In an era when Iran’s relations with the West had entered a path towards reconciliation, the country’s May 2017 presidential elections came as an inevitable tipping point. Or, at least, it is so from a purely Western perspective. The incumbent presidency of Hassan Rouhani and its moderate policies have marked a period of positive steps against Iran’s rocky relations with the West the last decades and ultimately culminated in the July 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA). It, therefore, comes without saying that the last elections had largely determined the moderation will continue to define Iranian politics.
In the critical battle between sobriety and hardline however, Rouhani went without a bulletproof vest insofar the nuclear deal and the subsequent lift of most of the sanctions do not guarantee him a landslide victory. Falsely as the reality shows, the Rouhani administration had anticipated that the nuclear deal would in turn terminate Iran’s economic isolation and would pave the way towards the transformation of Iranian economy into a type that would resemble Rouhani’s overall political posture – a kind of conservative yet internationalist pattern. In this understanding, the great oil-producing market would become a lucrative ground for foreign investment and international trade. But far from this, the materialization of the lift of sanctions proved to be a much slower process than initially envisaged.
In a country where demonization works at its finest, the failure to put forward any tangible impacts in everyday life has given the hardliners – led by the Supreme Leader – the chance to exploit the deal as a brickbat against Rouhani. As Saeid Jafari explains, to the bitter disappointment of Rouhani and his administration, such criticism is gradually gaining more and more acceptance in Iranian political life. Nevertheless, as the lines below will explain, Rouhani’s headaches go much beyond the limited range of JCPOA.
A problematic economy
Apart from the shortcomings of the nuclear deal itself, there are further economic factors that have led Rouhani’s popularity into a downward spiral. While, for instance, the Central Bank of Iran announced a massive drop in inflation compared to the colossal figures of the Ahmadinejad era, prices of food and public services continue to go up rapidly. At the same time, the incumbent government has failed to tackle large-scale corruption in the government’s power circles, while the Mehr low-income housing project proved to be heavily ineffective. Under the overarching compass of continuous economic recession, such developments signify that Rouhani’s administration has not lived up to the expectations of Iranian people. To some extent, the Ahmadinejad legacy has given Rouhani some maneuvering space inasmuch such economic problems were constantly portrayed as an aftereffect of his predecessor’s populist and short-sighted policies. In the long run however, scapegoating of the former President appears to disgruntle more and more Iranians – especially, as Ali Omidi comments, those classes that have benefited from the late 2000s economic windfall.
In such a rutty political background, the November 30 OPEC deal could serve as Rouhani’s stepping stone from both the economic marginalization of the country, as well as, his own political predicament. While the GCC members and Iraq will contribute a great 80% of the agreed cut on oil production, Iran is allowed a small increase. Undoubtedly, these are great news for Iran considering that its main geopolitical rival – Saudi Arabia – agreed on a costly cut. After all, the OPEC deal was soon presented as a “second JCPOA” by moderate voices in Tehran, while even the hardliners hailed it in a clear sign of applause of Rouhani’s conduct on this matter. But the Iranian political arena is much more fragmented than the congruence upon oil policy might imply. As such, criticism against the government’s overall economic management was expected to intensify as elections got closer and insofar Iranians can barely felt the fruits of the government’s diplomatic triumphs.
(Lack of) freedom of expression
Iran’s economic situation may be Rouhani’s major problem at the time being. At the same time however, his administration’s handling of issues related to the freedom of expression and opposition voices does not score any much higher record. Quite on the contrary, the government has received increased criticism towards its poor management of cultural affairs and, more importantly, upon the oppression of political rivals. The latter has been predominantly directed against the government’s attitude against Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two reformist Presidential candidates of the 2009 elections who remain under house arrest for contesting the elections’ result and calling for demonstrations, despite Rouhani’s 2013 electoral pledges.
On top of that, the cancellation of some fifty concerts by the police, non-governmental clerics or the judiciary and the reported intensified repression against art expression come in sharp contrast with the moderate political post the government aimed to occupy back in 2013. On that, the resignation of Ali Janati, Iran’s Minister for Islamic Culture and Guidance, is indicative of the extent of the problem. As Saeid Jafari adds, “the cultural policies pursued by the Rouhani administration have, from the start, been close to the Reformist line of thought, prompting hope for change among Iran’s cultural community“; but such actions do not only reveal the government’s U-turn towards cultural rigidity but also lead many Iranians draw continuities with a past of censorship and repression.
Whether Rouhani will manage to prove the current political balance a distorted image remains to be seen, but as the lines above explained, there are valid reasons to believe that his political future is, at least, imponderable. The ailing economy of the country and the failure to translate JCPOA into concrete and tangible outputs for the average Iranian family leave, after all, little space for overoptimistic predictions. Of course, in a country that thirsts after basic freedoms and civil liberties, the Rouhani administration should probably re-consider its very own political self-understanding besides its economic concerns.