Iran’s Hard-Liners Just Tried to Muzzle Hassan Rouhani

Iran’s Hard-Liners Just Tried to Muzzle Hassan Rouhani

BEIRUT — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s battle with hard-liners in his own government broke out into the open Wednesday, with the head of the country’s state-run television company temporarily preventing him from giving a live interview in Tehran.

Rouhani was supposed to appear on a television station owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the government-run radio and television company, at roughly 9 p.m. in Tehran. But nearly an hour after the scheduled time, the interview had not begun. This was no technical difficulty: The head of the IRIB, who was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally tried to cancel the interview.

The state news agency IRNA was the first to accuse the IRIB head, Ezzatollah Zarghami, of blocking Rouhani’s appearance. It was swiftly followed by Rouhani himself, who took to Twitter — which at least in theory is banned by the Iranian authorities — to level a similar accusation:

Zarghami, however, lost this particular battle with Rouhani. Shortly after the Iranian president publicly criticized the IRIB chief, state television wound up airing the interview. In what he billed as a discussion with the Iranian people, Rouhani defended the interim nuclear deal he signed last years with world powers as a "win-win" agreement, and boasted that Iran’s improving standing on the international stage was resulting in increased business opportunities for Iranian firms. 

Zarghami appears to be precisely the sort of hard-liner who would oppose Rouhani’s attempt to reach a rapprochement with the West. A former general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Zarhami is believed to have close ties to Khamenei and was personally sanctioned by the European Union for human rights abuses. During the 2009 Green Movement protests, he claimed that videos of the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, which sparked outrage among protesters across the country, were not authentic and had in fact been manufactured by CNN and the BBC.

In the interview, Rouhani announced a plan to give all Iranians access to insurance — and took a page from President Barack Obama’s playbook in the process:

(Apparently, he’s unconcerned by Obamacare’s low public approval ratings.)

Rouhani did not, however, explain why his appearance had been delayed or whether he stood behind his earlier public criticism of Zarghami. Those around the world interested in viewing Iran’s political drama, therefore, have been left wondering whether the delay was a one-off event — or the first shot in a war between factions within the Iranian government.