Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff

INU - On Wednesday, Reuters published a report explaining that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is facing serious domestic pressure over human rights following the victory of his reelection campaign on May 19. Previous reports had indicated that Rouhani re-branded himself as a reformist in the final weeks of the campaign, apparently as part of a bid to overcome voter apathy among moderates and reformists. Around the time of his election to a first term in office in 2013, he was regarded by some outside observers as a moderate, but he subsequently lost much of his initial support after failing to follow through on reform-minded campaign promises.

Prominent among those promises was the claim that Rouhani would facilitate the release of the Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest without charge or trial since 2011. The presidential administration put forth no evident effort toward that end, and the political prisoners are evidently no closer to release today. Nevertheless, Rouhani repeated the same claim in his reelection campaign, adding that a stronger mandate would make the release more achievable.

Rouhani reportedly distanced himself from that promise soon after his election, using a speech at one Friday prayer session to insist that the release of any prisoners would depend upon the decisions and actions of separate authorities, including the hardline head of the Iranian judiciary. The Reuters report points out that that figure, Ali Larijani, has explicitly criticized Rouhani over his promises regarding the Green Movement leaders. But the same report also indicates that Rouhani’s base of supporters are not letting go of the issue, as demonstrated by the fact that they repeatedly interrupted his reelection acceptance speech with chants referring to Mousavi and Karroubi.

In this sense, Rouhani is facing pressure from both sides. But his early moves to draw back from recent promises underscore the fact that he has more to lose from the regime’s hardliners than from the population of the country. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in all matters of state, gave some indications that he preferred Rouhani’s hardline challenger for the presidency, Ebrahim Raisi. But in urging the public to go to the polls, Khamenei also indicated that he was fearful of another uprising like the 2009 Green Movement, this time driven either by the disputed election of the avowedly hardline candidate, or the perception of illegitimacy that would follow overall low voter turnout.

Some believe that there was in fact low turnout in this election, despite the regime’s claim that upwards of 70 percent of eligible voters participated. The opposition group known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran organized a boycott in the weeks ahead of the election, and reform-minded citizens had told the international press that they saw no real prospects for change under the second term of a Rouhani presidency.

The PMOI claims that the high official figures were the result of deception and vote tampering. And interestingly, Rouhani’s hardline critics have deliberately lent credence to this interpretation of events, not in order to dispute the legitimacy of the election as a whole, but rather to claim that Rouhani’s alleged 20-point margin of victory was actually smaller. EA Worldview reported upon this phenomenon on Tuesday and quoted Raisi himself as accusing unspecified officials of “tampering with the numbers of people’s participation.”

This is one indicator that the hardline faction, newly organized in opposition to Rouhani’s reelection campaign, is not going to allow its voice to be diminished. And seeing as that faction has the implicit backing of the supreme leader, especially in the area of relations between Iran and the Western world, it is highly unlikely that the Iranian president would be able to seriously pursue a reform agenda, even if he truly wanted to.

Foreign relations was the sole subject of so-called reform during Rouhani’s first term, insofar as he successfully pursued a nuclear agreement with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. Much of the international reporting on the May election described it as a referendum on this accomplishment, and Rouhani’s hardline challengers sought to emphasize his failure to turn the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action into seriously positive economic outcomes for the Islamic Republic.

This is another subject that Rouhani will face domestic pressure over, as indicated by an Associated Press report describing a gathering of angry protestors outside of the central bank in Tehran on Monday. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the protest was violently dispersed. But it is far from being the only of its kind, and such protests may very well proliferate if economic prospects come to be regarded as another of Rouhani’s twice-broken promises.

UPI reported on Tuesday that Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh had declared that new international investment deals would be inked by the end of July, before Rouhani finishes his second term. The same report noted that some financial analysts had declared that Rouhani’s reelection would make the further opening of the Iranian market much more likely.

But even if this is the case, it is by no means a guarantee that investment capital will make its way to the Iranian people. One reason why the hardline faction of Iranian politics appears to be having such early success in reasserting its voice after an electoral defeat is because it is backed by the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is estimated to control upwards of half the Iranian GDP, as well as multiple media outlets. The hardline opposition to Rouhani’s engagement with foreign nations is largely motivated by the fear that foreign companies will begin to take away market share from the IRGC. But over the short term, the IRGC may benefit disproportionately from new investments, provided that those foreign entities are doing business with currently leading Iranian firms.

On its own, the Rouhani administration does not have the power to halt these trends. And given the speed of its capitulation to some hardline talking points, it may not have the interest, either. But other forces could have an impact on the extent to which the IRGC and other hardline entities benefit from foreign investments. And this could in turn have an impact on the ability of the IRGC to crack down on protests like those which have been seen outside the central bank and at Rouhani’s own victory rally.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported upon the status of relations between Iran and the United States in the wake of the nuclear agreement and the subsequent election of US President Donald Trump. It pointed out that a great deal of rhetoric is passing back and forth between the two countries but also that Trump’s assertive policy on Iran has not gone as far as halting a post-JCPOA agreement between Iran Air and Boeing, and that he has also not undermined the JCPOA by refusing to grant the recurring sanctions waivers required by the deal.

This, according to the Times, leads to a situation in which the Iranians are still trying to feel out Trump’s long-term intentions. But the Trump administration has taken some clear steps in the direction of limiting how money can be allocated in the Islamic Republic. Specifically, he has ordered the State Department to review the prospect for designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, and the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee has approved sanctions legislation that would extend all anti-terror sanctions to the hardline paramilitary organization.

It is possible that these measures could diminish the pressure being exerted on the Rouhani administration by the hardline factions, thereby leaving it to face up to the rising tide of pressure from the civilian population and either act upon their demands or prove himself to be uninterested in reform, regardless of his promises.

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