The question of supremacy

Both Iranian and Pakistani elected governments seem to be trying to break the shackles of an overgrown establishment

The question of supremacy

On July 17, two important events took place with reference to Iran. One, President Hassan Rouhani’s brother was arrested and then released on bail; and two, the Pak-Iran border once again witnessed some violence when a couple of Iranian citizens were killed allegedly by extremists attacking from Pakistan. But, first Hussein Faridon, the brother of Hassan Rouhani.

Faridon is an Iranian politician who had played an active role in negotiating the nuclear deal with mostly the western countries in 2015. During those negotiations, Faridon was reported to have informed and advised Rouhani at every step. This deal, called Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, was signed in Vienna in July 2015, and now it has been exactly two years since its conclusion. Through this deal, Iran reached an agreement with the group of Five-Plus-One and the European Union. Five-Plus-One includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

Now that Hussein Faridon has been arrested and reportedly released on the same day, the charges against him are becoming clear. He is accused of being involved in a Pay-Slip scandal of a government-owned insurance company. Of course, he has been denying the charges but this scandal has perturbed the Iranian president for over a year now. The scandal came to the fore in 2016 when the details of the payments to high officials at the insurance company became known to the public. It transpired that the officials were receiving hefty salaries which were manifold higher than what they were entitled to.

Then more documents kept appearing in the media from mysterious sources making it clear that the insurance company officials were paid much more than even the highest officers in banks. Some were getting fifty times higher salaries than other government officials. In addition, a few officers were found to be awarding themselves heavy bonuses and extra payments in violation of the payrolls -- making their salaries hundreds of times more than other officers. These revelations created unrest not only among the public but also in the ordinary staff of the government machinery who demanded a disciplinary action against the insurance company officials.

Then it was revealed that during travels many high officials stayed in hotels charging over US$5,000 per night. Speculations were rife that this stream of revelations came at the behest of the Iranian establishment to tarnish the image of President Hassan Rouhani. The Iranian establishment consists of not only the armed forces but also a strong Shia clergy that straddles Iran like an octopus. This establishment is led by the conservative supreme leader, Ali Khamenei who commands authority over the entire state. Just like in Pakistan’s Panama Leaks scandal, the Pay-slip scandal in Iran appears to be an attempt to tighten the noose around the popularly elected government of Iran.

All countries of this region -- Afghanistan, India, Iran, and Pakistan -- have become hostages of a so-called nationalistic narrative that perpetuates border tensions.

Both Hassan Rouhani and his brother Hussein Faridon had enraged the Iranian establishment by concluding the nuclear deal with the western powers. The establishment retaliated by facilitating and intensifying the smear campaign against both. Just like in so many other countries including Pakistan, an establishment consists of the selected individuals who somehow consider themselves superior to the elected lot. This type of establishment contains in its fold, in addition to civil and military bureaucracy, an overactive judiciary that derives its strength from the mostly conservative segments of society including the religious right.

These segments work in collusion with the state machinery to avail themselves of various benefits such association entails. In Iran, this scandal strengthens Khamenei and his conservative coteries who are trying to push Rouhani to the wall. But all this failed because the people of Iran have once again elected Rouhani for the second term. Now, Hussein Faridon is accused of having close relations with the insurance company officials and getting financial benefits from them. Another important name in this fraud is Ali Rastegar Surkhie, the former managing director of Bank Mellat. The Revolutionary Guards arrested him last year.

The Revolutionary Guards are another element of the Iranian establishment who are technically part of the Iranian military established after the revolution in 1979. The regular army in Iran is called Artish which is mostly responsible for defending the borders and, to some extent, maintaining the law-and-order situation in the country. The Revolutionary Guards are primarily responsible for enforcing the Shia Islam as propagated by the clergy that considers itself the defender of the Shia Islam. The Revolutionary Guards claim to be serving as the bulwark against any foreign influences trying to infiltrate the ‘citadel’ of Shia Islam.

