Christo­pher de Bel­laigue

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Christo­pher de Bel­laigue

“We have im­mense op­por­tu­ni­ties and we can use them,” Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani told a group of cam­paign work­ers a few days af­ter he was re­elected to a sec­ond term on May 19. “What is it that we want? We are wait­ing for a cleav­age, an open­ing, but we need to bring about that open­ing our­selves, so it is de­fin­i­tive.” It was a call for Iran’s mod­er­ates to cap­i­tal­ize on their re­sound­ing tri­umph over con­ser­va­tives and fi­nally push the coun­try to­ward a lib­eral po­lit­i­cal order.

The pres­i­dent re­ceived 23.5 mil­lion of 41.2 mil­lion votes cast in the elec­tion, com­pared with just 15.7 mil­lion for the con­ser­va­tive can­di­date, Ebrahim Raisi; the re­main­der went to two pe­riph­eral can­di­dates af­ter two oth­ers had stepped aside. This does not take into ac­count the large num­ber of peo­ple—as many as four mil­lion, Rouhani has claimed—who were still in line to vote when the polling sta­tions closed and who could not cast a bal­lot.

Raisi has com­plained that his op­po­nents com­mit­ted elec­toral fraud on a large scale, but this seems un­likely since the elec­tion re­sults were cer­ti­fied by the su­per­vi­sory Coun­cil of Guardians, which is full of his con­ser­va­tive friends. De­spite the fact that Raisi was gen­er­ally thought to en­joy the back­ing of the im­mensely pow­er­ful Supreme Leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, the hard-line mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment in the form of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard, and the state-run broad­cast me­dia, Rouhani man­aged to in­crease his share of the vote from the 51 per­cent he re­ceived in 2013, when he was first elected, to 57 per­cent.

Rouhani’s strength­ened man­date and the scenes of joy that greeted his re­elec­tion, with crowds tak­ing to the streets to sing jin­gles in his praise, would seem to war­rant his con­fi­dent ap­peal for a new “open­ing,” for isn’t a lib­eral, demo­cratic Iran now fi­nally in sight? In the elec­toral cam­paign, the Ira­nian pres­i­dent, who has held other sen­si­tive posts over a ca­reer de­voted to the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic, con­trived to sound like an out­sider. “We want freedom of the press,” he de­clared dur­ing a rally on May 13, “freedom of as­so­ci­a­tion, and freedom of thought!” And in another rally he an­swered the ques­tion of why he had not es­tab­lished th­ese se­duc­tive free­doms, ad­mit­ting rue­fully, “I of­ten had prob­lems keep­ing my prom­ises [to the elec­torate]. What I promised . . . ei­ther I did, or wasn’t al­lowed to do.”

In th­ese few words by a sit­ting pres­i­dent, con­fess­ing his in­abil­ity to change things very much, lies the co­nun­drum of mod­ern Ira­nian pol­i­tics. The pres­i­dent can do lit­tle with­out the ac­qui­es­cence of the Supreme Leader, who, the con­sti­tu­tion makes clear, is an­swer­able pri­mar­ily to God, not the peo­ple. Sev­eral other un­elected in­sti­tu­tions—most notably the Coun­cil of Guardians, which can block leg­is­la­tion, veto can­di­dates for of­fice, and de­clare elec­tions in­valid—serve as a for­mi­da­ble bul­wark against change. So do the ju­di­ciary and the mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment. Thus Rouhani’s plain­tive con­fes­sions of weak­ness re­flect the re­al­ity that an Ira­nian politi­cian be­comes an out­sider the mo­ment he is elected to the pres­i­dency. The coun­try has been wait­ing for democ­racy since 1906, when Ira­ni­ans rose in ag­i­ta­tion, limited the pow­ers of the Shah, and gained their first par­lia­ment. This was the start of a saga last­ing sev­eral decades dur­ing which sup­port­ers and de­trac­tors of rep­re­sen­ta­tive govern­ment op­posed one another. Four shahs and two changes of regime later, the elec­tion of the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic’s first re­formist pres­i­dent, Mo­ham­mad Khatami, in 1997, promised fur­ther de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion, but Khatami’s ef­forts were blocked by some judges, gen­er­als, and se­nior cler­ics.

