Iran’s Expendable President Rouhani

While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif celebrate their recent nuclear negotiating triumph, neither they nor their Washington-based fans should pop the Zamzam cola just yet. Back in Tehran, Rouhani and Zarif are encountering increasing resistance. With the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in hand, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei no longer needs the duo and is likely to cease shielding them from domestic criticism as he has in their first two years in office. Worse, fearing their popularity, Khamenei may encourage the Islamic Revolutionary Guards to launch a political attack against the president and his allies.

Rouhani is perhaps in a better position to defend himself than his “pragmatic” forerunners. Today, team Rouhani is not a one-man operation that emerged from nowhere but the product of the large “technocratic” and clerical network built by his mentor, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

 Rouhani intends to mobilize the public for his cause. After all, he has come close to delivering his single major campaign pledge — solving the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program and eliminating the international sanctions regime. Seeing some economic promise, the average voter may vote Rouhani’s allies into parliament and the Assembly of Experts in February 2016, and eventually re-elect Rouhani in presidential elections the following year.

That scenario, however, would seem optimistic. In the past, Rafsanjani and Rouhani seldom reciprocated the loyalty of their protégés, and nor can they expect their former allies’ support in troubled times. The two mullahs did not lift a finger to save their friends when opponents, which sometimes included Khamenei, began to attack Rafsanjani’s too-powerful network during his presidency in the 1990s. When Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a reformist mayor of Tehran and a Rafsanjani ally, was targeted by a politically-motivated judiciary in 1998, Rafsanjani and Rouhani (then-secretary of the Supreme National Security Council) remained silent. If Khamenei unleashes the Guards against the president, Rouhani’s network of friends is vastly smaller and weaker than was Rafsanjani’s a decade earlier and, thus, would likely scatter in difficult times.

It is also near certain that Rouhani will be incapable of capitalizing on the sanctions relief to liberalize Iran’s economy and improve living standards for the average Iranian. To date, Rouhani has already repeatedly tried, and failed, to push the Guards (upper or lower case. I’m not sure?) out of the economy. Their intransigence probably received the tacit support of Khamenei, who can’t afford to lose his praetorians’ support. After all, it was the guards who brutally suppressed the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009. The money from sanctions relief remains more likely to find its way to the companies owned by the IRGC and the semi-public foundations controlled by Khamenei than to state coffers, and the ordinary citizen.

 At the street level, the nuclear deal remains immensely popular. But the Islamic Republic isn’t a democracy, and Khamenei has feared competition from the Rouhani-Rafsanjani camp. He has before successfully curtailed the political power of Rafsanjani, once the major domo of revolutionary mullahs, and occasionally tormented his children to remind the cleric of his place. The Supreme Leader will likely ensure that the Guardian Council, which approves candidates for public office, disqualifies candidates favored by the president and his allies. The purging of candidates will be intended to keep Rouhani’s supporters home, and allow anti-Rouhani forces to score huge electoral triumphs, thus checking the popular power of the executive branch.

Simultaneously, ever more belligerent statements by Khamenei and the hardline elite of the IRGC are gradually drowning out Rouhani and Zarif’s charm offensive towards the United States.

The cumulative impact of these efforts could be disastrous for Rouhani and his team.

In Washington the agreement is being sold in part as an effort to bolster the president against more hardline forces. The opposite, however, may well play out. By achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, Washington may have invested the entirety of its agreement and relations with Iran on an expendable politician.

Ali Alfoneh is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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