President Rouhani’s long range political aspirations also apparently affect his preference to join with elements in the conservative establishment – even at the expense of the reformists’ support

Shifting to the Right? President Rouhani Distances Himself from his Reformist Supporters

By -- Raz Zimmt —— Bio and Archives--December 27, 2017

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Shifting to the Right? President Rouhani Distances Himself from his Reformist Supporters
Since his reelection, Iranian President Rouhani has pursued a policy that to a great extent disregards the demands of the reformists who supported him during the elections and reflects a shift toward the conservative camp. This trend is evident in the President’s political appointments, his reneging on promises of civil reforms, and the reduced tension, at least in public, vis-à-vis the Revolutionary Guards. Disappointment with the President is evident among the reformists, although the prevailing opinion is that they should continue supporting him and not risk letting the hardliners gain an upper hand. The President’s conduct reflects his identity as a fundamentally conservative politician, his priorities, the limits of his power versus the conservative establishment, and his long range political aspirations. His recognition of the limits of his power and his focus on improving the economic situation may indicate political insight, but his failure to respond to the public’s demands is liable over time to exacerbate the Iranians’ despair and pose a growing challenge to his regime.

This year the Student Day events, held annually in Iran on December 7 to commemorate the deaths of three students killed in Tehran in 1953 by Iranian police during demonstrations against the United States, became a platform for leading reformist activists to voice harsh criticism against President Hassan Rouhani. At Tehran University, Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the brother of former President Mohammad Khatami and one of the leaders of Iran’s reformists, attacked the current President’s powerlessness, in light of the continuing policy of suspensions and punishment imposed on activist students who identify with the reformist camp. Khatami called upon the President to exercise his power over the Ministries of Higher Education and Intelligence and put an end to the repression of students at universities. Similar criticism about the ongoing repression of students was voiced by leading reformist activist Ali Shakouri-Rad, during a speech at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, which also charged that the President’s new Chief of Staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, has shut the President’s doors to the reformists.

The activists’ statements reflect the growing criticism of the President among the reformists since his reelection in May 2017. When assembling his new government, Rouhani chose to ignore most of the reformists’ demands, refrained from appointing reformist candidates to what are considered sensitive government ministries, and did not integrate women and minorities in his government. In the months since he formed his government, the President’s conduct has reinforced the impression that he is shifting to the right and prefers to associate with moderate officials in the conservative right wing, headed by Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Majlis, rather than continue to align with the reformist camp, which supported him in his two presidential election campaigns.

The Iranian press recently reported that the President is also trying to push aside his First Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri, who is identified with the reformist camp. Jahangiri, who contended in the last presidential elections as part of a strategy designed to strengthen Rouhani during the television debates and who dropped out of the race just days before the elections, is considered one of the possible reformist candidates for the next elections, scheduled for 2021. Jahangiri has reportedly lost a significant chunk of his influence to Mahmoud Vaezi, who is considered to be more aligned with the conservatives. Furthermore, in October 2017, the President enraged the reformists when he named Mansour Gholami as Minister of Science and Higher Education, a post that was vacant since the elections. The appointment aroused vehement opposition, mainly from students and university lecturers, who accuse Gholami of having cooperated with the security forces in repressing reformist students during his term as university president in Hamadan.

Concurrently, the tensions between the President and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have subsided, at least for the meantime. This tension, which after the elections rose to the point of an open, virulent confrontation, mainly as a result of the President’s criticism of IRGC involvement in the economy, has waned, at least publicly, after the President held a meeting with the organization’s leaders in late July. The President has also largely reneged on his campaign promises relating to civil liberties. Rouhani did not push for the release of two reformist opposition leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, subjected to house arrest since February 2011, notwithstanding his repeated promises to do so, and despite Karroubi’s deteriorating health. Rouhani also did not block the new restrictions that were imposed recently on the movements of former President Khatami.