Yet this con­ser­va­tive estab­lish­ment, for all its power, has been on a slow train to ex­tinc­tion. With each elec­tion since 1997, in­clud­ing the two that marked the hideous dog­leg of Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad’s eight years in power, its abil­ity to con­jure en­thu­si­asm for a doc­tri­naire Is­lamic Re­pub­lic has been on the wane. So does Rouhani’s lat­est vic­tory, less than four­teen months af­ter he steered the coun­try into a nu­clear deal with the United States and other world pow­ers, give him the im­pe­tus he needs to con­vert his bright slo­gans—rights, unity, and pri­vate en­ter­prise—into re­al­ity?

T he an­swer is prob­a­bly no, and not solely be­cause the state’s tra­di­tional cen­ters of power will unite against him as they did against Khatami. Deeper psy­cholo­gies are work­ing against Rouhani, the most im­por­tant be­ing a per­va­sive be­lief that the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic can­not be re­formed, be­cause “they”— a pro­noun that usu­ally refers to the hard-lin­ers, but can be stretched to in­clude any­one wish­ing Iran ill, in­clud­ing Don­ald Trump’s Amer­ica—won’t let it hap­pen. Some of the peo­ple who voted for Rouhani last month no doubt hoped he would be able to bring change, while oth­ers re­gard him as a way to avoid some­thing far worse. This is the bal­ance of sen­ti­ment that en­dows Ira­nian elec­tions with a cer­tain drama: it may not be pos­si­ble to ef­fect mean­ing­ful re­form, but it is pos­si­ble to stave off a lurch to re­ac­tion.

A few days be­fore the elec­tion, po­lit­i­cal en­thu­si­asm was in­deed in ev­i­dence among re­form-minded Ira­ni­ans, but it was driven in part by a fear that if the Rouhani vote wasn’t big enough, the con­ser­va­tive estab­lish­ment would rig the re­sult in Raisi’s fa­vor. This is what many peo­ple be­lieved hap­pened when Ah­madine­jad was re­elected in 2009; his “vic­tory” was dis­puted by mil­lions of pro­test­ers, which led to months of un­rest that was bru­tally sup­pressed. On May 19, even Ira­ni­ans who had pre­vi­ously ex­pressed hos­til­ity to the idea of vot­ing went in large num­bers to cast bal­lots. Con­ser­va­tive-minded vot­ers were roused by the Supreme Leader’s call for in­creased par­tic­i­pa­tion as a way of con­found­ing en­emy plots. Turnout was 73 per­cent—much higher than the 60 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who voted in last Novem­ber’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. But a high turnout is quite dif­fer­ent from sus­tained en­gage­ment with the po­lit­i­cal process.

One need only fol­low Tele­gram, a pop­u­lar Per­sian-lan­guage so­cial me­dia app, or sit in a shared taxi, or stand in line at the fruit mar­ket to get a quite dif­fer­ent im­pres­sion than that sug­gested by the eu­phoric scenes in Tehran af­ter the elec­tion re­sults were an­nounced. In each case one meets with a stream of in­vec­tive aimed at the coun­try’s rul­ing elite—their ve­nal­ity, their hypocrisy, and the shal­low­ness of their com­mit­ment to the peo­ple they pro­fess to serve. The day-to-day at­ti­tude of many mid­dle-class Ira­ni­ans to­ward the state is marked less by po­lit­i­cal fer­vor than by deep cyn­i­cism and a sense of fray­ing ci­vil­ity, which has been ex­ac­er­bated by Rouhani’s in­abil­ity to de­liver jobs and pros­per­ity fol­low­ing the nu­clear deal. The fail­ings of Iran’s gov­ern­ing class were ex­posed to pub­lic ridicule af­ter Jan­uary 19, when a fire in a sev­en­teen­story shop­ping cen­ter in cen­tral Tehran led to the build­ing’s col­lapse and the deaths of twenty-two peo­ple, in­clud­ing six­teen fire­men. Of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tions have since brought to light that the owner of the build­ing, a pow­er­ful re­li­gious foun­da­tion, had ne­glected to main­tain it, that fire­fight­ers had lacked hoses of suf­fi­cient power to deal with blazes on high floors—the fire ser­vice’s bud­get was in ar­rears—and that shop own­ers were able to cross po­lice lines to re­trieve valu­ables from the burn­ing build­ing, in­creas­ing the loss of life. (Around 75 per­cent of the build­ing’s shophold­ers were unin­sured.)

