Iran: Hassan Rouhani caught between devil and the deep blue sea

Christian Chesnot

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For President Hassan Rouhani, the latest outbreak of protests in Iranian cities comes as a major threat that exposes the current fragilities of a beleaguered Iranian presidency.

Although he remains popular, Hassan Rouhani needs to be held accountable. With the green light of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei he “sold” the idea of the “nuclear deal” to the Iranians and promised shutdown of the atomic program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

This was the cornerstone of his first presidential campaign in 2013, which stated: “It’s better to run factories than centrifuges,” he said at the time.

Deal that did not deliver

Economically exhausted, the Iranian regime understood that there was an opportunity which may not be available again anytime soon. The circumstances were never as favorable with Barak Obama being the President of the United States. As a result, the reformers’ camp mobilized all their might to support the nuclear deal. They were rewarded in the 2016 Majlis elections with a very good score.

The problem is that the Vienna agreement did not really bring all the anticipated benefits to the population, even though it raised enormous expectations. Certainly some contracts with foreign companies were concluded in the aviation sector (Airbus and Boeing), oil (Total) or the industrial sector (Peugeot). But the bulk of the sanctions have not been lifted, preventing international banks from investing substantially in Iran.

Iranian president is now forced to harden his discourse against the popular discontent … especially the Conservatives who want to exact revenge on the reformists

Christian Chesnot

The arrival of Donald Trump at the White House changed everything. The new US president put Iran back on “the axis of evil” list, calling the Vienna agreement as the worst deal the United States ever signed.

Hassan Rouhani today finds himself in a delicate position with the change in the American leadership. The Iranian president is now forced to harden his discourse against the popular discontent rumbling in the streets of Iranian cities and especially the Conservatives who want to exact revenge on the reformists.

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Their argument is simple or even simplistic. Iran has made many concessions and Westerners want even more from the ballistic program, but to what end? It will now take great political skill from Hassan Rouhani to overcome the obstacles and very quickly.

He will have to rapidly effect improvement in the daily lives of Iranians which is withering under the blows of inflation and unemployment. He could introduce changes in the area of subsidies for basic necessities. In any case, the conservative faction of the regime does not intend to make it easier for him.

Trump versus Europe

Paradoxically, Donald Trump’s fanfaronade and bellicose rhetoric could help him. He is one of the most pro-Israel presidents in US history, as his recent decision to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has shown.

In short, the more Donald Trump and his friend Benjamin Netanyahu urge the Iranian masses to rise, the more they discredit the protesters in the eyes of the vast majority of Iranians. The return to calm will be all the easier.

Hassan Rouhani also intends to mobilize other signatories of the Vienna agreement, i.e. Russia, China, Great Britain, Germany and France. None of them wish to call it into question and even less want a destabilization of Iran. The warlike rhetoric of Donald Trump is unpleasant and worrying in some major capitals, especially in Paris.

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Emmanuel Macron has certainly canceled the visit of his foreign minister to Tehran, but he repeats that it is necessary to maintain dialogue with Iran. The French president has not canceled his planned trip to the Islamic Republic, which he promised to make in 2018.

Hassan Rouhani knows he is walking on a tightrope and the slightest misstep could cost him greatly. He also knows that he needs to reform the Iranian system, because other waves of protests may emerge again.

However, Hassan Rouhani has no intention of becoming the ‘Iranian Gorbachev’ who would precipitate the end of his regime as did the former head of the Soviet Union.
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.

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