Rouhani projects a friendly image in Davos while his opponents stir at home
As Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani continues his international charm offensive today with an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, back home hardline opponents are preparing new battle lines over his domestic agenda.
The moderate president will use his speech to attract global business after winning an easing of some economic sanctions against his country in a landmark nuclear deal with the US and other world powers.
In Tehran his hardline opponents are fuming after failing to prevent the striking of the November accord that took effect on Monday.
They are now battling Mr Rouhani on the home front, using their institutional muscle to thwart his election pledges to open up Iran’s cultural, social and political spheres.
In recent weeks online activists and underground musicians have been detained, journalists harassed, the publication of a reformist newspaper suspended, and the culture minister rebuked by the hardline-dominated parliament for his “liberal” stance on internet and media freedoms.
Damaging Mr Rouhani’s drive to burnish Iran’s international image, there has also been an “alarming” surge in executions — mainly of alleged drug traffickers — with 40 carried out in the first half of this month alone, according to Amnesty International. And Iran’s two most prominent political prisoners remain under house arrest while dozens of other activists are behind bars.
His message in the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos will be that his oil and gas-rich country is open for business, with the promise of a bigger bonanza if and when a final nuclear deal is thrashed out.
“If Rouhani also tries to take on the hardliners on the cultural front and pushes for the release of political prisoners his opponents will say, ‘OK, we’ll take you on over your talks with the Americans and the Europeans’”, Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England, said. “Rouhani is not going to risk that.”
Others argue that the 65-year-old cleric accepts that his challenges on the domestic and foreign fronts are inextricably linked.
“He knows that if he postpones dealing with his promises on social and political rights, he will first lose his public support and then be completely defenceless before the hardliners, who will do whatever it takes to sabotage the nuclear talks,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the New York-based director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
So far, hardliners opposed to the nuclear accord, which they say trample on Iran’s atomic rights, have been unable to scupper it because it has the vital if qualified support of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On social and cultural issues, however, the ayatollah, 74, is more supportive of Mr Rouhani’s hardline opponents. They control repressive power centres outside the president’s authority such as the judiciary and Revolutionary Guards, which answer to the unelected supreme leader.
Aware of this, and despite their great expectations of Mr Rouhani, many who voted for him appear ready to give him a generous grace period.
“Yes, the arrests of various activists have continued, but there is a more open political environment, one that had all but vanished under the dark years of the previous government,” said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. Recently returned from a three-month trip to Iran, she characterised the mood there as one of “expectant patience”.
Others, however, say frustration is growing at the slow pace of reform.
“I don’t know much about politics, but I voted for Rouhani to have more freedom. But I only hear empty words,” Azin Ghayumi, a university student, told Reuters. “My father says Iran’s image in the world has improved, but why should I care, when I am not connected to the world?”
Addressing such concerns Mr Rouhani has hit back at his hardline opponents. “Some officials have obviously not heard the people’s voice in the election,” he declared last week. “I promise the people to stop extremism in Iran.”
He was speaking after his culture minister, Ali Jannati, was reprimanded by parliament for supporting a banned reformist newspaper and urging an end to the filtering of social media sites. Mr Jannati was even rebuked for suggesting women should be allowed to sing solo in public.
The Iranian president, however, has been less outspoken on another front — securing the release of political prisoners. Some have been freed since he took office in August.
But Mr Rouhani has been unable to end the three-year-old house arrest of the reformist leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, both ailing former presidential candidates who led mass protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009. Their freedom remains a litmus test for many Iranians who voted for Mr Rouhani.
Powerful hardliners, such as the moderate culture minister’s father, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, insist they cannot be freed unless they repent for their “sedition”.
Ayatollah Jannati is the chairman of Iran’s Guardian Council, a conservative body viewed as a barrier to the freedoms advocated by his son. Their differences encapsulate Iran’s power struggle as Mr Rouhani attempts to manage a tricky balancing act.
Updated: January 22, 2014 04:00 AM