So­cial me­dia were full of ex­pres­sions of dis­gust at the un­seemly buck­pass­ing that fol­lowed the tragedy, and there were re­ports that dis­grun­tled fire­fight­ers had been trans­ferred in order to pre­vent them from air­ing their griev­ances. To older Ira­ni­ans the dis­as­ter re­called the fire that broke out at the Rex Cin­ema in Abadan, in the south of the coun­try, in 1978, which crys­tal­ized op­po­si­tion to the Shah and helped pre­cip­i­tate the rev­o­lu­tion the fol­low­ing year. In fact, Rouhani, who broke with tra­di­tion by com­mis­sion­ing an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the

fire led by aca­demics, came out of the af­fair quite well—a fur­ther re­minder that he rep­re­sents the more lib­eral and en­light­ened wing of the sys­tem. If cyn­i­cism at home is one of the forces that will drag against Rouhani’s re­formist in­ten­tions over the next four years, another is the United States’ at­ti­tude to­ward his govern­ment. Broadly, and in de­fi­ance of a more hawk­ish Congress, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was in fa­vor of Rouhani—and Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry de­vel­oped a friendly rap­port with the Ira­nian min­is­ter of for­eign af­fairs, Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif. The same can­not be said of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The day af­ter Ira­nian vot­ers re­turned their pres­i­dent to of­fice by a landslide, Trump paid a visit to Saudi Ara­bia, Iran’s re­gional ri­val, where he called on all “na­tions of con­science” to “work to­gether to iso­late Iran, deny it fund­ing for ter­ror­ism, and pray for the day when the Ira­nian peo­ple have the just and right­eous govern­ment they de­serve.” This de­spite the fact that Rex Tiller­son, Trump’s sec­re­tary of state, has con­ceded that Iran is com­ply­ing with its side of the nu­clear deal.

Trump has dis­par­aged the nu­clear ac­cord as a “fan­tas­tic deal” for Iran un­der which the US “paid” the mul­lahs $150 bil­lion, en­abling them to sup­port ex­trem­ist groups that “spread de­struc­tion and chaos” across the Mid­dle East. Leav­ing aside the pres­i­dent’s cus­tom­ary aver­sion to facts—the US made no new pay­ments to Iran, but per­mit­ted it to ac­cess around $40 bil­lion in frozen funds that had be­longed to it all along—a com­mon re­frain has emerged among Repub­li­cans that Iran is pros­per­ing as a re­sult of the lift­ing of sanc­tions while its lead­ers wait pa­tiently for the deal to elapse (in twen­ty­four years), at which point they will go back to bomb-mak­ing. Trump has also ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that Euro­pean com­pa­nies are free to make money in Iran while Amer­i­can com­pa­nies re­main barred from do­ing busi­ness there by bi­lat­eral sanc­tions im­posed in re­sponse to hu­man rights abuses, the Ira­nian mis­sile pro­gram, and the coun­try’s sup­port for mil­i­tant groups like Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas.

That Iran is pros­per­ing would be news to the ma­jor­ity of its cit­i­zens, who are find­ing it dif­fi­cult to get by, and a con­sid­er­able num­ber—as much as a third of the pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to some mea­sures—live in “ab­so­lute poverty” that has been ex­ac­er­bated by re­cent aus­ter­ity mea­sures. Rouhani has had to keep a tight rein on spend­ing be­cause he in­her­ited an econ­omy in cri­sis. In the fi­nal months of the prof­li­gate Ah­madine­jad govern­ment, in­fla­tion reached around 40 per­cent and there was a dra­matic slide in the value of the rial; the fact that last month the elec­torate again chose aus­ter­ity, and not the Ah­madine­jad-style hand­outs pledged by Raisi, sug­gests that vot­ers re­al­ize that pop­ulist re­dis­tri­bu­tion stores up pain for later.

