Hassan Rouhani fends off Iran’s hardliners . . . for now

Peace seemed to have broken out in the Islamic Republic following last summer’s surprise election of Hassan Rouhani. Dismayed by their defeat in a poll they had believed they would win, Iran’s hardliners were stunned into silence.

Six months into the centrist Rouhani’s presidency, however, and Iran’s political scene is looking more familiar once again. The hardliners have emerged from their stupor and are trying to put an end to the Rouhani honeymoon.

“These people who were in shock at the election are now looking for every opportunity to unleash their anguish,” complains a former official sympathetic to Mr Rouhani.

For now, the attacks are clumsy. And the president shows no sign of bowing to pressure. After ignoring the critics for a while, he has been reacting more aggressively of late, turning to his popular base – the strongest asset at his disposal – to highlight hardliners’ tactics.

Last week, for example, the president resorted to Twitter – which is officially banned in Iran – to force state television to broadcast his live address to the nation. It was after he pointed the finger directly at the head of the broadcaster that his talk was shown on TV.

The state TV controversy was the latest in a series of hardliner moves that include parliamentary threats to question Rouhani government ministers, restrictions on the publication of new reformist media and an increase in the number of people executed for crimes.

Much of the hardliners’ frustration is directed at the November interim nuclear deal struck with world powers in which Iran agreed to curtail large elements of its programme in return for modest relief from international sanctions. Hailed as an achievement all around the world, the deal was seen by the president’s opponents as a humiliating climbdown.

The problem for hardliners, however, is that their boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has lent his support to the nuclear agreement, forcing them to look for other targets to attack. So any government mishap, however small, is now seized upon to shame the president, including last week’s bungled rollout of a food distribution programme that was meant to alleviate the pressure on the poor.

The fundamentalists have powerful institutions at their disposal, ranging from the judiciary to senior officials in the intelligence ministry and the state broadcaster. And they have a lot at stake ahead of the battle for 2016 parliamentary elections. Their objective is to portray Mr Rouhani for that contest as impotent, therefore undermining his popular legitimacy. The script is similar to one they followed a decade ago when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was president.

Peace seemed to have broken out in the Islamic Republic following last summer’s surprise election of Hassan Rouhani. Dismayed by their defeat in a poll they had believed they would win, Iran’s hardliners were stunned into silence.

Six months into the centrist Rouhani’s presidency, however, and Iran’s political scene is looking more familiar once again. The hardliners have emerged from their stupor and are trying to put an end to the Rouhani honeymoon.

“These people who were in shock at the election are now looking for every opportunity to unleash their anguish,” complains a former official sympathetic to Mr Rouhani.

For now, the attacks are clumsy. And the president shows no sign of bowing to pressure. After ignoring the critics for a while, he has been reacting more aggressively of late, turning to his popular base – the strongest asset at his disposal – to highlight hardliners’ tactics.

Last week, for example, the president resorted to Twitter – which is officially banned in Iran – to force state television to broadcast his live address to the nation. It was after he pointed the finger directly at the head of the broadcaster that his talk was shown on TV.

The state TV controversy was the latest in a series of hardliner moves that include parliamentary threats to question Rouhani government ministers, restrictions on the publication of new reformist media and an increase in the number of people executed for crimes.

Much of the hardliners’ frustration is directed at the November interim nuclear deal struck with world powers in which Iran agreed to curtail large elements of its programme in return for modest relief from international sanctions. Hailed as an achievement all around the world, the deal was seen by the president’s opponents as a humiliating climbdown.

The problem for hardliners, however, is that their boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has lent his support to the nuclear agreement, forcing them to look for other targets to attack. So any government mishap, however small, is now seized upon to shame the president, including last week’s bungled rollout of a food distribution programme that was meant to alleviate the pressure on the poor.

The fundamentalists have powerful institutions at their disposal, ranging from the judiciary to senior officials in the intelligence ministry and the state broadcaster. And they have a lot at stake ahead of the battle for 2016 parliamentary elections. Their objective is to portray Mr Rouhani for that contest as impotent, therefore undermining his popular legitimacy. The script is similar to one they followed a decade ago when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was president.

For some hardliners, though, Mr Rouhani could pose a more immediate threat. His attempts to reform an economy ravaged by his predecessor’s mismanagement – as much as international sanctions – might be Iranians’ most important demand. But it could also endanger vested interests.

His administration has already started looking into the mystery of missing billions of dollars squandered by the previous government of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad as it sought to circumvent financial sanctions.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is looking to pursue a foreign policy of moderation after tough financial sanctions have brought the Islamic Republic’s economy to a standstill

Politically connected individuals were allegedly allocated funds to hide in foreign bank accounts under their names but on behalf of the government – except in some cases they disappeared along with the money.

When Mr Rouhani took office, intelligence and judicial officials insisted on handling the case themselves, promising they would recuperate the funds. The president, however, soon discovered that little progress had been made. So he ordered one of his vice-presidents in December to identify the alleged fraudsters.

For now, Mr Rouhani can still count on the support of the supreme leader, who warned on Saturday that the new government must be given time. But this backing depends to a large extent on whether the president can secure a longer term comprehensive nuclear deal that leads to a removal of the sanctions. Talks on a final agreement are due to begin next week.

“If he wins on the nuclear issue, he’ll get a lot of political capital – that’s his gamble for now,” says Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, which lobbies for engagement with Iran.

In the meantime, Mr Rouhani will be dodging more hardliner bullets as the power struggle surely intensifies.

By Financial Times

 

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