Faraji-Dana’s impeachment and the ‘great divide’ in Iranian politics

Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Reza Faraji-Dana, seen as being among the most reformist figures in President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet, has been impeached by the Iranian parliament over his efforts to reform the higher education system in Iran. While this is by no means the end of Rouhani’s domestic reform project, the president and Faraji-Dana’s handling of the affair does not bode well for the future of this project. This episode highlights the “great divide” in Iranian politics in which there is a tentative regime consensus on moderating foreign policy, especially in nuclear negotiations with the West, no consensus exists on introducing domestic reforms on the pressing social, political, and cultural issues on which Rouhani campaigned and was elected.

While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indulged in a tour of Ardabil this past Wednesday 20 August 2014, all was not well with his cabinet back in the capital Tehran. Embattled Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Reza Faraji-Dana, among the most reformist ministers appointed by Rouhani, was impeached by the Iranian parliament. The vote of no confidence broke down along predictably partisan lines, with those in favour of the motion garnering 145 votes, those against 110 votes, and 15 abstentions. The hardline conservative Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution (PFIR) faction, conservative Principalists faction, and moderate-conservative Followers of the Leadership faction, were the main backers of the impeachment effort. They highlighted a number of Faraji-Dana’s actions as motivating their vote, including granting universities the ability to nominate their own presidents, re-admitting faculty and students expelled for political activities, and investigating alleged corruption in the allocation of scholarships, among other things.

The president’s decision not to attend the session during which Faraji-Dana was expelled may indicate that the impeachment was a foregone conclusion. Regardless, by appointing Mohammad-Ali Najafi, who himself previously failed to gain parliament’s support as Rouhani’s nominee to the Ministry of Education, as caretaker minister in Faraji-Dana’s place, the president appears to be indicating that he is not backing down from this fight.

Still, the details of what unfolded in parliament do not give room for optimism that reform efforts in this ministry, especially as they relate to universities, will be successful. For one thing, Faraji-Dana’s speech on this occasion was defensive and often characterised by denials that such reform efforts were being undertaken at all. Leaked reports of the previous administration and current parliamentarian’s corrupt handling of higher education scholarships? Rather than going on the offensive on this issue and taking these officials to task, Faraji-Dana denied that the leak was deliberate and promised to investigate. Accusations that the ministry was allowing seditious publications on campuses to flourish? Faraji-Dana pointed out how the ministry under his leadership was closing down such publications. Demands that ministry officials accused of being “seditionists”, the regime’s terminology for the Green Movement, including Jafar Tofighi and Jafar Mili-Monfared be removed? Faraji-Dana agreed to do so if Speaker Larijani demanded it. His reconciliatory tone and gestures however ultimately did little to prevent his impeachment.

The impeachment vote was not the result of the intransigency of the more hardline PFIR faction or an alliance between it and the Principlist faction alone. The numbers appear to indicate that moderate conservatives from Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani’s Followers of the Leadership faction must have joined the hardline factions to give the vote of no confidence its slim majority. This episode highlights the “great divide” in Iranian politics. On one hand, an elite consensus exists within the regime on the need to moderate certain elements of Iranian foreign policy, especially as it relates to nuclear negotiations with the West, for the time being. On the other hand, at best no consensus exists on whether or not to reform the conservative social,political, and cultural policies in place, and at worst a slim reverse consensus exists to block reforms.

As we noted following the June 2013 presidential election, a number of factors, including conservative fragmentation and moderate conservatives’ desire for a less confrontational foreign policy and economic sanctions relief facilitated Rouhani’s rise to power. To navigate his domestic reforms through the maze of elite regime politics, especially in parliament, Rouhani must also seek to create a consensus on his domestic reform agenda that includes moderate conservatives aligned with Larijani’s Followers of the Leadership faction and even the Principalists faction. Whether this is a probable or even realistic scenario remains unclear, but after the Faraji’s-Dana’s impeachment the prospects look dim in the short-term.