As a re­sult of the 2015 nu­clear deal Iran can once again sell oil on world mar­kets, though de­pressed prices have kept rev­enues lower than the govern­ment had an­tic­i­pated. (The sud­den spurt in oil sales over the last Ira­nian year, run­ning from March 2016 to March 2017, pro­pelled eco­nomic growth to well over 6 per­cent; now that oil sales have been fac­tored into growth, this rate is ex­pected to drop sharply.) Fur­ther­more, the rapid flood of for­eign in­vest­ment that se­nior of­fi­cials had pre­dicted dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions over the deal—$100 bil­lion into oil and gas, $85 bil­lion into petro­chem­i­cals— hasn’t ma­te­ri­al­ized. Last year, 400,000 busi­ness vis­i­tors came to the coun­try on fact-find­ing mis­sions, many of them at­tracted by Iran’s di­ver­si­fied econ­omy and young, ed­u­cated mid­dle class. Many mem­o­randa of un­der­stand­ing were signed, but few bind­ing con­tracts. Where a quick buck can be made— such as in the case of Boe­ing, whose deal to sell Iran a fleet of air­lin­ers has been qui­etly ap­proved by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion—the need to “work to­gether to iso­late Iran” may be set aside. But a broader eco­nomic re­con­nec­tion be­tween Iran and the world re­mains a fan­tasy. From a fac­tory man­u­fac­tur­ing air-con­di­tion­ing units near the Iraqi bor­der that has been un­able to re­ceive Ger­man com­po­nents with­out long de­lays, to the busi­ness con­sul­tant whose fee was blocked by his Bri­tish bank be­cause the word “Iran” ap­peared in the trans­fer ref­er­ence, all the way up to the ma­jor Euro­pean oil com­pa­nies, who have so far sig­nally failed to in­vest sub­stan­tial sums in the coun­try, it’s as if sanc­tions haven’t ac­tu­ally been lifted. For­eign com­pli­ance de­part­ments re­main trans­fixed by the huge fines that US courts handed down to non Amer­i­can en­ter­prises for car­ry­ing out trans­ac­tions with Iran—worst hit was the French bank BNP Paribas, which was fined $8.9 bil­lion in 2014. Euro­pean com­pa­nies have re­ceived no as­sur­ances from the US that such “se­condary” fines won’t again be levied; many of th­ese com­pa­nies won’t go near Iran un­til they do. Iran’s am­bi­tion of rais­ing sovereign debt seems un­re­al­iz­able for the same rea­son: no big Euro­pean bank would un­der­write it. This is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause Iran’s fac­to­ries and busi­nesses are suf­fer­ing from a chronic short­age of cash, with the re­sult—par­tic­u­larly omi­nous in this rest­less so­ci­ety—that salaries are in ar­rears across the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors while un­em­ploy­ment among those un­der twenty-five runs at al­most 30 per­cent.

Iran’s stresses do not re­sult from the coun­try be­ing pen­ni­less; the in­creas­ing vis­i­bil­ity of lux­ury goods im­ported to fill the marble-clad pent­houses of north Tehran and the flotil­las of high­end Ger­man cars head­ing to vil­las on the Caspian coast for the sum­mer in­di­cate that it is not. To or­di­nary cit­i­zens who have no ac­cess to such re­fined liv­ing, who are not clothed or shod by the in­ter­na­tional brands that have en­tered the coun­try in pro­fu­sion, and who make do with third-rate pub­lic trans­port, hor­ren­dous pol­lu­tion, and stag­nant wages (when they are ac­tu­ally paid), it feels as though the nu­clear div­i­dend, like the sanc­tions div­i­dend be­fore it, is go­ing to some­one else. Al­though Iran has suf­fered from se­ri­ous cor­rup­tion since the state’s first moves to lib­er­al­ize the econ­omy in the 1990s, the cur­rent panic about per­va­sive spec­u­la­tion be­gan dur­ing the Ah­madine­jad years. By the time he left of­fice in 2013, his govern­ment could not ac­count for bil­lions of dol­lars in oil rev­enues and had run up at least $50 bil­lion in govern­ment debts to banks, con­trac­tors, util­i­ties, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, and pen­sion funds. Many bo­gus pri­va­ti­za­tions took place dur­ing his pres­i­dency; the new “pri­vate” com­pa­nies were in many cases as­set-stripped and their work­ers driven away by non­pay­ment of their salaries.

