Are Iran’s moderates losing power to hardliners?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 7 Mar 2019

Iran’s reformist President Hassan Rouhani toughens his language against the West as he finds himself under increasing pressure from the country’s hardliners.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures as he delivers a public speech in the northern province of Gilan, Iran, on March 6, 2019. Rouhani indicated a toughening language during the speech. ( Courtesy of Iranian presidency / Reuters )

Iran’s ‘reformist’ President Hassan Rouhani recently made a departure from his tone of moderation and adopted a shrill rhetoric against the US and its allies. 

The US government, led by President Donald Trump, has left Rouhani and his reformist supporters in limbo after Washington withdrew from the landmark nuclear deal, reversing former president Barack Obama's foreign policy gains and reimposing harsh economic sanctions on Tehran. 

"Today we have differences with the US that could not be settled through negotiations or compromise. We should force the enemy to withdraw and make it understand that the Iranian nation will continue the path of honor and pride," Rouhani said, during a rally in northern Iran on March 6. 

Rouhani’s “enemy” reference in a militaristic language demonstrates that he needs to appeal to the country’s strong conservative base, which has been increasingly angered by the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, seen as yet another American betrayal as well as a failure by Iran's reformist political elite. 

Although some European powers are still backing up the nuclear deal, the US national security advisor John Bolton, who's known for his hawkish outlook, has blocked them “from reciprocating Iran's nuclear concessions”, said Ali Vaez, the director of Iran Project at International Crisis Group, an American think-tank. This leaves Rouhani almost stifled with barely any option at his disposal other than toughening his language. 

The nuclear deal created a mechanism called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for easing economic sanctions against Tehran. 

The co-signatories of the JCPOA were the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany – the permanent members of the UN – as well as the EU. 

“This seems like a redux of 2003 to 2005, when the moderates were discredited, lost in local and parliamentary elections and had to hand over power to the ultra-hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” Vaez told TRT World. 

He is referring to the former reformist Mohammad Khatami, who lost the elections in 2005 to the hardliner Ahmadinejad after serving two consecutive terms in which he could not deliver most of the reformist pledges he had made to his supporters. 

The stiffening stance of the hardliners recently translated into a major development as Iran's state media reported that Rouhani's political opponent in the 2017 elections, Ebrahim Raisi, would become the head of the country’s powerful judiciary on March 8.  

A supporter of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, holds his poster as the other one holds a poster of his main rival Ebrahim Raisi, who was the hard-liners' best hope, during a street campaign ahead the presidential election in downtown Tehran, Iran on May 17, 2017.(AP Archive)

Raisi was a member of the four-person panel that, according to Amnesty International, sentenced “thousands of political prisoners” to death in the late 1980s. In the 2017 elections, he was the main hardliner contender pitched against the reformist Rouhani, finishing the race in second place.

His appointment to the top judicial post signals Rouhani is out of favour with the hardline kingmaker clergy, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

According to Vaez, Khamenei is known for playing a key role in striking a "balance between different factions", but this time he seems to be content to look the other way, as "he is closely associated with the conservatives”. 

Rouhani's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, one of the Iranian architectures of the nuclear deal, also resigned last week. Zarif fielded a lot of criticism from Iran’s conservative establishment for his role in crafting the nuclear deal. As Rouhani refused his resignation, Zarif continues to be the foreign minister for now. 

With all the odds stacked against him, Rouhani will now have to work with his political rival Raisi, whom he described in the past as a man of “executions and imprisonment” accusing him of serious human rights violations. 

Raisi has also been considered as a potential replacement for the country’s aging spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ebrahim Raisi, right, adjusts his collar as he arrives at a campaign rally for the presidential election in Tehran on May 16, 2017.(AP Archive)

Under any political scenario, it appears Rouhani will finish his term, “albeit as a lame duck president". 

"The system seems loath to add internal instability to external pressure,” Vaez observed. 

But under current circumstances, his term might be remembered as another failure to shake up the system. 

During large protests in early 2018 against the government, Rouhani was stuck between suppressing the protests or embracing them. 

“Rouhani can follow the example of his predecessors and opt for an even narrower agenda, or capitalise on public discontent to push the establishment towards more structural change, including constitutional reform,” Vaez observed at the time, during a TRT World interview. 

Since then, far beyond forcing the establishment toward a comprehensive change, Rouhani’s political position has been further weakened. “They seem to be running out of options and leaders. They have once more proven incapable of reforming the system,” Vaez said. 

But the victory of Iranian hardliners, who push for more Iranian military involvement across the Middle East, might not be good news for the region, where Western powers and Russia play a brutal power game, fuelling sectarian, ethnic and political tensions in the background of decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict. 

During Ahmadinejad's turbulent tenure in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Iran and Israel, itself backed by the US, came close to a military confrontation as the former Iranian president advocated that Israel must be “wiped off the map”.

On the other hand, some experts have already suggested that pro-Israel Trump is preparing to push the US towards a direct military confrontation with Iran. 

“Their empowerment will strengthen the hand of their American counterparts in increasing pressure on Iran, which will at some point force Tehran to take retaliatory measures of its own, thus exacerbating regional tensions,” Vaez concluded.