The Principlist camp has for some time sought to project a nonradical image, trying to move away from past experiences that Iranian society associates with it. However, these efforts have not always been successful. Indeed, the radical current within the camp continues to remain active — to the chagrin of more influential conservative forces.
On June 7, following the terrorist attacks in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei encouraged his supporters to “fire at will” against presumed enemies of the state. His remarks caused an uproar in Iran’s political circles.
Ten days later, on June 17, Hossein Allahkaram, the leader of Ansar-e Hezbollah, a radical faction of the Principlist movement, said his group would use Khamenei’s “fire at will” order against women entering sporting arenas. "We are ready to implement the order of the leader of the revolution to fire at will,” he said. “This organization has complaints about the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, which has illegally and unlawfully dragged hundreds of women and girls as spectators to the recent volleyball games of men.”
Meanwhile, given the many reactions to Khamenei’s remarks, some Principlists immediately took it upon themselves to provide explanations about the meaning of the “order,” so as to prevent potential unlawful and self-willed measures from others within their camp. On June 10, the hard-line Kayhan daily accused some political groups of collaborating with foreign elements to distort Khamenei’s order by linking it to a lack of rule of law. To prevent potential measures from radicals, former member of parliament Elyas Naderan tried to interpret the "fire at will" concept from an economic perspective. Naderan, who is a prominent Principlist figure, tweeted June 12, “When we have millions of unemployed youths, ‘fire at will’ means that if you can employ a youth, do so.” Moreover, in a harsh statement released June 19, the Student Basij at Iran’s Broadcasting University accused Allahkaram of having a “shallow view” of the supreme leader’s words.
However, the more radical Principlists have pursued an interpretation of Khamenei’s order that is in line with their political agenda. On June 23, a group of hard-liners approached moderate President Hassan Rouhani as he was marching on the occasion of International Quds Day, chanting harsh slogans against him, calling him a hypocrite and an “American.” They did not stop at Rouhani; they also shouted similar slogans against parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and prominent member of parliament Ali Motahari.
Although the slogans were nothing new, the fact that they were loudly condemned by some Principlists was a new development. Tasnim News Agency, one of the main conservative media outlets and a critic of Rouhani, published a piece titled “In condemnation of the unsuitable act against the President” on June 23 and called the insults shouted by some at Rouhani as “impolite and offensive.” One day later, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a leading Principlist theoretician, also condemned the assault on Rouhani.
At the Eid al-Fitr prayers June 26, Iranians got to see yet another side of the hard-liners. Minutes before Khamenei began his annual sermon, a eulogist recited a poem against Rouhani and his administration. Later that day, the head of Tehran’s Friday Prayers Headquarters said he was not aware of the content of the poem that was read.
As such, it appears as if there is a minority within the Principlist camp that is in favor of radicalizing the public atmosphere, while most Principlists are seeking to avoid hard-line measures.
To remove ambiguities, the supreme leader elaborated on the concept of “fire at will” during his sermon and said, “'Fire at will' means spontaneous and clean cultural work and does not mean lawlessness, cursing, giving thoughtless … people an excuse to complain.”
As tensions grew, former member of parliament Alireza Zakani, a loud critic of the Rouhani administration, proposed a political truce with the government July 1, a suggestion followed by many reactions. Former member of parliament Ahmad Tavakoli, a moderate Principlist and a critic of Rouhani, wrote on Twitter the same day, “Zakani’s proposal should be engraved in gold.”
However, the Reformists did not seem to welcome the idea of a truce. Reformist media outlets in particular tried to throw the ball back into Zakani’s court and said that the conflict was initiated by him and his compatriots. On July 3, Zakani took back his truce offer and instead attacked the $5 billion gas deal signed with French energy giant Total. “This is the time for 'fire at will,' [this is the time] to shout and take appropriate measures. Truce is no longer permissible,” Zakani said.
Commenting on Zakani’s offer of a truce, Tehran University professor Sadegh Zibakalam told Al-Monitor, “This measure should be viewed positively, of course, and should not be left without a response. At the same time, we should not forget that it was Mr. Zakani’s friends who started the fire.”
Although the Principlist movement, and especially its upper echelons, is in favor of standing up against the radicalism of others within the camp, it seems as if the Reformists’ pride in having won consecutive parliamentary, presidential as well as city and village council elections during the past four years may push some moderate Principlists to the margins. Meanwhile, the speedy response of some Principlists to figures such as Allahkaram is an indication that they have no desire for instability or to have a potential repeat of the political atmosphere during the time of former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami — or for self-propelled Principlist forces to have a prominent role. However, it may be foolish to assume that the Principlists can succeed in this endeavor. Indeed, the Reformists’ harsh, proud and maybe even radical reactions could very well ignite the fire of radicalism, similar to what happened during the Reformist-dominated sixth parliament (2000-2004).