President Rouhani's government has been struggling to keep its promises. Not only the economic benefits of the nuclear agreement have been slow to materialize, the judiciary, revolutionary guards and other levers of government controlled by the hard conservatives have also stymied all attempts to allow a more open cultural space. President's Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ali Jannati has faced resistance from hardliners from day one. Ali is certainly not an outsider as he is the son of Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of both the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council. Heading both these bodies at the same time makes Ayatollah Jannati the third most powerful political player (after Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rouhani) in Iran. Ali Jannati views are, however, very moderate as compared to his father and aspire to lessen religious restrictions imposed on Iranian society and culture. In January 2014, he said to Al Jazeera:
President Hassan Rouhani is making more room for freedom of the press for the publishing sector and the film industry and we are trying to create a more open atmosphere for artists...Certainly there are elements inside Iran who are opposed to any kind of talks with the West, I believe that after signing of the agreement and considering the broad support that the people of Iran have given the president, these elements have retreated to a great extent.
A concert in Tehran by a Korean pop group in May 2016
The latest controversy in this Iranian culture war is about holding of concerts which the hardliners oppose. The reformists, on the other hand, consider them an innocuous entertainment or a way to revive Iranian music and culture. Minister Jannati has tried to walk a fine line and, unsurprisingly, no one is happy. Rohollah Faghihi writes in Al-Monitor:
During the past decade, concerts have rarely made waves, but ever since Rouhani took office, concert organizers have repeatedly faced obstruction and consequent cancellation. To avoid concert cancellations, which damage Rouhani’s approval ratings, the administration has issued a circular to prevent other state bodies such as the judiciary and the police from calling them off. The circular states that police are not allowed to stop concerts. Jannati has said that based on the new law, singers are to request permission to hold a concert from the Ministry of Culture, while the police are only to deal with traffic around the venue. In response, the deputy head of Iran’s armed forces, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, ordered police to continue “dealing with ethical and misbehavior anomalies in places, including concert venues.”
Mashhad has led the Iranian major cities in concert cancellations. Many Iranians think Mashhad as the religious capital of Iran because of the mausoleum the eighth Shiite imam Imam Reza, the only mausoleum of a Shiite Imam in Iran (others consider Qom because of its seminaries, Ayatollahs, and the mausoleum of Imam Reza's sister, Fatemeh Masomeh). Jannati was not happy and said on August 8 after the latest cancellations, 'This will be costly for the judiciary...We should talk with high-ranking officials in the judicial system to resolve the issue. It is not possible for a province not to act under the law. A province is not a separate island.' The Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli supported Ali and wrote a letter to the Judiciary questioning the cessation of all music concerts in Mashhad. Addressing the Chief of Judiciary Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani on August 7, he argued, 'We cannot prejudge the intentions [of musicians] and base decisions on the possibility that something will go wrong during all concerts. That would not be right.'
These arguments led to a serious rebuttal from the hardliners and the Judiciary. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hardline Friday prayer leader of Mashhad and representative of the Iranian Supreme Leader, compared the sanctity of Rome and Mashhad and said on August 12, 'We should know that we live in the city where Imam Reza is buried. It is not possible to hold concerts in the city of Imam Reza, and we shouldn’t argue with people and some narrow-minded officials regarding this. If you want a concert, go live somewhere else.' Ali Jannati backed out after this comment and said that the ministry was not going to support holding concerts in Mashhad. Now, it was the turn of reformers to criticize Ali. President Rouhani, Deputy parliament Speaker Ali Motahari and the moderate newspaper Jomhuri Eslami all condemned Ali's retreat. President Rouhani said, 'As far as I am concerned, no minister should give in to any pressure...We have the Islamic parliament. If a law is going to be adopted, lawmakers will pass it.' A letter endorsed by five thousand artists and other people in the Iran's music industry was also published which called the ban on concerts in Mashhad as a 'catastrophe that sacrifices music today, and the rest of the culture and the reputation of this country tomorrow.'
It appears that the conservative hardliners have won this battle of the culture war but this may be a temporary victory.