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Rouhani ignores domestic political reforms

The nuclear negotiations have taken up a great deal of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's time, but domestic political reforms are what is needed for long-term change.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani  arrives to attend the closing statement for the Asian-African Conference in Jakarta April 23, 2015. 
REUTERS/Darren Whiteside - RTX19YAE

By reaching a framework agreement with the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany (P5+1), President Hassan Rouhani's administration has come closer to resolving Iran's nuclear saga than any of his predecessors, regardless of the final outcome. However, the nuclear negotiations have caused another big part of Rouhani’s agenda to be neglected — a long list of domestic, social and political demands made by the Iranian people and the Reformist camp. To keep his critics at bay and his support base intact, Rouhani needs to shift his focus toward rebalancing the government. Given the intricate domestic political considerations and the country’s vast bureaucratic machinery, the task at hand is a challenging one.   

Backed by different interests and ideologies, which result in varying domestic political calculations, each incoming faction adopts a domestic policy agenda best suited for its constituents. Such factors are often underweighted or absent in mainstream analyses of a president's performance. The elected government needs to keep the domestic political factions and the constituents content to operate with relative ease. If an administration neglects this delicate balancing act, it is bound to face a tremendous amount of opposition from competing groups.

It is, perhaps, more important for the current administration to abide by this political maxim. As a moderate-seasoned technocrat and a balancing figure, Rouhani does not belong to a specific camp vis-a-vis a popular Reformist or conservative faction rooted within the society. As a result, he cannot afford to lose all support on either side. However, the longer the domestic promises made on his electoral platform are ignored, the louder the dissenting Reformist voices will become. Given the administration's achievements in the foreign policy arena, the Reformist camp — sidelined since the contested 2009 presidential election — has patiently waited; but the longer the government delays, the more anxious the critics will become.

Some Reformists have already begun demonstrating signs of dissatisfaction. In its annual New Year edition, Reformist newspaper Shargh published an extensive discussion with influential former Reformist members of the country’s Interior Ministry: Ahmad Pournejati, Mohammad Atrianfar and Morteza Moballegh. All interviewees were outspoken about the government’s neglect of domestic reforms and explicitly warned Rouhani about the possibility of a popular backlash similar to what the ruling apparatus faced in the run-up to Reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s 1997 election.

Political analyst Mohammad Ali Kadivar told Al-Monitor, "It is true that not all Reformist demands have been met. Political prisoners are not released, Green Movement leaders are still under house arrest and the Interior Ministry’s bureau of political parties is still closed. However, it is not realistic to say that the atmosphere is just like how it was under [former President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. We are not at the Khatami administration’s levels of freedoms either. It has never been ideal, but it is relatively better. I believe the situation is even slightly more open than under [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani’s presidency. At least if you write a complaint letter to the president, they do not arrest you."

Nevertheless, even if the incoming administration has the best intentions in mind, the mechanics of fulfilling all of the Reformist demands is beyond challenging. The new government has to rebalance the country’s vast bureaucratic machinery prior to implementing any major domestic reforms, while maintaining the nuanced balancing act. Under the divisive and hard-line presidency of Ahmadinejad, individuals aligned with the administration’s vision occupied the main segments of various ministries and government institutions. Putting moderate minds in their place is a time-consuming and arduous task with substantial political risk. Some progress has been made within the Ministry of Science, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, but the ultimate challenge remains the Interior Ministry. Some of the more pessimistic critics of the government have even argued that Rouhani has relinquished the ministry to the moderate conservatives as a concession.

The Interior Ministry is in charge of conducting elections, but the entity has other crucial roles such as promoting civil society growth, supporting burgeoning political factions and supervising the performance of city councils. Establishing more moderate forces in the ministry can act as a catalyst for the growth of social activism and political participation at a grassroots level. As such, in his interview with Shargh, the former political deputy of the interior minister, Mohammad Atrianfar, emphasized the importance of rearranging the ministry. He argues that the ultimate makeup of the ministry could have a positive impact on the nature of governance nationwide. “We should not have a minimalistic view of the Interior Ministry. … The true identity of domestic politics is not formed within the confines of the ministry’s building. … In reality, the provinces are the bedrock for real politics in Iran,” Atrianfar said. The Interior Ministry is tasked with choosing the governors who will in turn be in charge of managing the election processes in their respective provinces.

Tempering the Interior Ministry could potentially have a softening effect on provincial politics. This issue is not lost on Rouhani’s administration. It understands the importance of promoting constructive party politics, which can result in a favorable outcome for Rouhani’s presidency and possible re-election. During a meeting of the Central Council of the Executives of Construction Party on April 19, first Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri highlighted the problems created by conservative provincial hard-liners. “The heart of some provincial government officials is still with the previous administration. They create obstacles for activities of Reformist forces at the provincial level,” Jahangiri said.

Iran’s domestic political system is not monolithic and cannot be painted with broad brushstrokes. A more nuanced view of the political intricacies of the country presents a more realistic picture of the challenges faced by the current administration. Rouhani continues to insist on his promise of building “a unity government”; however, accomplishing this goal is a taxing endeavor. The country’s sizable bureaucratic body needs to be adjusted gradually without the complete abandonment of any individual faction. The situation will become more complex as dissenting voices grow impatient.