The Rouhani Paradox

Iran's president came to office promising liberalization and a better relationship with the West. But can he really have both?


Last month, an Iranian court sentenced eight Facebook users to prison sentences ranging from seven to 20 years on vague charges of blasphemy and insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Also last month, a provincial court summoned Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear in a court to defend himself against accusations that Facebook apps have violated the privacy of Iranian citizens. Meanwhile, another court banned the popular mobile phone photo-sharing service Instagram. It’s all par for the course in Iran, where YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are blocked by the regime, which fears that its opponents will use social media to stir up anti-government protests.

There’s one particularly prominent exception to the ban, though: President Hassan Rouhani. The Iranian president, a regular user of Twitter and Facebook, has denounced the crackdown. "We should see the cyberworld as an opportunity," he told the official IRNA news agency. "Why are we so shaky? Why don’t we trust our youth?"

As Rouhani marks the first anniversary of his election on June 14, he looks back on a decidedly mixed bag of achievements. He won his landslide victory thanks to two main promises he made to Iranian voters. He vowed to enter into nuclear talks with the West with the ultimate aim of ending the sanctions that have crippled the economy. He also pledged to loosen up the rigid social restrictions imposed by hardline conservatives, who see the slightest relaxation as a betrayal of the ideals of the Islamic regime.

Yet if Rouhani’s first term is any indication, it may prove impossible for him to move head on both fronts at the same time. So far he’s kept the nuclear talks on track despite determined opposition from his conservative opponents. But he’s only been able to do that by proceeding cautiously with liberalization.

During his presidential campaign, Rouhani positioned himself as a moderate, harshly criticizing the policies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his hardline predecessor. The country came under crippling international sanctions after Ahmadinejad refused to halt Tehran’s nuclear program, exacerbating an ailing economy already undermined by the mismanagement and corruption of Ahmadinejad’s tenure. Rouhani correspondingly called for rapprochement with the West as well as more political and social openness at home. He vowed to seek the freedom of activists jailed following the massive 2009 uprising (the so-called "Green Revolution"), when many accused Ahmadinejad of winning his second presidential term in a fraudulent election.

Upon assuming office, Rouhani made good on his promise to launch a new round of nuclear talks with the West — and so far he’s managed to keep the negotiations going, despite concerted opposition from his conservative opponents. In November, Iran suspended some of its nuclear activities in return for limited sanction relief, effective for six months. Iranian officials are now engaged in another series of negotiations with the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany — the countries known as P5+1 — that would extend sanction relief for another six months.

So far, so good. But Rouhani has far less to show when it comes to his promises of a more open society. He’s signally failed to deliver on his vow to release of dozens who were jailed in 2009. The continued incarceration of two prominent leaders, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hussein Moussavi, both candidates in the 2009 presidential race, remains a barometer to gauge how far Iran’s hardliners are willing to loosen their control. The two men have been under house arrest since 2011, and dozens of other activists who were jailed in 2009 are still in prison. Rouhani has not been able to secure the two men’s, or anyone else’s, release. Several activists were released only after serving their terms out to the end. Meanwhile, the pace of executions in 2014 has remained high. According to the Iran Human Rights activist group, more than two people are being killed every day, and some 320 people have been executed in the first five months of 2014.

So why has Rouhani managed to make more headway on the nuclear issue? The crucial point here is the state of the Iranian economy. The impact of sanctions has been devastating. The percentage of families living in poverty rose from 22 percent to more than 40 percent during Ahmadinejad’s eight-year term, while the rial, the Iranian currency, lost 50 percent of its value in the course of 2013 alone. Restrictions on trade mean that the government can’t import western drugs and medical supplies. The price of food — especially milk, bread, fruits, and vegetables — has skyrocketed. In April, officials set the inflation rate at 28 percent.

Reza Khatami, a former member of parliament and the brother of ex-president Mohammad Khatami, recently said in an interview with an Iranian magazine that the government will be doing well if it can reduce the inflation rate to 25 percent by March 2015. "Rouhani inherited a complete economic wreck," he said. Last month the economy got a slight boost after the limited sanction relief measures from the nuclear talks allowed Iran’s oil exports to rise from 1.1 million barrels a day to 1.39.

