Disquiet within the Iranian elite

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 24 Jan 2023

Fears are growing within the Iranian elite that the regime’s current trajectory is increasingly putting Iran on a collision course with the West, writes Manal Lotfy

Disquiet within the Iranian elite
Protesters hold placards at a march in central London against IRGC (photo: AFP)


No one knows the mechanisms or logic of the decision-making in Iran at the moment.

But many pragmatists in the conservative camp and senior leaders in the reformist movement have been shocked and dismayed by what they believe to be dangerous and ill-thought-out decisions relating to Iran’s internal problems and international relations.

The recent execution of former Iranian deputy defence minister Alireza Akbari after he was convicted of spying for the British foreign intelligence agency MI6 has increased the internal disquiet and pushed Iran further towards international isolation.

The execution of Akbari, Iran’s deputy defence minister during the government of former Iranian president Mohamed Khatami, a reformist, caused alarm and apprehension among the Iranian elite, as he was the highest-ranking Iranian official to be executed for many years.

The Western reaction also means that Iran is facing a difficult period ahead. The British authorities said that the move would prompt Britain to reconsider its position in support of a new nuclear deal with Iran, and officials in London are discussing putting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on a list of terrorist organisations.

There are also strong doubts in the US, France, and Germany about a new nuclear deal after the execution of Akbari, the excessive use of force against demonstrators in Iran, and Tehran’s support for Moscow in its war against Ukraine by providing it with hundreds of Iranian-made drones.

Akbari, who held Iranian and British citizenship, was a reformist politician who worked in the Khatami administration during the original nuclear negotiations with the West.

However, he left Iran in 2009 and settled in Britain. His family said that Ali Shamkhani, a close adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, invited him to come to Iran in 2018 to help the regime to develop ideas to improve Iran’s international relations.

Akbari did not hesitate to accept Shamkhani’s invitation. However, on a second visit to Iran in 2019 he was arrested and charged with espionage, which he denied. The family said that any confession would have only come after thousands of hours of torture.

While the British authorities deny that Akbari spied for them, the Iranian authorities say that he cooperated with British intelligence and that this led to the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists.

When Akbari was sentenced to death, the family remained in the dark as to when he would be executed. Despite international calls for clemency, the Iranian authorities announced his execution on Saturday and told his family that he had been buried in a cemetery in Tehran, although he had asked to be buried in his hometown of Shiraz.

The family said that they did not attend the burial and did not see the body.

The execution has added to concerns inside Iran that the country’s current trajectory puts it on a collision course with the West. Some even fear that some international powers could exploit Iran’s current isolation to launch a military strike under the pretext of preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

There are many moderate and reformist voices that have begun to blame President Ebrahim Raisi’s government directly for the country’s plight.

The reformist Nedaye Iranian Party, or Voice of Iranians, which sees itself as representing the second generation of reformists in Iran, published a statement in the reformist Etemad newspaper on Monday calling on Raisi’s government to change course.

The head of the party is Sayed Mohamed Sadek Kharazi, a prominent Iranian diplomat and politician close to Khatami who participated in the nuclear talks with the West during the latter’s government.

He was Iran’s ambassador to the UN in 1989 and deputy foreign minister before becoming Iran’s ambassador to France from 2002 to 2006 when former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected to office.

In its statement, the reformist party criticises the current economic situation in Iran and says that Raisi’s government has “fallen into the hole that supporters of the current government dug for the previous government”.

It highlights the country’s economic problems and poor management and the anger of many Iranians at new laws currently being discussed in parliament that aim to tighten the censorship of the Internet and social media in Iran.

The party’s statement argues that moves to filter and slow down the Internet will not only aggravate Iranians “since it is a restriction on people’s rights and freedoms… and is against the letter and spirit of the constitution,” but will also damage Iran’s digital economy and hurt the ecosystem of the country.

The statement also condemns Iran’s worsening regional and international relations.

“As was easily predictable for everyone, Raisi’s government fell into the hole that the supporters of the current government dug for the previous government and are stuck in now,” it said.

“Yesterday’s candidate and today’s president… considered the country’s economy to be in no need of communication with the world,” it said, accusing the government of neglecting the economic crisis in the country.

“Numerous reminders and recommendations to the government have not born fruit, and the man in charge left the foreign policy to God in the hope of the harsh winter,” it added in a reference to what many reformists see as Raisi’s lack of effort to improve Iran’s international relations and finalise the new nuclear deal.

 Iranian officials say that the cold winter in Europe means that the markets will need Iranian oil whether a new nuclear deal is reached or not. Although Iran’s oil revenues are high, the economic situation in the country is difficult due to a rise in commodity and food prices and inflation reaching record levels of 45 per cent.

Many reformist voices have criticised the government budget, explaining that the defence budget has increased by about 160 per cent and the budget of the clergy in the city of Qom by about 55 per cent, while the salaries of employees and pensioners have increased by only between 15 and 25 per cent.

The party warns that the government’s policies serve Iran’s enemies by “crushing the poor economy of the country in the cogs of external pressure and internal self-sanctions… We hope that the government will take these warnings seriously and think about solving the fundamental roots of these problems.”

Former senior Iranian diplomats also expressed criticisms of the government in an interview with the Etemad newspaper.

Among them was Seyed Mohamed Sadr, former head of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Europe division who is still a serving member of the Expediency Council, the main advisory body to Khamenei.

There are also Jalal Sadatian, a senior diplomat in the UK between 1982 and 1986, and Hamid Aboutalebi, a former envoy to the EU and former political adviser to previous president Hassan Rouhani.

On Monday, Aboutalebi tweeted that “Iranian foreign policy has been captured by extremists.”

One Iranian reformist politician who has lived in London for years told Al-Ahram Weekly that the regime’s decisions appear to contradict the country’s interests.

“All the recent decisions reinforce Iran’s international isolation. I think we are at a dangerous crossroads. I have never been as worried as I am today. We are putting the country in a very weak position internally and externally,” he said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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