Shahram Akbarzadeh – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 05 Mar 2020 02:24:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Impossible Presidency: Rouhani Caught in Cross-hairs of Trump, Iranian Hardliners and Public Apathy Thu, 05 Mar 2020 05:03:28 +0000 Melbourne (Special to Informed Comment) – For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran the voter turn-out at the parliamentary elections has fallen below the psychological threshold of 50%. According to the Interior Ministry in charge of administering the elections, the national participation rate was 42.5%. In the capital city Tehran the participation was a shocking 25%. This is nothing short of a popular vote of no confidence.

Despite their differences, the reformist and the hard-line leadership in Iran consistently urged Iranians to take part in elections, presenting it as a matter of national duty. On the eve of the February polls, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei pleaded with the voting public to participate in the elections even if they did not like him, because the future of the country depended on it. This was the most explicit acknowledgement of the widening gap between the regime and the public, and an attempt to appeal to patriotic instincts.

President Hassan Rouhani also referred to similar concepts of national pride and unity to urge electoral participation. He also spoke about the bond between the state leaders and the people that is renewed periodically at elections. He insisted on the idea of the ‘republic’ as a pillar of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The low participation rate and the election results are a significant blow to the regime and to Rouhani.

The election delivered a landslide victory for hard liners. There is an established correlation between high participation rates and the electoral fortunes of the reformist faction in Iran. Low turn-out at the ballot boxes hurts reformers. The reformist camp had a number of setbacks and disappointments during President Rouhani’s term in office which alienated the reformist voting public. The sense of disillusionment with the capacity of reformist and pragmatic leaders to bring change was overwhelming for the majority of the voters.

President Rouhani came to office in 2013 with a popular mandate to bring Iran back from the brink of collapse. His message of hope inspired the public and allowed him to push through a historic nuclear deal with P5+1 (the five permanent members of UN Security Council and Germany). Despite the excitement it generated, the nuclear deal failed to bring Iran out of isolation. In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, snapped back extensive sanctions on Iran by way of exerting ‘maximum pressure’ on the regime and slapped secondary sanctions on any international company that contravened US-imposed sanctions on Iran. This has brought the Iranian economy back to the brink and has resulted in periodic public displays of outrage and frustration.

Iran is more isolated under Rouhani than his firebrand predecessor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tensions in the Persian Gulf with the US Navy, the US killing of commander Ghasem Soleimani and Iran’s missile attack on a US base in Iraq have boxed Rouhani in a position of confrontation with the United States. His hard-line critics had long criticised Rouhani’s policy as misguided and ‘weak’ in relation to the United States and see President Trump’s hostile posturing on Iran as vindicating that view.

President Rouhani has also failed to address rampant corruption and mismanagement, key campaign topics against his predecessor’s administration. Politically, Rouhani has spoken regularly about moderation and tolerating diversity of views, but the political scene in Iran did not witness an opening up during his presidency. It is not surprising that voters in his natural electoral base have become disillusioned with his promises and his ability to deliver. This erosion of confidence in Rouhani is symptomatic of the disarray in the reformist camp and evaporating hopes of improving conditions by working within the system.

President Rouhani is now in the unenviable position of working with a hostile parliament. He is cornered internally and externally. His hard-line critics blame him for putting his trust in the good will of the United States and making Iran look weak, while Washington and its regional allies treat him with contempt. There seems no room left for Rouhani to regain the posture of a statesman and salvage his legacy. He is unlikely to be able to take any major foreign policy initiative in his last year in office, which does not bode well for Iran’s behaviour in the region. Rouhani has been reduced to a caretaker president until the next presidential election in 2021, which in all likelihood will bring a hard-liner into office.

The Iranian leadership repeatedly urged for mass participation at the parliamentary elections, calling it a patriotic and Islamic duty and a show of unity in the face of US ‘maximum pressure’. The record low turn-out delivered a major blow to the regime and put on public display the significant disconnect between the public and the ruling regime.


