Clouds gather for Iran’s pres­i­dent

Has­san Rouhani be­gins his sec­ond term in the face of mount­ing op­po­si­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Alexan­dra Zavis, Ramin Mostaghim and Melissa Ete­had alexan­dra.zavis @la­times.com melissa.ete­had @la­times.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Mostaghim re­ported from Tehran and Times staff writ­ers Zavis and Ete­had from Los An­ge­les.

TEHRAN — In most democ­ra­cies, a re­sound­ing win at the bal­lot box would put a pres­i­dent in a strong po­si­tion to de­liver promised changes. But Iran is only partly a democ­racy.

Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, who was of­fi­cially sworn in for a sec­ond term Satur­day, must con­tend with mount­ing op­po­si­tion from re­li­gious hard-lin­ers who keep los­ing elec­tions but con­trol key cen­ters of power in the Is­lamic Repub­lic.

The ques­tion is whether Rouhani can use his man­date to push through po­lit­i­cal re­forms and so­cial free­doms sought by his many young sup­port­ers — or whether he will need to ap­pease con­ser­va­tive cler­ics and se­cu­rity com­man­ders who are the cus­to­di­ans of Iran’s theoc­racy.

His­tory sug­gests that Rouhani has cause to be wary. His three im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors were re­duced to lame ducks in their sec­ond terms af­ter clash­ing with the hard-line es­tab­lish­ment, led by Iran’s supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei.

“There are clearly al­most So­prano-fam­ily-style moves to make him rec­og­nize how vul­ner­a­ble he is,” said Ab­bas Mi­lani, a Tehran-born aca­demic who di­rects the Ira­nian stud­ies pro­gram at Stan­ford Univer­sity, re­fer­ring to the mob-themed U.S. tele­vi­sion series.

Last month, Rouhani’s brother, Hos­sein Ferey­doun, was de­tained on charges of fi­nan­cial im­pro­pri­ety in what some ex­perts describe as a shot across the bow by the con­ser­va­tive ju­di­ciary. Ferey­doun was re­port­edly taken to a hos­pi­tal the next day af­ter ap­pear­ing un­well at a court ap­pear­ance and re­leased on bail.

At his in­au­gu­ra­tion be­fore par­lia­ment Satur­day, Rouhani un­der­scored the need for “na­tional co­op­er­a­tion” and “con­struc­tive” re­la­tions with the world, fa­mil­iar themes from his first term. Gone was the fiery rhetoric about free­dom and civil rights that gal­va­nized re­form-minded vot­ers dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign.

“We want to be a mod­er­ate gov­ern­ment,” Rouhani said be­fore law­mak­ers, gov­ern­ment in­sid­ers and for­eign dig­ni­taries, “both in do­mes­tic and for­eign pol­icy.”

Some of those who helped Rouhani in­crease his man­date by 5 mil­lion votes are now wor­ried that the pres­i­dent won’t ful­fill cam­paign pledges to in­clude women and re­formist politi­cians in his 18-mem­ber Cab­i­net.

Tra­di­tion dic­tates that the pres­i­dent should con­sult the supreme leader about key ap­point­ments, such as the min­is­ters of for­eign af­fairs and in­tel­li­gence. But Rouhani is said to also be run­ning names for less sen­si­tive posts by Khamenei.

“One wo­man min­is­ter isn’t a big deal. Why doesn’t he try it?” com­plained Si­avash Ramesh, a 30-yearold po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist who un­til last week was an en­thu­si­as­tic sup­porter of the pres­i­dent. “We wanted more when we voted for him. We’re un­happy, but what op­tion did we have?”

The pres­i­dent’s de­fend­ers say Rouhani has been con­sult­ing with the supreme leader about his Cab­i­net picks more than is cus­tom­ary so hard-lin­ers won’t mount a chal­lenge when he presents the list to par­lia­ment for a con­fi­dence vote.

He al­ready faces ac­cu­sa­tions of sell­ing off the coun­try to “col­o­niz­ing” in­ter­ests af­ter the an­nounce­ment of a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar deal with French oil gi­ant To­tal and the China Na­tional Pe­tro­leum Corp. to de­velop part of a mas­sive nat­u­ral gas field.

And new sanc­tions im­posed by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion are pro­vid­ing grist for the mill of op­po­si­tion to the nu­clear deal with the United States and other world pow­ers, Rouhani’s sig­na­ture achieve­ment.

Al­though many of the most crip­pling eco­nomic penal­ties im­posed on Iran have been lifted since the Is­lamic Repub­lic agreed to curb its nu­clear ac­tiv­i­ties in 2015, the coun­try has not ex­pe­ri­enced as ro­bust a re­cov­ery as of­fi­cials had hoped.

For­eign banks and busi­nesses are wor­ried about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s more ag­gres­sive ap­proach to Iran and don’t want to run afoul of sanc­tions im­posed by the U.S. for other al­leged trans­gres­sions. These in­clude Iran’s bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram, sup­port for U.S.des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist groups and hu­man rights abuses.

