Rouhani's campaign of hope and change collides with Iran's reality

Six months into his presidency, Hassan Rouhani is struggling to placate supporters who are disappointed with the slow pace of reforms.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani listens to WEF founder Klaus Schwab (not pictured) during a meeting at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2014 in Davos January 22, 2014. After six months in office, the centrist cleric is caught between reformists frustrated at the slow pace of change and hard-line conservatives who warn that Hassan Rouhani's agenda risks reigniting 'sedition.'

President Hassan Rouhani swept to election victory last year on the slogan "prudence and hope" and a wave of high expectations for cultural and political change in Iran.

But after six months in office, the centrist cleric is caught between reformists frustrated at the slow pace of change and hard-line conservatives who warn that Mr. Rouhani’s agenda risks reigniting “sedition.” The scale of criticism from opposing camps has been so great that it prompted Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to urge patience and support.

“No more than a few months have passed since the government took office,” Mr. Khamenei said in a Feb. 8 speech to Air Force commanders. “Authorities should be given the opportunity to push forward strongly. Critics should show tolerance toward the government.”

Much of Rouhani's success may ultimately depend on managing the expectations of impatient supporters – expectations he helped to create with his campaign promises, which are now coming up against the reality of conservative pushback and the messy legacy of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“When Rouhani came to office, he did not understand at that time the problem in front of him,” says Sadegh Kharazi, a former ambassador who now directs the IRDiplomacy website and has family ties to Khamenei. “He wanted to reconstruct the Iranian economic system, industrial system, cultural system, educational system, service system, political system – everything. Eight years [under Ahmadinejad] was catastrophe.”

Amir Mohebian, a conservative analyst, adviser and editor with close ties to Iran’s leadership circles, explains, “You should say, ‘We can solve some problems,’ not that you can solve all problems."

Facing reality

Rouhani has already brought about some change: a more stable economy, bolder newspapers, and more freedom in musical entertainment, to name a few. A dozen prominent opposition activists were released before Rouhani traveled to the United Nations General Assembly last September, and the draft of an enlightened “Citizenship Rights Charter” – its creation a campaign promise – was posted last November. Despite some growing qualms, optimism prevails among his supporters.

But Facebook and Twitter remain officially blocked – although officials from Khamenei on down all have accounts – along with a host of web pages. The two former presidential candidates who led protests in 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.

And this week Reporters Without Borders ranked Iran No. 173 out of 180 in press freedom, behind Sudan, saying that the 50 journalists and netizens detained at the end of 2013 made Iran “one of the world’s biggest prisons for media personnel” – a characterization that Iranian officials reject.

“Now Rouhani is beginning to feel the enormity of this task,” says a journalist who works for one of Tehran’s largest newspapers, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. In two years, the real value of his monthly salary dropped from $1,500 to $600, he says.

He notes how Rouhani last week called critics of his nuclear negotiations “illiterates,” raising anger in some quarters. And how a recent government handout of food parcels to families devolved into scenes of people waiting in long lines and rushing forward with hands out, prompting sneers that Iranians had been turned into a “nation of beggars.”

“He used to be a bystander, now he is exercising power and shouldering its responsibility," the journalist says.

Fixing mismanagement and the economy are top priorities. The latter can't happen unless sanctions are eased via a nuclear deal. But those who were dancing in the streets expecting a 180-degree turn misplaced their hope, says Hamidreza Taraghi, a conservative politician who has known Rouhani for 42 years and first introduced him to Khamenei.

“[Rouhani] is not the person they think he is,” says Mr. Taraghi of those who celebrated Rouhani’s triumph. “He has a firm belief in the pillars of the revolution, which are the supreme leader and the Islamic system, although his word choices are quite different from [former President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, and his friendship with reformists is much more."

“But he’s not the kind of person to let them make decisions for him," although reformists used him to “come back into the political system after eight years on its margins under Ahmadinejad," he says.

The long game

With Rouhani’s emphasis on foreign policy and the economy – he has brought down interest rates a few points, and stabilized Iran’s once-plummeting rial against the dollar – other aspects of his domestic agenda, such as increased personal freedom, remain largely untested.

"There is pressure from below, expectations of something,” says a veteran analyst who asked not to be named. “I don’t think he hasn’t done anything. This is a huge country with huge problems and on top of that you add people’s expectations."

“The direction is good, though pessimism I can see is also growing," he warns.

The pressures are evident at the Fajr visual arts competition in downtown Tehran, where exhibit halls are packed with an eclectic array of paintings, ceramics, photography and calligraphy – and where the sense of limited progress is tinged with uncertainty.

More artists and judges took part this year in the annual government-sponsored event, reversing their partial boycott in response to the disputed 2009 election and violent protests that followed.

“Artists are slowly returning” to a more public role in the post-Ahmadinejed era, says Mostafa Fotoohi, an art teacher from Shiraz who brought a class of students to the exhibit. “They lost their confidence and they are beginning to find it again," he says.

Despite the vocal critics, Rouhani has many supporters who realize that his presidency has barely begun, and who are more understanding of the slow pace of change. 

“You must let Rouhani do something more – it’s too soon to judge…because the filters in Iran have been in place too long,” says graphic designer Alireza Omrani, standing in front of a wall of paintings. “But he has changed the method…there is a hope.”

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