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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Iran's Rouhani prepares to face angry MPs

Parliament sacked two of the president's ministers this month over economic troubles

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been summoned to face parliament on August 28, 2018. Reuters
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been summoned to face parliament on August 28, 2018. Reuters

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is clinging to power but finds himself under attack from all sides –conservatives, reformists and the street – as he prepares for a grilling in parliament on Tuesday.

The US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and Washington's reimposition of sanctions have already battered the Iranian economy, and critics say it has exposed the failures of Mr Rouhani's five years in power.

For the first time, MPs have summoned Mr Rouhani to parliament to face questions over the collapsing value of the Iranian currency, stubbornly high unemployment and corruption.

Legislators have already impeached his labour and economy ministers this month, and are seeking further scalps.

They have the power to impeach Mr Rouhani himself, although he is protected by the fact that Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he should see out his term to 2021, despite his own harsh criticisms of the president's policies.

Mr Rouhani still has the backing of moderate conservatives, including powerful parliament speaker Ali Larijani, but many in the hardline establishment opposed his negotiations with the West and feel vindicated by the unravelling of the nuclear deal.

They have led the charge against Mr Rouhani's cabinet, and were on Monday seeking enough votes for impeachment proceedings against his industry and transportation ministers.

"The best outcome for them is a lame duck president, as their chances will go up" for the next election in 2021, said political journalist Fereshteh Sadeghi.

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As for the reformist faction, it was key to Mr Rouhani's election successes in 2013 and 2017, seeing him as its best option after the movement was suppressed in the wake of mass protests in 2009.

But the president has failed to deliver on his promises of easing civil liberties, particularly his vow to release political prisoners and reduce censorship.

Reformists now fear being tarnished by their association with Mr Rouhani and some have broken ranks to slam the government's performance.

"What have we done with this nation? We made them miserable and wretched," said reformist MP Elias Hazrati as he voted in favour of impeaching the economy minister Masoud Karbasian on Sunday.

"No one believes Rouhani will reform anything any more. He was just a tool for the system, appearing to address people's demands for change without really changing anything," said Clement Therme, Iran research fellow for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr Rouhani won emphatic victories in the past two presidential polls. Even with the Guardian Council barring almost all other candidates, there was genuine enthusiasm for Mr Rouhani's plans to rebuild Iran's foreign standing and attract investment.

With the key part of that strategy – the nuclear deal – in tatters, the sense of disillusionment on the streets of Tehran is now palpable.

Many wealthier Iranians are trying to leave, while poorer areas have experienced regular, low-level strikes and protests that have occasionally turned violent.

The prices of essential goods are rising rapidly, and worse pain is to come when US sanctions on Iran's vital oil sector return in November.

"Look at my breakfast. I can't afford fruit any more," a motorbike delivery man told AFP, holding up a can of lemonade and a piece of bread.

"We are afraid of this government, but there will be more protests."

Mr Rouhani's problems reflect a basic contradiction of the Islamic republic, said Mr Therme: elections are crucial to its legitimacy, but the Iranian people vote for reforms that cannot be delivered.

"The supreme leader supports Rouhani going to the end of his second term because he wants stability," he said .

"But he thinks that if Rouhani delivers on his policies, it will mean the end of the system," particularly by opening the country to western cultural "invasion".

There had been talk of Mr Rouhani as a possible successor to the ageing Mr Khamenei, but he looks increasingly likely to follow the path of his two predecessors in the presidency, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have been effectively silenced by the establishment.

"There's nothing he can do. His hands are tied. All the focus will now go on 2021," said Sadeghi, the political journalist.