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Iran protests: why Rouhani's foes are backing off their hard line

Why We Wrote This

Are economic protests in Iran a sign the regime is at a tipping point? Not likely, say analysts, but they do point to a weakness: Political foes are not cooperating to solve hard problems.

Iranian Labor News Agency/AP
Protesters chanting slogans swarmed Tehran's Grand Bazaar June 25, news agencies reported, and forced shopkeepers to close their stalls in apparent anger over Iran's troubled economy. Similar demonstrations rocked the country months ago.

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The tone of the protests in Iran has shifted over the past week, as hard-liners opposed to President Hassan Rouhani have failed to answer a key question: What’s the alternative? What began with calls for the impeachment of Mr. Rouhani has morphed into calls for unity, a sign, say analysts, that the country’s political factions are increasingly unable to find common ground in the face of a teetering economy, a weakening currency, and the prospect of tighter US sanctions. Observers say that, amid these challenges, Rouhani’s opponents have failed to articulate a clear vision for Iran. “Hard-liners can complain, but they have no strategy to gain power,” says Farideh Farhi, a veteran Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. “Rouhani is effectively, realistically, the best option the whole system has in steering the very difficult situation that Iran now faces.”

Protests erupted anew in Iran over the weekend, with thirsty residents of the parched city of Khorramshahr raising popular pressure on President Hassan Rouhani by quickly turning their demand for water into anti-regime anger.

“Under the name of religion, the thieves robbed us of everything!” echoed one chant, along with calls for the deaths of Mr. Rouhani and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Khorramshahr protests, a week after three days of protests in Tehran, were the latest sign of popular discontent over Iran’s faltering economy, sliding currency, and the prospect of tough new US sanctions.

But the subdued reporting in the hard-line media about the water shortage couldn’t have been more different from the triumphalist, anti-Rouhani tone that accompanied the previous protests in the Tehran bazaar.

The reaction to those protests – which hard-liners reportedly had a hand in orchestrating, with shops shut for days – was the apparent culmination of a months-long campaign by hard-liners to discredit the president’s leadership and force his resignation.

In the course of a week, however, media coverage morphed from a free-for-all attack by opponents on Rouhani to calls for unity from across the political spectrum to confront problems at home and foes abroad. And that transformation, say analysts, exposes the limited ability of hard-liners to articulate an alternative path, much less convince key power centers such as Ayatollah Khamenei that they could rule more effectively.

Such calls for unity also highlight, say others, that after 20 years, factions in the Islamic Republic are increasingly unable to cooperate on solving the country’s problems.

Protests likely will continue popping up across the country, as Iranians continue to air local and economic grievances and officials try to solve them. And hard-liners likely will continue to try to use them for political advantage, to paint a president they despise as weak.

But in this latest episode Rouhani has prevailed, holding at bay for now the complex challenges that confront the Islamic Republic after nearly 40 years in power.

The internal gamesmanship is playing out even as the US hints at boosting pressure against Iran to the point of regime change in an attempt to alter Iran’s strategic calculus and prompt it to withdraw from interventions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. But analysts say the Islamic Republic is far from reaching a tipping point, despite the impression given by the vicious infighting and frequent street protests.

“Hard-liners can complain, but they have no strategy to gain power,” says Farideh Farhi, a veteran Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.

“Rouhani is effectively, realistically, the best option the whole system has in steering the very difficult situation that Iran now faces,” says Ms. Farhi. “If under the circumstances something happens to Rouhani, then the outside world will say, ‘Oh my God, Iran is in even more trouble than we thought.’ So [the hard-liners] have no other choice than to stick to Rouhani.”

Talk of impeachment

Hard-line elements have orchestrated unrest to tarnish Rouhani before, as they did in protests that erupted last December in the northeast city of Mashhad – which quickly spread nationwide, spinning out of control into serious anti-regime unrest.

Recently, hard-liners have called for early presidential elections and even a military president, in what the Al-Monitor news website called a “well-devised plan.”

“This time, hard-liners don’t just want to weaken the moderate president, but to push him out altogether,” wrote Al-Monitor, noting a series of statements from hard-line officials and clerics raising doubts about Rouhani and the specter of impeachment.

In response, Rouhani declared that opponents who think his government was “scared and will resign” were “making a mistake.” He implied that he had continued support from Mr. Khamenei, and said: “We cannot stand up to America and yet continue our domestic fights.”

