Rouhani’s Attempts To Woo Mesbaah Yazdi Fall on Deaf Ears

President Hassan Rouhani, the self-described moderate, is finding that Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi,described by almost everybody as an ultra-conservative, is a very tough nut to crack. For months, Rouhani has been trying to woo the ayatollah, with little to show for it.

This week Rouhani sent Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and a deputy foreign minister to visit the ayatollah. The officials were given instructions to explain the Geneva accord and the government’s nuclear policy to the ayatollah. In December, Rouhani sent his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to the holy city of Qom, the theological center of the Islamic Republic, with the same intention.

Since he was elected president in June 2013, Rouhani, himself a cleric, has tried to establish good relations with Shia religious leaders to prevent, or at least reduce, tensions caused by his policies. And in January, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called on the president to show more tolerance and generosity towards his critics.

In recent weeks, Rouhani’s cultural policies have come under increasing attack from high-level clerics, including from Ayatollah Yazdi, who has been fiercely critical. “Our fundamental criticism of the government is not about nuclear negotiations,” Yazdi said. “Our main worry is about the government’s cultural policies, which are similar to the policies of tolerance adopted by the reformist government,” he added, referring to former president Khatami’s administration. These policies, he warned, could lead to “sedition” even more dangerous than what was experienced in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election.

Nuclear Negotiators Must Stand up to Bullies

Yazdi has not, of course, spared Rouhani’s nuclear policies and negotiations from his attacks. “The negotiating team could have stood up against those who maligned and bad-mouthed the nation of Iran,” he said in recent weeks. “They have justified such defamation by saying that it was for domestic consumption. Instead, they should have condemned the bullying and, if any objections were raised, they should have countered that ‘our words are for domestic consumption.’” Here he was referring to the January talks, when President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif dismissed comments made by some US politicians as rhetoric aimed at a US domestic audience, with no relevance for Iran. Yazdi added that placing “too much emphasis” on the problems created by economic sanctions was “not the right thing to do”, and pointed specifically to Rouhani’s and Zarif’s references to Iran’s “empty treasury” and their statements that a good part of the population were “in dire need of a few eggs”.

When it comes to criticizing Rouhani’s government, Ayatollah Yazdi has not limited himself to just a few topics. For his views on Rouhani’s draft Citizenship Rights Charter click here.

Mesbah Yazdi is, among other things, the spiritual leader of the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, acoalition established to advance the goals of hardliner fundamentalists during the parliamentary elections of 2012. In that election, candidates associated with the Front won only 43 seats, or 14.8 per cent of the votes. But they are some of the most active and vocal opponents of any policy that they believe could weaken the strict Islamic backbone of Iran’s political system or the power of the Supreme Leader. So it is only logical that Rouhani would try to mollify coalition members by consulting with the ayatollah.

In recent months, the Front has concentrated its energies on criticizing the nuclear accord and has called on Zarif to appear on television to answer their questions.

Following the Geneva nuclear agreement between Iran and the group of P5+1 countries, religious and political figures and media outlets associated with the Front did their best to point out weaknesses in the accord and influence public opinion. But this is just one side of the coin. Iran’s political environment lacks firmly established parties, so creating a favorable atmosphere in the media is a way of influencing the decision-making process and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

For the Front’s activists, the real worry is that supporters of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani will succeed in imposing their policies on Ayatollah Khamenei by way of Rouhani and Zarif. They have not forgotten the fact that Khamenei approved the first round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West in 2003, led by then-chief negotiator Rouhani. The West also accepted this stage of negotiations, averting a showdown. The Front tries hard to create the impression, in both the media and among public perception, that the majority of politicians and ordinary people are against the nuclear policies of Rouhani’s administration.

Room to Maneuver

The current state of affairs suits Ayatollah Khamenei. Opposing voices give him more room to maneuver so that, if need be, he can derail the negotiation process and present it as a response to popular demand.

These tactics, however, have also had unintended consequences. As criticism of Rouhani’s government unfolded, some information that had previously been secret, including disagreements at the highest levels of political decision-making, Khamenei’s views, Iranian military tactics in Syria and other sensitive topics, came to light. In a closed meeting last week, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament, warned MPs associated with the Front to stop revealing secret information. As a result, the number of critical remarks fell.

Many of the security gaffes made by Front supporters have resulted from their political inexperience and their radical beliefs. In the past, Rouhani has referred to them as “illiterates”, a characterization that provoked sharp reactions from Mesbah Yazdi and figures like him. “You are selling the people’s honor,” Yazdi snapped back, “and you are wasting the blood of the martyrs of the past three decades to get back a few dollars that was your own money to start with. What a ridiculous idea! Today they tell the clergy that ‘you are not experts to talk about political and economic issues. Then why are you talking? Go back to your seminary.’” He added that “the Shah said the same thing: ‘These mullahs have burrowed their heads in the sand and don’t understand anything about politics or the world’.”

Given the depth, breadth and severity of Yazdi’s criticisms, it was unlikely that tensions between Rouhani’s officials and Yazdi could be reduced over the course of a few meetings. The ayatollah feels duty-bound to oppose reformists, people who are close to reformists or even the fundamentalists who do not play politics his way.

“We did our duty and thank God for it, even though we suffered many hardships and were criticized and slandered,” he said in June 2013, after the poor showing of fundamentalists in the presidential elections. “If tomorrow we are confronted with the same duty, we will do it again.”

With this kind of logic at play, the future of the relationship between Rouhani’s government and the leader of the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability seems all too clear.

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