President Rouhani is the moderate face of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His election heralded a new era of collaboration and constructive engagement with the international community. Two years into his four-year term, Rouhani has seen success in his diplomatic overtures. Prior to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s economy was under tremendous pressure and the state was diplomatically was isolated from the world. The signing of the deal allowed Iran to open up its economy to foreign investment and to present itself as a key regional player.
On the domestic front, however, some argue that Rouhani has neglected his pledge for reforms. Yet the recent parliamentary elections in Iran were an endorsement of President Rouhani’s approach to politics, and especially of rapprochement with the international community. With more representation from Reformists and Moderates, the next Majlis (parliament) may be more welcoming to Rouhani’s policies at home, paving the way for his long awaited promises of political, economic, and social reforms. The road to any type of reform will be bumpy, though, with formidable opponents jumping at any chance to block progress.
After losing the battle on the nuclear issue, Rouhani’s political rivals have not sat idle. His opponents in the Ghoveye Ghazaaiyeh (judiciary) have increased their efforts to crack down on political activists and journalists, putting many of them in jail. Human rights abuses of hardliners in the Judiciary should not be conflated with Rouhani’s administration. It is noteworthy that the number of executions in Iran has increased under Rouhani’s administration, but while it is easy to simply blame Rouhani for these setbacks in Iran’s human rights record, such claims are naïve. As the second most powerful man in the country, Rouhani has repeatedly called for women to fully participate in the society. In fact, for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appointed a female ambassador to represent the Islamic Republic in Malaysia. However, Iran’s judiciary is controlled by conservatives who see Rouhani and his promises on reforms as existential threats to their establishment. In addition, the head of Judiciary is appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, and answers only to him.
In December 2015, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, the spokesperson for the Judiciary, saidbury the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, at the Arak Heavy Water Facility. Mehdi Kouchkazadeh, another hardliner MP from Tehran, criticized the purchase of 100 Airbus planes from France, claiming it “is not a priority for our people.”
Despite massive disqualification of reformist candidates by the powerful Guardian Council, the balance of power shifted on February 26, 2016, when Rouhani’s opponents suffered a major blow in the Majlis elections. In fact, in Tehran, which has 30 representatives, none of the hardliners managed to get elected. This victory further mandates the president to fulfill his promises of political, economic, and social reforms. Given the constitutional authority of the Guardian Council to veto legislation, any significant change seems quite unlikely. However, Rouhani can be expected to face less legislative resistance in the remaining two years of his first presidential term.
The president also faces a battle on a third front. Rouhani must confront the regime’s unofficial instruments of political and social crackdown. These vigilante forces are mainly comprised of Basij militia and “university students” who, according to media close to hardliners, act on their own. Khamenei, however, has continuously supported them, both explicitly and implicitly. These mobs have repeatedly attacked political events, government licensed concerts, and other social events. After the controversial execution of Sheikh Al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, mobs ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, causing international embarrassment for the administration. Although the government quickly responded by arresting some of the protestors, the damage was already done.
These forces are more active when “reformists” gain control of one or more branches of the government. The ‘Chain Murders’ of political dissidents during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency by rogue intelligence agents, and the July 1999 brutal crackdown of University of Tehran’ students, are examples of such attacks. These actions are intended to create fear and to undermine Rouhani by making the administration look weak and incompetent. With Rouhani’s allies in the next Majlis, one can expect that the activities of these forces will expand further.
Finally, Rouhani will face the strongest challenge from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, whose positions on the proposed reforms have not been clear. Evidence suggests that Ayatollah Khamenei, in critical moments, is ready to show flexibility to fend off any existential threat. For example, during the nuclear negotiations Khamenei repeatedly expressed his support for Iran’s diplomatic overtures. On the other hand, Khamenei seems to be opposed to any revolutionary reform that could undermine his own status. The crackdown on protestors disputing presidential election results in 2009 is a good example of this opposition.
It is noteworthy that even when Khamenei supported the administration’s efforts to conclude the nuclear negotiations, he did not alienate the Conservatives by giving his full support to the administration. In his annual Nowrouz speech, Khamenei warned that, while he supports Rouhani, this should not be interpreted as a “blank check” to the administration. Understandably, as a politician, Khamenei does not wish to alienate his constituents by giving Rouhani too much power over the moderates’ political rivals. In fact, Ayatollah Khamenei has thus far been able to employ Machiavellian tactics, playing one side against the other while keeping himself above all.
One of the sources of tension between Ayatollah Khamenei and Rouhani is the future of relations with the United States. While Rouhani seems open to the idea of further cooperation, Khamenei has repeatedly rejected such moves. As an admirer of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Khamenei truly believes in the idea of Westoxification or Gharbzadegi, and the enemies’ attempt to infiltrate the foundation of the Islamic revolution. It is also possible that as a seasoned politician, Khamenei does not wish to support any further negotiations with the Obama administration, which is set to conclude in November 2016.
Rouhani himself is hardly a Reformist figure, but a pragmatic Moderate who has survived Iran’s political turmoil. He enjoys the trust of both reformists (e.g. Khatami), and some Conservative figures such as Ali Akbar Velayati – Khamenei’s advisor on international affairs and a former foreign minister. Under current circumstances, with the economy still in tatters, it is strategically important for the president to maintain the support of both sides. This puts Rouhani in a difficult position. While his Reformist allies criticize him for being lax on reforms, he has to keep both Reformists and Conservatives on his side. In his first two years, Rouhani concentrated his efforts on the nuclear issue. Ever since, expectations of Rouhani have increased to improve the status of Iranian economy, and to fulfill his promises on social and political reforms. Although Rouhani has been somewhat successful in controlling inflation, the road to economic recovery remains long. With the support of the next Majlis, passing legislation for economic recovery will be more feasible.
Though a savvy politician, Rouhani is confronted by formidable forces who are opposed to any social or political reforms – or what his opponents call ‘infiltration’ of enemies. In fulfilling his domestic promises, Rouhani faces opposition from both official and unofficial instruments of power. While he cannot directly challenge Ayatollah Khamenei or the Judiciary, the improvement in Iran’s struggling economy, and the recent victory in the Majlis, gives Rouhani and his allies stronger voice in pushing for reforms.
Sina Azodi is a former Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a graduate of Elliott School of International Affairs (B.A &M.A).