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CBS: “Iran’s hardliners win all parliament seats in Tehran”

Iran’s leader is losing his grasp on power. Does this mean diplomacy is doomed? Thu, 11 Jul 2019 04:04:01 +0000 ( The Conversation) – Iran’s announcement last Sunday that it would break the limit on uranium enrichment agreed to in the nuclear deal with world powers was not a surprise. It came hot on the heels of another breach only a few days earlier on the 300-kilogram limit agreed to in the deal on stockpiles of low-enriched uranium.

Iran had warned Europe that it would start dismantling the nuclear accord if the promised economic benefits of the agreement did not materialise. A year after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, and imposed very strict sanctions on Iran, the Iranian leadership appears ready to give up on finding a diplomatic solution to this deadlock.

This bodes ill for the future of President Hassan Rouhani and regional security. A weakened Rouhani will find it difficult to fend off his hard-line critics in Iran and keep the nuclear deal alive.

With every step away from diplomacy, the hard-liners have taken a step forward and appear to be now setting the political agenda in Iran.

Rouhani’s riskiest gamble

The JCPOA was signed in 2015 between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany.

This was Rouhani’s greatest achievement and riskiest gamble. He faced the ire of hard-liners in Iran who continue to have a formidable presence in the parliament, as well as the security and judicial system.

They accused Rouhani of selling out Iranian sovereignty and betraying the ideals of the Islamic revolution by scaling back Iran’s nuclear program and subjecting it to an unprecedented international monitoring regime.

Rouhani nonetheless pushed through his agenda of finding a diplomatic solution to Iran’s isolation because he believed that years of sanctions and mismanagement had pushed the Iranian economy to the brink of collapse.

He staked his political fortunes on bringing Iran out of isolation.

The JCPOA was the compromise deal to assure the international community that Iran would not pursue a nuclear weapons program in return for sanctions relief to revive the Iranian economy.

But US President Donald Trump never liked the deal. He campaigned against it and often questioned Iran’s commitment to it, though the UN International Atomic Energy Agency consistently reported on Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement.

Read more:
Why Donald Trump is backing the US into a corner on Iran

Despite much lobbying by European powers, Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018 and reimposed severe unilateral sanctions on Iran, and anyone dealing with Iran.

Losing control to the hard-liners

Trump’s decision to tear up the nuclear deal was seen by the conservatives in Iran as a vindication of their feelings towards the United States. They lambasted Rouhani for putting his trust in the US.

In May 2019, the situation got even more tense after Trump announced that US warships were sailing to the Persian Gulf to counter potential Iranian hostility. No intelligence regarding a suspected Iranian threat was shared.

The escalation of tensions following the alleged Iranian attack on two oil tankers last month, and the downing of a US reconnaissance drone by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards has made it very hard to find a diplomatic solution. Drums of war are silencing voices of diplomacy.

While Rouhani came to office with an olive branch, he realises that he has effectively lost the political contest against his hard-line critics. He has another two years in office, but is at risk of losing the presidency if the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who yields ultimate power in Iran, is disillusioned with his performance.

This realisation has seriously undermined Rouhani, who appears to have adopted the language and posture of the hard-liners in relation to the US. It is unclear if this can save him in office, or embolden his critics who seem to be gaining significant momentum.

In May, the Supreme Leader appointed a battle-hardened General as the commander of the Basij paramilitary force, an arm of the Revolutionary Guards that suppresses domestic dissent.

This was a significant development for the hard-liners in case they seek to assert political control. Basij has been a ruthless security force inside Iran and can provide the necessary street support for a potential coup against Rouhani.

Another notable military commander is General Qasem Soleimani, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise in Iran due to his performance as commander of Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards’ international arm operating mostly in Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State.

He is considered a war hero by the public and now has the confidence of the Supreme Leader. This is an ominous development for Rouhani.

Breaking with the tenets of the nuclear deal was also clearly not Rouhani’s objective, as it would reverse his hard-won diplomatic gains and discredit his legacy.

Iran’s recent breaches on uranium enrichment and stockpiles were incremental steps to exert pressure on European leaders to adhere to their promises of sanctions relief. This strategy was predicated on the assumption that Europe has more to lose with the collapse of JCPOA than a rift with the United States. It can only be described as a desperate move, showing that Rouhani is fast running out of options.

The window of opportunity for a diplomatic solution is fast closing and the alternative scenario of the return of a combative government in Tehran is looking more and more unavoidable. This would shut the doors to diplomacy and increase the chance of confrontation with the West.

