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Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, was first elected by promising to engage the West, lift nuclear sanctions, and improve the economy. Signing the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and its partners was a signature accomplishment, but Mr. Rouhani has since faced rumblings of discontent that the promised benefits were never realized. Now, after President Trump withdrew from the deal this past spring and reimposed economic sanctions, those grumblings have morphed into a storm of political discontent. Rouhani, who addressed the United Nations on Tuesday, is facing criticism from all sides at home, including his own party. But whether he is vulnerable to US pressure remains to be seen. “Rouhani knows well that there is not an alternative to him,” says Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University. “Not the conservatives, not the supreme leader, not the reformists, and surely not the pragmatists of his camp. They all know they don’t have a better alternative. Society is very much upset; they have a lot of legitimate concerns. But I think they are not sure of the alternative,” he says, adding that talk of “regime change” among some US officials is just “wishful thinking.”
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran stood before the United Nations this week under intensified pressure from the United States, which is seeking to isolate the Islamic Republic and leverage the pain of increased sanctions and antigovernment anger to curb what it says are Iran’s “malign activities” in the Middle East.
Iranians have felt the American surge of anti-Iran hostility since President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal last spring and began restoring crippling sanctions, which analysts say hastened the plunge of Iran’s currency and helped make prices soar.
But for Mr. Rouhani, White House threats over Iran’s “aggression” barely register. Even as he faces his own perfect storm at home of political infighting and widespread discontent, analysts say, his position is secure.
To be sure, Iranians say they are disillusioned with their politics and politicians like never before, using the term “hopeless” repeatedly as they speak of the scale of corruption and mismanagement that corrodes their daily lives, and their fear of more sanctions.
Yet even though Rouhani has become a favorite target inside Iran – as well as from within his own centrist “Hope” faction – the roots of popular dissatisfaction are diverse, often longstanding, and, Iranians say, very unlikely to lead to his downfall.
“Rouhani knows well that there is not an alternative to him,” says Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University. “Not the conservatives, not the supreme leader, not the reformists, and surely not the pragmatists of his camp. They all know they don’t have a better alternative.
“Society is very much upset, they have a lot of legitimate concerns. But I think they are not sure of the alternative,” says Mr. Hadian, adding that talk of “regime change” among some US officials is just “wishful thinking.”
He says that two assumptions about Iran made by some in the White House are incorrect: that the Iranian state is weak, and that Iranians are ready to remove it. Instead, he says the state “is fully in charge, fully in control, and can easily suppress.”
“Rouhani is confident that this perfect storm may not be all that perfect,” says Hadian. “He thinks if he can survive a few months … that pressure will be substantially less.”
Fear about the future
The optics in Iran have given a different impression, when weeks of protests swept across the country at the start of the year. Ever since, frequent industrial strikes and other protests have taken place, as layoffs spread, the economy tumbled, and many of Rouhani’s election promises failed to materialize.
“People here are very uncertain about their future. And how long can this drag on?” asks a former journalist who asked not to be named.
“Politicians … have no answers for such questions,” he says. “When there was a war with Iraq, we knew, one way or another, it was going to end. But what about now? Is the US going to no longer be a superpower? I don’t think so.”
“Everybody understands this, and it puts a lot of negative psychological pressure on people,” he says.
Coping has been hard, especially after the high expectations for prosperity created by the nuclear deal, which Iran has adhered to. And even as Rouhani has been attacked from all points of Iran’s political spectrum, there has been infighting within both conservative and reformist wings.
Exhibit A is a biting critique from within the president’s own “Hope” faction. In a blistering speech to parliament this month, lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshouri laid down a host of criticisms of government performance, charging that Rouhani was denying Iran was in crisis when “everyone knows” otherwise.
Ms. Salahshouri said she wanted to complain to clerics “about the oppression against our people,” but found they were more worried about women covering their hair and biking, “rather than focusing on corruption, poverty, and the reasons why young people escape from religion.”
In an interview, Salahshouri, who has a PhD in sociology, says, “People had expectations much higher than what Rouhani could deliver.” Despite a chorus of criticism over her speech – as well as much support – she says institutions such as the Guardian Council, which vets candidates running for office, have already begun to react to her recommendations.
“This is the beginning … it was a wake-up call so that they would be more responsive,” says Salahshouri. Iran is dynamic and in a state of “continuous reform,” she says, so there is optimism despite what she calls “mega-challenges.”
“We’re living in a society where people may seem to be hopeless or losing hope,” she says, “but even little things like my speech give them this excitement and reason to live on and still fight to make it better.”
Some Iranians say the current lack of trust is decades in the making and will be hard to overcome.
“This is an accumulation of all the bad things this ruling system has done to people, to women, to students, to artists, to filmmakers, including sending basiji [militias] into the streets” to crack down on post-election protests in 2009, says a veteran analyst, who also asked not to be named.
“All this was depriving people of even the smallest thing to let people be happy,” says the analyst.
Yet he adds that the same arguments about whether Iran’s revolutionary rulers could solve Iran’s problems were raised 10, 20, and 30 years ago, during moments of crisis. He dismisses chances of an uprising.
“This has happened before, and at the last moment this regime has found an ability to be flexible,” he says, citing the 1988 end of the Iran-Iraq war; the 1997 election of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami; and the nuclear deal, which witnessed Iranian officials shake hands and negotiate with its American arch-foe – all of them unexpected events that helped relieve popular discontent.
The next round of US sanctions is due to begin Nov. 4, aimed at stopping Iranian oil sales. They “definitely will cause protests and dissatisfaction,” says Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper.
“This is very normal when people feel inflation, they become stressed and worry,” says Mr. Shariatmadari. But he says it is also a “good thing that Trump and [national security adviser John] Bolton keep threatening us: People realize the aggression comes from that side, so the reaction is toward them, and not the government.”
Need for transparency
And yet Iran’s social divide remains wide, and appears to be fracturing further, as economic and social pressures mount.
“Our own experience is, if there is a difference between the government and the people, we will be defeated,” says Mahdi Rahmanian, managing director of the reformist Shargh newspaper, adding that, “we should have the people behind the ruling system [Islamic Republic].”
The only way forward for the government, he says, “is to talk transparently with people and fight corruption. This has started.”
One professional, who asks not to be named, says Iranians in the past 20 years had both reformist and hard-line presidents, and now a centrist who had also “failed” and was the “end of the line.”
“There is no alternative, and Iranians don’t know what they want,” says the professional. He says his father cheered the protests earlier this year, safely at home in front of his TV. But when the son said he wanted to go out, his father tried to stop him.
“Ninety-five percent of Iranians want to be alive to see the future,” says the professional. In Tehran, at least, the protests were limited to a very small area, he recalls. Just ten strides away from the protesters, across the street, young couples could be found flirting with each other on park benches.
“What revolution happens when just 20 or 30 meters of the street is on fire, and the rest of the city is living like normal?” he asks. “Which revolution?”