Trump fears bring Iran’s factions closer together
Trump criticism of nuclear accord has exacerbated internal political tensions
During seven years in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, six of them isolated in a wing on his own, Mostafa Tajzadeh says he“buried grudges and hatred ”.
Now, Mr Tajzadeh, one of Iran’s highest profile reformist politicians, is calling for reconciliation with the regime hardliners who jailed him in what he says is a necessary move to “save” Iran from foreign and domestic threats.
His sentiments reflect growing concerns that Iranians’ hopes for economic prosperity and political stability are being undermined by a confluence of local and global events. The election of President Donald Trump has raised tensions with the US just as an intense power struggle plays out ahead of crucial elections in May at which Hassan Rouhani, the centrist president, is expected to seek a second term.
Mr Trump, who has attacked the 2015 nuclear deal that led to the lifting of sanctions on Iran, has already put Tehran “on notice”, raising the prospect of new economic curbs or even military confrontation. Reformers fear that Washington’s belligerent stance will embolden regime hardliners — they have used the nuclear accord to criticise Mr Rouhani — and deepen the wedge between the rival factions.
Comparing Iran to a building in desperate need of repair, Mr Tajzadeh says: “You know the whole building is at risk. But you don’t know when, how and which parts will crumble first.”
“Reforms are needed now, not when the building collapses,” adds the 61year-old, who was released last year to a hero’s welcome from reformers.
His comments echo those of Mohammad Khatami, the former president and reformist leader, who recently made a highly unusual call for “national reconciliation”.
Most pro-reform analysts believe Mr Rouhani will win, and hardliners have yet to identify a candidate. However, the rhetoric of the Trump administration and the recent death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and crucial ally of the reformists, risks tilting the balance of power in favour of the hardliners in the longer term.
The relationship between the rival factions has become more toxic since disputed 2009 elections — Mr Tajzadeh was arrested the following day. Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the populist hardliner, won the election to secure a second term as president. But the result triggered demonstrations that became known as the “Green Movement”, the biggest anti-regime protests since the formation of the Islamic republic in 1979.
The protests were put down with brutal force. Mr Tajzadeh was imprisoned on charges of acting against national security. Unlike other political prisoners, he never confessed to his alleged crimes; instead he continued to make calls for reform through letters smuggled out of Evin.
Since his release he has become more convinced than ever about the need for change. “No political group, including reformists, enjoys an absolute majority. This means major risks can only be tackled through national reconciliation,” says Mr Tajzadeh, a deputy interior minister in the 1990s and adviser to Mr Khatami when he was president. “Major surgery is inevitable.”
It is not clear how the proposed reconciliation might work, but Mr Tajzadeh is adamant about the reforms that are needed. He has called for the elite Revolutionary Guards to stop interfering in politics and the economy, instead focusing on being a strong military force, and a crackdown on corruption and improving human rights. “Any religion and nationalism that doesn’t recognise human rights will end up in Talibanism and . . . Nazism.”
Reformists worry that hardliners — which as well as the Revolutionary Guards include senior clerics and the judiciary — may seek to capitalise on Mr Trump’s withering criticism of the nuclear deal to isolate them as they supported the agreement.
The death in January of Rafsanjani, a pillar of the Islamic republic, delivered a blow to reformers as he acted as a balancing force between rival fact ions.
He also played a pivotal role in helping Mr Rouhani secure backing from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, to sign the nuclear accord.
The reformists’ proposals for change face a big hurdle. They have fallen foul of Mr Khamenei since the Green Movement, and he will decide if calls for national reconciliation are heeded.
The supreme leader does not appear to have forgiven reformists for their accusations that the 2009 vote was an “electoral coup”.
Whether Mr Khamenei will intervene to ease the political tensions is unclear. He has neither welcomed nor rejected the reformists’ initiative.
“More than ever we’re worried about what happens if Mr Khamenei dies before sorting out these big problems. He’s the only one who can help deter future threats ,” Mr Tajzadeh says .“Even if we are eventually rejected, we have at least made history by warning against major crises coming.”
On message: schoolgirls attend an annual rally last month in Tehran commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Left, reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh