In most democracies, a resounding win at the ballot box would put a president in a strong position to deliver promised changes. But Iran is only partly a democracy.
President Hassan Rouhani, who was officially sworn in for a second term Saturday, must contend with mounting opposition from religious hard-liners who keep losing elections but control key centers of power in the Islamic Republic.
The question is whether Rouhani can use his mandate to push through political reforms and social freedoms sought by his many young supporters — or whether he will need to appease conservative clerics and security commanders who are the custodians of Iran’s theocracy.
History suggests that Rouhani has cause to be wary. His three immediate predecessors were reduced to the status of lame ducks in their second terms after clashing with the hard-line establishment, led by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“There are clearly almost Soprano family-style moves to make him recognize how vulnerable he is,” said Abbas Milani, a Tehran-born academic who directs the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, referring to the mob-themed U.S. television series.
Last month, Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoun, was detained on charges of financial impropriety in what some experts describe as a shot across the bow by the conservative judiciary. Fereydoun was reportedly taken to a hospital the next day after appearing unwell at a court appearance and released on bail.
At his inauguration before parliament Saturday, Rouhani underscored the need for “national cooperation” and “constructive” relations with the world, familiar themes from his first term. Gone was the fiery rhetoric about freedom and civil rights that galvanized more reform-minded voters to his side during the election campaign.
“We want to be a moderate government,” Rouhani said before lawmakers, government insiders and foreign dignitaries, “both in domestic and foreign policy.”
Some of those who helped Rouhani increase his mandate by 5 million votes are now worried that the president won’t fulfill campaign pledges to include women and reformist politicians in his 18-member Cabinet.
Tradition dictates that the president should consult the supreme leader about key appointments, such as the ministers of foreign affairs and intelligence. But Rouhani is said to also be running names for less sensitive posts by Khamenei.
“One woman minister isn’t a big deal. Why doesn’t he try it?” complained Siavash Ramesh, a 30-year-old political activist who until last week was an enthusiastic supporter of the president. “We wanted more when we voted for him. We’re unhappy, but what option did we have?”
The president’s defenders say Rouhani has been consulting with the supreme leader about his Cabinet picks more than is customary so hard-liners won’t mount a challenge when he presents the list to parliament for a confidence vote.
He already faces accusations of selling off the country to “colonizing” interests after the announcement of a multibillion-dollar deal with French oil giant Total and the China National Petroleum Corp. to develop part of a massive natural gas field.
And new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration are providing grist for the mill of opposition to the nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers, Rouhani’s signature achievement.
Iran will not be the first to pull out of the nuclear deal, but it will not remain silent about America’s repeated violations
Although many of the most crippling economic penalties imposed on Iran have been lifted since the Islamic Republic agreed to curb its nuclear activities in 2015, the country has not experienced as robust a recovery as officials had hoped.
Foreign banks and businesses are worried about the Trump administration’s more aggressive approach to Iran and don’t want to run afoul of sanctions imposed by the U.S. for other alleged transgressions. These include Iran’s ballistic missile program, support for U.S.-designated terrorist groups and human rights abuses.
Iranian officials accuse Trump of acting in bad faith and have threatened to take “proportional” retaliatory measures.
“Iran will not be the first to pull out of the nuclear deal, but it will not remain silent about America’s repeated violations,” Rouhani said.
The supreme leader, who gave his official endorsement Thursday for Rouhani’s second term, said he supports “extensive interaction” with the world. But he advised Rouhani to be mindful of the plots of Iran’s enemies and reiterated the need for a “resistance economy,” or one that is not vulnerable to sanctions.
“The cost of surrendering to aggressive powers is far greater than the cost of standing up to them,” Khamenei was quoted as saying Thursday by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
The supreme leader has been increasingly critical of Rouhani for policies that Khamenei says fail to protect the “dignity of the Islamic system” against Westernizing influences.
Such remarks have emboldened hard-liners who surrounded Rouhani at a rally in June and shouted slogans likening the president to one of his predecessors who was forced into exile after falling out of favor with the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Embarrassing video of Rouhani being whisked away by his bodyguards was broadcast widely in Iran, including by state-run news outlets. Some saw this as payback for a bruising election campaign, in which Rouhani lashed out at conservative rivals for repressing dissent, accused the judiciary of breaking the law and demanded that the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard stay out of politics.
In office, however, the president has a reputation as a moderate pragmatist and consensus builder.
“Rouhani hasn’t gone rogue,” said Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian American Council, which advocates for better U.S.-Iran relations. “He hasn’t approved a single thing without getting Khamenei’s approval.”
Analysts expect Rouhani to focus on reviving Iran’s economy in his second term. “It’s an issue where he has a greater chance of avoiding real gridlock within the system itself,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “It’s not nearly as dangerous as taking on issues of political prisoners or trying to open up the political space to those who feel marginalized.”
Some experts believe Rouhani is trying to avoid a showdown with Khamenei in part because he is angling to succeed the 78-year-old supreme leader. If so, Milani said, the president could squander his political capital from the election and hurt his future prospects.
“If he decides that the way for him to survive and win in the long run is to be more confrontational and rely on the power of the mandate, it will be a rough ride, but I’m not sure he will lose,” Milani added.
The president’s supporters have been pressing for the release of three opposition Green Movement leaders who have been under house arrest since 2011. But they aren’t optimistic.
“There is a gap between what people voted for and what President Rouhani really can do,” said Hossein Qayoumi, a reform-minded cleric and high-ranking member of Iran’s Democracy Party.
He thinks Rouhani might get some of the country’s rigid social and cultural restrictions eased. Satellite dishes that allow Iranians to watch foreign TV broadcasts have already become a common sight in Iran’s cities and towns, and the dress code for women has been somewhat relaxed.
But Qayoumi expects hard-liners to keep up the pressure on Rouhani.
For the country’s conservative clerics and Islamic Revolutionary Guard commanders, he said, it’s a fight for political survival: “They know that if the winds of change blow, nothing can keep them in power.”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writers Zavis and Etehad from Los Angeles.