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Rouhani faces winter of Iran's discontent

Iran’s hard-liners have already secured a takeover of the parliament in elections this month; Trump says any negotiations are totally up to Iran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (not pictured) in Tokyo, Japan, December 20, 2019. Charly Triballeau/Pool via REUTERS - RC2YYD9DLX7A

Iran’s parliamentary elections on Feb. 21 are already a done deal. The 12-member Guardian Council, which vets candidates and legislation to assure revolutionary, constitutional and Islamic orthodoxy — and the prerogatives of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — have assured a victory for the hard-liners and a massive setback for Reformists.

The question is whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the Reformist camp can win by losing: that is, by rallying popular discontent on the outside, as an opposition party, ahead of the presidential election next year. And whether Rouhani, with nothing to lose, would be willing to finally explore US President Donald Trump’s longstanding offer to talk about a deal.

Guardians take out the competition

While Khamenei has the final-word authority in Iran, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, or parliament, has in the past been known for some lively and fractious exchanges of views.

Rouhani rallied Reformists in his winning coalition for the presidency in 2013. Reformists generally support more engagement with the West, as well as political and economic reforms. Principlists, or conservatives, are distrustful of the West and endorse more statist political and economic policies, in line with Khamenei’s orthodoxy.

Reformists became the largest bloc in parliament in 2016. The Iran nuclear deal, Rouhani’s landmark achievement, was popular with Reformists, as were his calls for budget transparency, which triggered conservative backlash and protests in January 2018.

The current parliament includes 120 Reformists; 86 Principlists; 10 associated Principlists; 66 independents; and five minorities.

Leading up to elections this month, the Guardian Council has vetted out 90 of the 247 parliamentarians running for reelection, almost all of them Reformists. According to a report by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in The Financial Times, approximately 200 of the seats are a lock for Principlist candidates. 

Rouhani makes it personal

The purging of Reformist candidates by the Guardians has provoked Rouhani’s ire, leading him to vent about the process, in a predictably opaque way, but still inspiring retorts from Khamenei.

At a televised Cabinet meeting Jan. 15, Rouhani said, "Please do not tell people that there are 17,170 or 1,700 candidates for a single parliamentary seat. Seventeen candidates from what faction? Only one? This is not an election. It is like having a shop with 2,000 of a single item … People want diversity … Allow all parties and groups to run for the elections. The country cannot be run by a single faction. The country belongs to everyone.”

On Feb. 5, Khamenei went on defense. “Elections in Iran are among the healthiest in the world,” he said. “When you lie and say these elections are engineered or say they are not real elections, they are appointments, people become discouraged. Attacking the Guardian Council is one of the worst actions. The Guardian Council, which is composed of six impartial jurists and six eminent experts in law selected by the parliament, is respected in the constitution. They are a trustworthy entity. How can a person easily accuse them of partiality?”

Rouhani, speaking at another Cabinet meeting the same day, said “Islam is founded on people’s choice and it is people who should choose and elect … Nobody is above the law and the people. One must not think that a small group is guiding the public opinion and people would be misguided without them.”

Hard-liners pin hardships on Rouhani

The hard-liners have pinned on Rouhani the collapse of the nuclear deal and the economic crisis sparked by the Trump administration’s sanctions, as a sign of his failed policies.

Rouhani’s decision to reduce the fuel subsidy in November 2019 has also added to his, and Iran’s, misery index: a projected 10% loss of gross domestic product; inflation over 35%; and oil exports dropping from 2.1 million barrels per day in 2016 to roughly 500,000. The fuel subsidy reduction sparked widespread rioting, which led to a government crackdown in which hundreds, perhaps even thousands, were killed.

Iranians seemed to rally around the flag during the funerals and commemorations for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike Jan. 3. 

Iran’s accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane Jan. 8, which killed 176 people, soon became another source of public outrage. The shoot-down occurred during a missile attack on an Iraqi base housing US forces in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani. The government initially lied and sought to cover up the mistake. The incident led to the uncovering of numerous air traffic mishaps and near calamities, as Al-Monitor staff reports.

