Why Nowruz face-off poses a new challenge for Rowhani

The messages of New Year’s greetings exchanged by Iran’s top leadership were not conciliatory this time around

Camelia Entekhabi-Fard

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Nowruz day (the vernal equinox and the first day of the year in the Iranian calendar) is considered the most festive and celebratory day in the country. Family and friends who may have fallen out with one another set their differences aside and reconcile on this occasion. Keeping this custom in mind, the messages of New Year’s greeting delivered by politicians are usually conciliatory while also elaborating a general policy that the supreme leader and the president like to pursue.

This year, however, the messages of greeting turned out to be different. Iranians were stunned when just a few hours after President Hassan Rowhani’s message was broadcast, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei opposed his idea of national reconciliation on the issue.

Hassan Rowhani spoke about the need for a second Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the nuclear agreement. As per this agreement, Iran has agreed to dismantle part of its advanced nuclear program and in return, the world power promised to lift the sanctions and help Iran boost its economy. The implementation of the nuclear accord perhaps was the most important part of the set of agreements, which Iran honored. However, the large part hasn’t yet been fully exercised.

The political instability and the random acts of certain groups and factions within the system have perhaps been the main obstacles to international investors entering Iran’s market. It was made clear in the early stages of the nuclear agreement that its implementation may take time and of course Iran’s behavior towards domestic and international events is important.

In the recorded greeting message aired on March 20, Hassan Rowhani told Iranians of the need to adhere to the JCPOA. “Barjam 2 (the Persian name for JCPOA) is a joint comprehensive plan of action which begins with union, conciliation and empathy in our nation. This plan of action will come before the economy and begins with morality,” President Rowhani said.

While most of the nation was watching television to hear prayers and messages of greeting, they instead witnessed the confrontation of the two most powerful men in the country.

Camelia Entekhabi-Fard

Within hours of Rowhani’s message being aired, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared on television and rather bitterly opposed the president’s message. While most of the nation was watching television to hear prayers and messages of greeting, they instead witnessed the confrontation of the two most powerful men in the country.

The supreme leader wanted to put the president in his place immediately. He bluntly said that there is no Barjam 2 whatsoever and rejected the idea. In this angry and direct tone, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the idea of proposing such things (domestic JCPOA 2) is nothing but the enemy’s fabrications.

New Year tussle

Iranians’ were surprised at this tussle in the beginning of the New Year. President Rowhani had mentioned that the recent parliamentary elections, on March 9, were nothing but the start of Barjam 2. By this he meant narrowing of the gap between ordinary Iranians and the system as a necessary action for the implementation of the nuclear deal in reference to political stability.

In obvious disagreement, Ayatollah Khamenei expressed his understanding of the president’s proposal as being the next plan of action. That is probably why he mocked Rowhani and his administration’s inclination of dialogue with the US as leading next to the constitution and called it action number 2, number 3, number 4. He expressed skepticism as to how all these actions could be necessary for people to live a comfortable life and resolve their problems.

Ayatollah Khamenei called the American gestures – such as President Obama’s Nowruz greeting message and the Nowruz table set up in White House and the State Department – as tricks. “I am emphasizing my point about the enemy; I mean the United Sates.” Khamenei said. Khamenei made it clear to Rowhani that if he intends this year to stretch beyond the nuclear accord and speak of need for more talks with the US to implement this deal, he is wrong.

This has turned out to be the first direct confrontation between Hassan Rowhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in full public view. This has almost ended the possibility of the president cashing in on his supporters’ victory in the recent elections and using it as a tool to back up his next action. Khamenei even indirectly questioned the president whether the nuclear deal has indeed been beneficial as the president had promised.

The president of Iran faces immense challenges this year. The entire country awaits the fulfillment of his promise to improve the economy and regain Iran’s prestige and power at the global stage.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist, news commentator and writer who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and wrote for leading reformist newspapers. She is also the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth - A Memoir of Iran. She lives in New York City and Dubai. She can be found on Twitter: @CameliaFard

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