Iran nuclear deal: Does Rouhani's 'win' open door to social changes?

Iran's centrist president should get a political 'bounce' after delivering on his campaign pledge of ending sanctions, but he faces a long, uphill battle on non-economic issues.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Iranians wave flags, sing and chant in the streets to celebrate Iran's nuclear deal with six world powers led by the US in Vienna, in uncommon scenes of public jubilation in Tehran, Iran, on July 14, 2015. The bite of years of sanctions on the Islamic Republic and three years of roller-coaster nuclear talks have taken a toll on Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani has pledged to resolve the nuclear crisis and improve the economy.

President Hassan Rouhani has delivered on a key campaign promise, to reach a deal on Iran’s nuclear program that would bring sanctions relief and open Iran to the world.

Now a key question on the minds of Mr. Rouhani’s supporters is whether he will be empowered by that success to fulfill other promises to expand personal freedoms as well.

Those desires were quickly evident on the streets of Tehran in the hours after the deal was reached Tuesday in Vienna with the P5+1 powers. Among the thousands of Iranians who celebrated the deal were groups that chanted for lifting the years-long house arrest of opposition Green movement leaders – yet another Rouhani promise.

Since the centrist Rouhani was elected two years ago, his hard-line political foes have proven to be powerful and determined. Even as he made progress at the nuclear talks – with unprecedented support for that task from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – it was not clear how far the leader would back other aspects of Rouhani’s agenda, if at all.

While Rouhani is expected to receive a political bounce from the nuclear deal, he will still have a tough fight on his hands as he pushes the rest of his domestic agenda forward.  

The first sign of approval from Ayatollah Khamenei for the landmark deal came just hours after it was announced in Vienna: He thanked Rouhani and his cabinet, and invited them to join him to break the daily Ramadan fast at sundown.

The second sign of approval was more qualified: In a letter to Rouhani Wednesday, Iran’s highest authority called the deal a “milestone,” offered his “intimate [deep] gratitude,” and said he would “pray for divine blessings” for Iran’s negotiators.

“However,” Khamenei said, with more than a hint of caution, the 159-page text “needs careful scrutiny and must be directed into the defined legal process.”

“In case of approval,” he said, Iran should be wary of violations, because “some” of the six world powers – the US among them – “are not trustworthy at all.”

Khamenei's support critical

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – as the nuclear deal is officially called – would never have made it through three years of talks without Khamenei’s express consent already. And his support has been unprecedented, if not always so clear, for the negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Upon his return to Tehran Wednesday, Mr. Zarif stated that “all” of Iran’s red lines had been respected, and both he and Rouhani have praised the “guidance” from Khamenei. “A page has turned in the history of Iran,” Rouhani said.

The mutual praise is a clear sign of the importance of the leader’s blessing. What is less clear is how much support he will give to Rouhani fulfilling other promises such as expanding personal freedoms – from clothing restrictions to social media access – and the fate of the opposition leaders.

Rouhani is often attacked from two sides: From hardliners who claim his outreach to the US and West is “caving in” and undermining Iran’s 1979 revolution; and from reformists and more moderate conservatives who voted for his promises of economic and social change, but have been deeply disappointed.

“We should wait and see what kind of reforms Mr. Rouhani has in mind, but most definitely [they] will be within the framework of the Islamic Revolution…. If it is something besides this, for sure it will not succeed,” says Gholam-Ali Haddadadel, a former parliament speaker and conservative candidate in the 2013 election, who advises the supreme leader.

The deal will be politicized

“The nuclear negotiations belong not only to the reformists, it belongs to all the nation,” says Mr. Haddadadel in an interview. “And if someone thinks that with the nuclear deal the nation will be divided into two parts – the followers of Mr. Rouhani and others, and they will start a fight – such thinking is wrong.”

Even if Rouhani supporters can do well in parliamentary elections early next year – pushing out 40 or so of the lawmakers who have blocked his agenda – far-reaching social reforms will remain an uphill battle.

Rival factions will “try to exploit the agreement for political purposes,” now that consensus over getting a nuclear deal is no longer necessary, says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“The accord is likely to give Rouhani a boost … to move forward with other priorities, particularly socio-political reform,” says Mr. Vaez. “Yet the prospect of a triumphant Rouhani could exacerbate the conservatives’ fears of losing too much political ground and provoke them to thwart” his plans.

Deep political and social divisions have defined Iranian politics for decades, including reactions to the nuclear talks. When the real negotiating progress began in the fall of 2013, hard-line voices – and even banners across Tehran – depicted Mr. Zarif as a naïve traitor too close to the Americans.

Broad support in media

Khamenei’s increasing support for Iran’s negotiators has kept those critics in check. And Rouhani will have leverage because public opinion is on his side, says one Iranian analyst who asked not to be named.

“But his opponents, the hard-liners, will not give up. After three decades, conservatives are very adept at obstructing government,” he says, noting how they have done so in one way or another to every Iranian president for 25 years.

Even as the reformist Shargh newspaper made “Victory without war” its front page message, the hard-line Kayhan warned: “Don’t expect a miracle.”

“Mr. Rouhani, you slowed inflation and you made holes in the wall of sanctions,” wrote Kayhan. “But in this new [post-deal] season, replying to the hopes of this nation, your days and nights will turn dark.”

Such negativity was rare, as Iranian media mostly described the deal and Zarif’s efforts in glowing terms, and with hope for positive, even transformative change.

“Mr. Rouhani should attribute all the results of the deal to the leader. By this strategy, he makes the radicals calm” and can “strengthen moderate discourse,” says Amir Mohebian, a conservative analyst and editor close to Iran’s political elite. He says the president has just 5 or 6 months “to manage the expectations of the people.”

Rising demands

Rouhani has vowed to fulfill all his promises and called on his rivals not to undermine the hopes of Iranians.

“On the good side, the nation will feel the win, [but] the demands of the people will rise hugely,” says Hamidreza Taraghi, a conservative politician who first introduced Rouhani to Khamenei more than 40 years ago. “They will say on unemployment and inflation, you don’t have the nuclear issue anymore, so you should solve these very quickly.”

He doesn’t predict quick results there, or on the president’s agenda of expanding personal freedoms and social change.

“Some of these promises, Mr. Rouhani does not even have the authority; these are just election slogans which have expired,” says Mr. Taraghi, adding that the leader, judiciary, and security organs often have final say. 

“If Mr. Rouhani can only solve economic issues like inflation, unemployment, and the downturn, he can throw his hat high in the air,” he says.

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