Growing disappointment with Rouhani is evident in the reformist camp. Prof. Sadegh Zibakalam, a leading scholar and political commentator from the University of Tehran, argued in a public letter to the President that his cooperation with the conservatives constitutes a grave error and that his reneging on his election promises will arouse disappointment and despair, not only among his reformist supporters but also among the entire Iranian public. Zibakalam warned that Rouhani’s catering to moderate conservative politicians like Larijani will not only not strengthen them, but also is liable to pave the way for the rise of a new populist movement, as happened after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the presidential elections in the summer of 2005.

Nevertheless, the prevailing opinion among the reformists is that they should continue supporting the President and make do with criticizing his policies in order to not risk letting the hardliners gain an upper hand. This opinion reflects the reformists’ distress: over the last decade, the reformists have been pushed from their positions of political influence and forced to support moderate conservative candidates, such as Rouhani, as the lesser of two evils. One of the leaders of the reformists, Abbas Abdi, said recently in a press interview that the reformists’ expectations from the President are unrealistic. Abdi argued that the Rouhani government has neither the capability nor the desire to battle corruption, promote civil rights, or bring about a significant reform of the economy. Nevertheless, the reformists had no other choice but to support Rouhani because were they to do otherwise, another candidate, worse in their eyes, would have been elected. Abdi said that the reformist political leaders need to invest most of their efforts in social mobilization ton expand their public influence, since the public will be the primary instrument of political change in the future.

The President’s distancing himself from his reformist supporters and his marked preference for cooperating with officials in the conservative establishment should not come as a surprise, despite his campaign promises to promote civil reforms such as: releasing political prisoners, promoting civil society institutions, improving the rights of women and minorities, and easing restrictions relating to Islamic enforcement and censure. The President’s conduct clearly reflects his political identification, his priorities, the constraints of his power, and his long range political aspirations. And indeed, Rouhani, who is one of the founders of the Iranian regime, is fundamentally a conservative. While recognizing that he must adapt the revolutionary ideology to the times and the current reality, he never genuinely aligned himself with the reformists, even if he did avail himself of their support in order to win the election. If Rouhani still needed the reformists’ support during his first term of office as President in order to guarantee his reelection, he now apparently believes he can afford to neglect this alliance.

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In addition, during his efforts to promote changes, the President encountered significant limitations from the conservative establishment, even in relation to exceedingly minor and gradual changes. The conservatives, who control the key power centers headed by Khamenei, the religious establishment, and the IRGC, have reservations about any significant change, and this levels a major constraint on the president. Under these circumstances, Rouhani prefers to choose his battles carefully and focus on economic issues, mainly the unemployment crisis and the need to attract foreign investments to Iran. In order to advance these issues, the President needs Khamenei’s support, as well as cooperation from the IRGC, which controls a key share of the economy and has no desire to compromise its own interests.

The international circumstances, mainly the change in the American government’s policy toward Iran, also constrain the President, particularly regarding his efforts to reduce the IRGC’s political and economic influence. Within the scope of the new US strategy for Iran that President Trump announced in October 2017, the statements whereby Iran’s regional policy is a main threat to regional security and to the United States’ interests create potential for escalation between Tehran and Washington, and constrain President Rouhani’s ability to take measures that, from the regime’s perspective, are liable to weaken the IRGC. Consequently, the regime’s leaders are forced to demonstrate unity, even for the sake of appearances.

President Rouhani’s long range political aspirations also apparently affect his preference to join with elements in the conservative establishment – even at the expense of the reformists’ support. Perhaps the President is trying to depict himself as a political leader above political disputes between conservatives and reformists while trying to establish his position in the conservative religious establishment in preparation for the expected battle over who will succeed Supreme Leader Khamenei – an office for which Rouhani presumably considers himself a candidate.

In the final analysis, President Rouhani’s conduct reflects the significant constraints in efforts toward any internal changes in the Iranian political system, at least as long as the current Supreme Leader is at the helm. It appears that the President is well aware of the limits of his power and has opted to focus his efforts on improving the economic situation. This policy may indeed indicate political insight on the President’s part, but it also incurs political risks, not only for himself but also for the regime, because his continuing disregard of the public’s demands is liable to exacerbate the civil despair, widen the gap between the public and the regime, and over time threaten the regime’s stability.

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