How similar it sounds with the rhetoric we hear in Pakistan! When Hassan Rouhani signed the nuclear deal, the Revolutionary Guards were not amused. Now, they consist of over 125,000 strong force in addition to the para-military forces called Basij that is made of an additional 100,000 soldiers. Now another representative of the Iranian establishment i.e. the spokesperson of the judiciary, Gholam Hussain Mohsini, has declared that multiple investigations are underway against Hussein Faridon. Many other individuals have also been jailed in this connection. Faridon was given an option to submit the bail money for his release which, apparently, he did but the case will continue.

The supporters of Hassan Rouhani maintain that by implicating the President’s brother the establishment is intensifying the pressure on him so that the elected government remains under the thumb of the unelected civil and military bureaucracy. Any attempt by the government to assert its authority in the wake of the newly-won elections is being challenged. The tussle between the elected president, Rouhani, and the leader of the theocratic state, Khamenei, is once again emerging as a defining conflict between the government and the state. The situation is not very different from what we have been witnessing in Pakistan.

The question of supremacy remains paramount between the unelected conservatives, religious or otherwise, who have a set opinion of ‘traditional enemies’ and the elected representatives who want to normalise relations with everyone, be it India with Pakistan or America with Iran. Just like in Pakistan, the dispute in Iran is the same i.e. who will have the ultimate upper hand i.e. army and judiciary or the elected government. Lately, Hassan Rouhani has been criticising the Iranian judiciary in almost the same manner as we see in Pakistan. Rouhani maintains that the judiciary is taking arbitrary actions that are uncalled for.

If you look at the four decades following the revolution in Iran, it becomes clear that almost all elected presidents have been subjected to pressures from the supreme leader be it Ayatollah Khomeini or Khamenei. If a president has managed to survive the first tenure unscathed he has inevitably tried to assert his authority during the second term by making some independent decisions. But, the Iranian establishment has been overall successful in thwarting those attempts with aplomb. Perhaps, Rouhani is the first president who has taken the establishment head on by trying to improve relations with the western countries.

Now the Iranian establishment is in a counter-attack mode and using all familiar methods of intimidation. Those who keep a close eye on the politics in Iran may remember the first post-revolution president, Abul Hasan Bani Sadr, who was impeached and forced into exile because he had started speaking against the clergy. Though now there is little chance of any impeachment against Rouhani, his brother is being targeted. The Iranian society, now, appears to be on the verge of a battle that will decide as to who will rule the country.

The second important event concerns the killing of two Iranian citizens on the Pak-Iran border. The Revolutionary Guards have claimed that militants living in Pakistan have attacked from across the border. The Jihadi organisation, Jaishal Adl, has in the past targeted many Iranians. This time around, it may be the same terrorist outfit that Iran claims to be anti-Shia. In June, the Foreign Office in Pakistan had claimed that a drone was shot down in Panjgore district of Balochistan. This drone had apparently entered the Pakistan territory and was shot down by Pakistani forces a few kilometres inside Pakistan.

Prior to this, in April and May 2017, the border tensions had intensified and Iran had called Pakistani ambassador in Tehran and lodged a formal protest. This border tension is becoming another headache for President Rouhani, but it becomes very difficult for an elected government to blame its own army or border guards for aggravating the situation. Whenever border tensions increase the government ends up owning up to the same belligerent narrative expounded by the forces. Threatening the neighbouring countries becomes a hallmark of such rhetoric so that no normalisation of relations can take place.

Looking with this perspective, all countries of this region -- Afghanistan, India, Iran, and Pakistan -- have become hostages of a so-called nationalistic narrative that perpetuates border tensions. India, with its Hindu fundamentalist and nationalist BJP in power, has a unified government-and-state outlook which is extremely dangerous for the region.

Now, there is a dire need for the elected governments in this region to adopt a conciliatory parlance, despite the pressure from the state to do otherwise. The supremacy of the elected representatives needs to be respected but if they themselves become chauvinists and jingoists, civil society must resist.

The good omen is that both Iran and Pakistan are trying to break the shackles of an overgrown establishment. It needs to be seen where this journey takes them.

The question of supremacy