Iran nuclear deal: What's at stake for Rouhani and his agenda of 'moderation'

Expectations for change have been high in Iran since President Hassan Rouhani's election. There have been some improvements, analysts say, but his ability to make deeper change may depend on the result of nuclear talks.

/Ebrahim Noroozi/AP/File
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a debate on a vote of confidence for his choice for new minister of Science, Research and Technology Mahmoud Nili Ahmadabadi, in an open session of parliament in Tehran, Iran, Oct. 29.

As nuclear negotiations reach a crescendo between Iran and six world powers, there is much at stake at home for Iran’s centrist president, Hassan Rouhani: a popular agenda of “moderation” that has so far seen mixed results.

Hardline and conservative opponents have challenged President Rouhani at every turn, charging him with eroding the values of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution on issues as diverse as reaching out to the West and questioning the need for morality police and a “security state.”

Since Rouhani’s election in 2013, Iranian analysts say, there have been widespread – if gradual and incomplete – improvements in many social and political issues. But the president’s ability to make deeper change, and limit the influence of his opposition, they say, may depend on the outcome of the nuclear talks, which face a Nov. 24 deadline in Vienna.

“Rouhani is like an acrobat,” says Davood Mohammadi, editor of the reformist Shargh newspaper. “He must avoid radical changes, but [make change] without frightening the other side. Yet he must also not frustrate those who want big change in society; this is what people are expecting.”

Those expectations have been high since Rouhani trounced half a dozen conservative rivals in the June 2013 elections. He declared his victory a mandate for change from “extremism,” and many Iranians took to the streets to celebrate.

The cleric might seem ideally suited to the task, able to maneuver within the system after spending decades as an insider at the heart of Iran’s power structure, close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But the outcome of the nuclear talks could make or break his agenda.

“Radicals are still painting a dark picture of the talks,” says a veteran Iranian analyst, who asked not to be named. A defendable nuclear deal will change the equation in Rouhani’s favor.

“Right now people complain – they are typically impatient – but at the same time, people know that our lives will improve,” says the analyst. “If a [nuclear] deal happens, the most credit won’t go to Khamenei but will go to Rouhani, and it will be much harder for hardliners to attack them. They will lose their weapons.”

The penultimate round of talks just ended in Muscat, Oman, with little sense yet whether Iran and the so-called P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) will overcome differences about uranium enrichment capacity and sanctions relief.

Eggs all in 'nuclear basket'

But analysts warn that Rouhani must be careful to bring back a deal he can sell to the Iranian people.

“[Rouhani] has all his eggs in this nuclear basket,” says Mr. Mohammadi. “If he solves it, and people feel their rights are kept and we seal a deal, the political situation for Rouhani will be stronger. As a political actor, if he has more power he can do more. ... He should sign a deal that can be defended inside Iran, or he will be attacked by hardliners for treason.”

One measure of the Rouhani era’s relative openness is in the pages of newspapers, where many issues deemed too sensitive during the previous tenure of arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are now commonly covered. From reports on nuclear and sanctions issues to corruption cases and even the use of jamming tools for social media, editors say restrictions have eased.

“In a country where the conflict between internal groups reaches peak intensity, it is only natural that the lives of the media are going to be hard,” says Elyas Hazrati, the reformist owner of Etemaad newspaper, which has twice been shut down in recent years. “But after Mr. Rouhani was elected, a compromise was reached by political groups, so working has become easier.”

'A good environment for media'

The result is “stability in the country that has created a good environment for media in Iran. Mr. Rouhani keeps saying ‘criticize me, please critique my actions,’ ” says Hazrati. “He has played a role, and his effect has been considerable. But in our country, the main principle is freedom – unless some people prevent that from happening."

Hardliners and conservatives “are still there, just spread around. Some are in parliament, some make speeches in Tehran, some pour acid on [women] in Isfahan,” adds Hazrati. “They are waiting for their turn to come back to power once again, but the main trend in society goes the other way.”

Still, there is disappointment among some supporters of Rouhani who expected faster and more dramatic change, including the release of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The two former presidential candidates in 2009 led the Green Movement protests and have lived for years under house arrest.

Other issues on the negative side of the reformist ledger include an uptick in executions. The United Nations also counts 35 Iranian journalists in jail, and a handful of newspapers – on both sides of the political spectrum – have been shut down for infractions.

Among signals from hardliners aimed at deflating expectations is the arrest in July of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian – a dual US-Iranian citizen whose “security” charges have still not yet been made public, analysts say. Another is the case of Goncheh Ghavami, a dual British-Iranian citizen arrested for protesting a ban on women watching men’s volleyball matches.

'Everything is on hold'

“I disagree with the idea [that there has been] improvement,” says an Iranian political activist who has spent time in prison and asked not to be named. “There is a pacification [among people], the expectation that Rouhani has failed us. All people are waiting for results of the nuclear talks: The politics and economy, everything is on hold.”

Echoing other former Rouhani supporters, the activist says presidential comments are not enough, even when fired back against hardliners who act as if they never lost the 2013 vote.

“I don’t see an impact, an excitement happening or people being impressed by what their president says,” he says.

“Of course, people like what they hear from Rouhani, but know there are so many power-centers, and Rouhani can’t control them all,” adds the activist. Opposition activists based outside Iran “say [change] is not fast enough. But activists inside don’t have that high expectation. They know it will take a lot more time.”

Still, from editors’ desks, change has been palpable, if limited.

Many 'taboos' are now broken

Directives once issued by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council not to discuss in media the impact of the West’s economic sanctions is one of many “taboos” that are broken today, says Mohammad Sadegh Jenan Sefat, editor of the economic website.

“People feel more free to discuss than they did before,” says Mr. Sefat. “Ordinary people are concerned about their daily lives – about jobs – and only after that about Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi. That is the preoccupation of politicians.”

The result is a degree of change that may depend upon a nuclear deal if it is to deepen.

“Psychologically, there was a kind of depression in Iran, and now we have passed through it,” says an Iranian researcher in Tehran who asked not to be named.

“Now is a decisive moment for Iran, a transition from depression in economy and spirit to one of calmness, relief and progress, and relative integration between the people and government that before was a huge gap,” says the researcher, referring to the post-election street violence of 2009.

“There are strong criticisms [of Rouhani], but in a different way – we have hope,” adds the researcher.

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