Iran's Clerics, Elected Politicians Maneuver Ahead of Parliamentary Polls

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The shooting down last week of a Ukrainian passenger over Tehran is at the center of rising tensions between Iran’s clerics and the country’s elected politicians.

Amid public fury with the belated admission by authorities that a missile battery operator “mistakenly” shot down the aircraft, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has called for a “special court” to be set up for any trial of those held responsible.

This would in effect take the trial out of the hands of the judiciary, which is controlled by the clerical regime’s enforcers, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, say analysts.

Rouhani has said the special court should be staffed not only by senior judges, but also by other legal experts. Iran’s judiciary has said several people have been arrested in connection with the downing of the jet, but their names have not yet been disclosed.

“It is not that the one individual who pressed the button is to be blamed only. There are others involved and I want this to be explained to the nation with honesty,” Rouhani said midweek. He added: “For our people it is very important in this incident that anyone who was at fault or negligent at any level” face justice, he said in a televised speech.

People gather for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the Ukraine plane crash, at the gate of Amrikabir University, where some of the victims were former students, in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 11, 2020.

Iranian authorities initially blamed mechanical problems or pilot error for the jet’s crash, before admitting three days later that Iranian military personnel unintentionally shot down the plane, mistaking it for a U.S. cruise missile. All 176 on board died.

Rouhani’s remarks are being taken by some observers as an attempt to soothe mounting public anger, which has gripped Iran amid accusations of a state cover-up. Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Tehran and other major cities demanding the country’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, resign and targeting the IRGC with their chants. Videos posted online this week appear to show security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the street protests.

The downing of the plane came hours after Tehran had launched a barrage of missiles at bases housing American troops in Iraq, retaliating for the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. strike.

But how to contain the political fallout from the shooting down of the jet, and how to benefit politically from the crash, seems to be at the center of a new power struggle between Iran’s Rouhani faction and the IRGC, according to analysts.

“The way in which the government and the rest of the establishment handle the broader repercussions of this plane crash could be a watershed moment for Iran,” says Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, an analyst with Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

Rouhani also has been targeted by protesters with calls for his resignation, as well as Ayatollah Khamenei’s, and analysts say Rouhani is moving fast to try to distance himself from the incident and to channel public anger.  

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei talks to clerics in his Islamic thoughts class in Tehran, Nov. 17, 2019.

Noticeably, Rouhani’s call for full transparency and accountability were made during a speech in which he also took issue with the barring of thousands of people, including 90 current lawmakers, from running in next month’s Parliamentary elections. Although hard-liners are among those disqualified by the country’s powerful Guardian Council, most rejected are pro-reform, according to Tehran newspaper Etemad.

Rouhani mounted a stinging critique of the council, saying it is not possible to run the country with just one faction in power. He compared rigging candidates to a store-owner placing a thousand copies of the same item on its shelves and telling customers they have plenty to choose from.

Half of the clerics and jurists sitting on the Guardian Council are appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, and the Guardian Council also screens candidates running for office, as well as legislation, to ensure compatibility with Iran’s theocratic system. Rouhani’s son-in-law is believed to be among those disqualified from running.

Rouhani’s comments drew complaints from the Guardian Council. Its spokesman, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, accused Rouhani in a tweet of initiating an “anti-national project,” but he then joked, “of course, I did not know that the disqualification of relatives means omitting other factions.”

Supporters of the Iranian president say he’s still fuming about having been kept in the dark for several days, like the public, by the IRGC about the true cause of the crash. The missile that brought down the jetliner was fired from an IRGC base west of Tehran.

IRGC leaders say they regret the downing of the Ukrainian jet, but they have sought to justify the error by saying they were in a state of high alert because they were anticipating a U.S. response to an Iranian missile attack on two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops.

Women walk past a banner of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone attack, in Tajrish square in northern Tehran, Iran, Jan. 9, 2020.

Hardline political factions tied to the IRGC had appeared likely to benefit from the U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with commentators suggesting they’d be able to exploit the outcry over the assassination to ensure their candidates fared well in the February elections. Turnout had been expected to be low. That may not be the case now with the popular backlash against the IRGC showing no signs of abating.

The initial bid to cover up the cause for the crash appears to be inflaming long-standing grievances over the parlous state of the economy and the repressiveness of the system. The ranks of the discontented appear to be growing, with Iranian celebrities also expressing their outrage at the shoot-down of the jet and the attempt to mask the cause.

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