Iran was on a verge of some significant ruptures on the eve of the current crisis in its neighbourhood. The astonishing military gains of the Islamic States of Iraq and Levant, and the media coverage of the unfolding crisis in Iraq have now overshadowed what could have been a fundamental battle at the heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The arrest and subsequent release of six Iranians for dancing to the Happy tune of Pharrell Williams made international news headlines. But incredible as it may sound, in the context of a country ruled by a religious regime, that’s not a big deal. What followed was much more significant. The incident highlighted the schism between the conservative and reformist factions in the Iranian leadership. It had the potential to put the mild mannered President Hassan Rouhani on a collision course with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Following the public humiliation of the six offenders, President Rouhani tweeted that the government should not object to expressions of joy and happiness. This was clearly aimed at the security forces who pursued the case and the state controlled media which broadcast interviews with the six now-unhappy Iranians to shame them. This show of support for expression of happiness, in this case via a home-made dance video clip, was a red herring to the conservative clergy, who rebuked the president (without naming him). The position of the conservatives was straightforward: the Islamic government of Iran had a responsibility to lead the population on the right path ‘even by flogging’.
President Rouhani’s response to this backlash was intriguing. In response to the conservatives’ claims of responsibility for the population, he said people could not be led to heaven in the afterlife by force, even if force was well-intentioned. In a subsequent statement he warned against state-controlled religion. In his words: ‘a religious state is good, but can’t say the same about state-controlled religion’. This is a profound critique of the Islamic republic of Iran. Others have been incarcerated, and worse, for criticising the monopolisation of religion by the ruling clergy in Iran.
So why did President Rouhani articulate such ideas that go to the very heart of the regime? After all, Rouhani came to office less than a year ago with the clear mandate to remove US-led sanctions by resolving the dispute with the international community over Iran’s nuclear programme. He has made good progress on that front because he has managed to keep the Supreme Leader on his side. But this has come at a price. Rouhani has effectively been silent on issues of civil liberty and individual freedoms. He has not pursued the freedom of political prisoners, most famously the two reformist 2009 presidential candidates who continue to live under house arrest. In the domestic arena Rouhani has tended to yield to the conservatives and this has led to disillusionment among his supporters.
Loss of popular support will put Rouhani in a precarious situation. He is mindful that the dissipation of the popular energy which brought him to office, will make him a sitting duck. Without a resounding popular support-base, Rouhani will be at the mercy of his conservative critics who have the ear of the Supreme Leader. He cannot afford to lose popular support.
Rouhani’s criticism of the most blatant excesses of the Islamic regime was aimed at slowing the disillusionment of the Iranian youth and their disengagement with his government. Rouhani needs their support to follow through with his No.1 priority: removing economic sanctions on Iran.
In his attempt to retain his popular support-base Rouhani has come close, however, to losing the confidence of the Supreme Leader. The concept of leading the population to the gates of heaven in the afterlife as a key responsibility of the Islamic state is not a new one, and the Supreme Leader is on record as an advocate for this. For the conservatives it is the raison d’être of the Islamic state. But the position that Rouhani advocated came dangerously close to a separation of religion and state, a taboo in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The battle over the role of religion in politics was soon aborted, however, as the ISIL menace emerged on the horizon. For all the challenges that ISIL presents to Iran, it may be a blessing in disguise in diverting attention away from an ongoing challenge in the Islamic Republic.