Rouhani begins 2nd term with signs he’s yielding to hard-liners
President Hassan Rouhani, endorsed by Iran’s supreme leader on Thursday with a nationally televised cheek-kiss, is starting his second term under newly intense pressure from both hard-line opponents and many of his own reform-minded supporters. His brother had to be bailed out from prison after a July arrest on corruption charges that some experts see as political payback for the president’s re-election. A key oil deal Mr. Rouhani negotiated with a French company has led to accusations that he is selling the country off to foreign interests. President Trump has just signed into law new sanctions that undermine the signature achievement of Mr. Rouhani’s first term, the nuclear agreement.
As The New York Times writes in an article "In Iran, Rouhani Begins 2nd Term With Signs He’s Yielding to Hard-Liners", now, as Iran prepares for his second inauguration on Saturday, some of the forces that helped give Mr. Rouhani a 24 million-vote mandate in May are concerned he will not fulfill his promise of appointing women and young politicians to his 18-member cabinet, and instead is running nominations by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “We supported him during the campaign, but now there is no place for us,” said Jila Baniyaghoob, a women’s rights advocate, who said she was informed 10 days ago that there would be no female ministers in the cabinet. “Clearly, Mr. Rouhani does not believe in the capabilities of women,” she added. “This is so disappointing.”
The reform-minded Mr. Rouhani has always occupied a precarious position leading a country that is governed both by a religious ruler and a democratically elected president and parliament. But experts say this is a particularly challenging moment. Closed in by rivals in Iran’s other centers of power — the supreme leader, influential clergy members and the judiciary — Mr. Rouhani can steer debate but not call the shots. Mr. Khamenei, who often publicly opposes the president but has supported him behind the scenes on key issues like the nuclear agreement and foreign outreach, is far more interested in economic growth than social change. In Thursday’s endorsement ceremony, the ayatollah advised the president to “pay attention to the people’s problems, which today are primarily the economy and living conditions.” He also urged Mr. Rouhani to have extensive interaction with the world and to “stand strongly against any domination,” state media reported.
The public pressure on Mr. Rouhani turned personal three weeks ago when his brother, Hossein Fereydoun, was detained by the hard-line judiciary on corruption charges. After a brief court appearance, Mr. Fereydoun was hospitalized, for what has variously been described as high blood pressure or a nervous breakdown. (The president changed his surname to Rouhani, which means “cleric,” when he became an Islamic cleric.) When Mr. Fereydoun, a former ambassador to the United Nations, paid the record-high $13 million bail, some observers said it only proved the accusations because they could not explain such wealth given his career as a diplomat and think-tank chief.
“Rouhani faces serious pressures,” said Fazel Meybodi, a Shiite cleric from Qom who supports change in Iran. “Perhaps too many. And let’s face it, he does not have the final say on many issues.” One thing that does fall within Mr. Rouhani’s power as president is the formation of his cabinet, scheduled to be presented after the inauguration Saturday. But several reformists said that instead of selecting the ministers personally over the past two months, Mr. Rouhani has been consulting with Mr. Khamenei more than is typical. Customs prescribe that the supreme leader would weigh in on picking ministers for some sensitive positions, such as the foreign minister and those overseeing intelligence and oil, but not, say, culture, sports, transportation, health and labor. Analysts say Mr. Rouhani decided to involve Mr. Khamenei more deeply as insurance against potential hard-line attacks against the incoming cabinet.
But many of Mr. Rouhani’s leading supporters in the May election had hoped the new cabinet would represent a new generation of women, youths and daring politicians, ready to implement Mr. Rouhani’s agenda and curb the influence of hard-liners. Instead, although all the positions are not yet filled, it looks like the ministers will be a delicate mix of older technocrats, don’t-rock-the-boat moderates and even some hard-liners. Reformists are now saying the 18 slots will all be filled by men, dashing hopes built up during Mr. Rouhani’s campaign. “The president referred to ‘restrictions’ and said that he was unable to use women,” Mahmoud Sadeghi, a parliamentarian, told the reformist newspaper Etemaad. “But he pointed out that women candidates will be used as directors and vice presidents,” Mr. Sadeghi added. “He also mentioned that the cabinet may change midway, at which stage, women may be used.” This does not satisfy advocates like Mrs. Baniyaghoob. “We gave a list of capable women,” she noted. “Instead again they choose incapable officials, and again women do not get the chance to gain governing experience.”
The deeper involvement of Mr. Khamenei in the cabinet picks comes amid resistance from hard-liners to nearly every move Mr. Rouhani has made since his re-election in May. The supreme leader himself criticized the president over his cultural policies, saying that his government is too lenient toward what Mr. Khamenei calls “Westernization.” Clerics denounced Mr. Rouhani’s signing of a multibillion-dollar deal with the French oil company Total, saying he should be investing in the nuclear program instead. Mr. Rouhani has also had public fights with the Revolutionary Guards, whom he has called an alternative “government with guns.” Many of those who campaigned for Mr. Rouhani this spring in sweaty stadiums and posted pictures online of themselves in purple, his signature color, are now worried the president will choose pragmatism over promises. One such supporter is Leili Rashidi, a popular actress, who could hardly make her voice heard among the thousands of hopeful youths shouting for more freedoms at a rally in May. Among the chants were demands for the release of opposition leaders; they remain under house arrest. “They were so many people, so full of energy, we all felt that we will be able to achieve change,” Ms. Rashidi recalled in an interview this week. “I am worried that if people are disappointed there might be a backlash.”