Trump fears bring Iran’s fac­tions closer to­gether

Trump crit­i­cism of nu­clear ac­cord has ex­ac­er­bated in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal ten­sions

Financial Times Middle East - - Front Page - NAJMEH BOZORGMEHR — TEHRAN

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.”

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP; Kaveh Kazemi

On mes­sage: school­girls at­tend an an­nual rally last month in Tehran com­mem­o­rat­ing the an­niver­sary of the 1979 Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion. Left, re­formist Mostafa Ta­jzadeh

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