Since he was elected, President Hassan Rouhani has been the target of repeated attacks from hardline elements in the regime but lately, the pressure against him is building up dramatically, culminating in a harsh criticism by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The attacks are based on two main themes:
- The nuclear deal: Hardliners are bashing Rouhani for signing the deal which although has brought Iran in from its isolation, the economic benefits of the deal are still far from being fulfilled.
- Internal politics: Rouhani’s open criticism of hardline elements in regards to freedom of speech, regime corruption, women’s rights and political opposition is exasperating hardliners who want to maintain the status quo at all costs.
Let’s start with Khamenei since his criticism holds more weight than all the other critics together. Although Khamenei allowed Rouhani to lead Tehran into the JCPoA, he always did so reluctantly. The nuclear deal’s weaknesses from Khamenei’s perspective is twofold: 1) the nuclear deal opens Iran to the influence/”infiltration” of all countries who want to trade with Tehran and 2) the JCPoA has forced Tehran to deal with the Great Satan, the US, which is contrary to Khamenei’s revolutionary ideals. The issue of foreign infiltration, or as Khamenei calls it “the soft war”, is not a clear cut issue since Khamenei has no real qualms in dealing with non-Western countries such as Russia, China, India, Azerbaijan etc…What he is really worried about is specifically Western infiltration from the EU and, of course, from the US. His fear from the EU is also not too well defined since it depends on just how much EU countries support the US and Israel. But Khamenei’s harshest criticism of Rouhani is based on relations with the US. During the negotiations, Khamenei issued several “red lines” to Rouhani and his negotiators and one of them was to not deal with the US on any subject apart from the JCPoA. At the same time, he banned 227 American brands from entering the Iranian market and has never stopped from aiming his fiery rhetoric at the US on issues of human rights, the use of sanctions, supporting terrorism, the presidential elections etc…
The US congress’s vote to extend non-nuclear sanctions against Iran have triggered Khamenei’s latest attack on the US and on Rouhani as well: “The West side is not committed to this agreement, while some Iranian officials rushed to sign it“. Of course, Rouhani spearheads the list of “some Iranian officials” but in a way, this attack is definitely petty on Khamenei’s part since the nuclear deal would not have been signed without his express approval. Khamenei then goes on to criticize the sanctions themselves: “There is no difference between imposing a new ban or resuming one that has lapsed, the second is an explicit negation of what has been agreed upon previously by the Americans”. Here, it seems that Khamenei hasn’t read the JCPoA since the nuclear deal specifies the removal of nuclear-related sanctions but not any other sanctions that are related to different aspects of the regime such as human rights and supporting terror and therefore the renewed sanctions do not breach the nuclear agreement in any way. Khamenei only has himself to blame for this since during negotiations, the US tried to include issues such as human rights and terrorism within the deal only to be told that the JCPoA is to be focused on Iran’s nuclear program and nothing more.
But Khamenei is not alone in trying to attack Rouhani’s strategy of “constructive engagement” with the West.
Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s representative at the powerful Kayhan institute openly challenged Rouhani to “name one of the 100 sanctions (that) have been lifted” following Rouhani’s call to focus on the “100” sanctions that had been lifted instead of focusing on the sanctions that weren’t. He also pointed to the contradiction of sanctions being lifted while major international banks continue to stay at arm’s length form Iran despite the fact that they are doing so not out of fear from US sanctions but because of FATF rules which continued to place Iran within the category of a country which supports terrorism and because of the uncertainty of the Iranian economy. Shariatmadari opposition to Rouhani comes as no surprise since he has been adamantly opposed to the nuclear deal from day one. In fact, he openly endorsed Trump: “The wisest plan of the crazy Trump is tearing up the JCPOA…The JCPOA is a golden document for the US but is considered nothing except humiliation and a loss for Iran”. On both counts, Shariatmadari is way off target: the JCPoA is definitely not a “golden document” for the US since the US has not gained in any way from the nuclear deal and it is hard to see how Tehran is humiliated by the hundreds of diplomats and trade delegations which have landed in Tehran since the signing of the nuclear deal.
Shariatmadari’s criticism of Rouhani is echoed by the IRGC as well: Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s representative at the IRGC attacked Rouhani with a more religious overtones: He accuses Rouhani of “making (too many) concessions to America but then adds that Rouhani is “Godless”, is “unfamiliar” with prayer and lacks an understanding of the Quran. Such attacks are very dangerous in Tehran since the religious overtones are bound to attract the hot-headed hardliners who act from a purely religious view. The fact that Shirazi is an IRGC man is also a key factor here since the IRGC was against the nuclear deal from day one.
Rouhani’s efforts at eradicating corruption and the promotion of the freedom of speech has earned him yet another powerful political enemy: The chief of the Judiciary, Sadeq Larijani. Before we get into the nature of this clash, it is noteworthy that Larijani has two brothers who are also a part of the regime: Ali Larijani, the head of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) and Javad Larijani, the chief of human rights. Larijani, a hardliner who is one of the candidates to become a Supreme Leader after Khamenei passes away has always been critical of any efforts by Rouhani to bring about changes in the sphere of internal affairs and the two have had some minor clashes in the past. But now, Larijani has raised his criticism to a much higher level based on two separate issues: Rouhani has called for an investigation into 63 bank accounts under Larijani’s name which are suspected to have been used to funnel corrupted money to Larijani and others. Larijani denies any wrong doing, claiming that the bank accounts are “by no means personal and belonged to the Judiciary as a government branch” but the allegations have hit a raw nerve. In fact, the situation has been aggravated by the fact that Khamenei has refused to even talk to Larijani since these allegations were exposed.
The second issue in the latest war between Rouhani and Larijani concerns Ali Motahari, a relatively liberal MP who is also the deputy-speaker of the Majlis. Motahari was all set to deliver a speech in Mashhad in the province of Khorasan Razavi but his speech was cancelled the night before by the local prosecutor general without explanation. The cancelled speech sparked a massive social media campaign and Motahari quickly penned an open letter to Rouhani demanding to know how the prosecutor was empowered to cancel his speech: “Please clarify who rules Khorasan Razavi province: the governor, or the prosecutor-general and the Friday prayer leader?“. The governor of Mashhad was then dismissed and Motahari proceeded to file a lawsuit against the prosecutor general claiming that the judiciary had “blocked the execution of the constitution and individual freedoms”. Enter Rouhani who instructs his interior and justice ministers to investigate the issue and lamented that “some people want to shut the mouths (of their critics) and lay the ground for radicalism and discord within society”. Larijani took this as a personal attack on the judiciary and on himself and was quick to respond: “The President’s conduct who had responded to Mashhad event by calling the situation ‘source of shame,’ is violation of his duties as president…unfair remarks using the Parliament as the media would reserve strong decision to investigate why such unfounded allegations are voiced in the Parliament”.
Within one week, Rouhani has been attacked by the Supreme Leader and two of his representatives at the Kayhan institute and the IRGC as well as by the judiciary. And some believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg and such attacks on Rouhani will only increase as the elections approach. With so much pressure around him, Rouhani needs to make the Iranian people believe that his presidency, which brought on the nuclear deal, should be awarded four more years to continue to steer Tehran towards diplomatic and economic engagement with the world instead of the isolation that his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad created.