Iran protests: why Rouhani’s foes are backing off their hard line

IranPolitik’s Farzan Sabet was recently featured in an article by the Christian Science Monitor on the recent Iran protests:

“It is clear that Rouhani is weakened compared to this time last year” after his reelection, says Farzan Sabet, a postdoctoral fellow at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The president’s signature achievements are “in tatters,” he notes, and promises of enhanced social and political freedoms “remain largely unfulfilled.”

“But I suspect conservatives who wield real power over unelected power centers in Iran don’t want to bring him down. What would they do without him?” says Mr. Sabet.

“The conservatives understand that their own ineptitude at international diplomacy and economic mismanagement and corruption are among the main factors that have brought the Islamic Republic to the brink of calamity,” he says.

His complete comments, not featured in full in the the article, can be found below:

Q: How should we interpret the protests this week, in terms of economic fragility of the situation in Iran, and limits of the Rouhani admin to deal with it? Are we going to see lots more protests, of all stripes? How does this current crisis and economic mismanagement further tarnish the legitimacy of the nezam, for most Iranians tired of such costly gamesmanship? Are complaints serious about the cost of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other adventures abroad, while belts are forced to tighten at home?

Since the December 2017/January 2018 Iran protests (themselves preceded by years of labor unrest and other demonstrations) we’ve seen decreased fear on the part of Iranians to express their many grievances against the Islamic Republic. In comparison to what we’ve seen over the last half year, these recent protests were limited and there are even claims that the unrest in the Grand Bazaar of Tehran were stirred up by conservatives to discredit President Hassan Rouhani. If this is true, it would be only the most recent instance conservatives have tried to stir up public unrest against Rouhani and either lost control (as happened in Mashhad in December 2017, triggering the Iran Protests) or failed to have much of an impact. But as the economic situation and foreign exchange crisis worsen leading up to the full reimposition of sanctions in November 2018 and the legitimacy of the system is further tarnished, we are likely to see more spontaneous protests of all stripes.

Regarding some of the protest rhetoric we’ve seen against the Islamic Republic’s interventions in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, etc. I think as with a lot of the other rhetoric people are questioning the system’s priorities at a time of economic hardship. Compared to the past, when the public was largely silent on regional interventions, we are certainly seeing a higher level of popular discontent over the issue. But in the absence of larger more enduring protests or public polling, it’s not quite clear how widespread such views are.

Q: How “political” is it? There has been a chain of hard-line criticism in recent months suggesting that Rouhani should be impeached or step down, due to poor performance. And Fars and Tasnim were the first to trumpet news of the latest protests…so how “engineered” by hardliners are these protests/criticism? Is it being effective, in making Iranians question this president and his unfulfilled promises?

As some of the reporting has indicated, the protests in the bazaar may have been initially “engineered” by conservatives, as with the Mashhad protests which helped trigger the Iran protests in December 2017/January 2018. But I don’t think they have been effective because events on the ground have spun out of their control, and what was meant to be protests against the presidential administration became fundamental critiques of the entire political system, including such holy of holies as the supreme leader and regional interventions.

Q: Looking at the back-and-forth between hardliners and reformists in recent years, do the hardliners now smell new blood/weakness in Rouhani, which they have never felt with this president? How far will they go, to bring him down? Is something as radical/unprecedented as “military intervention” an option? What signs are there of either of these options? Explain more about being perplexed by by hard-line aims: WHY would they want to bring Rouhani down, when they then would alone be the targets for popular ire? Aren’t they in a kind of sweet spot now, by being able to complain noisily and undermine Rouhani at will, while having to assume little responsibility for the problems?

It is clear that Rouhani is weakened compared to this time last year when he was newly re-elected. After nearly five years in power his signature achievements, the JCPOA and stabilization of the economy, lay in tatters, and his promises in other areas such as enhanced social and political freedoms remain largely unfulfilled. In theory conservatives could seek to bring him down through legal measures like impeachment or extra-legal measures like a military intervention.

But I suspect conservatives who wield real power over unelected power centers in Iran don’t want to bring him down. What would they do without him? The conservatives understand that their own ineptitude at international diplomacy and economic mismanagement and corruption are among the main factors that have brought the Islamic Republic on the brink of calamity. Since the Iran protests and up until now, conservative critiques of Rouhani have been low-cost partisan point scoring and for the time being the calls for his removal do not appear serious.

Q: True that Iran’s “competitive authoritarian system is prone to friction and deadlock,” and unable to deal with crisis? Is this one reason that the main players in Iran are (and perhaps long have been) more interested in achieving tactical gain against enemies, even if the result is self-destructive and harmful more broadly to Iran and even to the nezam?

Iran’s competitive authoritarian consensus-based system is prone to friction and deadlock, especially when the heads of unelected and elected power centers are from different political currents, as is the case right now. This system gridlock is itself a crisis because after 20 years of Islamic Republic politicians tearing each other apart with little to show for it, not only have Iranians lost hope in the system but on a practical level it means elements of the system often cannot work together to solve problems. In times of crisis like the one they face right now, the reformist versus conservative partisan divide matters less. What matters is how each current and power center thinks Iran’s crises should be dealt with, and whether they are willing and able to put aside differences and forgo some interests. This explains why we’re seeing blurring of partisan lines in Iran right now, and is the only way the system has a possibility of moving past the current crises and surviving. The decision to strive for unity is one of the few factors the ruling system has within its control at the moment, and can use this to resolve some of the immediate problems it faces, like the foreign exchange crisis. But larger achievements will likely remain outside their grasp for the foreseeable future.