Nine months after taking office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani finds himself under pressure from both his reformist supporters and hard-line conservatives as efforts to spur political change and economic progress have stumbled.
Rouhani has faced a backlash in recent weeks from the very base that helped get him elected, which now sees a lack of movement to bolster personal liberties or free political prisoners. Meanwhile, both reformists and hard-liners are increasingly frustrated over economic woes. The troubles are manifested by a recent hike in gasoline prices and caused in part by international economic sanctions as negotiations over Iran's nuclear development program continue.
On Friday, the price of gasoline nearly doubled to 22 cents a liter (about 83 cents per gallon). With the average Iranian salary less than $200 a month, the increase is expected to infuriate an already financially battered middle and working class.
Kamran Khanmohammadi, a veteran truck driver, said that the middle class is already squeezed and that fuel price increases strike a further blow.
As the hikes were set to take effect Thursday night, he said, many gas stations in Tehran were operating under tight security measures to prevent riots and burning of gas stations, similar to protests that plagued former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term in office.
So far, there have been no reports of riots, but police remained at many gas stations across the country Saturday.
Protests were held last week outside the president's offices and Tehran's courthouse calling for the release of political prisoners, many of whom were arrested in the wake of the disputed 2009 presidential election that returned Ahmadinejad to power.
The demonstrations came amid reports of violent clashes in the capital's Evin Prison, where most political prisoners are believed to be held. Officials denied any wide-scale violence during what they described as a routine crackdown on illegal possession of cellphones.
Reformers had believed that the election of Rouhani, a moderate cleric, would boost press freedom and lead to the release of political prisoners and a softening of the enforcement of religious clothing strictures.
"People feel they have been deceived. They say to us, 'Economically there is no change for better,'" a state media journalist said after Friday prayers. "And politically we had cherished the hope that at least like the first term of President [Mohammad] Khatami, we would have some sort of press freedom and release of political prisoners."
"Nothing has changed and we are once again discontent," added the journalist, who asked that his name not be published for security reasons.
Those supporting reform have placed the blame on both Rouhani and hard-line conservatives who are believed to be blocking change. Conservatives are pushing Rouhani to improve the economy, reduce unemployment and be more defiant with regard to the nuclear talks.
Even with his reform mandate, Rouhani doesn't have the political leverage to push through change. And in parliament last week, he was lambasted by an influential hard-line lawmaker for not accomplishing what he promised when he was elected.
"Soaring prices of staple food are ongoing, factories are closing down one after another, unemployment is showing teeth," said Rouhollah Husseinian, who is also an influential mullah. "But you still claim to have formed a government based on principles of prudence and hope and that the system of sanctions is cracking and falling apart?"
Rouhani had suggested that, just by engaging in talks with world powers over nuclear development, the nation would see sanctions begin to ease. But many now feel disillusioned.
This month, protesters demanded that Iran retain its nuclear program and uranium enrichment capabilities. Iran says it is developing nuclear capability for civilian purposes, but the West believes it is seeking to build nuclear weapons.
Though hard-liners have long been skeptical of the negotiations with six world powers, including the United States, there is a growing sense of frustration even among some moderates who question whether Iran might be giving up too much in an effort to ease international sanctions.
At Friday prayers, as sermons marked the 34th anniversary of a failed U.S. mission to rescue 52 American hostages in Iran, high-ranking cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami criticized the talks.
"Our negotiators should bear in mind when they are talking with the U.S.A. that the enemy is hatemongering and entirely untrustworthy," he said.
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times