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Iranian hard-liners take aim at culture minister

Already holding two "yellow cards" from parliament, Iran's culture minister may be on the verge of impeachment as conservatives ramp up criticism.

As Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was meeting with a group of poets last summer, he reportedly addressed the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati using a “special tone.” Principlist outlets quote Khamenei as having said, “We have many things to tell you; many serious things.”

One year later, Jannati is on the verge of being impeached. Most recently, 18 Principlist lawmakers criticized his ministry’s orders to local media to refrain from negative coverage of the nuclear deal with six world powers and demanded an explanation from Jannati himself.

Khamenei’s comments last summer were not his first expression of concern about cultural policies. Two years ago, at a meeting with members of the Assembly of Experts, he expressed “worry” about cultural issues and requested that officials “be attentive to what they do,” since “in cultural issues, one cannot be careless.” And in an unexpected meeting with the Cabinet last summer, he stated that “cultural mistakes and errors cannot be easily compensated” and that it is therefore necessary that “in the cultural arena, the establishment’s policies be clearly understood and implemented."

Notably, Khamenei did not take part in the annual book fair in Tehran. The exhibition, held at the grand Mosalla Mosque grounds, is a major event on the cultural calendar. Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, Khamenei’s chief of staff, said that Khamenei’s “heavy workload and numerous responsibilities” have left no time for an appearance. Principlists interpreted his absence as a sign of opposition to the administration’s cultural policies.

Khamenei’s stance on cultural matters is one of the main reasons why Principlists and others opposed to the government are putting pressure on Jannati. The minister of culture faces criticism over a range of matters, from the issuing of permits for media outlets close to the Reformists and Hassan Rouhani to the controversial matter of female singers. He has also come under fire for permitting certain concerts and allowing the screening of films that Principlists claim have “issues.” Moreover, at the last Persian New Year, Jannati was criticized for meeting with former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Ali Asghar Ramezanpour, who served as deputy minister of culture under Khatami, said Jannati is not recognized as a Principlist, regardless of his family history. Of note, Jannati is the son of Ahmad Jannati, the hard-line chairman of the Guardian Council. Ramezanpour added that the younger Jannati used to act as a mediator between Reformists and Principlists as he was “among the deputies” when Khatami served as minister of culture (1982-92).

Ramezanpour, who was a deputy under Ahmad Masjed-Jamei, told Al-Monitor, “In general, opposition to the Ministry [of Culture] is not just the result of opposition to individuals, but more the ministry’s policies, which are closer to those of the Reformists.”

This may perhaps be the reason why Jannati is one of the few ministers who have received two “yellow cards” from parliament. A soccer term, “yellow card” is local political lingo for what happens when parliamentarians are unconvinced by a minister’s responses when summoned. If faced with yet another “yellow card,” Jannati’s impeachment may go into motion. Based on amendments to parliamentary regulations — put in place by the 8th parliament (2008-12) — a minister may be impeached if a majority of lawmakers remain skeptical about his or her responses when summoned a third time.

Ramezanpour said one of the reasons for this is that “with the changing political atmosphere during the era of [former President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, extremists got to steer the pressure groups against the government’s cultural programs, while other figures who were closer to the traditional right wing — to which Jannati is close — lost control over these pressure groups, especially in the parliament.”

Regardless, it seems that the yellow cards have not put a halt to Jannati’s approach. Some lawmakers, such as Hamid Rasaei of the hard-line Endurance Front, are of the belief that these “yellow cards” have no affect on Jannati’s actions and that the minister has used “insulting language” on several occasions. They said that getting even “10 yellow cards from parliament” will have no significance for him.

The Principlist approach can potentially be seen as a continuation of the trend when Khatami was in power (1997-2005). Then, Khamenei — and the majority of Principlists — were vocally opposed to the approaches of Ministers of Culture Ataollah Mohajerani and subsequently Masjed-Jamei.

Upon taking office, Jannati clearly stated that Masjed-Jamei had made “significant contributions” before, and after, the Cabinet formation. He also expressed hope that these contributions “would continue.” Probably based on these very words, a Principlist website close to member of parliament Alireza Zakani later claimed that the “precondition” for Jannati’s position was that “the Ministry of Culture effectively remain for the Reformists in the Cabinet.”

Ramezanpour pointed to this, saying, “The majority of staff who Jannati used during his first days in office were middle managers who were close to the Reformists, until gradually, the Reformist atmosphere became dominant in the executive level of the ministry.”

This is likely one reason why the Principlists are sensitive toward the Ministry of Culture. Principlist outlets have previously reported that upon Ahmadinejad’s inauguration in 2005, Khamenei told then-Minister of Culture Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, “You were handed an impure rug and you are sitting on it. Therefore, whoever is now the minister of culture should at first remove the impurity, wash and make the rug clean and pure.”

However, in an interview with the Reformist daily Shargh, Jannati said that some of the criticisms of the government’s cultural policies stem from organizations linked to conservative elements that are creating headlines that are then “given to the country’s officials.” He added that the criticism “comes from some organizations that use government budgets. … They are all lies. When we look at them, we see that from the beginning to the end, they are nothing but forgery and falsification.”

Thus, as the Principlists attempt to impose their own cultural agenda, which has to some degree been met with resistance, will the government be able to withstand these pressures? Or will the nuclear deal be turned into an excuse to offer concessions to the Principlists in the cultural arena? 

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