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Internal rivalries hinder Rouhani's reform efforts

President Hassan Rouhani's administration has been touted as using moderate politicians from various political leanings in Iran; however, this make-up has led to major disagreements within the administration.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during a rally in Tehran's Azadi Square (Freedom Square) to mark the 35th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11, 2014. The 35th anniversary of the revolution that ousted the US-backed shah, comes as Tehran rides the wave of a landmark nuclear deal with major powers. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE        (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

Much attention has been paid to conservative critics of President Hassan Rouhani. What has received little attention, however, is the state of internal divisions within Rouhani’s Cabinet over both the subsidy programs and corruption at the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization. Understanding the main political leanings of Rouhani’s Cabinet and a few of the disagreements that have surfaced is key to understanding how far his administration can or will want to go in implementing cultural and political reforms and pursuing his foreign policy initiatives.

Rouhani chose most of his personnel from the following three groups: his circle of close associates, members of the Executives of Construction Party (Kaargozaaraan) and traditional and pragmatic Principlists. He designed his Cabinet to be a mixture of representatives from different groups of people who voted for him. Yet, he also wanted to keep his administration moderate and balanced by utilizing centralist forces that are somewhere in between the Reformist and the Principlists.

Rouhani’s circle of close friends and associates include people such as his brother and special assistant Hossein Fereydoun, cultural adviser Hesam al-Din Ashena, spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, chief of staff Mohammad Nahavandian, chief adviser Akbar Torkan and Minister of Industry Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh.

Most of them are members of the Moderation and Development Party. The party was founded by Rouhani in 1999. Their origin, like that of Rouhani himself, goes back to the right-wing faction of the Islamic Republic whose political and economic viewpoints were transformed after the Iran-Iraq war. They worked closely with Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency during the so-called Construction Era.

During the Reform Era of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency when cultural and political norms of Iran were shaken, they took a middle ground between the Reformists and the Principlists — but leaned closer to the Principlists. Even during Rafsanjani’s presidency, they supported the administration as long as the new policies did not create conflict with the supreme leader.

Certain members of this circle, such as Fereydoun and Ashena, have a background in the intelligence service. In general, they give priority to economic expansion and follow the free market model although a few of them, such as Nobakht, defend institutionalized economy and believe in a limited government interference in regulating the market. In the political and cultural arena, they believe in political activism only within the frameworks of the constitution and also believe in the idea of the guardianship of the jurist (velayat-e faqih). They only support limited political and cultural transformations.

Kaargozaaraan are the left-wing supporters of Rafsanjani. Compared to the Moderation and Development Party, they have a more open-minded attitude toward cultural and political issues. Politically, Kaargozaaraan are part of the Reformist faction. They believe in collaboration and exchange between different forces in a civil society. Of course, not all reformist forces active in the Rouhani administration are from the Kaargozaaraan faction. Yet, Kaargozaaraan has a dominant presence.

Forces connected to the Principlist faction, such as Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Culture Minister Ali Jannati and Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli, make up the third angle of Rouhani’s administration.

Rouhani has tried to use this diversity to expand support for his administration inside the country. However, this lack of harmony and the internal rivalry is problematic and has had a negative effect on the administration. The resignation of Reformist politician Mohammad Ali Najafi was the result of these internal rivalries and irresolvable conflicts. Najafi had tried to implement reforms when he was head of the cultural heritage and tourism organization and wanted to reveal previous corruption. However, Rouhani did not support this, and there were speculations that he was prevented by cultural adviser Ashena, who is part of Rouhani’s inner circle.

The second major disagreement to surface into the media is the second phase of the food subsidy handouts, scheduled for July 2014. Nobakht, part of Rouhani’s inner circle, a longtime Rouhani ally who is his adviser for Supervision and Strategic Affairs, head of management and planning organization and spokesman, has supported its implementation. Eshag Jahangiri, a Reformist politician and Rouhani’s vice president, has objected to its implementation, saying that the proper statistics are not available for this undertaking. Rouhani has so far sided with his inner circle in Nobakth, prompting rumors that Jahangiri will follow the footsteps of Najafi and resign.

This disagreement is as much technical as it is with how members of Rouhani’s inner circle view the others in his Cabinet. They consider the other groups to be tactical and temporary allies of the president. They believe that members of Kaargozaaraan or even the traditional Principlists both had different candidates in mind and only came to Rouhani’s support out of necessity. Most importantly, they are attempting to take over the main centers of decision-making in the administration and cut off the access of other groups.

This attitude is in part to blame for recent disagreements becoming public. Even in the case between Nobakht and Jahangiri, while Jahangiri as vice president holds a more important position, it is Nobakht as spokesman who has the higher media presence. This is atypical for Iranian politics. When compared to previous vice presidents, Jahangiri clearly has less of a media presence and appears rarely to be at the center of key decisions.

The Principlists for now have not become involved in the internal rivalries. Their main goal is to make sure that the decisions of the administration are not contradicting the opinions and the viewpoints of the supreme leader. Their loyalty is to [Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and in the end they will follow his lead. At the same time, they have good relations with the Principlists’ main political block and regulate their activities within their framework.

However, there's a clear difference between their political and cultural viewpoints and what was promised by Rouhani during his election campaign, most obviously when one views the positions of Pourmohammadi against the release of the Green Movement leaders while Rouhani campaigned on that position.

Even if Rouhani’s administration wants to change the political atmosphere in Iran, these disagreements will create a serious obstacle and will exhaust the administration from inside. But if the administration is only looking for limited cultural and political changes and its main concern is the economy and foreign policy, as it has been the case so far, then these rivalries will not have a major negative effect.

Seven months into the administration, it is too early to tell. But if Rouhani is serious about implementing the major political and cultural changes he discussed in the elections, he needs to address the political divisions within his administration. 

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