Ah­madine­jad also presided over the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the econ­omy, with com­pa­nies af­fil­i­ated with the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard en­ter­ing or in­creas­ing their pres­ence in tele­coms, hy­dro­car­bons, engi­neer­ing, and bank­ing; the Guard also con­trolled the smug­gling of goods across the Per­sian Gulf—jus­ti­fied as a pa­tri­otic re­sponse to sanc­tions—which added to Iran’s al­ready sig­nif­i­cant off-the-books econ­omy. Bribery spread in the penum­bra of sanc­tions-bust­ing, and it doesn’t seem to have di­min­ished un­der Rouhani. An oil of­fi­cial recently told the Fi­nan­cial Times that while kick­backs and com­mis­sions might have added 10 per­cent to the cost of a $1 bil­lion project in the early 2000s, the mark-up nowa­days can be fully 200 per­cent: “The peo­ple whose roots are in the sys­tem have be­come in­cred­i­bly greedy.”

Dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign this spring few peo­ple were sur­prised when TV de­bates be­tween the can­di­dates de­gen­er­ated into mud­sling­ing over dodgy prop­erty deals; power, money, and land are as tightly in­ter­con­nected in Iran as they are in Manhattan or Rio. In one de­bate, Mo­ham­mad Baqer Ghal­ibaf,

the hard-line mayor of Tehran, who later with­drew in fa­vor of Raisi, claimed that Rouhani had bought valu­able land at a big dis­count. The pres­i­dent re­torted with an al­lu­sion to Babak Zan­jani, a busi­ness­man who was sen­tenced to death last year for si­phon­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in rev­enues from oil sales he had en­gi­neered in vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions: “Didn’t you give a per­son who looted peo­ple’s wealth a li­cense to build a thirty-three­story tower?” (It is not clear whether Zan­jani has ap­pealed his sen­tence.) As in­di­cated by the slurs that were ex­changed in the de­bates, Ira­nian cap­i­tal­ists widely pre­fer buy­ing land to in­vest­ing in the “real” econ­omy. A re­cent item in the re­formist news­pa­per Shargh re­ported that “cer­tain mil­i­tary and state in­sti­tu­tions” had ex­pro­pri­ated some one thousand hectares in one of the coun­try’s east­ern prov­inces, and de­scribed how one such in­sti­tu­tion, which it left tact­fully un­named, had seized a plot of sev­eral hectares un­der the pre­text of erect­ing a sin­gle cell tower. Dur­ing Ghal­ibaf’s twelve-year ten­ure as Tehran’s mayor, there has been a sharp rise in the con­struc­tion of high-rise build­ings, a source of con­sid­er­able in­come for the city au­thor­i­ties. “So why,” in the words of Shargh, “with all this rev­enue...is our air dirty, and why do our traf­fic prob­lems grow day by day?”

For all the pub­lic’s dis­gruntle­ment, Iran doesn’t seem likely to go through another rev­o­lu­tion soon. The coun­try’s pro­gres­sive forces have just been to the polls and elected their can­di­date—a re­minder, how­ever back­handed, of their rel­e­vance to the po­lit­i­cal process. Th­ese pro­gres­sives also re­mem­ber the ease (and vi­o­lence) with which the forces of “law and order” rushed the protests fol­low­ing Ah­ma­dini­jad’s re­elec­tion in 2009, with a cam­paign of pub­lic cor­rec­tion that led to around a hun­dred deaths and thou­sands of in­juries and ar­rests. (Ebrahim Raisi was among the ju­di­cial of­fi­cials whom a se­nior cleric ac­cused of be­ing be­hind the ex­e­cu­tion of thou­sands of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in 1988; fol­low­ing the dis­puted 2009 elec­tions, he was part of a high-pow­ered ju­di­cial team that rub­bished ac­cu­sa­tions that the se­cu­rity forces had tor­tured pro­test­ers in de­ten­tion cen­ters; he also claimed that the lead­ers of the protest move­ment had been placed un­der house ar­rest “for their own safety.”) Po­lit­i­cal ap­a­thy has been re­in­forced by the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic’s rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity com­pared to the chaos that af­flicts neigh­bors like Iraq, Afghanistan, and— recently—Turkey. The state func­tions; il­lit­er­acy has been erad­i­cated; clin­ics of­fer free health care even in re­mote vil­lages; and high rates of first-world prob­lems such as di­vorce, drug ad­dic­tion, obe­sity, and con­sumer debt sug­gest that Ira­nian so­ci­ety is grow­ing less rigid and more mod­ern and con­fused.