Those statements appeared to turn the tide against Rouhani’s opponents, and “pour water on their designs,” says Farhi.

“Iran is not in a revolutionary stage,” she says. “There are no organizational structures that can turn these disparate protests … into a bigger movement requiring fundamental change.”

That hasn’t prevented the president’s many enemies from taking steps to damage him, especially after President Trump said in May that the US would unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal – a signature foreign policy achievement for Rouhani that he promised would deliver prosperity and normal relations with the West.

Seen from Tehran, further proof that the US aims for regime change came this weekend, when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani addressed an annual Paris meeting of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a cult-like Iranian opposition group with virtually no support in Iran that for years has paid senior former US officials to speak at its events.

“We are now realistically being able to see an end to the regime in Iran,” said Mr. Giuliani, an attorney for Trump and a regular at MEK events. “The mullahs must go, the ayatollah must go.… Freedom is right around the corner.… Next year I want to have this convention in Tehran!”

Such pronouncements just feed the political battle in Iran. Hard-liners opposed the nuclear deal from the start, saying the US could not be trusted, and have, ever since Trump’s decision, tried to capitalize on their I-told-you-so moment.

Economic factors

The Tehran protests last week were over the fate of the Iranian rial, which lost half its value this year, and were further fueled by revelations that smartphone importers had made fortunes gaming foreign currency rules.

But hard-line lawmakers lined up to call for Rouhani to step down or be impeached. A military adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei suggested that Iran would be better managed with no government at all, rather than with Rouhani. A 370-page on-line book, Iran’s version of a hatchet job, even accused the president of being an agent of Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence agency.

The smear campaign was a sign that Rouhani’s opponents were smelling blood like never before. But as the challenge to Rouhani grew, so did the realization that the anti-Rouhani campaign was being counterproductive, both inside and outside Iran.

Khamenei’s military adviser, former Revolutionary Guard chief Yahya Rahim Safavi, for example, backtracked and called on all Iranians to help the government solve economic problems and “defuse the enemies’ plots.” And even the conservative newspaper Kayhan, a reliable voice of hard-liners, is calling for internal unity to best tackle Iran’s problems. In an editorial July 2 titled, “Neither impeachment nor blank check,” it said now is not the best time to “address the mismanagement and mistakes” of Rouhani’s administration.

“It is clear that Rouhani is weakened compared to this time last year” after his reelection, says Farzan Sabet, a postdoctoral fellow at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The president’s signature achievements are “in tatters,” he notes, and promises of enhanced social and political freedoms “remain largely unfulfilled.”

“But I suspect conservatives who wield real power over unelected power centers in Iran don’t want to bring him down. What would they do without him?” says Mr. Sabet.

“The conservatives understand that their own ineptitude at international diplomacy and economic mismanagement and corruption are among the main factors that have brought the Islamic Republic to the brink of calamity,” he says.

While protests since December have been used for easy point-scoring against Rouhani, Iran’s opaque political system is “prone to friction and deadlock,” says Sabet. That has itself become a crisis, he adds, “because after 20 years of Islamic Republic politicians tearing each other apart with little to show for it, not only have Iranians lost hope in the system, but on a practical level it means elements of the system often cannot work together to solve problems.”

Signs of manipulation

Indeed, while the government and judiciary issued harsh warnings to “saboteurs” after the Tehran bazaar protests – and asked for “true” bazaaris to separate themselves from “troublemakers” – there were signs that those protests were partly orchestrated.

“We are forced to close our shops,” one unnamed gold-dealer told the Financial Times of London in Tehran. “Anti-Rouhani power centers have sent their agents to the bazaar. It seems there is a plan to make Rouhani a victim of the current economic crisis.”

But the crisis is not going away.

“Our people are in a situation like they have a fish bone stuck in their throats,” the Tehran Friday prayer leader Kazem Seddighi said in his latest sermon. Rouhani’s government “should repent and understand people’s pains. They shouldn’t smile.”

Iran’s economic woes are not due to sanctions, the cleric said, but to mismanagement and failing to heed Khamenei’s call to prioritize the economy.

Such sentiment is echoed on Tehran’s streets, where the owner of a corner grocery shop on Miremad Street was asked about daily price changes.

“Well, I don’t know really where we are headed,” said Meysam, angrily. “We are only filling the pockets of the elite who enjoy import privileges. This has nothing to do with Trump, we have to start at home.”

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