Hassan Rouhani’s horrible, no good, very bad week

This has not been a good week for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose tenure began on a very optimistic note in August 2013. Despite a significant, albeit short-term, diplomatic victory in Geneva with the signing of the P5+1-Iran Joint Plan of Action, Rouhani has had less success on the domestic front when it comes to socio-cultural reforms important to a key bloc of his supporters. As we have noted in the past, on the issue of reforms Rouhani is caught between his largely Green Movement/Reformist-oriented social base on one hand and his Traditional Principalist allies and Neo-Principalist adversaries on the other. Of course, like most newly elected leaders President Rouhani began with breathing room to advance his primary initiatives while  his hardline rivals, thrown off balance by their defeat in the presidential election, took a “wait and see” stance. However three interesting events this week appear to indicate that this breathing room may be running out and that, not unlike the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), hardliners may be starting their counter-offensive to block any attempted domestic reforms in earnest.

Speech at Shahid Beheshti University

The series of unfortunate events that have befallen President Rouani this week began with a speech to professors at Shahid Beheshti University, in which he called out Iranian academics for not supporting his policies, especially his diplomacy in Geneva, strongly enough:

“We need Socratic courage. What are you scared of? Why, when a big international task is done, do university professors write the president privately but do not speak publicly? Why should some uneducated people speak while our esteemed scholars and elders of our university speak privately, why don’t they come to speak.”

This speech caused a stir, and was perhaps unfair to Iran’s scholarly community given the cloud of repression which hangs over Iranian universities. No less than Sadegh Zibakalam, a highly respected University of Tehran political scientists who played a prominent role in Rouhani’s presidential campaign, was arrested for his outspokenness in defending the Rouhani administration before being released on bail. How can Rouhani expect vocal and public support from Iranian scholars when they face daily threats to their livelihood and freedom of speech on a regular basis?

The speech also elicited a vocal response from hardliners, notable among them the shadowy Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi who has been out of the spotlight since the crushing defeat of his preferred candidate in the presidential election. Mesbah-Yazdi gave a scathing response to Rouhani, labeling him a “liar” and “hard-hearted”, and accusing him of selling out Iran:

“The clergy and elders, who are heirs of the prophets, and the families of martyrs advise you to not be fooled by America, do not pursue imaginary comfort; this comfort that they promise you is a lie and you shall not reach it; and if you reach it, at what price? You are selling the people’s honor, throwing to the wind the blood of thousands of martyrs spilled in these three decades, so that they give you a few dollars of your own money for a few days.”

Commodity-basket PR-stunt gone awry

As an isolated incident, the Shahid Beheshti University speech may have been a little odd but not especially out of place in Iran’s rough and tumble politics. However, it was followed by another poorly-implemented PR move on the part of the Rouhani administration: The “commodity basket” program. Using local currency reserves in countries where Iran has sold crude oil but cannot repatriate all of its revenue due to economic sanctions, the administration purchased various goods (such as frozen chicken from Turkey, rice from India, etc.) and placed them in small but economically significant commodity baskets. These were then distributed to low-to-middle income Iranians and government employees, who have fallen on hard times in recent years due to sanctions and government mismanagement.

While this program was intended to show the tangible benefits of the P5+1-Iran JPA, its implementation left much to be desired, with long-lines and short supplies which led to flaring tempers and open fights and was ultimately seen as being humiliating to proud Iranians.

Rouhani takes on Iran’s media chief

Things only got worse after Rouhani decided to take to the airwaves to defend his administration’s work thus far and apologize for the way the commodity basket program had been managed. The president came to blows with the powerful head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Ezzatollah Zarghami over the question of which anchor would oversee Rouhani’s address to the nation. Zarghami, who was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and who is aligned with hardliners, initially blocked the programming from airing, delaying from going to air by one hour and a half and embarrassed the president further by making him look weak.

All in all, it has not been a great week for Rouhani. The tone of his speech at Shahid Beheshti University gave one the sense that the president is facing great pressure from the system, and this may be confirmed by the the furiousity of hardline attacks on the president over the commodity basket program and his falling out with Zarghami.

While Rouhani started his presidency with considerable momentum, especially in the area of nuclear diplomacy, could he now be facing a hardliner counterattack, especially when it comes to domestic affairs? Khatami had over a year before he faced pushback, but could Rouhani’s time be even more limited?  Of course, that the hardliners would overcome their shock at electoral defeat and begin a rear-guard action against Rouhani was not unexpected. What remains somewhat unclear is whether we are facing the same scenario as during Khatami’s presidency and, if so, how Rouhani will deal with hardliners, besides giving speeches which often seem to backfire.