Trump accused Iran of not wanting to sit at the table. He may be fulfilling his own prophecy.

An earlier version of this article implied General Qasem Soleimani was the leader of the Basij security force, when he is actually the commander of the Quds Force.The Conversation

Shahram Akbarzadeh, Professor of Middle East & Central Asian Politics, Deputy Director (International), Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Hindustan Times: “French diplomat meets top Iranian official to salvage nuclear deal”

How Trump has made Iran’s Rouhani a Hostage of the Hardliners Thu, 26 Jul 2018 04:11:57 +0000 Melbourne (Informed Comment) – The Trump administration is raising the temperature on Iran, ostensibly to change its behaviour. But it is hard to avoid the impression that the US administration is pursuing regime change. In a speech delivered to Iranian Americans, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed solidarity with the Iranian people and condemned the leadership of the Islamic Republic as a bunch of hypocritical thieves. He pointed approvingly to public protests across the country as evidence of the ruling regime’s incompetence, falling short of a call for a revolution.

But he did make a public statement about the US commitment to expanding its Persian language broadcast into Iran to counter state censorship, in a strategy reminiscent of the US approach to the former Soviet Union, and subsequently the post-Soviet republics that went through Colour Revolutions in the first decade of the 21st Century. The outcome of that strategy in the post-Soviet space was the sidelining of the pro-Moscow elite and the ascendency of a pro-US leadership. Given the tone of Trump and Pompeo on Iran and the pointed commitment to making US media accessible in Iran, it is hard to avoid drawing a parallel with that historical experience. This is a regime change strategy on the cheap.

Coupled with the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran, this strategy shuts the gate to any prospects of renewed negotiations. The change of tenor from the Obama era makes it impossible for President Rouhani to continue advocating talks with the United States. Rouhani has been under immense pressure by his hard-line critics for giving up too much control over Iran’s nuclear program to secure a deal in 2015. With President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal despite confirmation by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has been compliant with its agreed obligations, Rouhani’s critics have doubled their attacks asking for his resignation.

Even the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who tries not to be drawn into factional fighting made a public statement to say the US turn-away from the deal was a ‘defeat’ for Rouhani.

Rouhani has tried to defend his political fortunes by adopting a tough-line on the United States, while hoping to save the deal with assistance from the European Union, Russia and China. However, just as diplomatic overtures and deal-making signified foreign policy in Rouhani’s first term, his second term in office is being defined by rapidly escalating tensions with the United States. Rouhani cannot afford to look weak in the face of US hostility and has employed a combative language in response to the Trump administration.

Rouhani mocked the United States for trying to drive a wedge between the Iranian people and the government and evoke a Persian warning of a fool who played with a lion’s tail. Rouhani’s change of tone was also evident while on a trip to Europe a week earlier, when he warned the US not to try and block Iranian oil exports, otherwise no oil will flow through the Persian Gulf. This was widely seen as a threat to block the Strait of Hormuz, a bottle-neck for oil shipments from littoral states of the Persian Gulf. Subsequently, the Iranian Supreme Leader added more weight to that threat by endorsing the idea as an option for Iran.

Growing tension between Iran and the United States and the consequent resumption of sanctions is a nightmare for Rouhani, who came to office with the promise of bringing Iran out of isolation. He has tried to respond to the changed international climate by sounding more and more like his hard-line critics. But the reality is that he is now very vulnerable to a political challenge from those critics. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), with its immense economic muscle and direct line of report to the Supreme Leader (as the Head of State), has been publicly sceptical of Rouhani’s diplomatic overtures and is now gleeful in his set-back. The IRGC welcomed President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and saw it as an opportunity to revert US-Iran relations back to the pattern of hostility that characterised it for most of the last decades.

The Trump administration’s avowedly anti-Iran agenda and the pursuit of regime change has made President Rouhani a hostage to the hard-line faction and sabotaged his capacity to bring Iran out of isolation. There is little to block IRGC from pushing Rouhani aside, only the Supreme Leader’s concern with setting a precedent, and claiming a more direct role in running the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Featured Photo: AFP/File / Nicholas Kamm, HO. A war of words has erupted between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.