In early June, Ira­ni­ans’ sense of se­cu­rity was badly shaken by two ex­traor­di­nar­ily brazen acts of ter­ror­ism in Tehran, aimed at the par­lia­ment build­ing and the tomb of Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini, the founder of the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic, in which twelve civil­ians were killed in ad­di­tion to the five at­tack­ers, and forty-six peo­ple were wounded. The Is­lamic State claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity, while Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard said that it was “sig­nif­i­cant” that the at­tacks on Tehran came so close on the heels of Trump’s visit to Saudi Ara­bia—a re­flex­ive in­sin­u­a­tion that does, how­ever, show the ex­tent to which do­mes­tic se­cu­rity is now linked to the re­gion’s con­flicts. The at­tacks were the first ma­jor sign of blow­back from Iran’s in­volve­ment in the fight against ISIS, in both Iraq and Syria, and while the mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties have vowed re­venge, this in­ci­dent may also stir those—mostly re­form-minded— Ira­ni­ans who are dis­com­fited by the coun­try’s for­eign ad­ven­tures.

Amid th­ese shift­ing sen­ti­ments, the regime’s dura­bil­ity is linked to the longevity of a sin­gle man. The Supreme Leader is now sev­enty-seven, and the death last Jan­uary of the one per­son who could ap­proach him in se­nior­ity and ex­pe­ri­ence, for­mer pres­i­dent Ak­bar Hashemi Raf­san­jani, was a re­minder that no stal­wart is im­mor­tal. From be­ing all but un­men­tion­able, the suc­ces­sion to Khamenei has be­come an ob­ses­sive topic, lead­ing to wild spec­u­la­tion that sug­gests how opaque the mech­a­nism for re­plac­ing him is. The Supreme Leader is elected in closed ses­sion by the Assem­bly of Ex­perts, a body made up of around eighty-five ay­a­tol­lahs, many of whom are lit­tle-known to the pub­lic; pos­si­ble can­di­dates are said to range from ul­tra­hard-lin­ers like Mo­ham­mad Taqi Mes­bah Yazdi (a man who be­lieves that the regime is an­swer­able only to God) to Rouhani him­self (de­spite his lack of high cre­den­tials as a the­olo­gian). In truth, no one out­side a very tight cir­cle can guess how the vot­ing might go, nor, in­deed, what Khamenei’s wishes are, and whether they will be hon­ored. From his pub­lic pro­nounce­ments it is clear that Khamenei wants to be­queath to his suc­ces­sor a pow­er­ful Is­lamic state that won’t sur­ren­der to Western lib­eral val­ues. He is tightly wed­ded to the con­cept of the ve­layat-e faqih, or Guardian­ship of the Jurist, which de­putes the Supreme Leader to run the state in the ab­sence of the oc­culted twelfth Shia imam. Khamenei is also com­mit­ted to anti-Amer­i­can­ism and the mes­sage of cul­tural iden­tity that is con­veyed by the com­pul­sory hi­jab. To the un­cer­tain­ties over the next Supreme Leader may be added am­bi­gu­i­ties over the na­ture of the of­fice. Some re­formists have long—if pri­vately—ad­vo­cated that the Supreme Leader’s pow­ers should be trimmed to make him more like a con­sti­tu­tional monarch, and that he should be elected by univer­sal suf­frage. Such re­forms would fray the bond be­tween power and God that makes the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic the semitheoc­racy it cur­rently is.

