Although he likely meant to touch upon a vast array of issues of concern to Iranians, President Hassan Rouhani couldn't help but focus on Donald Trump's recent offer of talks and on Iran's economic problems during his live interview on state TV on Aug. 6.
Almost all Iranian newspapers covered the interview on their front pages the next day, with headlines focusing on the parts of the interview that best matched their editorial lines. Papers representing the pro-reform camp such as Aftab, Etemad and Shargh highlighted the president's comments on holding referendums to settle major domestic disputes, as enshrined in Article 59 of the Iranian Constitution.
Rouhani sparked controversy earlier this year in a speech on the anniversary of the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution by unearthing the same proposal. At that time, the move was met with a backlash of fury from conservative clerics and media.
“Rouhani spoke with calm, responded to Trump and went deep down to the roots of the current problems gripping Iran’s economy.” That’s how the Reformist Hamdeli paper described Rouhani’s remarks.
Regarding Trump's recent offer of direct talks, Rouhani said, “I have no preconditions for talks with the US government. If it is ready to negotiate paying compensation to the Iranian nation … we are ready to find out how the United States is going to do so and in how many installments. … The US owes Iran both compensation and apologies.”
The conservative Javan daily — affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — highlighted Rouhani's comments, urging people to avoid purchasing and stocking up on foreign currencies. It also touched on Rouhani’s view of Trump’s offer, stating, “They are holding the knife over our heads and offering talks [at the same time].”
“US hypocrisy has no end; national unity is the quick way to bypass sanctions,” is how hard-line Kayhan covered the interview. The paper quoted the president as saying: “The sanctions, of course, create pressure, but they also serve some purpose. I believe we can pass this stage safely and if we are united, the sanctions could be broken soon.”
Reactions from political figures and on social media were not as kind. To Issa Saharkhiz, a former deputy minister at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the interview was more of the same old stuff. Saharkhiz proposed that instead of those televised interviews with hackneyed questions, question-and-answer sessions be held where the president is grilled with “challenging questions.”
Hours before the interview, the outspoken deputy parliamentary speaker, Ali Motahari, cast doubt on whether the president would be so bold as to repeat what he said in the interview in an appearance before parliament, which has yet to be scheduled.
Fatameh Saeidi, a female Reformist lawmaker and member of the parliamentary Hope faction, echoed that sentiment in a tweet: “We are waiting for more frank responses from Mr. Rouhani, especially regarding the internal causes of the problems, when he attends parliament.”
Still, supportive voices could be heard. “Mr. Rouhani says we will pass the crisis safely," tweeted foreign policy analyst Reza Nasri. "This is not just a slogan. Today, simultaneous with the new round of [US] sanctions, the world’s major countries issued statements in support of Iran."
Rouhani’s remarks come amid a fresh round of protests in Iran against economic grievances. The president, however, has underestimated the protests, referring to some of them as riots instigated from abroad. He even partly blamed the current currency crisis on the January demonstrations that began in the city of Mashhad, the main base of his brazen opponent Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda and his son-in-law Ebrahim Raisi. Those rallies spilled over to some 100 towns and cities and almost spiraled out of control.
“Whether the president recognizes those protests or not, the reality is that since January public discontent has become bare and there are even anti-establishment slogans," said the Reformist daily Arman in its Aug. 7 editorial. "We are also dealing with a crisis-hit economy at home. Therefore, negotiating with Donald Trump should be viewed within that context and we need to find out to what extent such talks will bring stability and what opportunities it could create toward restoring calm to the country.”