Conservatives in Iran don’t take defeat easily.

In the past few years, they have lost to moderate and reformist candidates in elections for parliament, city councils and now the presidency.

Hassan Rouhani won re-election May 19 by a solid margin despite the conservatives’ use of the considerable power they had to undermine him, such as censoring his TV shows, downplaying his successes in the last four years, not covering his rallies  accusing his cabinet of wrongdoing and using assertive styles of speaking in live TV debates.

The conservative defeat in the presidential elections is especially significant given the talk in Iranian circles that Rouhani’s main opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, is a top candidate to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader. Khamenei was president of Iran before becoming the Leader and victory in a popular election is seen as a plus in the competition to ascend to Iran’s most powerful – and indirectly elected — post.

But Rouhani bashing did not end with the presidential election. Recently, conservative and ultra conservative groups have been showing their anger and animosity toward Rouhani in different ways. On June 23, the last Friday in Ramadan when the Iranian government marks Quds or Jerusalem Day in support of the Palestinians, some demonstrators in chants and slogans compared Rouhani to Iran’s first president, Abolhassan Banisadr, who was impeached and later fled the country. Earlier, Khamenei had warned Rouhani not to divide society into two camps as Banisadr did and appeared to authorize attacks on Rouhani supporters. Rouhani’s bodyguards had to help the president make a speedy getaway from angry Quds Day crowds.

A few days later, at prayers for the Eid Al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan, a religious poet took the stage and in a poem again insulted and made fun of Rouhani, his foreign minister Javad Zarif and the nuclear agreement Zarif negotiated. The significance of this event is that, while some may argue that the demonstrators at the Quds Day demonstration were acting spontaneously, not everyone can go on stage before Eid Al-Fitr prayers and read whatever they want.  

Significantly, the poet, Meysam Motiee, is a graduate of Imam Sadegh University, a school whose students are carefully selected for their religious credentials and whose graduates include many Iranian politicians and other significant figures such as former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Jalili, an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 2013, was a major supporter of Raisi. The poet also supported Raisi and has connections with ultra-conservative circles and figures such as Alireza Panahian and Ahmad Allamolhoda. Hypocrisy was evident when some conservative figures tried to minimize the event and defended their right to criticize the Rouhani government, while poets such as Haloo and Hila Sadeghi have spent time in prison for their works criticizing the system.

Certain hardline pressure groups, such as the vigilante Ansar-e Hezbollah, have long had free rein to attack others for their beliefs without worry about being prosecuted. In March 2015, Ali Motahari, an outspoken member of parliament and critic of the prolongued house arrest of former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi was attacked in Shiraz during a speech. Among those who have faced similar attacks are former parliament speaker Ali Akhbar Nategh Nouri, current speaker Ali Larijani, Seyed Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the late president Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In 2015, government-sanctioned vigilantes sacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The attack was orchestrated by a conservative cleric, Hasan Kordmihan, but he was never prosecuted and ended up supporting and actively campaigning for the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, for president.

What is evident is that Rouhani has been speaking more freely since the campaign about issues that had previously been considered taboo. For example, he has been criticizing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRIB, Iran’s state broadcaster, and other institutions that are not accountable to the executive or legislative branches but answer only to the Supreme Leader. These organisations have links with vigilante groups and use them when a perceived need arises. Clearly, the electoral setbacks conservatives have suffered recently have angered them even more.

The key question is how serious these attacks are and what they portend for Rouhani’s second term.

The fact is that such attacks happen quite frequently in Iran and have been aimed at people in prominent positions, from the president to members of parliament and even some reformist clerics in Qom. Anti-administration sermons delivered weekly in Friday prayers have also become the norm and hardly anyone takes them seriously anymore.

If Rouhani does not interfere with critical organisations such as the IRGC, the Astan Quds Foundation or the IRIB, he is likely not in serious jeopardy. If he does decide to take on these powerful institutions, however, critical poetry would be the least of his problems and a Banisadr-like situation would no longer be seen as far-fetched.

Sirous Amerian is a PhD Candidate and tutor at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University in New Zealand. He received his MA in Indian Studies from the University of Tehran working on Sino-Indian-American trilateral relations. While in Iran, he worked as a Policy Analyst for the Institute of Iran Eurasian Studies (IRAS).