Ira­nian of­fi­cials ac­cuse Trump of act­ing in bad faith and have threat­ened to take “pro­por­tional” re­tal­ia­tory mea­sures.

“Iran will not be the first to pull out of the nu­clear deal, but it will not re­main silent about Amer­ica’s re­peated vi­o­la­tions,” Rouhani said.

The supreme leader, who gave his of­fi­cial en­dorse­ment Thurs­day for Rouhani’s sec­ond term, said he sup­ports “ex­ten­sive in­ter­ac­tion” with the world. But he ad­vised Rouhani to be mind­ful of the plots of Iran’s en­e­mies and re­it­er­ated the need for a “re­sis­tance econ­omy,” or one that is not vul­ner­a­ble to sanc­tions.

“The cost of sur­ren­der­ing to ag­gres­sive pow­ers is far greater than the cost of stand­ing up to them,” Khamenei was quoted as say­ing Thurs­day by the of­fi­cial Is­lamic Repub­lic News Agency.

The supreme leader has been in­creas­ingly crit­i­cal of Rouhani for poli­cies that Khamenei says fail to pro­tect the “dig­nity of the Is­lamic sys­tem” against West­ern­iz­ing in­flu­ences.

Such re­marks have em­bold­ened hard-lin­ers who sur­rounded Rouhani at a rally in June and shouted slo­gans liken­ing the pres­i­dent to one of his pre­de­ces­sors who was forced into ex­ile af­ter fall­ing out of fa­vor with the Is­lamic Repub­lic’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary founder, Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini.

Em­bar­rass­ing video of Rouhani be­ing whisked away by his body­guards was broad­cast widely in Iran, in­clud­ing by state-run news out­lets. Some saw this as pay­back for a bruis­ing elec­tion cam­paign, in which Rouhani lashed out at con­ser­va­tive ri­vals for re­press­ing dis­sent, ac­cused the ju­di­ciary of break­ing the law and de­manded that the pow­er­ful Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard stay out of pol­i­tics.

In of­fice, how­ever, the pres­i­dent has a rep­u­ta­tion as a mod­er­ate prag­ma­tist and con­sen­sus builder.

“Rouhani hasn’t gone rogue,” said Reza Marashi, re­search di­rec­tor for the Na­tional Ira­nian Amer­i­can Coun­cil, which ad­vo­cates for bet­ter U.S.-Iran re­la­tions. “He hasn’t ap­proved a sin­gle thing without get­ting Khamenei’s ap­proval.”

An­a­lysts ex­pect Rouhani to fo­cus on re­viv­ing Iran’s econ­omy in his sec­ond term. “It’s an is­sue where he has a greater chance of avoid­ing real grid­lock within the sys­tem it­self,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran ex­pert at the Wash­ing­ton-based Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “It’s not nearly as dan­ger­ous as tak­ing on is­sues of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers or try­ing to open up the po­lit­i­cal space to those who feel marginal­ized.”

Some ex­perts be­lieve Rouhani is try­ing to avoid a show­down with Khamenei in part be­cause he is an­gling to suc­ceed the 78-year-old supreme leader. If so, Mi­lani said, the pres­i­dent could squan­der his po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal from the elec­tion and hurt his fu­ture prospects.

“If he de­cides that the way for him to sur­vive and win in the long run is to be more con­fronta­tional and rely on the power of the man­date, it will be a rough ride, but I’m not sure he will lose,” Mi­lani added.

The pres­i­dent’s sup­port­ers have been press­ing for the re­lease of three op­po­si­tion Green Move­ment lead­ers who have been un­der house ar­rest since 2011. But they aren’t op­ti­mistic.

“There is a gap be­tween what peo­ple voted for and what Pres­i­dent Rouhani re­ally can do,” said Hos­sein Qay­oumi, a re­form-minded cleric and high-rank­ing mem­ber of Iran’s Democ­racy Party.

He thinks Rouhani might get some of the coun­try’s rigid so­cial and cul­tural re­stric­tions eased. Satel­lite dishes that al­low Ira­ni­ans to watch for­eign TV broad­casts have al­ready be­come a com­mon sight in Iran’s cities and towns, and the dress code for women has been some­what re­laxed.

But Qay­oumi ex­pects hard-lin­ers to keep up the pres­sure on Rouhani.

For the coun­try’s con­ser­va­tive cler­ics and Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard com­man­ders, he said, it’s a fight for po­lit­i­cal sur­vival: “They know that if the winds of change blow, noth­ing can keep them in power.”

Abe­din Ta­herkenareh Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

THE RE­FORM-MINDED Rouhani, speak­ing be­fore par­lia­ment at his in­au­gu­ra­tion, aban­doned the fiery rhetoric about civil rights from his elec­tion cam­paign.

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