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Rouhani's take on hardliners hinges on survival of nuclear deal

Jan 10,2018 - Last updated at Jan 10,2018

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insists recent protests that gripped 80 mainly small towns and cities were not inspired solely by economic woes but also by political and social demands. The most revolutionary remarks he made were: the regime cannot continue dictating the lifestyle of citizens and Iranians should be able to criticise everyone in government and mount peaceful protests.  His words were meant to warn hardliners that they cannot carry on obstructing reforms, social liberalisation, and anti-corruption measures and protecting monopolies held by powerful individuals, firms and the military. 

The protests that erupted across Iran began in the conservative, holy city of Mashhad on December 28 when working class men spilled into the streets demanding affordable food, fuel, and rents and jobs. Some had not been paid for as long as 10 months. Unemployment currently stands at 12 per cent, and 30 per cent for young people who account for half of the population. Initial demonstrations were organised by hardline clerics with the intention of undermining Rouhani who has repeatedly promised reform and better living conditions for poorer sections of the society but has not delivered. 

The timing of the Mashhad protest was significant as it followed the announcement of provisions in the 2018 budget covering price rises for fuel, cuts in subsidies and a clamp down on unregulated banks serving millions of depositors. The conservative-dominated parliament has struck down price rises for fuel and utilities.  However, the budget also boosts highly unpopular funding for the military and wealthy cleric-controlled institutions. The money for the military prompted protesters to demand an end to Iranian involvement in the wars in Iraq and Syria and an end to Iranian aid to these countries. 

Protesters’ fury has grown because the populace has not benefitted from the 2015 accord limiting Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. While there has been no trickle-down effect, the accord has effected dramatic changes in the Iranian economy by doubling oil exports, cutting inflation to 9 per cent and boosting the country's growth rate from minus 5 per cent to a positive 6 per cent. 

The Mashhad demonstrations spilled across the country, backfiring against the conservatives and encouraging Rouhani to put the primary blame on them for the collapse of the economy. While the protests remained largely working class and focused on the economy, radicals took advantage of turmoil in the streets to call for the ouster of the clerical regime and the removal of supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Hundreds of liberals demonstrated in Tehran, demanding democracy and freedom and an end to social restrictions.   

As the protests were largely spontaneous rather than organised and limited in numbers; no charismatic leaders have emerged. Rallies were in the thousands and did not enjoy massive support in the country's main cities, Tehran and Tabriz. Instead, protests took place in provincial cities and towns where millions of largely conservative Iranians, the constituency of the hardliners, are fed up with years of neglect and a lack of investment in basic services, roads, and schools. The vast majority protesting were youngsters who found they have no stake in the regime and can count on no individual, group or party to resolve their problems. 

These protests cannot be compared with the 2009-10 mass rallies in the main cities against the reelection of ultra-conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a poll considered rigged. These protests were organised by the liberal, reformist Green Movement after its candidate Mir-Hosein Mousavi was defeated in the presidential election. The focus was purely political with sociocultural dimensions rather than on economic woes. 

In spite of violence and two dozen fatalities, Rouhani could exploit popular dissatisfaction in order to tackle his conservative opponents who have obstructed his reform programme. To achieve this end, Rouhani will have to marginalise the hardliners who have exploited clerical rule to become super-wealthy and translate post-nuclear deal progress into benefits for the downtrodden residents of the major cities and the provinces.

His efforts will depend on whether or not the nuclear deal survives Donald Trump who is set, once again, to decide on "decertification."  If he refuses to "certify" Iran’s compliance with the agreement a second time, the deeply anti-Iran Congress could try to reimpose sanctions, in violation of the deal although Iran has honoured its provisions and carried out its side of the bargain. 

Diplomats, experts, former Congress members and foreign leaders have appealed to Trump to "certify" the deal — which he did not do three months ago.  But the erratic, ignorant, and self-promoting Trump likes nothing better than to defy wiser heads in order to do the wrong thing.  On the nuclear deal, this could be highly dangerous if Tehran were to decide to renege on its commitments and resume its nuclear research programme which has been dramatically dismantled under the 2015 deal.

In a bid to prevent this from happening, European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini has convened today’s conference involving Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif along with his counterparts from France, Germany and Britain.  The nuclear deal is too important to be torpedoed by Trump and the US Congress and other signatories must do their utmost to sustain it.  


Unfortunately, although the accord was negotiated by the Obama administration, Washington has not done its part by lifting US sanctions. Furthermore the US has threatened foreign banks and firms with sanctions if they do business with the Iranian government and Iranian companies.  Consequently, high expectations from the lifting of non-US sanctions have not been realised, creating the consternation among Iranians that has contributed to the recent protests and prompting Tehran to accuse the US of bad faith — even under liberal Obama.

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