Iran’s winter of discontent

Rohollah Faghihi suggests that the Guardian Council’s vetting of Reformists is a sign that they know the public has lost hope in the election. “In fact,” he writes, “whenever the radicals feel that turnout will be low, which means ordinary people are indifferent to the election results, they get courageous enough to ban as many rivals as possible from running in the election.”

Citing a recent poll revealing a deep cynicism about the elections, Saeid Jafari explains that “the heated political debate at the top echelons … does not seem to be shared by ordinary Iranians. Multiple woes faced by the Rouhani government — the top one being the failure of the nuclear deal — have deeply disillusioned the Iranian public, killing their expectations for the ballot box. What worsens the apathy is the perceived poor performance by many Reformist lawmakers, who won the 2016 elections and gained the parliamentary majority thanks to a remarkable turnout from a public hoping for change.”

Khamenei, perhaps skittish about a potentially embarrassingly low turnout, felt the need to rally the faithful, and the not so faithful, to get out the vote when he said this week that “a strong parliament depends on a large part of the nation voting. Perhaps someone doesn’t like me, but if he/she likes Iran, they should come to the ballot box.”

Rouhani and the Reformists, therefore, may anticipate that the elections will be what Shakespeare termed the “winter of our discontent,” meaning, the worst is upon us, and there is a need to plan for brighter days ahead (“Made glorious summer by this sun of York," to complete the phrase from "Richard III").

Reformist long game may be to win by losing

Faghihi describes a notion suggested by Reformist political strategist Saeed Hajjarian that the best tack might be to win by losing. That is, the Reformists should more or less concede the current election to prepare for the presidential contest next year. Faghihi explains that is because the “deep state [Khamenei, the IRGC and associated institutions] doesn’t allow the Reformist-backed Rouhani to implement his policies, including negotiations with the West. As such, it is better not to waste time and to let the groups representing the deep state take over in order to see harmony in the country.”

Khamenei and the Guardians may have their own long game, hoping to usher in a new generation of conservative leaders who are more in tune with statist and revolutionary principles, and wary of engagement with the United States and the West.

Trump: It’s totally up to Iran

Rouhani seems to have little appetite for negotiations with the United States, given the ascendance of hard-liners, and further bad blood over the US killing of Soleimani. The default position in Tehran may be to wait until after the US elections in November to determine if they will be dealing with Trump or with someone else who would support a return to the nuclear deal, or some version of it.

The economic incentives for Iran to open a track for sanctions relief remains compelling. Iran’s economic prospects are dismal without some relief from "maximum pressure." And maybe after the parliamentary elections, and facing his last year in office, Rouhani may feel he has little to lose by exploring negotiations, cautiously picking up the threads offered by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, French President Emmanuel Macron and others.

The political and economic crises in Iran may have led some in the Trump administration to believe that the Iranian government is on the brink of collapse, as Laura Rozen reports, based on conversations with senior European diplomats. 

Trump, however, has consistently held out the prospect of negotiations, including in his State of the Union address, where he said, “We can help them make a very good and short-time recovery. It can all go very quickly, but perhaps they are too proud or too foolish to ask for that help. We are here. Let's see which road they choose. It is totally up to them.”

It was just two months ago, on Dec. 7, when Iran released Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang in exchange for Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani, and Trump tweeted, “Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”

On Jan. 8, Trump said the United States “is ready to work together” with Iran to combat the Islamic State and on “other shared priorities.”

Iran may not be Trump’s top priority, but the offer is there. The administration is rightfully proud of its record bringing home Americans imprisoned abroad. The outlines of the beginning of a conversation remain: further swaps to secure the release of the remaining detained Americans; a pause, suspension or alternative mechanism for sanctions relief, building on the Macron proposal; an updated nuclear agreement, including discussion of missiles; and concrete signals to Saudi Arabia and others in the region that Iran is serious about regional security, including Yemen, in support of a political process to end the war.

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