This economic pressure explains why Rouhani has managed to retain the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei is fully aware of the country’s dire need to get rid of the sanctions, which have prompted a decline in Iran’s oil revenue and hampered trade due to banking restrictions. Khamenei, who has the final word on all matters of state, has backed the nuclear negotiations and the agreements that the government has made with the P5+1. Khamenei has gone so far as to endorse the government’s direct talks with the United States — the country he’s often labeled as Iran’s enemy. He has also expressly defended Rouhani against criticism from the Revolutionary Guard, potentially one of the president’s most powerful opponents, given its enormous economic and political power. Khamenei is the only man in the country who can push back against the Guards, given the fact that he appoints the organization’s head. (Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said this month that Ayatollah Khamenei had to issue "a harsh warning" to media outlets linked to the Revolutionary Guards and later meet with their directors to stop them from undermining Rouhani. That a top government official had to say this publicly suggests just how enormous the political and economic clout of the Guards has become in present-day Iran.)

Yet this support comes with a price. Khamenei isn’t exactly known for flexibility on cultural and social matters, and he seems little inclined to back the president on some of his more controversial domestic initiatives. True, Rouhani’s government has achieved a few small victories. His Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has issued permits for books that were previously banned and has lifted the ban on the country’s feminist Zanan magazine. Music bands and musicians are holding public concerts again.

But Rouhani knows perfectly well that losing the Supreme Leader’s support will mean the end of his efforts at rapprochement with the West. And the conservative establishment — above all the Revolutionary Guards — knows it too, which is why they haven’t hesitated to push back. In May, law enforcement arrested six young Iranians who posted a self-made music video based on the utterly apolitical hit song "Happy" by U.S. pop singer Pharrell Williams. Five of the group were released after Rouhani came to their defense (though the director of the video remained in jail for several weeks).

And even that draconian punishment looks relatively mild against the background of other recent moves by the security establishment. In what appeared to be a public show of muscle-flexing earlier this spring, prison guards launched on an all-out assault in a detention facility on a number of prisoners held since 2009. They beat the inmates for several hours, causing severe injuries, fractures, cuts and bruises that were visible to inmates’ families during visits later that month. Amnesty International identified the assailants as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and members of the Intelligence Ministry. The prisoners were handcuffed and beaten with batons and then locked in solitary confinements. No one was arrested for the attack (though the head of the prison was replaced).

In his magazine interview, Khatami noted that expectations are high in Iran, warning that if the president failed to deliver more political openness, "people will get disappointed."  "The government has not taken any steps to improve internal politics," said Khatami.

Yet other analysts argue that the president’s modest liberalization still offers a welcome change from the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s tenure. "Rouhani has managed to steer the country away from that dark path and has correctly targeted to resolve the nuclear crisis with the West to create some kind of economic relief inside the country," says Hamidreza Jalaipour, a professor of sociology at Tehran University and a prominent reformist. "For the first time, people feel positive about the future. "

Jim Walsh, an Iran expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that the nuclear issue remains a number one priority for western countries negotiating with Iran. "The human rights and nuclear issues have different time frames," he said. "Human rights is a process that occurs over years if not decades, as have been seen in China, Latin America, and elsewhere. By contrast, the nuclear issue has a time horizon of months or a couple of years before it could lead to conflict in the region."

Most analysts in Iran agree that Iran is going through a sensitive time after the 2009 uprising and the crackdown that followed. The sanctions have undermined civil society, they say, meaning that democracy cannot be rushed. Resolving the nuclear dossier, said Jalaipour, was more important than addressing any other issue at this stage. "No one can talk about freedom and human rights when people are hungry," he said.  "It becomes possible to move forward with political development when people’s economic conditions improve."

It’s hard to say whether Rouhani agrees. But given the current balance of forces in Iran he may have little choice one way or the other.

Nazila Fathi, the author of the book Lonely War, reported from Iran for the New York Times until she was forced to leave the country in 2009. Twitter: @nazilafathi