A jaded pop­u­lace wait­ing for the eco­nomic fruits of a nu­clear deal that could yet be fur­ther un­der­mined by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion: this is the back­drop for the ma­neu­ver­ing and jock­ey­ing that will take place over the next few years, with the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard and the re­li­gious foun­da­tions try­ing to in­flu­ence the search for a new Supreme Leader. De­spite his atro­cious record in of­fice, Ah­madine­jad also wants to be in­volved, as demon­strated by his un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to run again for the pres­i­dency in May. Af­ter Khamenei warned him against it, his can­di­dacy was ve­toed by the Coun­cil of Guardians. But time is on Ah­madine­jad’s side; at a com­par­a­tively youth­ful sixty, he will likely live more sum­mers than Khamenei.

For all the un­cer­tain­ties at home and in its re­la­tion­ship with Amer­ica, Iran con­tin­ues its march in the near abroad. Since the turn of this mil­len­nium the end of dic­ta­tor­ships in Afghanistan and Iraq and the re­bel­lion against Syria’s Bashar al-As­sad have al­lowed Iran to gain re­gional in­flu­ence as the main ad­ver­sary of Sunni hege­mony. By us­ing diplo­macy, proxy war­fare, and po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic in­flu­ence, the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic has carved out a hin­ter­land in western Afghanistan, en­joys a con­trol­ling stake in Iraqi and Lebanese po­lit­i­cal life, and wields a “Shia sickle”—com­posed of Ira­nian-backed Hezbol­lah and its own mili­tias—in Syria along­side As­sad’s army and Rus­sia. Many Ira­ni­ans are un­happy with the sup­port be­ing given to a sec­u­lar tyrant, but ac­cord­ing to a use­ful re­cent re­port on the sub­ject by the Royal United Ser­vices In­sti­tute, an in­de­pen­dent Bri­tish think tank, Iran is strength­en­ing its “deep state” in Syria, par­tic­u­larly in those south­ern ar­eas that are con­tigu­ous with Le­banon. The same re­port pre­dicts that Iran will try to keep Hezbol­lah in Syria even af­ter the war ends.* Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, given its will­ing­ness to use Shia iden­tity strate­gi­cally, the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic re­mains a less sec­tar­ian place than the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia, whose dom­i­nant dis­course is suf­fused with anti-Shi­ism. Amid the di­lu­tion of Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy and the global dis­ar­ray of lib­er­al­ism, the mes­sage one hears most in­sis­tently in Iran th­ese days is a na­tion­al­ist one. As mem­bers of Is­lam’s mi­nor­ity sect, it is rare to hear Ira­ni­ans vent strong anti-Sunni sen­ti­ment, and one cer­tainly doesn’t hear any­thing com­pa­ra­ble to the mur­der­ous anti-Shia rhetoric of ISIS. (There is a small pop­u­la­tion of Sun­nis in Iran, con­sist­ing mostly of Kurds, Baluches, and Turk­men.)

In this, Ah­madine­jad—strange to say—was some­thing of a vi­sion­ary, pro­mot­ing a “school of Iran” that was im­plic­itly an al­ter­na­tive to the univer­sal school of Is­lam. The idea that Iran was a better place be­fore the Is­lamic in­va­sions of the sev­enth cen­tury is a pop­u­lar one, heard from old peo­ple and school­child­ren alike, and of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by ca­sual dis­par­age­ment of Arabs and ex­pres­sions of bit­ter­ness at the Western coun­tries’ fail­ure to carry out their side of the nu­clear deal. “Why is ev­ery­one so de­ter­mined not to let Iran progress?” a young, West­ern­ized Tehrani asked me in April. I heard a sim­i­lar ques­tion from a group of fe­male sem­i­nar­i­ans in the re­li­gious cen­ter of Qom. Across the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic di­vide, all Ira­ni­ans are pa­tri­ots now. —June 14, 2017

Has­san Rouhani

Ira­nian univer­sity stu­dents vis­it­ing the ru­ins of Perse­po­lis, Fe­bru­ary 2017

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