By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran
Just one hour before the ceremonies were due to begin at the sometimes controversial annual celebration of weekly reformist magazine Chelcheragh, the judicial order was delivered.
It was time for the journalists, musicians, movie directors and athletes on the 2,000-strong guest list to go home.
Iran’s conservative judiciary had declared that last week’s party was off. “As the news came all the excitement turned into depression,” one attendee said. “We felt those in the main power centres never loosen their grip over power and do not let reformists breathe.” A hardline newspaper, Kayhan, said the artists and athletes were just there to provide cover for a political gathering and that former reformist president Mohammad Khatami had been due to make a speech.
The slow pace of cultural and political change under centrist president Hassan Rouhani has angered reformists, who expect more from the man they backed in last June’s presidential poll, even as they blame fundamentalists for blocking the government’s moves to ease censorship and suppression.
Mr Rouhani owes his unexpected victory to the pro-reform groups and leaders who mobilised people to vote for him. In return, he promised reconciliation with the world through the resolution of the nuclear crisis and better times for an economy long battered by international sanctions.
Since then, Iran has agreed with the six big powers – US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany – to restrict its nuclear work in return for modest relief of sanctions. There have also been some economic gains; inflation has eased to 39.3 per cent from 40 per cent and the rial has stabilised against the dollar.
But reformist hopes for a cultural flowering and an easing of internet censorship have not been met. Since Mr Rouhani came to power, the judiciary has not only cancelled last week’s gathering but stopped reformist journalists from publishing new newspapers. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter – and from last month VChat – continue to be blocked. Some MPs have criticised government support for women singing solo as propagating anti-Islamic mores.
Last week, Mr Rouhani said he was not scared of “yellow cards” – official parliamentary warnings to arts and culture ministers which can pave the way for their impeachment. “When we tie up art and artists, we in fact pave the ground for the enemies’ planes to land,” he said.
Yet reformists remain frustrated. While some moderate politicians have been appointed to regional governorships, there are few prominent reformists in Mr Rouhani’s administration, a fact that privately irks those who backed him. At the same time, opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, key figures in anti-regime street protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election, remain under house arrest. Fundamentalists fear their release would strengthen support for reformists ahead of parliamentary elections next year.
“Other than foreign policy and nuclear negotiations and to some extent the economy, it is difficult to find out what the government’s policies in cultural and political fields are,” said one reform-minded analyst. “It is not right to say it’s still early. But probably because of the huge devastation the government has inherited in all fields, it has decided to focus on foreign policy and economy.”
The pace of change is even slower in the provinces. In Khuzestan, once home to winter cultural events because of its pleasant weather, so little has changed that commentators say it is as if previous fundamentalist president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad is still in power.
“We expected some dynamism but are getting disappointed that nothing may happen in [southern] Khuzestan province,” one local journalist said. In the northeastern province of Khorasan-Razavi, an analyst said members of parliament have put local officials under pressure not to implement any new policies. “You see a widespread disappointment being shaped among reformists as previous officials are not replaced and no change in policies is seen,” he added.
All this speaks to the fact that Mr Rouhani faces a tricky balancing act, analysts say. Too much reform could anger fundamentalists and jeopardise nuclear negotiations. “Rouhani seems to be even distancing [himself] from reformists to ease the pressure from fundamentalists,” one reformist politician said.
Also on the horizon are the 2015 parliamentary elections. The hardliners’ determination to stop the reformists gaining ground in these polls is evident in their continued reference to the 2009 street protests. Mohammad-Javad Larijani, a senior judiciary official, said western countries “hope to revive those who were involved in the sedition [unrest] in another form in the future”.
Once a sustainable nuclear agreement has been agreed, Mr Rouhani may be emboldened to stand up to the fundamentalists. “If the government comes out of the nuclear crisis triumphantly and eases economic woes, then Rouhani’s hands will be more open in domestic politics,” one reformist politician said. “But if he fails in the nuclear talks and loses the parliamentary election, he will have a very difficult time even for his own re-election.”