Rouhani's careful Iranian tightrope act

Published October 1st, 2014 - 07:57 GMT

In his first year as Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani has proved himself a capable operator, carrying forward an agenda of renewed diplomacy and tighter economic management. At the United Nations on Sept. 25 he projected himself as a strong leader heading a stable country seeking peace in a region facing violent chaos.

His domestic opponents, however, are far from impressed and far from defeated. On one side, reformists who supported his election campaign last year want him to deliver on promises to extend civil and political liberties. But they are likely to remain patient some time longer. Rouhani’s bigger problem is the fundamentalists, or principlists. They regard talks with the United States as anathema and fear Rouhani is a stalking horse for reformists or even for the “Green movement,” which took to the streets to dispute the outcome of the 2009 presidential election.

The biggest blow so far delivered to Rouhani was parliament’s removal in August of the science minister, Reza Faraji-Dana, who had used his powers in higher education to reinstate professors and students removed for supporting the Greens.

Many principlists are just as irked by talks with world powers over the nuclear program. But their opposition has been muted because the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has backed Rouhani, dubbing the Iranian negotiators “children of the revolution.”

Their restraint will not last forever. The deadline for the talks, during which Iran has curbed the nuclear program in return for some easing of sanctions, is just weeks away and the outcome seems to hang in the balance. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has suggested the process is at its trickiest stage. In a generally upbeat interview with Voice of America’s Farsi service, Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator, admitted that “very crucial decisions” still had to be made.

Rouhani has been here before. In 2003-2005, as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, he led Iranian negotiations with the European Union when Tehran suspended all uranium enrichment as a “goodwill gesture.”

Iran’s failure to secure concessions led to growing domestic criticism and removed the prospect that Rouhani would run for president in 2005 as a pragmatic conservative. Instead, Iranian politics lurched to the populist right: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the election and took a far more assertive approach to the nuclear program while adopting distinctly undiplomatic language, especially over Israel.

This time round, the principlists will step up criticism of Rouhani should the talks flounder. Domestic Iranian political debate will shift to areas – such as higher education, or civil and political liberties – where the president does not enjoy the same support from Khamenei as over the nuclear talks.

All that said, Rouhani and his allies have prepared the ground for the talks’ failure. First and foremost, Iran’s conciliatory approach and careful diplomacy will mean any “blame” may lie with Washington and not Tehran.

Rouhani’s meeting earlier this month with Russian President Vladimir Putin points to likely closer economic cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, probably involving Iran exporting oil in a barter arrangement, avoiding the dollar. This could prove particularly valuable if the U.S. and Europe tighten sanctions if the nuclear talks fail.

Likewise, while Iran is wary of the quality of Chinese work in its energy sector, trade is expanding and political ties are improving. The recent visit to southern Iran by a Chinese naval destroyer was the first of its kind.

Whatever happens with the nuclear talks, Rouhani will argue that his diplomacy – whether improving relations with Russia and China or in calling for a regional approach to ISIS – has improved Iran’s standing and will remain vital for defending the country’s interests. 

The tour of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar by Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, at the end of 2013, was followed by the first visit of a Kuwaiti emir to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Reciprocal visits by Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have put relations with Turkey on a better footing than for many years.

When it comes to economic policy, Rouhani has hoped for an easing of sanctions as a result of a nuclear deal. But he is too savvy to place all his eggs in one basket, and has already lowered inflation through tighter fiscal and monetary management. Many Iranians still contrast his government favorably with the Ahmadinejad administration.

While economic issues top Iranians’ concerns, a poll in July showed wide backing for Rouhani’s approach to the nuclear issue. The University of Tehran, working with the Centre for International and Security Studies at Maryland University, found majorities accepting more intrusive international inspections and limiting enrichment to 5 percent – two concessions Iran has offered as part of a deal – while also rejecting the U.S. demand that Iran dismantle half its centrifuges. 

Finally, Rouhani has worked to build a wide consensus among political groups, including reformists, supporters of the pragmatic former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and indeed many conservatives alienated by the abrasive politics of Ahmadinejad. This can create a loose alliance – perhaps made up of more than one electoral list – that could weaken the current principlist majority in parliament in elections early next year. Although many reformists will fail vetting by the Council of Guardians, the poll is likely to return more deputies generally backing Rouhani’s government. 

This will not remove opponents in the judiciary or sections of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but it will strengthen Rouhani’s hand. Iranian politics is notoriously unpredictable, but the Islamic Republic’s seventh president is negotiating its pitfalls with skill and fortitude.

By Gareth Smyth 


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