The honeymoon that Iran’s hard-liners extended to President Hassan Rouhani after his June 2013 election is coming to an end. As they have in the past, particularly during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the conservative factions within the state are reasserting their power against a perceived reformist threat.
The verbal warfare among political elites in Iran centers on the interim nuclear deal Tehran signed with Washington and other world powers and the ongoing negotiations that have already come to define Rouhani’s presidency. Not since Khatami’s two terms in office, from 1997 to 2005, has an Iranian leader made such significant overtures to improve relations with the West and the United States in particular.
At first it seemed Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, through his public support for the nuclear negotiations, was restraining public criticism of Rouhani. But a series of recent events indicate that either Khamenei’s support is waning or his hard-line supporters feel they can take a stand independent of Khamenei, who has endorsed Rouhani’s presidency for now. A third possibility is that Khamenei may be allowing attacks against Rouhani so he does not appear to betray his base of support. For example, last week conservatives in charge of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting blocked the new president from delivering a live address to the nation. Rouhani immediately turned to Twitter — part of his social media channels that have gained him a wide following — to announce this censorship by the state network. An hour later, he was allowed to speak.
The incident sent a serious warning from hard-liners to Rouhani and his pragmatic faction. The conflict arose after a blistering public debate over the nuclear negotiations, including widely reported comments from Rouhani, who called critics of Iran’s interim nuclear deal with world powers “semi-illiterate.” He made these remarks during a meeting with university presidents, chastising them for their lack of public support for the nuclear deal. “Why are the presidents silent?” he asked them. “We want Socrates-like bravery. What are you afraid of?”
Conservative media outlets were quick to answer Rouhani. Writing in Raja news, Mehdi Bolukat said that he was proudly one of the “illiterate” people against the nuclear deal. “Why don’t you let the public and the experts ask their questions about the details of the nuclear deal?” he said. “Do you really think the United States and Europe respect our nation’s rights? Why do they always say the military option is on the table?”
The struggle in Tehran is not only an internal one. Western leaders, in fact, have contributed to empowering hard-liners against Rouhani, just before new nuclear talks are scheduled to begin Feb. 18. The decision by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to reverse himself and withdraw Iran’s invitation to the to the Geneva II talks last month on Syria reaffirmed the skeptics’ arguments that the United States controls the U.N. and wants only to undermine Iran’s role in the Middle East. In addition, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s threats that the “military option is still on the table” if Iran backs out of the nuclear negotiations have lent hard-liners support.
One commentator, Mohammad Immani, wrote in Kayhan, the newspaper considered the mouthpiece for Khamenei, that “there have been more threats against Iran (by the United States) in the last six months than in the last six years.” This claim is false, but for Immami’s conservative readers, that will matter little, for hard-liners see the interim agreement as an existential threat to the regime. The thawing of relations with the United States — and the West more broadly — places into doubt the fundamentals of the 1979 Islamic revolution, which included fighting so-called Westoxification, the idea that Western influence is, by its very nature, a corruptive force. In addition, Iran’s willingness to cooperate, Rouhani’s critics believe, makes Tehran appear weak and desperate because of the domestic economic crisis and the related impact of U.S.-led Western sanctions.
During Rouhani’s first few months, by contrast, there was scant public criticism. Some U.S. government officials and Iran experts in Washington were confident that his presidency was a fundamental shift in the political system, which in turn would quickly lead to warming relations, if not normalization, with Washington.
But in light of recent events in Iran, that view may need serious revision. Even though Rouhani and Iran’s Foreign Ministry have been allowed to take control of the nuclear file, his administration has strikingly little sway over other important foreign policy areas, from Iran’s role in Iraq and Syria to its support for Hezbollah and other terrorist activities. When Kerry tried to talk to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about Syria on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Zarif said he does not control the Syria portfolio, which is correct. That falls to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which also makes decisions on Iran’s formidable military support for Hezbollah.
And now even Rouhani’s full command over the nuclear talks appears weakened. Fearing that a long-term deal will be reached that is detrimental to Iran’s interests, hard-liners prompted Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission to demand that a member of the conservative-controlled parliament be added to the nuclear negotiating team.
These recent turns pose a few important questions about Rouhani’s presidency: Has Iran’s foreign policy truly changed with his election? Has Rouhani been permitted to control a small slice of Iran’s foreign policy primarily to get sanctions lifted and to pacify a restive public, especially young Iranians, as the hard-liners continue to pursue their own foreign policy objectives?
The debate in Washington over these issues and others is extremely polarized and ideologically driven. The United States’ own right-wing hard-liners see little but deception in Rouhani’s outreach, while Democratic supporters of President Barack Obama’s efforts talk of a significant shift in U.S.-Iran relations that will lead to lasting reform. For now, caution and skepticism about the ability of Rouhani’s presidency to change the direction of Iran’s foreign and domestic policies appears warranted. The lessons of Khatami’s failed tenure as a pro-reform president should not be forgotten.
Mehdi Arabshahi, an intern at the Stimson Center, contributed to this article.