By Edward Carney
As Reuters has reported, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was summoned to appear before the country’s parliament on Tuesday, where he faced grilling by lawmakers over his administration’s handling of the Iranian economy.
Despite large-scale sanctions relief under the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, key economic indicators such as unemployment and inflation have been steadily worsening in the Islamic Republic, and these trends apparently intensified this month as the United States re-imposed sanctions in line with its earlier withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Rouhani accordingly used his televised appearance before parliament as an opportunity to heap blame upon the US while defending his own record in the economy and other areas. He also made the argument that recent and ongoing anti-government protests represent a sudden shift in popular sentiment rather than the effect of simmering resentments within a population that is widely recognized for being young, highly-educated, and pro-democracy.
Rouhani’s position has been undermined by familiar slogans in those protests, which began in earnest at the end of last year after protests over the economy in the city of Mashhad turned into a mass uprising that encompassed every major Iranian city and town. Among those slogans are repudiations of both the hardline and “reformist” factions of Iranian politics and chants of “the enemy is here; liars say it is America.”
While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the head of the hardline faction and ultimate authority in all matters of state, clearly shares Rouhani’s interest in downplaying the severity and the deep roots of the protest movement, he has also contradicted the president in discussing the main causes of the economic crisis that has helped to drive that movement.
Khamenei stated in a recent public speech that the crisis was more attributable to government mismanagement than to the effects of US sanctions. This may help to explain why Iranian lawmakers largely rejected Rouhani’s answers to their questions on Tuesday and voted to censure him, after having previously removed both his Labor Minister and his Finance Minister from their posts.
But the purpose of that censure may have less to do with the economic future of the country than it has to do with the threat that domestic unrest poses to the clerical regime’s hold on power. The Washington Post noted that regardless of censure, Rouhani’s interrogation by the parliament was practically unprecedented in the 40 year history of the Islamic Republic.
The only previous incidence of such a summons came in 2011, during the tenure of Rouhani’s immediate predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it was motivated by the fallout from the Green Movement protests and the government’s crackdown on them nearly two years earlier.
Rouhani’s statements on Tuesday seemed to emphasize the notion that the worse threat to the regime comes from beyond Iran’s borders, not from within them. Toward that end, he attempted to draw connections between the domestic unrest and the escalating foreign pressure led by the White House, saying that the anti-government protests “strengthened Trump’s hand” and permitted him to follow through on his threat to withdraw from the JCPOA.
This is a dubious claim, considering that the US president had promised to tear up or renegotiate the nuclear deal since before taking office. But it would be difficult to deny that the Iranian protests did not strengthen Trump’s hand in the sense that they made re-imposed sanctions more painful for the government at a time when it found itself in need of financial resources for stepped-up domestic repression as well as the maintenance of high-cost policies such as the ongoing interventions in Syria and Yemen.
The current American strategy for Iran defines its goal as a comprehensive change in the behavior of the Iranian government, particularly in areas of foreign policy and military buildup. Notably, this is generally in line with the demands of the anti-government protesters, who have been heard demand that Tehran “forget about Syria; think of us.”
The popularity of such criticisms of the regime’s misplaced priorities was recently put on display once again when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif faced backlash on social media for apparently claiming that the policies of the Iranian government are precisely aligned with the preferences of its people.
Voice of America News quoted Zarif as saying on state media, “We have chosen to live in a different way [compared to other countries],” in response to a question about why the Islamic Republic faces more international pressure than other nations. This remark spurred approximately 5,000 critical tweets by the following afternoon, with users of the banned social media platform calling attention to features of the Islamist government and its society that they did not choose and do not currently support.
Nonetheless, the Rouhani administration appears to be setting policy in line with the assumption that there is widespread public support for the existing regime – a claim that was expressed by Rouhani himself when he insisted to parliament that the past several months of protest were only the effect of a sudden change in the country’s fortunes and an increase in the population’s fear of external threats.
One such policy initiative was presented by Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi in the context of his announcement that the regime’s security forces had supposedly arrested dozens of spies who had been working within state institutions.
As Reuters reported on Tuesday, Alavi did not provide details of any such arrests, and neither did he specify which countries the persons in question were supposedly working for. He did, however, declare that many of the arrestees were dual nationals, as part of an apparent effort to stoke public anxiety about foreign intervention.
Accordingly, the Intelligence Minister urged Iranians “to inform us if they know any dual national,” and thus to contribute to the repressive crackdowns that have targeted dual nationals almost indiscriminately alongside civil activists, political dissidents, and anyone deemed a threat to the clerical regime or a contributor to the expanding protest movement.