Iran’s Structural Constraints Limit Rouhani’s Domestic Agenda

Iran’s Structural Constraints Limit Rouhani’s Domestic Agenda
Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, April 7, 2013 (photo by Wikimedia userMojtaba Salimi licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June 2013 on a ticket of change, amid hope for improvements in both domestic and foreign affairs. His constituents were, and still are, hoping for an easing of the political atmosphere, a less stifling environment on university campuses, a more predictable and stable style of governance and, most importantly, a reversal of the economic decline that has impoverished Iranians in the past 3-4 years. In many ways, most of the promises on this electoral laundry list hinge on the last item—turning the Iranian economy around. This plays into but is not the sole reason for the change in Iran’s approach and tactics in international negotiations on the nuclear issue. Progress in those talks would entail the lifting of U.S. and European Union sanctions on Iran, which have exacerbated the problems of an already badly managed economy. Their removal would allow the Iranian economy to not just cope, but to grow. Yet the ability of Iranian presidents to affect the trajectory of foreign policy has often surpassed their ability to do the same in domestic matters. There are obvious structural reasons for this: The centers of power in Tehran are more concerned with domestic issues, according to which their political survival and fortunes are decided. This means Iranian powerbrokers’ willingness to act and take a stand in favor of or in opposition to government plans is much greater on domestic issues. Then there are the institutional boundaries: The Ministry of Intelligence and the judiciary are not really under the authority of the elected president. The minister of intelligence is always appointed in direct consultation with the supreme leader, and the head of the judiciary, as well as the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, are appointed directly by the supreme leader himself. So the president may negotiate and cajole, and at times leverage his public mandate as the country's highest elected official, but the institutions that can be used to discipline the citizenry and constrain public debate—or refrain from doing so—are not readily at his disposal. Thus, Iran's abysmal human rights record, and especially the increasing use of capital punishment, must be read as part of a domestic power struggle that is inherent to a system in which elected officials do not hold all the important levers of power. Just as during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, when attempts to increase press freedom and other liberties were ambushed and fiercely resisted by conservatives using all the institutional means at their disposal, with the judiciary as one of the foremost weapons in their arsenal, we see the contours of a similar fight emerging today. The judiciary recently closed the Rouhani-linked newspaper Aseman. And as under Khatami, Friday sermons and parliamentary pressure continue to set the boundaries for what is permissible in domestic politics, for example by warning against the return to the political arena of 2009 “seditionists,” referring to reformers supporting 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The conservative approach is, however, even more destructive this time around for the simple reason that the stakes, both domestically and with regard to the outside world, are even higher now than they were in the early 2000s. After eight years in which conservatives controlled all the levers of power, including the presidency, Rouhani has inherited a “resistance economy.” The term was coined by the supreme leader in 2010 as a response to increased sanctions by the U.S. and the EU and reiterated in a decree on Feb. 19 this year. But it is also an attempt to manage the dilemma of balancing economic liberalism with state-directed development that, along with the added flavor of Islamist revolutionary jargon, has been part of the Islamic Republic from the very beginning. Another important Rouhani constituency with high hopes is the academic community, both faculty and students. The former have been marginalized and cowed by the cultural mini-revolution that Ahmadinejad's two presidential terms represented, with a significant number of them also being forced into early retirement. For the student body it is a question of readmitting students punished and institutionally ostracized for their support for the opposition in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005 and especially in 2009. A more open atmosphere would allow both groups to regain some of their ability to participate in the national public debate. In the case of faculty members, some have already started to return to their traditional role as advisers and participants in the political process from inside government institutions. So far, to a large degree, the change in Iran domestically has been one of atmosphere and the perception of what is permissible, which has encouraged media and individuals to push the envelope a bit. But the institutional strictures remain, and their easing or outright removal will require a very deft play by the Rouhani administration. Most likely, considering the paramount importance of improving the economy and the risks and uncertain dividends of tackling issues of political rights, the administration prefers to err on the side of caution and avoid spending too much political capital on liberalizing for now. The flip side is of course that Rouhani will disappoint important segments of the electorate who voted for him. Their aspirations for liberalization and the freeing of political prisoners remain unfulfilled. But while Rouhani's political honeymoon may be ending, his program remains the only concrete plan on the table for dealing with the very real problems Iran is facing. Thus the potshots and attempts to stymie his cautious reforms on the part of conservatives are quite predictable but no less shortsighted. The inherent inertia of the system will continue to render Rouhani’s political project a long hard slog, one that seeks to deliver small but steady gains rather than sweeping and satisfactory reforms. Rouzbeh Parsi is a senior lecturer at Lund University specializing on Iran and the Middle East. Between 2009 and 2013, he worked as senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris covering Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

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