May 19, 2017


The Islamic Republic Is Heading for an Identity Crisis : As Iranians go to the polls, the divide between the country's octogenarian ayatollahs and its young population is wider than ever. (ARTHUR MACMILLAN, MAY 19, 2017, Foreign Policy)

Raisi, a 56-year-old cleric whose graying beard and dour demeanor make him look much older, would likely herald another era of isolation. His clerical credentials appeal to the pious -- he was taught at seminary college by the now-supreme leader. Raisi, however, is a political novice; he appeared wooden in the televised debates. Like Rouhani, he has a history of high-ranking official positions -- but this includes posts where he approved death sentences, including thousands of political prisoners killed in the 1980s. Iranians do not forget such a past, and Rouhani was not afraid to point it out. "The people of Iran shall once again announce that they don't approve of those who only called for executions and jail throughout the last 38 years," he said on May 8. [...]

Raisi's economic strategy also appears to be drawn from Ahmadinejad's disastrous playbook.Raisi's economic strategy also appears to be drawn from Ahmadinejad's disastrous playbook. His campaign promise to triple state handouts to the nation's poorest is a direct copy of the former president. During Ahmadinejad's administration, such payments proved ill-directed, took inflation above 40 percent, and set Iran on a path toward bankruptcy.

But the hard-line camp appears deaf to the economic and political lessons from this episode. The popular backlash to Ahmadinejad's policies, which were seen as impoverishing regular Iranians while enriching a small elite, were severe. The hard-line camp lost the presidency to Rouhani in 2013, and its candidates were again routed in last year's parliamentary elections following the nuclear deal.

A pro-Raisi rally in a Tehran prayer hall on May 16 underlined that there has not been any recognition, let alone a reckoning, among hard-liners on the causes for their electoral defeats. A video at the event showed women in black robes firing rocket-propelled grenades -- propaganda that is a far cry from the peaceful engagement that Rouhani espouses. The president may say that Iran is not a danger to any country, but missiles that carry slogans pledging to wipe Israel off the map suggest otherwise.

The talk at the Raisi rally was of problems caused by outsiders. There was no acceptance among the crowd that the nuclear agreement was necessary only because the covert elements of Iran's atomic and missile programs led to sanctions in the first place. Such displays of revolutionary dogma play well among the converted, but it is the votes of the unconvinced that Raisi needs on polling day.

More basic differences between the moderate reformists and hard-line camps illustrate Iran's fundamental divides. While pro-Rouhani events have seen smiling mothers and daughters in colorful headscarves working side by side with men, Raisi's gatherings have seen strict gender segregation and near uniformity among women, mainly older, of the head-to-toe black chador. While loud music is often played at reformist rallies to keep the crowd happy, an austere atmosphere akin to a sermon prevails when conservatives meet. One campaign has spoken of future hopes, the other complains about the past.

Such constraints are becoming untenable. Just as the internet can no longer be banned -- the hard-liners' campaigns embraced Telegram and other mobile channels this year -- basic changes in Iran's population cannot be ignored. While the ruling elite emphasizes the "Islamic" in the Islamic Republic, fewer people than ever are going to the mosque. Most of the young population -- two-thirds of Iranians are under 30 -- want an iPhone more than a Quran. Yet they are ultimately ruled by old men, the most powerful of which are almost all octogenarian ayatollahs.

Posted by at May 19, 2017 6:24 PM