The Iranian government is once again at a crossroads, but this time, President Rouhani's moderation could turn the anti-establishment wave against the country's hardliners.
As anti-government protests in Iran enter their second week they have also taken an interesting turn. While the country’s top cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed “foreign enemies” for stirring unrest, President Hassan Rouhani's response was measured.
Instead of disparaging the people on the streets or accusing them of being influenced by foreign powers, he acknowledged their right to protest.
“It would be a misrepresentation (of events) and also an insult to the Iranian people to say they only had economic demands," Rohani said. "People had economic, political and social demands.”
Known for his accommodative worldview in Iran’s conservative political spectrum, Rouhani once again deployed moderation, repositioning himself more as a leader of the masses who understands their woes rather than a president who’s wary of dissent.
If the protests intensify, should Rouhani step down? Experts argue that Rouhani is staring at two possibilities. “The protests will either liquidate Rouhani or strengthen him,” said Osman Bostan, a Turkish expert who’s studied political movements in several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.
Another expert Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at International Crisis Group, finds Rouhani at a critical juncture, where he could use the public dissatisfaction to achieve his political goals.
“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 told TRT World. “That choice will ultimately determine the Islamic Republic’s fate.”
Vaez was referring to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, the two reformist leaders of the 1990s, who backtracked on their agendas of mending ties with the West and easing personal freedoms after hardliner political operatives pushed them to crush the protests that shook their administrations respectively.
Rouhani finds himself in a precarious position since the current protests are not only driven by demands for freedom, but also the economic troubles Iranians have been beset with over the last several decades, in large part because of Western economic measures.
When Rouhani came into power in 2013, Iranians expected a great deal of change from him. “Rouhani over-promised and under-delivered,” said Vaez, “He was re-elected just six months ago and people understand that there are real limits to his power.”
Though Iran has gained influence in the Middle East through its military manoeuvres in the last decade, inching closer to its dream of establishing a Shia crescent across the region, the country’s domestic politics is crisscrossed with several fault lines. An intense power struggle between hardline and reformist clergy and the leaders of parliament have almost always played out in post-revolution Iran.
All the power circles are connected to the supreme leader Khamenei, but the decision-making is largely decentralised with several checks and balances along the chain of command. And it’s because of this highly fragmented power structure average Iranians have been at the receiving end.
Struck by poverty and unemployment, Iranians, mostly urban and middle class, came out on the streets in 2009, rejecting the re-election of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They criticised the conservative leader for his narrow economic agenda and staunch anti-Western stance that caused further strain to the fragile US-Iran ties, attracting strict economic sanctions.
But Ahmadinejad’s mandate was approved by Khamenei and he came down heavily upon protesters, curbing dissent with brute force.
But four years later, with another national election underway, Iranians voted Hassan Rouhani to power. A moderate cleric, Rouhani had a falling out with Ahmedinejad in 2005, when the former was a top nuclear negotiator. Ahmedinejad considered Rouhani as a reformist, someone who wanted to soften Iran’s approach toward the West.
In Iran today, people are back on the streets. Rouhani finds himself in Ahmedinejad’s place, but this time the protests began in rural Iran, which has remained loyal to the country’s conservative political leadership. Long before the opposition could have morphed into a large-scale uprising, the intervention of foreign powers cast a shadow of suspicion over it.
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the Iranian protesters, accusing the Rouhani government of oppression and corruption.
The US president Donald Trump also took to Twitter, appreciating Iranians for “acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.”
Ever since the Iranian revolution, there has been widespread consensus about the country’s foreign policy and the constitutional ethics overseen by the Supreme Leader Khamenei and his council of advisers.
The country spends billions of dollars on its proxy wars in the Middle East. Its military’s budget spiked to about $11 billion this year, a 20-percent increase compared to the previous budget. Any political campaign against the military spending could backfire since that would amount to speaking against the national interest.
In Khamenei’s power corridors, a Persian word, khodi, is used to identify the loyalists. The word literally means “one of us.”
And to earn that title, says Borzou Daragahi, an Iranian-American commentator, one has to “accept that Khamenei has a God-given right to rule. At least outwardly, they adopt the values of the senior clerics.”
These subtle allegiances play a significant role in defining the course of Iranian politics. And to foreign observers, it’s a complicated web of power.
“If the Middle East is a complex jigsaw puzzle, then Iran is a Rubik's cube,” wrote Liam Fox, a British conservative politician and a former minister.
“The situation in Iran is difficult to interpret, as there are clearly differing signals coming from different parts of the government apparatus,” Fox said after his official visit to the country in 2007.
But Francis Fukuyama, a world-renowned political scientist, perceives Iran’s political apparatus in a positive light. “The Iranian Constitution is a curious hybrid of authoritarian, theocratic and democratic elements,” observed Fukuyama in 2009. “Iran could evolve towards a genuine rule-of-law democracy within the broad parameters of the 1979 constitution.”
Fukuyama’s argument is based on whether Iran opens itself to the outside world and also respects the people's lifestyle choices, which a moderate like Rouhani hopes to achieve in his tenure.
It’s a difficult terrain to navigate, however. Since the revolution, Iran’s religious institutions have largely benefited from state revenues and its clergy has taken an enormous share from the public coffers, making reforms even more difficult.
“Theocratic state circles have a large share of the financial pie. People are not happy about that and when they see the weaknesses of the economic system cannot be fixed [by the current reformist government despite its declared pledges], it makes them even more angry,” said Mehmet Alaca, a Turkish researcher, who is now writing a thesis on Hashd al Shaabi, an Iraqi Shia militia armed and funded by Iran, at Exeter University.
“A considerable part of the Iranian middle class has been victimised by failing financial houses. The recent budget proposal is decreasing the state’s social spending and increasing energy prices which has also fuelled public resentment,” said Bekir Aydogan, a Turkish political analyst on Middle Eastern issues.
Aware that public knowledge of uneven budget allocations could have serious political consequences, Rouhani reportedly leaked some details from the new budget, which again favoured religious and military entities.
He channeled the anger away from himself and towards the entire political establishment, which is influenced by conservative clerics and parliamentarians.
The country’s radicals lashed out at Rouhani in the daily newspaper Kayhan, which propagates pro-Khamenei views. Rouhani was blamed for failing to end nepotism and act against corrupt government officials.
Some analysts even believe the conservatives instigated the demonstrations to discredit the president at a time when the economy is crumbling, inflation is rising and unemployment rampant, and also hold him responsible for signing a flawed nuclear deal with the US which has failed to bring any economic benefits to the country.
Since he was instrumental in achieving the landmark nuclear deal in 2015, leading negotiations with P5+1 countries – the US, Russia, UK, France, China and Germany– his soft diplomacy unnerved several regional actors, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Though the deal evoked strong criticism from Israel, the Obama administration stood firm on its course, keeping Tel Aviv at bay.
Bostan, the Turkey-based expert on Iranian politics, believes that if the protests succeed in pushing Rouhani out of power and hardliners usurp power in Tehran, Iran will return to the path of isolation, from which regional powers like Israel benefit.
“The radicalisation of Iran could make some happy,” Bostan said. “The war coalition [against Iran] might have expectations from these Iranian protests. They want to break down Rouhani’s moderate influence and Iran’s relations with the West.”