­come of the elec­tion de­pended on Rouhani’s “abil­ity to per­suade Ira­ni­ans that they are bet­ter off with the nu­clear agree­ment ... and that he is ca­pa­ble of de­fend­ing Iran’s in­ter­ests bet­ter than any al­ter­na­tive choice.”

Many or­di­nary Ira­ni­ans have lost faith in Rouhani be­cause he has not been able to im­prove the econ­omy de­spite the lift­ing of sanc­tions in Jan­uary last year un­der the nu­clear deal reached with six ma­jor pow­ers in 2015.

The deal curbed Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram in ex­change for the lift­ing of most sanc­tions. Ac­tivists and rights groups say Rouhani’s fo­cus on im­prov­ing re­la­tions with the West and bol­ster­ing the econ­omy have pre­vented him from de­liv­er­ing his cam­paign prom­ises of eas­ing of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal re­stric­tions.

“I am sorry for Raf­san­jani’s death but I have to think about my chil­dren. The life is so ex­pen­sive. The prices are go­ing up every day,” gov­ern­ment em­ployee Mo­ham­mad Hos­sein­zadeh said.

“Rouhani promised so many things but ... look at us. We are poorer than be­fore. But I will still vote for him be­cause we have to choose be­tween bad and worse.”

Trump, a Re­pub­li­can, said dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign that he would aban­don the nu­clear deal. He will be in­au­gu­rated on Jan. 20.

“A hos­tile U.S. pol­icy will be fa­vored by hard-lin­ers. They will pres­sure Rouhani even if he wins the vote. It means he will be in of­fice but not in charge,” an­a­lyst Hamid Farah­vashian said.

Fear­ing eco­nomic hard­ship might cause the col­lapse of the es­tab­lish­ment, Khamenei gave his bless­ing to the deal. But he has crit­i­cized the fail­ure of the agree­ment to de­liver swift eco­nomic im­prove­ments.

Partly be­cause of re­main­ing uni­lat­eral U.S. sanc­tions, ma­jor Euro­pean banks and in­vestors are hold­ing back from do­ing busi­ness with Iran de­spite lift­ing of many sanc­tions.

Mourn­ers carry Raf­san­jani’s cof­fin dur­ing his burial out­side Tehran.

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