1152 GMT March 21, 2018
When he ran for president of Iran last May “as the voice of reform”, few people saw Es’haq Jahangiri as a serious contender — his candidacy was largely viewed as a tactical maneuver to bolster support for centrist president Hassan Rouhani.
At rallies and in televised debates, he defended Mr. Rouhani’s government, acting as an effective proxy for the president, before stepping down days before the election.
But Mr. Jahangiri’s vociferous election campaign helped establish the four-decade-long stalwart of the Islamic Republic as a possible future presidential candidate, as well as a high profile advocate for reform in his own right.
The republic last month saw the biggest unrest in almost a decade in which 25 people died. In the wake of these protests, Mr. Jahangiri, first vice-president, says the Islamic Republic can reform and survive.
There has already been some liberalization of Iran society since Mr. Rouhani first took office in 2013. “We definitely get worried if people try to resolve their problems in the streets,” Mr. Jahangiri, 61, says in an interview. But he adds that “those who have an accurate understanding of the Islamic Republic know its flexibility in particular vis-à-vis its people is high”.
Asked what the Islamic Republic would do if people objected to the wearing of the hijab, he says it is unclear what the majority of Iranians want. But he adds that “more than 60 per cent of people in Iran still believe they can pursue their demands through reforms . . . and will definitely achieve” what they seek.
Mr. Jahangiri — who served as governor of Isfahan province after the 1979 revolution and minister of industries from 1997 to 2005 — argues the economic situation is not as bad as people think it is. Their perception of economic hardship has been partly influenced by hardliner propaganda, he says.
“Opponents of the government have created an atmosphere to make people pessimistic about reforms without thinking that fueling this dissent could upset the whole system,” he says, referring to reformists’ suspicions that the latest protests were started by hardliners but quickly got out of their control. “In social issues, you can start something but you will not necessarily be the one who puts an end to it.”
About the succession of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Leader, now 78, Jahangiri says, “Mr. Khamenei is doing so well that we have no concerns now”. When that fateful day comes, “there will be no crisis” thanks to higher levels of “maturity” within the system.
Once a bridge between reformists and Ayatollah Khamenei, Mr. Jahangiri — who lost two brothers in the war with Iraq in the 1980s — has not met with the Leader since the election. “I have very good relations with the Leader. But I went a bit far during the presidential election,” he says. “I will hopefully meet him soon.”
Despite the bitter election battle, Mr. Rouhani and his team have won the Leader’s support for their efforts to curb corruption.
Mr. Jahangiri — in charge of the fight against corruption — has made clear that graft at military or state-affiliated organizations will be dealt with. But he adds: “We may be told not to publicize it before further investigations.” Under new rules, as part of efforts to open up the economy, the Revolutionary Guards will have to sacrifice some of their business interests.
“The guards’ capabilities [in business] should not disrupt the private sector. What we are sensitive about is that the private sector should be the main player in the economy,” says Mr. Jahangiri.
He acknowledges that “the reality is that corruption is high . . . A worse reality is that since we could not open our economy and embark on transparency earlier . . . the corruption has become systematic to some extent.”
There are suspicions in Iran that hardliners resent foreign investment, which is needed to bolster the economy but brings with it pressure for greater transparency. Mr. Jahangiri disagrees. “No one is against attracting foreign investment. Neither are the guards, in my view,” he says. “Attracting foreign investment is part of the general policies the Leader has approved of.”