The Power Struggle of Persian Politics

Often labeled as a pragmatist or a moderate, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has granted the people of Iran something they have been denied for quite some time: hope. Now, a little over a year since his inauguration, Rouhani finds himself at a crossroads between maintaining his promises to the Iranian people and appeasing his conservative boss Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani’s inauguration speech was colored with lofty aims for the future of Iranians and unexpected promises to the West. He ensured his citizens that his regime would be one of “wisdom and hope” and that there would be more focus on advancing human rights.

When six young Iranians were arrested in May for making a YouTube video dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy,” Rouhani subtly tweeted a quote from a previous speech: “ ‘#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.’ 29/6/2013.” While Iran’s previous president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would never dare tweet something that went against a court ruling (particularly one of a religious nature), we should be careful in heralding Rouhani as a moderate. Although his tweet is unprecedented in the Iranian political arena, discreetly voicing support over social media is not equivalent to openly denouncing their arrests.

Another example of Rouhani’s lack of effective political power involves the recent execution of an Iranian-Arab poet. Shortly after Rouhani publicly denounced all acts of ethnic discrimination against an oft-oppressed group of Iranian Arabs in the southwestern region of the country, an Iranian Arab poet who sought to preserve and teach his culture was hanged for Moharabeh or “war against God.” Not only did Rouhani remain silent following the ruling, he approved the execution.

Rouhani’s hesitance to intervene in the judicial process is indicative of a larger power struggle that dominates the Persian political landscape. In Iran, the Supreme Leader has ultimate political authority, not the president. In the history of the Islamic Republic, there have been two Supreme Leaders: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and, currently, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei has control over nearly every aspect of Iranian political, social and cultural affairs. Compared to Khamenei, Rouhani has very little power, and the newly elected president who promised his people a dramatically different political and cultural experience may have his hands tied. There is only so much advancement or change Rouhani can introduce or attempt to instigate without raising the ire of Khamenei and his supporters. As such, Rouhani is struggling to balance his promises to the Iranian people within the limits of his political power.

 Regarding international affairs, Rouhani originally promised the world transparency and cooperation toward reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear goals. However, Khamenei is known as a staunch critic of U.S. foreign policy and rejects the West’s attempts to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions. For a decade now, Iran and the international community have been locked in debate regarding Iran’s potential nuclear capabilities. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) states that a nation has a right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes as long as it can prove there are no attempts to achieve nuclear weapon capabilities. While Iran remains adamant that their nuclear facilities are for health and research purposes only, many nations are certain, and a considerable amount of evidence seems to support their claims, that Iran is attempting to produce a nuclear weapon.

Increased cooperation with the international community and concrete steps toward a resolution of the nuclear debate were significant tenets of Rouhani’s political agenda. This stance has a domestic social implication as well: as a result of tough international sanctions, the cost of living has soared to unprecedented heights within Iran. Consequently, Iranians are growing even more frustrated with a government that willingly swallows tough sanctions, thereby sacrificing citizen welfare for the sake of political aspirations.  

Three months after Rouhani (a former nuclear negotiator) was elected, Iran engaged in the most productive negotiations to date with the UN’s P5+1 and its nuclear watchdog group the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). During talks with the IAEA in early November 2013, Iran and the agency signed the Framework for Cooperation Agreement. The agreement outlined the initial steps Iran must take in the search for a long-term solution like granting IAEA access to plants and providing information to the agency regarding existing reactors or new ones. Later that month, Iran met with the P5+1 and both parties signed the Joint Plan of Action. The plan required Iran to decrease its uranium stockpile and grant additional plant monitoring in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

Since then however, Iran, the P5+1 and the IAEA have held a series of unproductive talks resulting in stalled negotiations. Iran also missed its August 25th deadline to provide information regarding previous military dimensions and nuclear activities. While many of the talks remain confidential, statements released by the opposing parties indicate that many major issues remain unresolved. The missed deadline reinforces the notion that, despite Rouhani’s perceived moderate political stance, Khamenei’s anti- U.S. and Western beliefs will always supersede the president’s efforts unless a true shift in political power occurs. Will Rouhani’s supposed pragmatism and discreet nods of support help to stimulate change in a nation that has spent 25 years under Khamenei’s staunch control? He has three more years to fulfill his promise.